At the Existentialist Café

Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Others

Publication Date: Aug 08, 2017

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ISBN: 978-1-59051-889-2


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ISBN: 978-1-59051-489-4


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Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2016 by the New York Times, a spirited account of a major intellectual movement of the twentieth century and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it, by the best-selling author of How to Live. 

Paris, 1933: three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called Phenomenology. “You see,” he says, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”

It was this simple phrase that would ignite a movement, inspiring Sartre to integrate Phenomenology into his own French, humanistic sensibility, thereby creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. This movement would sweep through the jazz clubs and cafés of the Left Bank before making its way across the world as Existentialism.

At the Existentialist Café is the epic account of passionate encounters—fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships—and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.

Excerpt from At the Existentialist Café

Sartre first realized what a celebrity he had become on October 28, 1945, when he gave a public talk for the Club Maintenant [The Now Club] at the Salle des Centraux in Paris. Both he and the organizers had underestimated the size of the crowd that would show up for a talk by Sartre. The box office was mobbed; many people went in free because they could not get near the ticket booth. In the jostling, chairs were damaged, and a few audience members passed out in the unseasonable heat. As a photo caption writer for Time magazine put it, “Philosopher Sartre. Women swooned.”

The talk was a big success. Sartre, who was only about five foot high, must have been barely visible above the crowd, but he delivered a rousing exposition of his ideas—and later turned it into a book, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism and Humanism. Both lecture and book culminated in an anecdote that would have sounded very familiar to his audience, fresh from the experience of Nazi occupation and liberation. The story summed up both the shock value and the appeal of his philosophy.

One day during the Occupation, Sartre said, an ex-student of his had come to him for advice. The young man’s brother had been killed in battle in 1940, before the French surrender; then his father had turned collaborator and deserted the family. The young man became his mother’s only companion and support. But what he longed to do was to sneak across the border via Spain to England, to join the Free French forces in exile and fight the Nazis—red-blooded combat at last, and a chance to avenge his brother, defy his father, and help free his country. The problem was, it would leave his mother alone and in danger at a time when it was hard even to get food on the table. It might also get her into trouble with the Germans. So: should he do the right thing by his mother, with clear benefits to her alone, or should he take a chance on joining the fight and doing right by many?

“In At the Existentialist Café [Sarah Bakewell] combines confident handling of difficult philosophical concepts with a highly enjoyable writing style. I can’t think of a better introduction to modern intellectual history.” —Newsday

At the Existentialist Café is a bracingly fresh look at once-antiquated ideas and the milieu in which they flourished. Ms. Bakewell’s approach is enticing and unusual: She is not an omniscient author acting as critic, biographer or tour guide.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“An understanding of philosophy cannot be separated from the lives that defined it. [Sarah Bakewell’s] whole book is a quizzically humane response to the question: What is existentialism anyway?” —The Wall Street Journal

“Warm and intellectually rigorous…Bakewell’s is a clearing in a dense philosophical thicket few of us have the ability or inclination to navigate alone.” —The Financial Times

At the Existentialist Caféis both breezy and brainy.” —The Washington Post

“When first reading the existentialists, Bakewell recalls that she was less attracted to their individual biographies than their theories; now, she writes, she’s changed her mind: ‘Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’ Much to the great fortune of her readers, this book is richly populated with both.” —The Boston Globe

“Sarah Bakewell is expertly equipped to tell us the story of existentialism…she writes well, with a lightness of touch and a very Anglo-Saxon sense of humour…[A] skillful and nuanced teacher…[Bakewell’s] explanation of the mysteries of phenomenology, [is] clear and succinct…[At the Existentialist Café] offers fascinating insights into the cultural impact of existentialism on the English-speaking world…Bakewell makes the case that these questions remain as important today as they ever were.” —The Guardian (US)

“[At the Existentialist Café is] a wonderfully readable combination of biography, philosophy, history, cultural analysis and personal reflection.” —The Independent 

[At] the Existentialist Café is packed with out-of-the-way knowledge and has a cast of weird characters such as only a gathering of philosophers could supply. It is written with affection. Even the horrible Heidegger is seen as human in his absurdity.” —The Sunday Times

“Bakewell…shows how fascinating were some of the existentialists’ ideas and how fascinating, often frightful, were their lives. Vivid, humorous anecdotes are interwoven with a lucid and unpatronising exposition of their complex philosophy…[At the Existentialist Café] is a tender, incisive and fair account of the existentialists.” —The Telegraph

“Brisk and perceptive…A fresh, invigorating look into complex minds and a unique time and place.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Bakewell brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to ‘the task of responsible alertness’ and ‘questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.’ Through vivid characterizations and a clear distillation of dense philosophical concepts, Bakewell embeds the story of existentialism in the ‘story of a whole European century,’ dramatizing its central debates of authenticity, rebellion, freedom, and responsibility.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Tremendous…rigorous and clarifying…Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Bakewell follows her celebrated study of Montaigne…with a lively appraisal of existentialism and its leading thinkers… An engaging story about a group of passionate thinkers, and a reminder of their continued relevance.” Booklist (starred review)

“In her sweeping and dazzlingly rich At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell intro­duces us to those most closely associated with existentialism by approaching ‘the lives through the ideas, and the ideas through the lives.’… Bakewell… sees her cast of char­acters engaged in a ‘big, busy café of the mind.’ Their ideas remain of interest, not because they were right or wrong in their decisions, but because they dealt with real questions facing human beings. This wonderfully readable account of one of the 20th centu­ry’s major intellectual movements offers a cornucopia of biographical detail and insights that show its relevance for our own time.”—BookPage

“A vivid and warmly engaging intellectual history.” —The Los Angeles Times

“A skillful history of the existentialist milieu. Fascinating and well written, [At the Existentialist Café] will help many readers discover the likes of Sartre, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty…Bakewell has made weighty, complex philosophical ideas feel exhilarating—for that she should be praised, and read.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“In her instructive and entertaining study of these thinkers and their hangers-on, Sarah Bakewell…credits the existentialist movement, broadly defined, with providing inspiration to feminism, gay rights, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and other radical causes. A few cocktails can, it seems, lead to unexpected things.” —The Economist

“Don’t let the breezy title put you off. At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell’s group portrait of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and the other ‘Continental’ philosophers who flourished before and after World War II, is a work of deep intelligence and sympathy, reminding us how exciting those thinkers can be. And it’s a page-turner. I was so sorry to finish the last chapter that I almost—almost—ran over to the Strand to see what they had by Merleau-Ponty.” —Lorin Stein, Paris Review Daily

“It’s not often that you miss your bus stop because you’re so engrossed in reading a book about existentialism, but I did exactly that while immersed in Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café. The story of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger et al is strange, fun and compelling reading. If it doesn’t win awards, I will eat my proof copy.”—Katy Guest, The Independent on Sunday

“A riveting narrative.” —Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

Praise for How To Live

Winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

“This charming biography shuffles incidents from Montaigne’s life and essays into twenty thematic chapters . . . Bakewell clearly relishes the anthropological anecdotes that enliven Montaigne’s work, but she handles equally well both his philosophical influences and the readers and interpreters who have guided the reception of the essays.” —The New Yorker

“Serious, engaging, and so infectiously in love with its subject that I found myself racing to finish so I could start rereading the Essays themselves . . . It is hard to imagine a better introduction—or reintroduction—to Montaigne than Bakewell’s book.” —Lorin Stein, Harper’s Magazine

“Ms. Bakewell’s new book, How to Live, is a biography, but in the form of a delightful conversation across the centuries.” —The New York Times

“So artful is Bakewell’s account of [Montaigne] that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration.” —The New York Times Book Review