- - Tuesday, May 31, 2016


By Sarah Bakewell

Other Press, $25, 439 pages

According to Sarah Bakewell, author of “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, existentialism was born in a Paris cafe in 1933 when Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, his lifelong companion, and Raymond Aron met to talk and drink the specialty of house.

Aron talked enthusiastically about a new philosophy called phenomenology, “a way of doing philosophy that reconnected it with normal, lived experience.” Although the concept was primarily Germanic in origin, Sartre adopted it, stirred in a healthy dose of Gallic freedom and individuality, and named it existentialism.

How to define the final product? Ms. Bakewell boils it down as she believes Sartre saw it. “Freedom lies at the heart of all human experience, and this sets humans apart from all other kinds of objects.” Other objects sit in place, “waiting to be pushed or pulled around.” Animals “follow the instincts and behaviors that characterize their species.” But humans have no predefined nature. As she believes Sartre would have it, “I create that nature through what I choose to do . I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along.”

Sartre himself summed it up in three words, “which for him defined existentialism: ‘Existence precedes essence.’ “

As a human, he was always a work in progress, always creating and recreating himself, a reflection of the human condition, the essence of which is change. “I am my own freedom: no more, no less.”

During the 1930s in Europe, with the collapse of the old order and the apparent failure of the old verities, and in the 1940s, after World War II, with Europe laid waste by ideological furies competing for total control of the human mind, a new philosophy emphasizing freedom and the primacy of the individual was embraced enthusiastically.

Ironically, prominently numbered among the nominal founders of this new philosophy was the German academic Martin Heidegger, “shy, tiny, black-eyed, with a pinched little mouth, [who] all his life had difficulty meeting people’s eyes.” Sartre paid him proper tribute, and Heidegger pretended to reciprocate, while in private treating Sartre and his work with scorn.

Shortly after the Nazis came to power, Heidegger was named rector of Freiburg University, “a job that required him to join the Nazi party and enforce the new Nazi racial laws.”

He did both with enthusiasm, in the process betraying former Jewish friends, colleagues and even students, one of whom, the brilliant young Hannah Arendt, he’d seduced.

Apparently, he’d been a perfect Nazi, delivering rousing speeches and even attending a book-burning.

However, early on he abruptly resigned as rector for unknown reasons, perhaps because even the Nazis found him less than stable. After the war, says Ms. Bakewell, he hated talking about it, and in 1945 wrote only one brief essay on the subject.

“The message of the essay can be summed up as ‘oops, I didn’t mean to be a Nazi.’ “

Although Heidegger plays a major role in Ms. Bakewell’s narrative, the most engaging character is Sartre — short, somewhat flabby, “with downturned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence.”

And although in later years he became “self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered,” in the early years he attracted people — and especially women — with “his air of intellectual energy and confidence … he was fun too: he sang ‘Old Man River’ and other jazz hits in fine voice played piano, and did Donald Duck imitations.”

Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are undoubtedly the stars of Ms. Bakewell’s production, with Heidegger the heavy. In supporting roles are Maurice Merleau-Ponty (her favorite), Albert Camus, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers. There are also cameo appearances by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Iris Murdoch, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, even Norman Mailer — characters that Ms. Bakewell brings to life, no matter how brief the appearance.

“When I first read Sartre and Heidegger,” she writes, “I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important . Never mind lives; ideas were the thing.”

“Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion. Ideas are interesting, but people are — vastly more so.”

Just so, as witness this highly readable and often luminous book.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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