Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is the greatest single work of existentialism, argues Andy Martin. ©ITV/Rex Shutterstock

What does it feel like to be dead?

Existentialists had good questions and great times
February 18, 2016
At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell, Chatto and Windus, £16.99

The Existentialist Moment: The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual by Patrick Baert, Polity, £17.99


“Hold on a second!” says Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes (or something like that). “How did you work that out?” Holmes has just come up with some astounding observation. He explains his reasoning. “Of course!” Watson responds, much to the annoyance of Holmes, “it’s obvious.” That is how good philosophy works. The reader—or, in the case of Socrates, the listener—should feel that everything that has been said is obvious, so obvious that no one bothered to say it before. Which is why philosophers often come across, in the words of Erasmus, as “foolosophers.” Michel Foucault said everything he wrote was tautological. And the closing line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’sTractatus Logico-Philosophicus suggests something similar: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Wittgenstein presumably had this line in mind when he claimed to have pulled off two great tricks: one was to have solved the problems of western philosophy; the other was to have demonstrated how little he had achieved in doing so.

Philosophers don’t have to be long-winded. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is a memorable one-liner; another is the opening line of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus: “Suicide is the only serious philosophical problem.” Of course philosophers can be teasingly elusive. Take Sartre’s lines about “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” Any idea what he was going on about? Someone once told me: “That is a description of my marriage.” Sartre went on to argue that all the contradictions of capitalism are contained in that phrase—but he was, in fact, originally describing boxing. (He would probably never have made it as a sports commentator.) Here is Martin Heidegger hymning a pod of dolphins in the Mediterranean: “So too the birthplace of Occident and modernity, secure in its own island-like essence, remains in the recollective thinking of the sojourn.” Take that David Attenborough!
"Sartre himself ascribed his philosophical outlook to a bad hair day when he was seven years old"
I am indebted for this last gem to Sarah Bakewell’s engaging and wide-ranging new book, At the Existentialist Café. Bakewell pulls together dozens of thinkers under the group label “existentialists.” This poses a problem: if you say you are an existentialist, then you aren’t. It’s an obvious giveaway. You cannot be serious, man! Or rather, as Sartre pointed out, it is “seriousness” that is to blame for our belief in our own identity. Popeye says, “I am what I am and that’s all what I am.” Sartre, in contrast, says, “I am not what I am, and am what I am not.” Existentialism re-frames gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity as questions rather than statements, and turns the human potential for paradox and self-contradiction into the key to self-liberation. Attached to this, of course, is a high anxiety price tag.

Patrick Baert’s book, The Existentialist Moment, is more focused on the sociology of Sartre, posing a fascinating question: given the complexity of his ideas, how did the French philosopher become such a celebrity in the post-war period? It wasn’t just the one-liners. Rather, as Beart argues clearly and persuasively, collaboration with the Vichy regime wiped out most of his potential rivals, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Resistance mythology bestowed a Casablanca-style aura on Sartre, even if he didn’t actually do anything of note during the war. Having the publisher Gaston Gallimard in his pocket didn’t harm his reputation either.

A guy at Foyles once told me that The Outsider by Albert Camus is still the most stolen of all books, the thieves usually teenage boys. Perhaps there is an unstated premise in both Bakewell and Baert that you have to be an adolescent to count as an existentialist. But certainly Camus (who always insisted on not being an existentialist, and therefore was one) reckoned he learned all his philosophy playing football as a boy.

Similarly, Sartre himself ascribed his philosophical outlook to a bad hair day when he was seven years old. Until that age, Sartre had been known by his doting family as “the angel.” He had long blond hair—his mother thought he should have been a girl. Then his grandfather got the idea that he could do with looking more masculine, and hauled him to the barber to have his curls cut off. When his mother came home, she took one look at her son, and threw herself on the bed, sobbing. Like an inverted fairy tale, her young prince had been turned, Sartre later said, into a “toad.” Thus began his brilliant career as someone who, though he looked like something hanging from the outside of Notre Dame, was extremely attractive to women. Even Simone de Beauvoir said he was the ugliest student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

You can see a large part of the appeal of Sartrean existentialism in this story: the secular transcendental. On the one hand, you are nothing but your appearances: you cannot be saved by some ghostly essence or soul. On the other, you are no-thing, and cannot be reduced to mere physiognomy.

Sartre persuaded the austerely beautiful de Beauvoir to fall for him. The only problem was that Camus was better looking, a matinée idol on the Left Bank and a Resistance hero to boot. For all her talk of “embodied cognition,” Bakewell omits the origin of the conflict between Sartre and Camus, and the only time that Sartre openly admitted to being jealous. Had Sartre not spent three years wooing and finally winning the would-be actress Wanda Kosakiewicz? Even when he finally lured her to a hotel in the south of France, she rushed to the bathroom and promptly threw up. She came round in the end. But then Camus turned up on the boulevard in 1943 and within days, or possibly hours, he slept with her. Sartre never forgave him. Philosophers are rarely philosophical. Camus was always rubbing it in. On one pub crawl, he saw Sartre giving another girl his laborious chat-up routine. “Why are you going to so much trouble, comrade?” asked Camus. “Have you had a proper look at my mug?” responded Sartre. Rather desperately, he had to assert that he was “more intelligent” than Camus.

Refreshingly, Bakewell does not fall for the legendary Camus charm, and leans more towards the Sartre-de Beauvoir axis. De Beauvoir emerges as the author of the greatest single work of “applied existentialism,” The Second Sex—which does for women what Sartre did for losers—and as a brilliant memoirist. Camus appears as a cold fish, alas, and you can’t really work out what the big deal is.

When it comes to The Outsider, Bakewell is content to summarise the plot (there isn’t one), and ignores style. The key to The Outsider is that it is in two parts, the first (climaxing with the murder of the Arab on the beach) in the pared-down, minimalist discourse that Roland Barthes designated a “degree zero of writing”; the second staging a revolt against a rewriting—in a more formal, 19th-century, courtroom discourse—of what took place in the first part. It is a conflict between understatement and overstatement, between effortless seduction and heavy-handed persuasion. Baert is right to zero in on the period immediately after the end of the Second World War, when the intellectual and ideological war continued to be fought, more openly now.

Baert could probably work out why it is the reputation of Heidegger, the most blatantly Nazi of philosophers, survived de-Nazification more or less intact. The fact that he never bothered to say, “Oops, sorry about that, it was all a malentendu” certainly endeared him to Jacques Derrida, who derived deconstruction from Heidegger’s anti-metaphysical destruktion. Bakewell adopts the George Steiner line that Heidegger is a poet at heart, and therefore deliberately unintelligible.

A crucial episode in world history occurs when Sartre and Camus go to New York, followed a few years later by de Beauvoir. The “binary praxis” of Europe and America is brilliantly dramatised both in terms of antagonism and mutual bewitchment. All three were under surveillance by the FBI. The G-men came out as more pro-Camus and remained permanently suspicious of Sartre and de Beauvoir, even as late as the 1960s. “Well, is he a Marxist or isn’t he?—we can’t work it out!”

One of the keys to Sartre’s success was that he fully expected to be spied on. His great work Being and Nothingness has him bending over and peeking through a keyhole, and then suddenly realising someone else is watching him while he is doing it. The gaze becomes the site of a struggle for dominion. In a bracing anticipation of celebrity culture and social media, Sartre realises that everyone is watching everyone else all the time.

All the usual suspects pop up in The Existentialist Café, and a lot more unusual ones besides. Americans, such as Norman Mailer, flew the existentialist flag. Colin Wilson, the “Outsider” from Leicester, is worth a book all on his own. Sartre had his doubts about biography, expressed most memorably in his novel Nausea, where Roquentin ditches his biography of the Marquis de Rollebon on the grounds that you have to choose whether to live or to narrate. Of course, he did plenty of both, but doubts lingered.

Bakewell is right that you don’t have to be depressed and screwed-up to be an existentialist. But do you have to be quite so bright and breezy? I can’t help thinking that when she writes of de Beauvoir’s “resplendent talent for marvelling at life,” that sounds more like Bakewell. It’s a little touristic: you’re on a bus going by, looking at all the weirdos. And Maurice Merleau-Ponty as “the happy philosopher?” He would not thank you for that description.

The key question of existentialism will always be: what does it feel like to be alive? But the unsaid anxiety that bubbles beneath is: what does it feel like to be dead? Bakewell is brilliant at describing a cup of coffee, but it is always going to be harder to capture the second part of Being and Nothingness—the absence alongside the plenitude, the angst and the agon. I kept being reminded of the remark of Dr Johnson’s friend: “I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”

Now read: In Defence of Heidegger