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Rebels with a cause

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?”

 

‘The Cassandras in the world are never asleep’

Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – playwright, poet, ‘anatomist of the workings of power’ – shows a Munich audience he is still well able to pounce

Wole Soyinka, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, 17 February 2017. Photograph: Christine Madden

THE BUZZ in the lecture hall in the Literaturhaus München becomes more subdued as the minutes tick by – Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, scheduled to speak as part of the Munich Security Conference, is late. The audience were told yesterday that he was flying in from Los Angeles. Is the flight delayed? Or – in this age, one can’t help leaping to drastic worst-case scenarios – had something more sinister happened?

He arrives then, to enthusiastic applause, flanked by the deputy director of the MSC. It appears that Soyinka’s arrival occurred at the same time as “our chancellor’s” and in the worldwide political pecking order, her security took precedence. (It is, after all, a security – not a literary – conference.)

Literally an éminence grise with his eye-catching shock of white hair, Nobel laureate Soyinka explains what sets Cassandra and her heirs apart: “listening to the quiet, hearing the sounds of danger”. Soyinka has been speaking and writing with her voice for decades – he was imprisoned for using it in the 1960s when the government interrogated then imprisoned him for almost two years. He also criticised the 20th-century concept of “négritude”, current among intellectuals using it to oppose a mentality of colonial racism. Being deliberately outspoken about their ethnicity did not give Africans power but put them on the defensive. “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces,” he stated. Most recently in Africa, Soyinka says, “the voice of Cassandra was heeded” when former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh was finally forced to step down after repudiating the results of an election he did not win.

Again he used that voice – the result of experience, of human knowledge, the practice of integrity – in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He relates how then French president Mitterrand convoked a conference of Nobel prize laureates. Asked for his opinion, Soyinka said that one of the few scientific principles he had retained from his schooling was that nature abhors a vacuum. The eastern bloc had crumbled. Had the rest of the world thought about what would take its place? “I think,” he told them, presciently, “it will be religious fundamentalism.” Only a few weeks later, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran issued the fatwa against writer Salmon Rushdie for the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. It was, as he explained, the first act to show the militancy, the disregard for humanity and lack of conscience of a movement that has now ascended to be the issue of our era.

‘What you call an enemy is very important’

“People say there was no warning,” Soyinka challenges, “but there is always a warning. The Cassandras in the world are never asleep.” He cites two examples in 20th-century literature in which her voice was loud and clear. Max Frisch’s The Fire-Raisers (also known as The Arsonists) describes how a normal, seemingly innocent lodger takes over the house of a bourgeois family until he and his cohorts have taken it over turned it catastrophically upside down. In Eugène Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros, we see the effect of “peer pressure, wanting to conform”, says Soyinka. “Do I want to stand out? Oh, my neighbour, his children are already grow their horn,” he quips. You wouldn’t want to cause a disruption or make them feel bad. These plays offer a stark depiction of how easily the moral framework of society is disrupted to a point at which it can’t be reversed without cataclysmic struggle. “What greater warning do we want from literature?” he asks.

To do that, you have to oppose power with freedom, not bow before it in submission. “And what you call an enemy is very important,” he warns. He mentions the western use of the names Isis or Isil to describe the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East with scorn. They are not a state, he insists; to give them that name gives them a status, credibility. In the Middle East, in Africa, they are called Daesh. The Cassandras of this world refuse to show deference to those who control with force, with submission, with domination. “You have to show them your contempt,” he says. “If we listen to Cassandra, we can escape becoming rhinoceroses.”

 

 

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