Existentialism is said to have begun in 1932 when three young philosophers sat in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, getting caught up on each other’s lives and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails. Jean-Paul Sartre was inspired that day by talk of a new philosophy called phenomenology, concerned with life as it is experienced. His study of that approach changed the direction of his life and led to what came to be called existentialism.
In her sweeping and dazzlingly rich At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell introduces us to those most closely associated with existentialism by approaching “the lives through the ideas, and the ideas through the lives.” She shows how the key thinkers disagreed so much that, however you describe them as a group, you will misrepresent or exclude someone. Some of them never met, some had close or intersecting lives, and others had major public differences.
At the center of her book are Sartre and his longtime lover, Simone de Beauvoir, whose pioneering feminist work, The Second Sex, can be considered the most influential work to come out of the existentialist movement. The lives of Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright and Iris Murdoch, among others, are also discussed.
Bakewell, who received the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography for How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, sees her cast of characters engaged in a “big, busy café of the mind.” Their ideas remain of interest, not because they were right or wrong in their decisions, but because they dealt with real questions facing human beings.
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.