At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others (Hardcover)
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A New York Times "Ten Best Books of 2016"
From the best-selling author of How to Live, a spirited account of one of the twentieth century’s major intellectual movements and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it
Paris, 1933: three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called Phenomenology. “You see,” he says, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”
It was this simple phrase that would ignite a movement, inspiring Sartre to integrate Phenomenology into his own French, humanistic sensibility, thereby creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. This movement would sweep through the jazz clubs and cafés of the Left Bank before making its way across the world as Existentialism.
Featuring not only philosophers, but also playwrights, anthropologists, convicts, and revolutionaries, At the Existentialist Café follows the existentialists’ story, from the first rebellious spark through the Second World War, to its role in postwar liberation movements such as anticolonialism, feminism, and gay rights. Interweaving biography and philosophy, it is the epic account of passionate encounters—fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships—and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.
About the Author
Sarah Bakewell was a bookseller and a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library before publishing her highly acclaimed biographies The Smart, The English Dane, and the best-selling How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. In addition to writing, she now teaches in the Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. She lives in London.
“The apricot cocktails in her subtitle and her sometimes breezy tone— ‘I like to imagine them in a big, busy café of the mind, probably a Parisian one’— seem to promise an undemanding, gossipy romp. Instead, [Bakewell] judges and explains the ways in which each writer responded to the moral and political crises of the 1930s and after, and her book asks demanding questions about the ways in which people think about themselves and their relations with others. She shapes her answers in the form of biographical narratives, because her central theme is that the large impersonal ideas pursued by much modern philosophy are less profound and illuminating than the varied and conflicting truths found in stories of individual lives. Those stories, in this book, include impressively lucid descriptions of what these thinkers thought and what they said in their writings and café arguments. Bakewell is often annoyed but never defeated by Heidegger’s obscurity, and some of her most exciting pages are the engaged, unsimplifying accounts she offers of complex philosophies, even ones that finally repel her…One of many persuasive surprises in Bakewell’s book is her suggestion that Heidegger’s prose sometimes resembles Gertrude Stein’s in its deliberate linguistic strangeness, a resemblance that goes deeper than style…An unspoken theme of Bakewell’s book is the variety of ways in which academic philosophy can be distorted by power relations. Some of her characters, notably Merleau-Ponty, were immune to the temptations that came with the status of European professorship. Others, like Husserl and Heidegger, demanded obeisance… Bakewell has a special affection for philosophers who stayed free of the academy, especially Sartre and Beauvoir…Sarah Bakewell’s previous book was an engaging biography of Montaigne that was also a subtle exposition of Montaigne’s writings. Its audacious title was How to Live, and her new book deserves to be read as a further study in the same enlivening theme.”--The New York Times Book Review
“At the Existentialist Café is a bracingly fresh look at once-antiquated ideas and the milieu in which they flourished. Ms. Bakewell’s approach is enticing and unusual: She is not an omniscient author acting as critic, biographer or tour guide. This book is full of winning small details. Some may find the description of Camus as ‘a simple, cheerful soul,’ as surprising as Sartre’s apparently charming Donald Duck imitation… ‘When reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology or Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science,’ Ms. Bakewell writes, ‘one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news.’”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Ms. Bakewell’s jaunty, colloquial style very successfully brought the ideas of Michel de Montaigne to a wide and general audience in her best-selling How to Live. The existentialists and their subtle differences from the phenomenologists in the context of World War II and its aftermath are a much greater challenge, which she meets with equal elan." —The Wall Street Journal
“This lively history of the existentialist movement makes a strong, if sometimes disorienting, case for the inextricability of philosophy and biography, embedding dense concepts—such as ‘being,’ ‘nothingness,’ and ‘bad faith’—in the colorful lives and milieus of those who debated them. Though the book is in many ways a group study, dotted with cameo appearances by Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others, it focusses on Heidegger and Sartre. Heidegger appears as oracular, hermetic, and Nazi-tainted; Sartre as intellectually promiscuous and Soviet-sympathizing. Their divergent characters and checkered reputations lend credence to Bakewell’s view that ‘ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’” —The New Yorker
“Brisk and perceptive…A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Bakewell brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to 'the task of responsible alertness' and 'questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.' Through vivid characterizations and a clear distillation of dense philosophical concepts, Bakewell embeds the story of existentialism in the 'story of a whole European century,' dramatizing its central debates of authenticity, rebellion, freedom, and responsibility." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bakewell follows her celebrated study of Montaigne…with a lively appraisal of existentialism and its leading thinkers…With coverage of friendship, travel, argument, tragedy, drugs, Paris, and, of course, lots of sex, Bakewell’s biographical approach pays off… The result is an engaging story about a group of passionate thinkers, and a reminder of their continued relevance.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Sweeping and dazzlingly rich...This wonderfully readable account of one of the 20th century’s major intellectual movements offers a cornucopia of biographical detail and insights that show its relevance for our own time.”—BookPage
"Tremendous...rigorous and clarifying...Highly recommended for anyone who thinks." —Library Journal (starred review)
“In her instructive and entertaining study of these thinkers and their hangers-on, Sarah Bakewell… credits the existentialist movement, broadly defined, with providing inspiration to feminism, gay rights, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and other radical causes. A few cocktails can, it seems, lead to unexpected things.” —The Economist
“At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails may come dressed in a seductive title, but Sarah Bakewell’s book about the people and ideas behind the existentialist movement is both breezy and brainy. Bakewell demonstrated her ability to plumb big ideas for real-life relevance in How to Live, her 2010 biography of Michel de Montaigne…She brings the same lively intelligence to her latest work. Here Bakewell traces a fascinating sort of philosophical relay of ever-mutating concepts — perception, being, authenticity, responsibility — against a backdrop of political upheavals. Her book explores the roots of existentialism and its impact in the 20th century in much the way Carl Schorske’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fin de Siècle Vienna explored the birth of modern art and culture in late-19th-century Vienna… [and] lucidly breaks down dense philosophical texts while avoiding the pitfalls of over-simplification… At the Existentialist Cafe is most riveting in its report of the World War II years. During the occupation, existentialists — who believed above all in freedom and responsibility — were engaged and committed to the Resistance in their actions and their literature… Among a panoply of riches, Bakewell offers fascinating anecdotes, including the heroics involved in saving Husserl’s papers during the war. Her chronicle of many lives cut short reveals an astonishing number of fatal heart attacks among existentialists — including Boris Vian, Richard Wright, Merleau-Ponty and Arendt — leaving readers to wonder if philosophy isn’t a heartbreaking enterprise after all. Bakewell surely doesn’t think so. ‘Even when existentialists reached too far, wrote too much, revised too little, made grandiose claims, or otherwise disgraced themselves, it must be said that they remained in touch with the density of life, and that they asked the important questions. Give me that any day,’ she declares in this rousing call to robust intellectual engagement.”
“These days, the word 'existentialism' brings to mind black turtlenecks, French cigarettes, and a distinctly European sense of despair. But as Sarah Bakewell describes them in this vivid, vital group biography, existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, and Albert Camus were courageous free thinkers in an age of fascism, totalitarianism, and conformity.”—The Boston Globe
“A vivid and warmly engaging intellectual history.”—The Los Angeles Times
“Bakewell has made weighty, complex philosophical ideas feel exhilarating — for that she should be praised, and read.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Although biography provides the narrative momentum of At the Existentialist Café, much of the meat comes from the philosophy…Bakewell has a knack for crystallising key ideas by identifying choice original quotations and combining them with her own words…Perhaps the aphorism that best captures the book is one of Bakewell’s own: 'Thinking should be generous and have a good appetite.' Her hunger is infectious.”
“[At the Existentialist Café] offers fascinating insights into the cultural impact of existentialism on the English-speaking world…Existentialism, in all its incarnations, is really about making choices. How to live? How to be free? How to be an 'authentic' human being? In her summing-up, Bakewell makes the case that these questions remain as important today as they ever were.” —The Guardian (US)
“Bakewell writes with a sunny disposition and light touch…She combines confident handling of difficult philosophical concepts with a highly enjoyable writing style. I can’t think of a better introduction to modern intellectual history.”—Newsday
“Bakewell’s How to Live [was] a remarkably erudite and accessible study of the life of Montaigne…At first skeptical, I was soon warmed over by the author’s preternaturally smooth style. At the Existentialist Café does precisely the same for Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger.” —Flavorwire
“This tender, incisive and fair account of the existentialists ends with their successive deaths, leaving me with the same sense of nostalgia and loss as one feels after reading a great epic novel.” —The Telegraph
“[At] the Existentialist Café is packed with out-of-the-way knowledge and has a cast of weird characters such as only a gathering of philosophers could supply. It is written with affection. Even the horrible Heidegger is seen as human in his absurdity.” —The Sunday Times
“[E]ngaging and wide-ranging.”—Prospect Magazine
“[At the Existentialist Café is] a wonderfully readable combination of biography, philosophy, history, cultural analysis and personal reflection.” —The Independent
“At the Existentialist Cafe will prove to be one of the best books on philosophy you will read this year.”—The Wichita Eagle
“[An] invigorating book.”—Tablet
"Irresistible." —Buffalo News
"Don’t let the breezy title put you off. At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell’s group portrait of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and the other 'Continental' philosophers who flourished before and after World War II, is a work of deep intelligence and sympathy, reminding us how exciting those thinkers can be. And it’s a page-turner. I was so sorry to finish the last chapter that I almost—almost—ran over to the Strand to see what they had by Merleau-Ponty." —Lorin Stein, Paris Review Daily
“At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails combines the exhilaration of initial discovery with the more considered evaluations of a mature thinker. The result is a warm and challenging work of intellectual history that retains something of existentialism’s glamor without ever sacrificing its vigorous interrogation. It also re-centers existentialism as a viable method of philosophically engaging with contemporaneity. Even if the context has shifted slightly, the question it asks remains just as relevant now as in the post-war years: what shall we make of a shattered world?” —The Brooklyn Rail
"It's not often that you miss your bus stop because you're so engrossed in reading a book about existentialism, but I did exactly that while immersed in Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café. The story of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger et al is strange, fun and compelling reading. If it doesn't win awards, I will eat my proof copy."—Katy Guest, The Independent on Sunday