SocraticGadfly: Existentialism explained, and unexplained

May 30, 2016

Existentialism explained, and unexplained

I just got done reading "At the Existentialist Cafe," mentioned, if not recommended, by a friend on either Google Plus, Facebook or Twitter.

Well, I can tell you now, you probably don't need to read it.

At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and apricot cocktails with: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and othersAt The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and apricot cocktails with: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is overrated and mistitled and I'm going to explain why.

I wasn't sure exactly how to rate that book. This is another book that deserves a half-star rating, as in 3.5. Since so many others are overrating it, it thus gets the bump down to 3 stars. And, by the time I got done writing this, I wondered if even that were generous.

First, there's a typo/proofreading error on 11, that's tres funny, especially given that the book is primarily about Sartre. Instead of talking about him "exhorting" his readers, it actually mentions him "extorting his readers."

No radical freedom there!

There are one or two more serious errors of fact in the book, plus the fact that "glib" or whatever sometimes becomes disjointed.

A good example of this is when, in discussing Sartre's HUGE overwriting about Genet, she doesn't mention his amphetamine addiction. She only mentions it about 50 pages later, and then, it's never really called an addiction. But, that's part of a larger part — the book is a love affair with Sartre, papered over with the "Existentialist Cafe." It's a love affair with Sartre's cafe, then with Sartre and Beauvoir's. Camus (though I take his statement at face value that he was an absurdist, not an existentialist — something Bakewell never really explores), Levinas and Merleau-Ponty get short shrift. So, too, even in a popularizing account, do structuralists and deconstructionalist children or stepchildren of existentialism.

That points to a bigger problem. A David Edmonds of "Wittgenstein's Poker" or "Rousseau's Dog" fame would have focused on one or two fun issues (I've asked him to write a book about Koestler punching Camus), and written about 200 pages that we never expect to be a more serious history of Wittgenstein, Hume/Rousseau, etc.

However, Bakewell appears to fall between two stools in wanting to write something light, yet something serious, at the same time. And, to some degree, BOTH stools fall out from beneath her. If she wanted to be more serious, yet without giving a full analysis of existentialism, she could have analyzed why Sartre became an addict, or what was behind his existential dread (it was) of squishy, gooey things.

On to a few other issues.

On page 74, no, Germany's Social Democrats did NOT take power in Novemeber 1918 in "a kind of a coup." Instead, on Nov. 9, Prince Max of Baden, the Chancellor, announced that Wilhelm was abdicating as both German Kaiser and Prussian King. Max was forced to resign later the same day, when it became clear that only the Social Dems (to be precise, the majority Social Dems, not including the soon-to-be Communists) could hold the reigns of government and prevent an actual revolution. It's true that Friedrich Ebert demanded the chancellorship, but Max was likely recognizing already there was no alternative.

And, on page 75, in 1933, Hindenberg was head of state, not head of government, and therefore was not head of any coalition that gave power to Hitler. As president, he simply approved the coalition government that Hitler offered.

These are errors, especially the second, that shouldn't have been made. And, arguably, they may color how harsh Bakewell is, or is not, for Heidegger's early Nazism. I think they do.

Later, comes an error in biblical interpretation. On page 150, she says of Genesis 22, that Yahweh was "surprised" that Abraham went through with the offer of Isaac for sacrifice.

No, it doesn't, and in my read, it doesn't even hint that that is the mood of Yahweh. Ergo, she can't have a good grasp on either Kierkegaard's or Camus' writing about this episode. This probably ties with her giving short shrift to Camus.

On 152, she notes that Sartre attacked Camus for being too influenced by Hume. First, is this actually true, that Camus was more influenced by Hume? (The "too much," of course, is not true!) Second, why would Sartre feel that way? Bakewell never asks.

On 213, shockingly, she seems to misinterpret the end of "No Exit." She talks about the trio being "trapped" in hell — passive voice.

Not at all. The whole theme of the conclusion is that the trio have TRAPPED THEMSELVES! Yes, a demon placed them there, but they have the freedom to not only open the door, as they do, but leave — as they do not. Other parts of her interpretation of "Huis Clos" also seem incorrect.

Finally, on 257, and to no surprise to me, she misinterprets the Camus-Sartre split in a way most favorable to Sartre and in a way untrue to Camus and "The Rebel," in my opinion.

So, per some reviewers, this is an OK to good introduction **to Sartre and Beavoir.** To the whole of existentialism? No.

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