Making the Road by Walking: A review of At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

Making the Road by Walking: A review of At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell
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My existential moment, my explosion of insight every bit as soul-shaking as religious conversion stories, occurred in 1964 in a most unlikely place – the seedy Clark Theater in downtown Chicago, a venue for international films. At 17 I was still working out my identity – not only what I might do in life but who I am, what values and beliefs ought to guide me. The film was Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. On one level, it was a simple enough tale – really a love and crime romp.

But something happened in that film. Something resonated so closely. Here was Charles Aznavour, a wounded and quiet man, trying to withdraw into a small life, a life that does no harm but takes no risks, as the piano player in a small bar in Paris. But he finds himself drawn out of his passivity – first in standing up for a woman who works at the bar and then being called upon by his brother, who is on the run from his former gang, to take action, to take a stand. His withdrawal from the world turns out to have been impossible. He has to take action, drastic action, and this becomes the meaning of his life. It is the move from withdrawal and alienation to commitment and risk.

It mirrors, I realize now, the journey from the cynicism of the alienated 50’s to the activism of the 60’s. Somehow the cynical withdrawal that Beat culture promised was being trumped by the existential imperative – you must act, you must engage, you are responsible for this world. I was moved. I was stunned. Withdrawal was no longer an option. I was later to get to know Godard’s work, Buñuel’s, even more radical provocations. But it was that moment with the simple Shoot the Piano Player that changed me, deeply. Of course, the Beats were disgusted with US capitalism and exploitation, but often expressed it by turning away. The Civil Rights Movement, the anti-colonial uprisings around the world in the 50’s and 60’s, demanded more. This tiny story by Truffaut, a metaphor for the times, traced that change.

So for me, for my narrow experience of a kid from the suburbs trying to understand the world, existentialism became real at that moment. The existentialist perspective is premised on the death of God – we have realized that there is no God, organized religion is just a little fairy tale to keep children from disobeying their parents. But if God is dead, does that mean there is no morality, that nothing restrains us from acting purely on impulse? Not at all, our generation argued. Indeed, since we are here on earth for this moment – our existence what Nabokov called but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness – we are responsible to create our ethics, our political commitment, the very meaning of our lives.

In the 20th Century, there was more and more evidence that no god was looking over us. The most devastating wars in history were murdering people with industrial efficiency. Social revolutions were struggling to make human needs and interests paramount over authority and tradition. The framings of existentialist philosophy were so thorough that we often don’t notice where it has has left its mark. Take for instance the call for “freedom!” – the Black Freedom Movement, the anti-colonial uprisings, for “freedom.” This term itself has existential resonance, meaning that people were demanding the right and possibility to be fully realized, to live collectively and yet to have deep agency and power, to have not just formal bourgeois democracy but real participatory democracy. This was a critique of capitalism but also, in a secondary way, a break from the Soviet Union’s notion of revolution. We were not calling for “a strong bureaucracy that organizes production in the interest of the working class” but for freedom, freedom now. This is why establishment European Marxists were wary of existentialism.

Existentialism, we must remember, was not an idea that sprang into the heads of some intellectuals and then spread to the world; quite the opposite. The world was changing, social understandings were undergoing revolutionary transformation, and some intellectuals – excellent, insightful, thoughtful intellectuals – managed to pick up on and summarize and extend these changes in world view. Philosophy is just that, an abstraction and systemization of social practice, just as economics is an abstraction and systemization of production and distribution.

When I saw Bakewell’s The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails at the front table of Walden Pond Books in Oakland, the book called to me. I picked up and it brought me back to considering the way these ideas framed not only the 20th century but my own life. It is well known that a book, or any work of art, interacts with the reader in unique ways. We each bring to the piece our own stories, our bodies, our politics, our psychology. I found myself on a particularly unique reading journey, starting with my recollection of that Truffaut movie, as Bakewell led the reader through the upheavals of the 20th century, in both politics and philosophy.

It reminded me of the heady mid-20th century days, the rise of modernity, and the thrill of jettisoning old paradigms. I believe it was really the horror of World War II that put to rest forever the platitudes of religious morality, that demanded that we take a stand based on the challenges in the real world. In fact, a predecessor to Shoot the Piano Player, in theme at least, had to be Casablanca. Here Bogart is trying to withdraw from life, to nurse his broken heart in a fog of nihilism. But history arrives at his nightclub and with it the obligations to act. The grim, cruel, and historic imperatives of the struggle against the Axis forces gave birth to a deep existentialist search for meaning. Existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted that one cannot moralize from afar. Everyone has “dirty hands. . . .We are in the world, mingled with it, compromised with it.”

When I started reading The Existentialist Café, I had my doubts. I am an unusually sunny reader; I look for the best in books and in movies because I’m just happy to be there. But something in the tone, something in the unfolding, seemed just flat to me. Whatever this was Bakewell was talking about, it was not the existentialism I knew. I will grant her this: my experience of this philosophy, this world view, this way of life, is simply and subjectively mine. So maybe she understands it well and I’m the one who is off base. But still, I was disappointed at first. This disappointment came when she tried to explain the existentialist perspective on individual human existence, “I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free.” (p. 34) This may have sounded different in the 1940s or 1950s, but in this neo-liberal age, where everything is reduced to market forces, where every individual is nothing but a competitive producer and consumer, such a declaration sounds like some kind of prescription for the exalted free market.

My experience of existentialism was not an evocation of individualist freedom but instead a recognition of our responsibility and obligation in a world filled with demands and imperatives. It was a rejection of stale middle-class Protestantism, of the false morality which held up racism and colonialism. Such engaged intellectuals as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir emphasized that we find wisdom not in inactivity and detachment but in commitment and activism. So I felt that Bakewell’s explanation was sadly colored by the present era. As I went on, though, I found myself grateful for her extensive reading and research – her ability to bring back and characterize the amazing thought and work of so many who articulated this new world view. Nevertheless, for my money it appears that, while this is a popular and accessible book, Bakewell reports on it all like a good philosophy graduate student, one who read carefully and extensively, if perhaps too academically and bloodlessly. Instead of placing the story in the social context, often she tends to follow the lineage of thought from one academic to another, citing Husserl to Heidegger to Sartre and De Beauvoir.

And yet those are some biographies worth remembering. She gives a pretty extensive account of Martin Heidegger – the early German phenomenologist who pushed philosophy away from abstract speculation to close apprehension of the real world before us. Heidegger, you may remember, infamously aligned himself with the Nazis when they came to power in the 30’s – good for his university career, bad for his integrity. Bakewell seems a little tone deaf on issues like this, acknowledging the “problem” of his leanings but taking them a little too lightly for my taste.

She offers more detailed and fascinating profiles particularly of Sartre and De Beauvoir, those giants of existential thought and writing throughout the middle and late 20th Century. We are reminded of the prodigious output of these two engaged public intellectuals of the type we don’t see today. Their output was intense and engaged for all of five decades – philosophical treatises, novels, memoirs, plays, demonstrations, speeches. They wrote anti-fascist works under the Nazi occupation, led criticism of post-war anti-communism and empire, and constantly challenged people to take personal responsibility for what they are and what they do.

We are reminded of the heady world of the public debates in French cafés, the discussions and arguments that went all night. However the ferment of existentialist thought then was not a matter of dreary, pessimistic ennui that is usually associated with American existentialists. Indeed, the French were madly into jazz, wild parties, and letting go of inhibitions.

Bakewell also does a good job of resurrecting and placing in the center the contributions of Simone de Beauvoir – Sartre’s companion and at least his equal through all those years. They were a solid couple though each had affairs with others and they were alternately together and apart depending on their work. De Beauvoir’s work is as extensive and influential as Sartre’s and The Existentialist Café has pushed me to pick up her three-part memoir. Her book The Second Sex (published in France in 1949, translated to English in 1953) was both the generative work unleashing second wave feminism and also a fundamental exploration of the tenets of existentialism.

The Second Sex challenges the deeply held cultural practices and laws that held women as lower humans, hemmed in by dehumanizing myths. Women, she pointed out, are forced to see themselves as “other,” while men are the subjects of history. For women (as for all oppressed peoples) the world is not a set of tools to be manipulated but rather a place to be experienced passively, dominated by fate. De Beauvoir uncovers in great detail the way this subordinate position is socially constructed, declaring, “one is not born, but becomes a woman.”

In this, of course, De Beauvoir is anticipated by Black thinkers concerning the structures of racism – consider the analysis of W.E.B. DuBois of “double consciousness,” which Langston Hughes turned into art in the series of short stories, The Souls of White Folks. In it, each story reveals how Black characters know the White people well and intimately – they have to as a matter of survival – much better than White people know themselves. More recently, Toni Morrison has explored this very duality in Playing in the Dark.

The relationship of the French existentialists to the Black Arts Movement takes concrete form in the fact that Sartre and De Beauvoir interacted with Richard Wright and James Baldwin – learning as much as they imparted, I’m sure. And it is important to remember that these French existentialists put activism first, especially against colonialism. They were consistent in their support for Third World struggles, from Algeria to Cuba to Vietnam. Sartre wrote a long introduction to Léopold Senghor’s Black poetry anthology as well as to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized and to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. During the Algerian war of independence from 1954-62, these activists took risks to support the resistance. In one right wing demonstration of 10,000 French military veterans in 1960, they were chanting, among other things, “Shoot Sartre.” Soon after that a bomb was placed in Sartre’s apartment but he and his mother thankfully were not home. When he was offered the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, Sartre turned it down, denouncing the way the prize was only given to western writers and anti-communist émigrés.

There is nothing of the period that is not reflected in and pushed by existentialism. I have not even touched on other writers such as Anais Nin, Iris Murdoc, and Albert Camus. The theater and films of the time were all grappling with existential challenges and questions. Social critics such as Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) and William Whyte (Organization Man) challenged traditional conformity. Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd was a stinging critique of the bourgeois status quo. Psychology was turned on its head as experiments by people like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo exposed the authoritarian underpinnings of western thinking. New Journalism upended the dominance of mainstream journalism as people began to see the suffocating assumptions of so-called objective reporting which in fact supported colonial projects. The field of anthropology was fundamentally challenged as activists began to recognize the ways the field cast non-western cultures as the “other,” and the ways that anthropologists often acted as apologists, if not agents, of an expanding imperialism.

I could go on and on – recalling, comparing, and appreciating the many ways the existentialist perspectives suffused the culture and politics of the time. I don’t want to play the old man’s game of “my paradigm was better than yours,” but I must say that the revolutionary commitments of these years seem made of a different cloth than the post-modernism of the past few decades. I would venture that existentialism corresponded to the period of the 50’s through 70’s, a high mark of social struggle – especially anti-colonial struggles inside and outside of the imperial centers. Those struggles were suppressed beginning in the 80’s. The internalized gazing at difference and discourse and contingency of the post modernists seems, if anything, the reaction of disappointed intellectuals to the failures of the French uprisings of May 1968 and other social revolutions. But the resistance is sharpening again – anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-patriarchy – and we may conclude that the work of the existentialists might better resonate with the demands of our times. I only hope we can dig in and remember – and revive – the deep insights and ethical challenges that the existentialists left us with.

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