Literary Review

Coming together at café philos

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails; Sarah Bakewell, Chatto Windus, £16.99.  

Reading Sarah Bakewell’s splendidly conceived book, I remember one summer fortnight in Paris, sitting in the warmth and freedom of the cafés that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre had patronised, debating philosophy, arguing vital questions of human existence and identity, and liberally gulping apricot cocktails.

The sunny days bring back to memory the 1930s on the Left Bank of Paris, where in the vicinity of the Saint-Germain-Prés Church, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch and Emmanuel Levinas mingled socially and intellectually. The Café Philo in New York is evocative of such gatherings.

I remember having a drink at Bar Napoleon, a beer and a meal at Deux Magots on Rue Bonaparte, and an evening at the jazz hangout Lorientais, where a book under your arm, symbolic of the anti-bourgeois sensibility, could be the passport to entry. It was here that Sartre and Beauvoir had laboured on their books amidst the cacophony of chatter, blues, jazz and ragtime.

Music and freedom were still in the air that summer afternoon in 1932 when the age-old philosophical puzzle about reality came up before the three friends who met at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on Rue du Montparnasse while sipping their cocktails. Raymond Aron had studied phenomenology under Edmund Husserl at the University of Berlin, and on this historic day, explained the concept to his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, emphasising the role of philosophy as a descent into ‘down-to-earth matters’, a proclivity towards Heidegger’s complete “disregard for intellectual clutter”. The meeting inspired Sartre to spend a year in Berlin and engage in “doing philosophy that reconnected it with moral, lived experience”, a kind of hijacking of Husserl and Søren Kierkegaard to blend a very aggressive phenomenology with a “philosophy of apricot cocktails, of Parisian gardens, the cold autumn sea at Le Havre… the way a woman’s breasts pool as she lies on her back, a film, a jazz song”. This was philosophy of “music and sex, shame and sadism, vertigo and voyeurism”.

The realist turn in Sartre moved him towards the very idea of free will and human freedom that lay at the heart of all experience, distinguishing humans from other species. Unlike non-humans, there is no predefined nature; essentialism stands rejected as you create your nature and your being through what you choose to do: “I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along… a work in progress,” in Bakewell’s words. Using her widely researched familiarity with a subject she fell in love with as a teenager, Bakewell draws attention to Sartre’s historic lecture on existentialism (published as ‘Existentialism and Humanism’) that turned both him and Beauvoir into cult advocates of a philosophy in which one’s existence and authenticity depend on the choice arrived at — not as a victim of society but as its “true voice”.

Such a philosophy, in the wake of Auschwitz and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would enable people to fall back on their own choices and potential to fashion a better future in a world of mind-boggling violence and outrage. The idea of essence or fixed human nature stood rejected in the face of oppression, racism and the hegemony of religious belief. The Catholic Church blacklisted Sartre and Beauvoir, and Marxism rejected the idea of a freedom that negated the very thesis of inevitable revolution and the envisaged trajectory of history.

Thus, to be an existentialist meant freedom of existence, going to sleep at odd hours, making free love, listening to jazz and dancing to ragtime. This was social behaviour at once radical and nonconformist, a rejection of bourgeois values and right-wing complacency of established norms and received assumptions. Noticeably, there was more conversation than coffee or cocktails.

The café became the ‘happening’ place of all creative art and writing, a world of lovers and artists, musicians and students, that would send ripples right into the rebellious 1960s, bringing most of us, even young teenage undergraduates, in contact with existentialism, with the question of authenticity, with the ‘proto-punk style’ of living, with wearing black woollen turtlenecks and debating philosophy at social events. The Firebox Café in Bloomsbury or the nearby Cuts Café, with its walls lined with the political works of George Orwell, comes to mind, especially at a time when the Left needs to seriously reinvent itself. As Yevgeny Zamyatin would say, “Heretics are the only bitter remedy against the entropy of human thought.”

Such was the deviant world of Paris, the ‘topsy-turveydom’ of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Queneau deep in debate on freedom and the embarrassment of tolerating a rich elite society or the bourgeois order of marriage and fidelity, so profoundly rejected through the bohemianism of Sartre and Beauvoir.

The existential temperament of the 1940s engaged itself seriously with political issues as is clear from the controversial writings published in the journal, Les Temps Modernes, and the newspaper, Liberation. No state apparatus could overpower this sense of freedom, evident from Sartre’s refusal to accept the Legion of Honour or the Nobel Prize in 1964, arguing for “a writer’s need to stay independent of interests and influence”, living with the credo “whatever you experience, as you experience”. Such was the world view that taught you to live on the edge, a Nietzschean affirmation of an assertive existence. Life for many, thus, “would be always one big existential café”. And in such a world, as Bakewell argues, there was no place for the ‘post-structuralist signifier,’ but an obsession with life itself, with its sorrows and joys, with nuclear war, with environment and foreign policy, with the wretched of the earth. The major questions that concern us are lucidly brought out by the ‘cafephilos’, icons who stand tall even today. The revival of the post-war Parisian café or the coffee house culture ought to be the call of the day.

Shelley Walia is professor and fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.


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