Talk Therapy

At the Existentialist Caféby Sarah Bakewell

Other Press. 448p $25

Parents should know where their children are not only physically but “existentially,” says Pope Francis in “The Joy of Love,” and he calls for a church that goes out to the “existential peripheries.” Whether he read the major figures of the movement chronicled by Sarah Bakewell or not, he was influenced by them as a young Jesuit in the mid-20th century.


Bakewell read the existentialists in the 1980s, when they were already out of fashion. Stumbling across a work by Merleau-Ponty on her bookshelf a few years ago, she was smitten again, and the result is this book, which, while it is centered on a half dozen figures (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty), extends to a Tolstoyan cast of characters, including Nelson Algren, Richard Wright and Iris Murdoch. The author situates their philosophies in their lives and times, their relationships and disputes.

At a café in Paris in the early 1930s, Raymond Aron told his friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir about a new philosophical movement in Germany: “You see...if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this [apricot] cocktail and make philosophy out of it.” Turning away from epistemology or constructing grand systems, Edmund Husserl had focused on describing phenomena, ordinary objects like a tree, striving to bracket preconceived interpretations. Bakewell’s account moves from Husserl to Heidegger, Sartre and de Beauvoir and their circle, from the crisis of the 1930s, World War II and the occupation, into the postwar period.

In a 1945 talk, “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” partly in reply to Catholic and communist critics, Jean-Paul Sartre used the gnomic phrase “existence precedes essence,” having in mind the particularly human predicament of having to make oneself by living and deciding, without God and without fixed essences. For all their differences, these thinkers had in common their focus on what is specific to human existence and were not seeking to construct a system into which all reality could be made to fit.

Bakewell evokes the spell Martin Heidegger cast on his listeners, both in the period of Being and Time (1927), as he sought to arouse wonder at “Being” (as opposed to “beings”), and also to the later Heidegger, isolated in his hut in the woods. She chronicles his cooperation with the Nazis and is unpersuaded by his later excuses. His philosophy is treated with respect but not undue solemnity: “Even the keenest of Heideggerians must secretly feel that, at times, he talks through his hat.”

At the center of her story line is the half-century partnership of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who had a nonexclusive antimarriage, and how they fed off one another intellectually. Unlike Heidegger, they were constantly in the thick of public events, particularly left-wing causes, and through the journal Les Temps Modernes, which they edited with Merleau-Ponty. The Sartre of Being and Nothingness (1943) evolved into a Maoist and was still seeking to be committed (engagé) as he addressed the students in Paris in May 1968.

Sartre welcomed the Algerian Albert Camus with an enthusiastic review of The Stranger. A first rift appeared over what to do about Nazi collaborators. Camus, who had been more active in the resistance, nevertheless opposed execution; neither victim nor executioner, he wrote. They had a similar falling out over Algeria; Camus opposed the violent tactics of those struggling for independence. Most of the major figures found themselves at odds with each other: Heidegger with Edmund Husserl and Karl Jaspers; Raymond Aron with those on the left; Maurice Merleau-Ponty with Sartre and de Beauvoir. At their one meeting in 1953 Sartre and Heidegger found they had little in common.

The figure who re-emerges most strongly in Bakewell’s retelling is de Beauvoir. Bakewell wonders why The Second Sex, her pioneering account of women in history and the phases of human life as experienced by women, is not considered as epoch-making as the writings of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, and suggests that it may be sexism or her existentialist mode of expression.

The major characters in this story were not primarily classroom lecturers but writers, polemicists and literary critics whose novels and plays are integral to their work. Bakewell emphasizes this writerly angle, evidently feeling an affinity with them on that score. Phenomenology and existentialism had spillover effects beyond philosophy, like the humanistic psychological therapies of the 1960s and in themes of alienation or a search for meaning or authenticity in novels and films. When he ran for mayor of New York, Norman Mailer called himself the “existentialist” candidate.

As a philosophical fashion, existentialism inevitably faded. “Who cares about freedom, bad faith, and authenticity today?” asked Jean Baudrillard. In Eastern Europe, however, they did care, and phenomenology remained prominent for many years more because it provided an alternative to Marxist dogmatism. That may help account for the fact that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, adopted phenomenology, even if his work is quite at odds with the Parisians.

The major figures in Bakewell’s story were atheists (both Sartre and de Beauvoir were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books). But existentialism had religious roots (Kierkegaard, Pascal, even Augustine), and the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel; Edith Stein, a student of Husserl; Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas all appear in Bakewell’s story.

The generation of theologians and others who prepared the Second Vatican Council were part of the same intellectual and cultural milieu. The talk by Camus to French Dominicans in 1948, in which he said that the world needed them to be good Christians, was long remembered. Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and others addressed existentialism from a Thomist standpoint. Some early writings of Karl Rahner, S.J., reflect Heidegger, with whom he studied. The surprising shift in tone and content between Insight (1957), by Bernard Lonergan, S.J., and his Method in Theology (1972) can be traced to his encounters with phenomenology and existentialism in the mid-1950s. The “fundamental option” proposed by moral theologians like Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R., is akin to Sartre’s “life project.” The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” shows a respect for atheists that may owe something to the admiration many felt for someone like Camus. Consciously or unconsciously, Pope Francis reflects the intellectual milieu of Catholicism in the decade or two leading up to council.

So Sarah Bakewell’s account may have particular relevance for Catholics, either as a reminder of their own younger selves or as an introduction to the intellectual and cultural milieu of mid-20th-century Europe. This is not a work for specialists, but those intrigued by her account can use the endnotes and bibliography as guides for further exploration.

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