Existentialism has evolved from an intensely embattled philosophy of the middle 20th century to a cliché whose meaning has been hollowed out like democracy, truth, facts. When an Ayn Rander like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says that North Korea poses an “existential threat,” does he really mean that it poses a threat to human existence—a dire threat, perhaps?
The American Scholar recently pointed out that the word existential has become so misused and overused that it has “begun to function as a sort of highbrow condiment of choice, the squirt of moutarde de Dijon that [has] spiced up the hotdog of banal observation.”
I have to confess that when I was a callow youth and Jean-Paul Sartre was in the limelight—protesting the war in Vietnam, showing solidarity with the youth uprisings of the 1960’s, advocating for Algerian independence—I called myself an existentialist before I clearly knew what that philosophical appellation meant. I would later find out that it was something more than wearing cool shades and smoking unfiltered cigarettes, and that it placed a heavy burden of responsibility on its adherents.
Readers couldn’t find a better introduction to the foundations of existentialism and its colorful advocates—particularly Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus—than the recently published At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by the British philosophy scholar, who also happens to be a very fine writer, Sarah Bakewell. Also published last year is the English edition of The Stranger, a graphic interpretation of Albert Camus’ masterpiece translated into English by Sandra Smith, who arguably rendered the best English translation of Camus’s book in her 2012 edition of the book which she perhaps more accurately titled The Outsider.
Though they started out as students of the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and later became acolytes of Martin Heidegger, the rock stars of modern existentialism—Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, along with Raymond Aron—sat in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the Montparnasse in Paris near the turn of 1932-3 and, according to Bakewell, drank the house specialty, apricot cocktails, while plotting out the unleashing of a new philosophy on the unsuspecting yet perhaps yearning intellectual world.
God had died, and there needed to be a replacement.
Bakewell, who has also written about French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, says that Sartre “wrote about one big subject: what it means to be free,” and that although his thinking went through many permutations through his long writing career he maintained from the time of his break from Heidegger half a century before his own death in 1980 that philosophy must be an active, living thing and that the measure of any human is not in what one says but in what one does. This is why Sartre chose never to become an academic but rather to live his life as writer and activist.
Sartre, a compulsive writer who some said should have been reined in by more exacting editors, wrote his philosophical opus Being and Nothingness in 1943, but Bakewell argues that most coherent and important book explaining existentialism to the world is that of Sartre’s longtime cohort and lover Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, which was published in 1949 and became the foundational text for the women’s liberation movement.
Bakewell’s book is a kind of hybrid, at first delving deeply into the complexities of the phenomenological work of Husserl and Heidegger and their influences on the thinking of Sartre and Beauvoir (and other important players), but then evolving into fascinating life studies of the very public philosophers. What drew her as a teenager to existentialism and sustained her through many years of studying philosophy and finally writing this book is that they “asked big questions about human life, thrown into a world many other humans also trying to live.” And though the existentialist vogue has passed, she says, “some of those fashionable movements that knocked [it] out of the way [structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism] have aged badly themselves.”
And, paradoxically, while many key intellectuals identified with existentialism such as Camus, and later Iris Murdoch, would turn away from the fold there were new generations in seemingly unlikely places to carry on the faith. Bakewell points out that after Sartre had passed from a star to respected elder among French students, in the 1970s and beyond, young Czechs and Slovaks “were reading him as though his works had just peeled off the press.”
The leaders of the Prague Spring found relevancy in his philosophical works as well, during the brief interval of liberalism under Alexander Dubček, his books were widely read and his plays were in multiple productions in Prague. Jan Patočka, the intellectual father of Prague Spring professed the phenomenology of Husserl and encouraged his students to seek the meanings in things and to find subjective meaning in the world. Václav Havel, the great absurdist playwright who would become president of the liberated Czech Republic, followed the path of Potoćka to Sartre.
The central precept of existentialism, that existence precedes essence, is what for Sartre turned philosophy from a subject of debate in graduate seminars to one in which people are responsible for their actions. Sartre read deeply into the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and particular his Either/Or, in which he says that humans, as free agents, are molded into the people they become by choices they make.
No one is left of the hook. Anguish, Sartre says, is the result of the awesome responsibility of having to make choices that may affect not only you, but the world at large.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” Bakewell quotes Kierkegaard. But for the Dane the answer to anguish is to "take a leap of faith into the arms of god.” This didn’t work for the atheist Sartre. For him the answer was in subjectivity—that one is answerable in the end to one’s own instincts.
In an essay sometimes translated as “As Existentialism Is a Humanism” Sartre attempted to define his version of existentialism, atheistic existentialism. He says that the human is a “being whose existence comes before its essence. We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards… He will be what he makes of himself… Before that projection of the self nothing exists.”
From this insistence that we are all what we make ourselves, as defined by our actions, Sartre ups the ante. He goes on to say that in defining ourselves, we are also creating “an image of man such as [we believe] he ought to be.” There is no way out of responsibility—no god to depend on, no easy way out.
Sartre put his money where his mouth was. During World War II he, along with Beauvoir and Camus, were active in the French Resistance to the Nazis, and Sartre was even briefly imprisoned for his writings. Often thought of as a Jew, he came dangerously close to being dispatched to a concentration camp. Beauvoir continued to published “dangerous” articles and Camus also risked his life in the cause of the resistance.
Beauvoir, who Bakewell finds to be one of the more admirable of the characters in her comprehensive book, believed “a struggle rages inside of every woman, and because of this Beauvoir considered the problem of how to be a woman the existential problem par excellence.”
The Second Sex lays the foundation for the women’s movement that was to come much later, demanding the right of women to enter professions heretofore exclusively male, equal pay for equal work, sharing of parental and household duties. But Beauvoir also says that “men and women must, among other things and above and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.”
Beauvoir started out to write a memoir but what evolved, Bakewell says, was “a study of alienation on an epic scale: a phenomenological investigation not only of female experience, but of childhood, embodiment, competence, action, freedom, responsibility and Being-in-the-world,” drawn from her many years of wide reading and conversations with Sartre. She also calls Being and Nothingness a chief influence, although in retrospect her own book is by far more readable.
Camus, who, perhaps in part because he grew up a pied noir (Frenchman born and raised in Algeria), cherished freedom above all else, and though he briefly joined the communist party in Algiers in the 1930’s he rejected it by the time the war started. Sartre was in and out of allegiance to the party, but it was politics that caused a fissure in their once close friendship. That, and Camus’s absurdist view of the world. Much of human destiny, he insisted is governed by random chance. And although he said that one must act even in the face of absurdity, Sartre disagreed with him over the absurdity issue. And when Sartre disagreed over fundamental issues that usually ended friendships for him. Yet in writing about Camus after his death in car accident in 1960 Bakewell says Sartre wrote: “He was probably the last good friend I had.”
It is the humanizing of these philosophers that makes Bakewell’s masterfully researched and footnoted book most compelling. One can look up phenomenology and existentialism in a good philosophy reference book, but Bakewell places them in a context where we can see the players grappling with philosophy at the epicenter of the cataclysmic 20th Century. And, it is at the Existentialist Café that their lives and intellectual ideas intersect.
Bakewell makes us want to sit down and have an apricot cocktail with these writers, and with her.
Also newly released here is the wonderful illustrated The Stranger by Jacques Ferrandez. The comic book (bande dessinée or BD in French) artist, widely known in France if not in the U.S., was, like Camus a Frenchman born and raised in Algiers. In fact, his grandparents had a small shop directly across the street from where Camus spent much of his youth.
Ferrandez had previously adapted and illustrated Camus’s The Guest and the publisher Gallimard commissioned him to produce The Stranger, which was published in France in 2012, and released in English translation by Sandra Smith by Pegasus Books last year.
The artist distilled the story into a form to fit his lavish images without altering Camus’s words. Smith’s translation is essentially the same as found in her excellent 2012 translation of Camus’s masterpiece in its entirety, which she called The Outsider, with one notable exception. She starts off with “Today, Mama died,” while in The Outsider, she starts with “My mother died today.” Camus begins with “Aujourd ’hui, maman est morte.” There is an important distinction here. For more than fifty years the standard English translation of the novel by Stuart Gilbert read “Mother died today.” The formality of the word “mother” was thought to make Meursault seem more indifferent to his mother’s death. But the French word “maman” is closer to “mama” than “mother.” In his respected 1988 translation of the novel Matthew Ward curiously chooses to use “maman,” a word that doesn’t exist in English, throughout the book. However, Smith uses “mother” only in the opening, then reverts to “mama” for the rest of the story. But in the Ferrandez edition, it is “Today, Mama died.”
In an interview in L’ Humanité magazine Ferrandez said “I put myself at the service of the narrative and its reflection on the absurdity of the human condition.” But he adds, “I used little tricks. Thus, at the beginning, when Meursault took the coach for Marengo, the telegram from the asylum in his hand, he began to doze and pronounced the famous phrase ‘Today, Mama died.’ I followed the scene with a dialogue in which Meursault told Celeste about the mother’s death.”
When the day after his mother’s funeral Meursault takes Marie to a Fernandel movie, Camus doesn’t name the movie, but Ferrandez names it on the theater marquis: “Le Schpountz” a Marcel Pagnol movie that was showing at the time of the action of the novel. The artist says he chose to use that movie because it has the famous sentence “Every condemned man will have his head cut off,” a foreshadowing of Meursault’s fate.
Ferrandez says he also allowed himself a few “small winks.” For the face of the prosecutor he used that of Camus’s brother, for Meursault’s friend Celeste he used a likeness of William Faulkner, a writer greatly admired by Camus. Jean-Paul Sartre’s image is used for the journalist covering Meursault’s trial.
Like any masterful graphic novel, Ferrandez’s work stands alone, but it could well be read in conjunction with Sandra Smith’s excellent translation of the full work. Both are outstanding additions to the Camus canon.
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