Sarah Bakewell, author of the bestseller How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, brings to life a rich cast of characters in her new book, At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.
Ideas run wild, and the cast of characters is wide and deep, with portraits of the existentialist movement in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, and a dozen other figures are introduced as the movement widened across Europe. Based on Phenomenology, the study of structures of consciousness, Existentialism bypassed abstract axioms and theories went straight for life as it was experienced.
Jean-Paul Sartre considered Existentialism as the road to being authentic and free; that there is no path traced out to lead man to salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. Along with his colleagues Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and several others, much time was spent discussing the appeal of existentialism, especially for the young and restless population in the mid-1940s. In Paris’s Left Bank, Sartre pondered the concept of free will and discussed how people could best use their freedom in challenging times.
In the late 1940’s Americans were aware of but not enthralled with the concept of existentialism, since the Europeans writing about the concept did not have American values. Very few fragments of the works of Sartre and Beauvoir were available in English translation.
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, a feminist guide encouraging women to raise their consciousness. It became a radical addition to the existentialist movement. While the book was shocking at the time, Beauvoir and her partner Sartre supported personal freedom and authenticity for all. The book still resonates today, inspiring women and influencing their choices to move beyond the role traditional female roles.
Even the most casual reader will appreciate the concept of intentionality when realizing the power of the human mind.
Whether the reader is interested in the lives of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Heidegger, or in search of fulfillment of one’s own enlightenment, Sarah Bakewell’s account of the Existential movement is both fascinating and relevant.
Bakewell includes her own experiences with Existentialism, and leaves us with a view from today, seven generations after the dawn of the era, when various Americans explored the framework of existentialism, including Iris Murdoch, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.
As Bakewell writes: “What you read influences your life: the story of existentialism as it spread around the world in the fifties and sixties bears this out.” It played a role in all the liberation movements of the era. These movements drew energy from a more general desire for meaning and self-realization, making this an important book for today. The book is made more interesting due to Bakewell’s extensive research and a great bibliography one could study for years.