Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Beyond 'I Drink, Therefore I Am'

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Beyond 'I Drink, Therefore I Am'

Article excerpt

Byline: NICHOLAS LEZARD

AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFE: FREEDOM, BEING AND APRICOT COCKTAILS by Sarah Bakewell (Chatto, PS16.99) NICHOLAS LEZARD YOU see it right there in the title: the need for something sweet to help the philosophy go down. So we learn early on that the reason apricot cocktails make it into the title of a book about Existentialism is because they were the speciality of the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Montparnasse, at which Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron were sitting around the turn of the year 1932-3 when Existentialism was conceived, if not born.

"You see, mon petit camarade," Aron said to Sartre, "if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!" And according to de Beauvoir, Sartre hurried to the nearest bookshop and said "give me everything you have on phenomenology now!" And, over the following years, from his imprisonment by the Nazis to his remarkably undramatic escape (he just walked out of the prison camp for an appointment with an optician and didn't come back), to his time in occupied Paris, the philosophy of Existentialism grew and prospered, until it became tout le rage.

We see here a few differences between the English and the French experiences of philosophy. For the English, it is largely the subject of jokes in PG Wodehouse or Monty Python, and there was, it's probably safe to say, never a time when you could confidently rush to the nearest bookshop and demand everything on its shelves dealing with phenomenology and not come away empty-handed (and the recipient of a scornful look). Hence the concern with the windowdressings of Existentialism: these silly cocktails, the clothes, Sartre's wall eye, the turtlenecks, and, after the war, the American plaid shirts bought enthusiastically from second-hand shops.

However, this is rather clever of Bakewell. …

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