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At the Existentialist Café: Freedom,…

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails… (2016)

by Sarah Bakewell

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)

Whether you already think you know Existentialism and Phenomenology or think you do not care, this is an excellent and readable work. Part philosophical history, part multiple biographies, part personal and ideational autobiography, part history, part sociology, this is a Cafe worth sitting in and experiencing for a good while. ( )
  dasam | Jun 21, 2018 |
Whew. I decided to listen to this personal but informed survey of the rise and fall of existentialism as a philosophy, and I finally finished. The reader is wonderful, and that helped a lot, because I am not that conversant with philosophical questions to begin with.

The book starts with a thorough exploration of phenomenology (which is tough enough for me) and the personalities and histories of the men (mostly) whose work it was. Heidegger towers in this group, of course, but the course of his life is quite problematic. He championed and then discarded several students who were, perhaps, a challenge to him, was too involved in the Nazi mission and madness for anyone to forgive, including Hannah Arendt, his student and lover. But his impressive work in the field ricocheted through the intellectual world of Europe, and his seminal work Being and Time let to Sartre's own masterpiece Being and Nothingness

Along the way, the author provides many biographical details, such as Sartre's experience in a prisoner-of-war camp, and how it changed him. He and Simone de Beauvior were intellectually inseparable (not identical, however), however they played out their sexually independent lives. Sartre also enticed and discarded students and compatriots, and at times the story feels like gossip about crotchetey old intellectuals arguing over the meaning of 'is'. de Beauvior eventually turned their philosophical frame on how women were raised, taught, inculcated with that double vision of themselves as 'other' to men, and that of course ricocheted in its own way to our time. (The author mentions that the first translations into English were awful, and bowderized, but there is a newer one I might try to read.)

The author is especially fond of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom she finds calm, pleasant, and more realistic than other French phenomenologists (if I understood her correctly!). And she relates the impact of existentialist though on Iris Murdoch, another author I don't know enough about.

All in all, a really compelling history of the philosophers, mostly French and German, whose ideas so influenced Western thought in the last century. ( )
  ffortsa | May 17, 2018 |
church office
  rklonowski | Feb 20, 2018 |
This book is basically a biography of several existentialist thinkers, including Sartre and Beauvoir. It is well written and would serve as a good introduction to many of the people it profiles. ( )
  LynnB | Dec 22, 2017 |
A Sweeping History of 20th century Existentialism + a good intro for fans of "The Good Place*"

Sarah Bakewell performs an impressive and engrossing feat of condensing the lives and works of a few dozen Twentieth Century philosophers and sometime fiction writers and playwrights into a relatively slim 400+ pages. It is a personalized story as well, as she often mentions when she herself discovered these same writers in her own reading life and shares comments on favourite passages and books.

Despite their often paradoxical defenses of "odious regimes" (Heidegger - Nazism & Sartre - Communism) the human love of freedom of choice and individualism still shines through in these life histories. The stories are especially humanized through the often quirky anecdotes that Bakewell has collected e.g. once Sartre and Beauvoir saw a sea elephant (ie. sea lion) being fed in a zoo. It had its snout in the air as fish were being poured down its gullet by the zookeeper. Later in life, if Sartre ever felt glum all Beauvoir had to do was remind him of that story, Sartre would stick his nose up in the air and all would be right again with the world.

Aside from a crash course in Existentialist writings, there is trivia aplenty about writers such as Jean Genet and Albert Camus and many others. Did you know that E.M. Forster wrote a 1909 short story "The Machine Stops" that basically predicted the internet and tablets/smart phones? I'd never heard of it before until reading about it here.

All this and also the greatest valedictory passage ever. this side of Roy Batty ("I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, etc...") in the original "Blade Runner," and written by Simone de Beauvoir even 23 years before her passing. Too long to quote here, it is top of page 313 in the Vintage Canada edition, towards the end of Chapter 13.

Don't let the $10 words like Phenomenology and Existentialism intimidate you. Think of them as simply "experience without preconception" and "freedom of choice" and relax and learn. You are in the hands of a master communicator/educator with Sarah Bakewell.

*Yes, TV's "The Good Place" has more to do with Sartre's "No Exit" than you might think. ;) ( )
1 vote alanteder | Oct 17, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
"near the turn of 1932-3 when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails." De Beauvoir was 25, her boyfriend Sartre was 27 and his school chum Raymond Aron was describing a new train of thought, "phenomenology," which demands a close scrutiny of the elements of everyday life, "the things themselves." As Beauvoir recounted it, Aron — just back from Berlin — exclaimed, "If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!" Sartre reportedly went pale — intoxicated by the potential in wedding philosophy to normal, lived experience instead of dusty, dead tomes.
Towards the end of this absorbing and enjoyable book, Bakewell writes: ‘Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’ She presents a cast of characters who are undeniably diverting. Simone de Beauvoir, in particular, emerges as a highly complex individual, far more interesting than her egotistical and gullible partner. Karl Jaspers, frail in health but resolute in his determination to remain untainted by Nazism; Emmanuel Levinas, who withstood Nazi oppression and clearly perceived Heidegger’s culpability; Albert Camus, much given to high-flown rhetoric but with a sense of reality that kept him from Sartre’s political follies: these were substantial figures.
added by smasler | editLiterary Review, John Gray (Mar 1, 2016)
The author offers fascinating insights into the cultural impact of existentialism on the English-speaking world. In his influential 1957 essay The White Negro, for example, Norman Mailer predicts much of what would become the counterculture, saying that this is the making of what he calls “the hipster” or “the American existentialist”. English existentialists included the young Iris Murdoch, who got Sartre to sign her copy of Being and Nothingness and wrote to a friend of “the excitement – I remember nothing like it since the days of discovering Keats and Shelley and Coleridge”.
added by smasler | editThe Guardian, Andrew Hussey (Feb 28, 2016)
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It is sometimes said that existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to anguished novelists of the nineteenth century, and beyond that to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified by the silence of empty spaces, and beyond that to the soul-searching St. Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Tetsament's weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission.
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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.
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Paris, 1933. Three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse-- and ignite a movement, creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism: Existentialism. Interweaving biography and philosophy, Bakewell provides an 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.… (more)

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