Tuesday, 17 January 2017

At the Existentialist Cafe

Black coffee, Coltrane's "Blue Train" and the underground. Three things I will be reminded of each time I think about this book.

At some dodgy post-Soviet conference a young man was trying to present a University thesis on existentialism. To put it bluntly, it was not a great presentation. The young man was clearly gripped by the subject, but his speech and his manners were horribly inarticulate. In fact, he could barely pronounce the word 'existentialism'. He gnawed at the term, he chewed it, he swallowed two syllables at a time. The young man had long wavy hair flapping to a wind that wasn't there, and it looked like he may have been a closet drug addict. One part of me wanted to believe he was some sort of unrecognised genius. The other part of me knew better: the young man had no idea what he was talking about. 

Time and time again I have seen this. Vulnerable young people fluttering about the 'mystery' and 'despair' of Camus, never quite getting to the point. Never quite getting the point. Quoting Kierkegaard and not walking down the Danish streets the hungry, slovenly way that he did. Name-dropping Heidegger like it's some sort of epiphany. Putting all the effort into philosophy and not the apricot cocktail that spawned it.   

At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails is one of the greatest, most lovingly and beautifully written books in recent memory. It's powerful, personal stuff. There are those who might wonder why anyone would feel the need to mention Simone de Beauvoir in the year 2016. But in truth - there has never been a time more appropriate than this. If anything, Sarah Bakewell's book has come a little too late. At a time when we have already lost the ability to shed the epoche and experience the world in its pure existential greatness. At the risk of sounding like some hopeless curmudgeon desperately out of loop, it's next time you talk to someone who then takes out his mobile phone carving your mid-sentence open.

Existentialists may have been a random, disagreeing bunch (it's enthralling to read about the mental see-saw between Husserl and Heidegger), but it's that certain fullness of being (or, indeed, Being) that you find in almost all of their works and even lives. From Camus's acceptance of absurdity and the ability to move on with life to Beauvoir's fascinating desire to taste every fine object around her. So rest assured, these times would have horrified Sartre. Because it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that and never quite the whole thing. Imagine if you had a lover whom you could never kiss full on the mouth. A peck on the cheek, a bite on the neck, a nibble on the lips - but a million worthless distractions would never allow you to plunge full on. Or to see why many great-looking Frenchwomen were taken with a man having such a disturbing look in his eyes (notwithstanding the delicious Camembert cheese that he used to have in the periods of great privation).

It is the lack of process he would decry. The absence of spiritual freedom constrained by a million small concerns and offences. This lack of ability to describe a world full of fascinating things, never mind show. Never mind enjoy. And, crucially, filter it through your own unique existence. For existentialism is powerful, personal stuff - but who would care anymore, except for those who can not see past an existential crisis? One that always has to be resolved? And how! Camus, remembers Simone de Beauvoir, was 'so emotional that he would sit down in the snow in the street at 2 a.m. and pour out his love troubles'.

Read this book. Or maybe don't read this book. But do make sure that next time you are walking down the street, turn around, do a complete circle, and carry on walking.