I just finished a book I so badly wanted to read that I almost bought two copies by mistake. It’s Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails.
At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
It fully lived up to my hopes. Not only had I really enjoyed her book on Montaigne, How to Live, but I – like Bakewell, it turns out – was a teenage existentialist. Living in a small Lancashire mill town, my plan was to be a philosopher in Paris when I grew up, hence applying to do PPE at university (and getting distracted by the E). Knowing nothing about philosophy, I turned to the library, which had a little book on existentialism, the novels of Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvour’s The Second Sex. We also read Les Mains Sales in my French class at school. The Second Sex in particular changed my life.
The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics) The Second Sex (Vintage Classics)
But enough about me. At The Existentialist Cafe is as clear a book about philosophy as you could ever hope to read, despite including chunky sections on Husserl and Heidegger. It is a jolly read about the lives of the existentialists too. (Did *you* know that Sartre had written the lyrics to one of Juliet Greco’s most successful songs? Or a film script – not used because of its length – for John Huston.) And Bakewell is a marvellous writer. For example, discussing why intentionality is hard, “The mind races round like a foraging squirrel in a park.” Her command over fresh similes and metaphors makes this book a joyous read.
I still ended up liking Beauvoir and Camus best, despite Bakewell’s appreciation for Sartre. The former for her feminism, the latter because he made the calls I agree with on political matters and – I learned here – was influenced by David Hume.
Maybe existentialism is newly relevant these days. The whole ‘behavioural’ agenda is making it important to understand the rolw perception plays in knowledge. And as for the need for a guide to how to act in a world that’s forcing difficult choices on us – well, just look at the news.