“At the Existentialist Café”
Ever since I read her “How To Live“, the wondrous, beautiful and incredibly simple-to-understand book on Michel de Montaigne, I’ve been pining for Sarah Bakewell to release a new book. So, here it is, “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails” with a cast that includes Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, among others.
The new book may at first seem even more heady and unapproachable than the first book, but let me assure you, it’s not. When I first stumbled across “How To Live” I had preconceived notions of not being able to finish it, even before having read the first page; that’s just how anti I was to the entire matter of reading something about the life of a 16th century “blogger”. Well, I was completely wrong. Bakewell’s style of writing is loving, kind of scientific and highly addictive, all at once. I’m not exaggerating in the least.
I’m also not exaggerating when I state that “How To Live” is one of the books that’s had the most pervasive effect upon my little life, much like a crash; a gentle crash.
Here are a few paragraphs from the first 5% of the new book, which is as far as I’ve currently read. Buy the book. There’s more about it and where to buy it from, at Sarah Bakewell’s site. Don’t miss out on this article on existentialism that was recently published in The Guardian.
From the book, Jean-Paul Sartre, and later, Friedrich Nietzsche:
In his novels, short stories and plays as well as in his philosophical treatises, he wrote about the physical sensations of the world and the structures and moods of human life. Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of object. Other things merely sit in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. Even non-human animals mostly follow the instincts and behaviours that characterise their species, Sartre believed. But as a human being, I have no predefined nature at all. I create that nature through what I choose to do. Of course I may be influenced by my biology, or by aspects of my culture and personal background, but none of this adds up to a complete blueprint for producing me. I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along.
Starting from where you are now, you choose. And in choosing, you also choose who you will be. If this sounds difficult and unnerving, it’s because it is.
He applied the same argumentative attitude to the personnel of philosophical history. He disagreed, for example, with René Descartes, who had founded modern philosophy by stating Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. For Kierkegaard, Descartes had things back to front. In his own view, human existence comes first: it is the starting point for everything we do, not the result of a logical deduction. My existence is active: I live it and choose it, and this precedes any statement I can make about myself. Moreover, my existence is mine: it is personal. Descartes’ ‘I’ is generic: it could apply to anyone, but Kierkegaard’s ‘I’ is the ‘I’ of an argumentative, anguished misfit.
Sartre read Kierkegaard, and was fascinated by his contrarian spirit and by his rebellion against the grand philosophical systems of the past. He also borrowed Kierkegaard’s specific use of the word ‘existence’ to denote the human way of being, in which we mould ourselves by making ‘either/or’ choices at every step. Sartre agreed with him that this constant choosing brings a pervasive anxiety, not unlike the vertigo that comes from looking over a cliff. It is not the fear of falling so much as the fear that you can’t trust yourself not to throw yourself off. Your head spins; you want to cling to something, to tie yourself down — but you can’t secure yourself so easily against the dangers that come with being free. ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom’, wrote Kierkegaard. Our whole lives are lived on the edge of that precipice, in his view and also in Sartre’s.
There is no God in this picture, because the human beings who invented God have also killed Him. It is now up to us alone. The way to live is to throw ourselves, not into faith, but into our own lives, conducting them in affirmation of every moment, exactly as it is, without wishing that anything was different, and without harbouring peevish resentment against others or against our fate.
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were the heralds of modern existentialism. They pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself — the life of an individual.