At the Existentialist Café – Sarah Bakewell

“Three young  and brilliant philosophers — the good-hearted Jean-Paul Sartre, the elegant Simone de Beauvoir, and the debonair Raymond Aron — sat in a bar on Paris’s rue du Montparnasse sometime around 1932. As they sipped apricot cocktails, they discussed how philosophy could be about everyday things, like apricot cocktails. Galvanized by the tipsy banter, Sartre had an epiphany: ‘Finally there is philosophy.’ So recounts Sarah Bakewell in her new book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, throwing her reader into a world of dazzlingly brilliant and revolutionary 20th-century philosophers, including the aforementioned threesome, as well as Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The ‘cast of characters’ also includes cameo appearances by Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Iris Murdoch, and about 68 others. Bakewell, author of three other books, most recently How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, untangles connections between the players’ ideas, politics, and personal relationships. The narrative is roughly chronological: from the aftermath of World War I, through World War II, to the philosophers’ deaths in the late 20th century. To use the Heideggerian metaphor that recurs all the way through, Bakewell shows where her subjects, like paths in a forest, agree and diverge, follow and lead, crisscross, cold-shoulder, flirt, rebel, and enjoy moments together in sunny clearings. (Although, in reality, sunny clearings tended to be all-too-brief vodka-fueled hazes of camaraderie.) Their stories unfold from intellectual hotspots — not only universities, but also forests, castles, cafés, and jazz dives — mostly in Germany and France, where people passed the time writing, dancing, conspiring, scattering provocative poetry, and, as in Bakewell’s description of Sartre, ‘loudly slaughtering the sacred cows of philosophy, literature and bourgeois behaviour.’ …”
Los Angeles Review of Books
W – At the Existentialist Café


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