And other provocative thoughts: "Hell is other people?" Is there any chance that's true?
The provocative phrase is drawn from Huis Clos (No Exit), Sartre's provocative 1944 play. Last week, a provocative young philosophy lecturer adapted Sartre's provocative phrase, using it as a way to discuss the Brexit vote.
"Hell is Other Britons," he provocatively wrote. Needless to say, the New York Times scrambled to put his people-hating essay into print.
Tom Whyman seemed to say he'd like England better if it contained no people! His provocative stylings sent us back to our most recent book about Sartre. We refer to Sarah Bakewell's provocative tome, which carries this eye-catching title:
"At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails"
Sadly, you read that right. As she starts, Bakewell says that the provocative philosophy known as existentialism got its start in 1933 over some apricot cocktails. At the mandatory web site, Penguin Random House explains the whole darn thing:
About "At the Existentialist Cafe"Warning: Bakewell holds a philosophy degree from Essex University. That's where Whyman lectures!
From the best-selling author of How to Live, a spirited account of one of the twentieth century’s major intellectual movements and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it.
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...
So far, none of this lets us know if hell really is other people. For ourselves, we sometimes felt that unintentional comedy is Bakewell's book, which has been reviewed, and taken seriously, by all the usual suspects.
According to Bakewell, what happened when Sartre and the others decided they could make philosophy out of their cocktails? Early on, she helps us see how exciting the new philosophy had become by the early 1940s.
During the French Occupation, an ex-student of Sartre's came to him with a problem—or at least, so Sartre later said. Bakewell relates the story in the first chapter of her book.
The ex-student wanted to cross the border into Spain; he would then move on to England to join the Free French forces in exile and fight the Nazis. But the ex-student was his mother's only means of support. Also, if he disappeared, the occupying German forces might take it out on his mother.
In The Iliad, it was Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, who "always gave the best advice." Bakewell tells us what happened in this instance:
BAKEWELL (page 9): As a last resort, the young man turned to his former teacher Sartre, knowing that from him at least he would not get a conventional answer.There's more, but you get the idea.
Sure enough. Sartre listened to his problem and said simply, "You are free, therefore choose—that is to say, invent." No signs are vouchsafed in this world, he said. None of the old authorities can relieve you of the burden of freedom. You can weigh up moral or practical considerations as carefully as you like, but ultimately you must take the plunge and do something, and it's up to you what that something is.
Sartre doesn't tell us whether the student felt this was helpful, nor what he decided to do in the end. We don't know whether he existed, or was an amalgam of several young friends or even a complete invention...
"Sartre doesn't tell us whether the student felt this was helpful?" Turnabout being fair play, Bakewell doesn't tell us how the student could have thought it helpful!
("Go back to Bulgaria!" That's what Rick said, when asked for advice, at a key point in Casablanca.)
Presumably, Sartre returned to his apricot cocktails; they form the narrative framework for Bakewell's opening chapter. They made us think of something we were told, long ago, by someone with first-hand experience, who said the great phenomenologist Heidegger had a heart-shaped swimming pool!
Bakewell's book came out in March; we cognoscenti rushed to devour it. Whyman sampled Sartre last week. It was sloshed into print by the Times.
Bullroar like this is all we have in place of a western world discourse. What can anyone do about this? If we understand his thinking correctly, Sartre would say we should choose!
Noble Nestor sighting: You're right! Just last week, PBS mentioned Nestor in Part 1 of its new series, The Greeks.