Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne, and At the Existentialist Cafe, tells her Munich audience why existentialism is the rock-and-roll side of philosophy
Writer Sarah Bakewell, author of ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’, signing books at the Literaturhaus München. Photograph: Christine Madden
AT THE RISK of looking like the PR for Munich’s Literaturhaus, here’s another report on an event in their programme. Apparently English writer Sarah Bakewell doesn’t often tour, but she made an exception and paid the venue an exclusive visit to promote her engaging book, At the Existentialist Café. In a question-and-answer session with Austrian literary critic Sigrid Löffler, with passages from the book read by German actor and singer Wiebke Puls, Bakewell described her enduring love affair with existentialism with easy-going humour and enthusiasm. Better than straight philosophy, Bakewell’s book invites us into the cafés and jazz clubs with the existentialists, whose lives she describes with the arch affection of an intimate. Löffler describes Bakewell as the “master of presenting images in relaxed, chatty language”.
Any apprehensions of a dry-as-dust scholastic treatment of a supposedly defunct philosophical movement should be dispelled by the book’s subtitle: ‘Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails’. The philosophers inhabiting this engaging book Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and others had gained a reputation for being worthy, serious, embodiments of “stuffy old Europe” in American circles. But, argues Bakewell, these people were the rock-and-roll celebrities of mid 20th-century Paris, where they represented youth, rebellion and (sexual) freedom.
Far from propounding a rarefied body of thought, distanced from the world we inhabit, the existentialists were writing about “the problems of living, of the world, of love, of desire and what it means to be a human being”, says Bakewell. Their philosophy is imbued with passion and immediacy, which is why, she says, “existentialism never goes out of fashion for 16-year-olds” – a reference to her own discovery of their dynamic work when she was a teenager.
They felt their ideas had the power to change the world
They also sometimes acted like teenagers, quarrelling and falling out with one another. But, as Bakewell explains, this is because they their ideas mattered so much to them, that they felt their ideas had the power to change the world.
They lived with an admirable intensity and immediacy that we, in our technology-addicted world, no longer seem to feel. Separating ourselves from the bold fact of our physicality, the active reality of our existence, we crave easy thrills and, often virtual, distraction and disruption – nothing like the rebellion and revolt the existentialists thought, felt, advocated and put into practice.
Existentialism, Bakewell believes, has a new validity and urgency in the 21st century. “The existentialists asked questions that we need to think about now,” she states, “the big question of freedom.” The leaching of our freedom in the current political climate, she says, is accompanied by scientific discoveries about the brain, that we don’t make conscious decisions, that we’re ruled by hormones, etc. “It’s an old argument with scientific justification,” she explains, “but it doesn’t answer the question of freedom: what is my life and what am I going to do with it?”