A Mormon and an existentialist go into a bar: Book review of “At the Existentialist Café”

These past few months, I have been trying to read a book simultaneously with various friends, and this is the second thus far (my previous co-read was “The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations” which I read with my dad). “The Existentialist Cafe” was next on my list, which I read in conjunction with my friend Todd. If you would like to enjoy a good read with me this next month, just let me know!

Before picking up The Existentialist Cafe, existentialism still had an air of mystery about it. My first and only real encounter with it was the assigned reading “The Stranger” by Albert Camus in my high school AP English course. My teacher, Mr. Drake, did a noble job trying to get the class to understand the jist of existentialism, but it remained a drab and lifeless; if anything, I considered it a sad and angry existence, embodying to me the idea from Ecclesiastes that “everything under the sun” is all “vanity of vanities” (and, to set the record straight, I find it much more energetic now; living in the moment in an apparently meaningless world). Perhaps it was the choice of books: the “protagonist” Meuersault in The Stranger commits a seemingly arbitrary and unfeeling murder of an Arab. He doesn’t seem to have any remorse, and his justification? “The sun made me do it.” I kind of had to agree with the magistrate refers to him as “Mr. Antichrist.” I had no way of understanding Meuersault. I could find no motivation that made sense to me, and no way of deriving any empathy for him. The book mostly just left me frustrated. I think the only book that perhaps caught my attention in high school that reflected the mood of existentialism if not the philosophy was Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, in which the protagonist Holden Caulfield fears becoming “phony”, reflecting Sartre’s “bad faith.” For some reason, even my highly conformist Mormon self at the time found Holden’s response to the world so appealing, that I considered it my favorite book for a while, even attempting to write a BYU scholarship essay based on Holden, managing to slip in a swear or two in one quote (I didn’t get the scholarship).

existentialists

 

It is in this context that I picked up Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Cafe.” It is an excellent introduction to the existentialist thinkers of the 20th century, and includes biographical context to each major figure, a summary of their work, some evaluation of its significance by the author, and an overall narrative to connect it all. We are introduced to the ones attributed as “starting it all” in the form of the phenomenologists, intent on describing the world stripped free of “epoche”, or outside information we bring that clouds the experience of the now. The two main stars of the book are the Frenchman Sartre and the German Heidegger, but Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are two of my other favorites in the book. Bakewell does an excellent job at boiling down complex topics, and I added several books to my reading list from her bibliography.

I especially appreciated her introductory chapter attempting to summarize existentialism, which is difficult to do. Existentialism isn’t a monolithic entity, and those who considered themselves existentialists couldn’t seem to agree on what existentialism was. I wanted to include her summary of existentialism here:

Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence.

They consider human existence different from the kind of being of other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free

and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact with causes

an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself.

On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors of my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown.

Despite the limitations, I always want more: I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds.

Human existence is thus ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating.

An existentialist who is also phenomenological provides no easy rules for dealing with this condition but instead concentrates on describing lived experience as it presents itself.

By describing experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives.

By combining ideas with biography, Bakewell shows how the mess of wars and radical politics all played a role in the development and implementation of existentialist ideas. For instance, Heidegger used his belief in embracing the moment and turning points of history to justify his support of the Nazis. While Sartre, initially wary of Communism, eventually became an ardent defender, even if he was too individualist to toe the party line. While I appreciate the ideas of freedom and responsibility stemming from existentialism, I found some of these political justifications in poor taste– especially the later works of Sartre. For instance, his idea that the one who is in the right is the one who is most picked on rings strongly of today’s identity-driven politics and intersectionality:

If a lot of people with incompatible interests all claim that right is on their side, how do you decide between them? In a paragraph of the final part of The Communists and Peace, Sartre had sketched the outline of a bold solution: why not decide every situation by asking how it looks to ‘the eyes of the least favoured’, or to ‘those treated the most unjustly’? You just need to work out who is most oppressed and disadvantaged in the situation, and then adopt their version of events as the right one. Their view can be considered the criterion for truth itself: the way of establishing ‘man and society as they truly are’. If something is not true in the eyes of the least favoured, says Sartre, then it is not true.

These ultimately leads to no moral foundation, and a constantly shifting ethics as we try to figure out who is currently the most “least favored.” It also seems to set groups against one another, rather than seeking to understand each other and come to common solutions. It ultimately seeks to preserve, and even spread, enmity.

My favorite ideas from existentialism is that philosophy is meant to be applied: “all existentialism is applied existentialism.” While all of the characters in “The Existentialist Cafe” are flawed, they seek to live life and find meaning in it. They cared about others, sometimes nearly to a fault, like Simone Weil who starved herself because others were starving. She believed that “none of us has rights, but each one of us has a near-infinite degree of duty or obligation to the other.” I loved reading about Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”, applied existentialism to the plight of woman:

Women, in other words, live much of their lives in what Sartre would have called bad faith, pretending to be objects. They do what the waiter does when he glides around playing the role of waiter; they identify with their ‘immanent’ image rather than with their ‘transcendent’ consciousness as a free for-itself. The waiter does it when he’s at work; women do it all day and to a greater extent. It is exhausting, because, all the time, a woman’s subjectivity is trying to do what comes naturally to subjectivity, which is to assert itself as the centre of the universe. A struggle rages inside every woman, and because of this Beauvoir considered the problem of how to be a woman the existentialist problem par excellence.

I liked discussing these ideas with my wife, and I look forward to reading the book in its entirely. I only wish that I could read French!

In the end, “The Existentialist Cafe” left me with a whole slew of new books to read, and a more mature appreciation of the philosophy of anxiety. I feel like I understand it, even if I don’t agree with all their conclusions. Even as a Christian who considers the doctrine of Christ a firm foundation that frees me from a measure of anxiety, I consider it a moral necessity to embrace ambiguity and tension, and to never let dogma remove my obligation to seek to understand and love others. This is what I find inspiring in the existentialists, and I believe I have a lot I can learn from them. It reminds me of the quote from Martin Buber on atheists:

Why Did God Create Atheists?
There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.
One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”
The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”
“This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

 

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