Foolishness watch: Could hell really be apricot cocktails?


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"

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...
Warning: Bakewell holds a philosophy degree from Essex University. That's where Whyman lectures!

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.

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...
There's more, but you get the idea.

"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.


  1. Now if Bob can just find a "Rachel Maddow is The Nun" sighting, it will make his and his fan's day.

    1. PBS is as phony as Rachel Maddow. Bob Somerby proved that in his series showing Nova falsely trying to make "Einstein easy" in posts starting in February and ending in May this year.

      Weren't you paying attention?

    2. PBS makes its money from doo-wop revivals.

    3. Einstein isn't easy, but if you study his work, you'll learn something about space and time.

  2. I love what a pompous pseudo-intellectual the story makes Sartre out to be. The student comes to him looking for advice on what he should do, and his response is simply to inform the student that he has the freedom to make a choice.

    Cracka, please!

    1. It is the point most commonly made by Howler devotees to rebut critical comments.

    2. It isn't only that he has the freedom to choose, but that the choice is his, his responsibility to make.

      Sartre and others didn't expect the public to follow or participate in their discourse. They didn't expect that of each other, beyond being a sounding board. Why does Somerby expect the media to provide a public intellectual life today?

      I can go read Sartre or de Beauvoir myself. Why do I need Bakewell to digest them for me?

      If Somerby had gone to grad school perhaps he would not be stuck evaluating the quality of ideas presented to him by others, but would have learned to generate his own without worrying so much about the content of this public mental jerking off. Sartre was modeling independence of mind by refusing to tell others how to live or how to choose.

    3. >If Somerby had gone to grad school perhaps he would not be stuck evaluating the quality of ideas presented to him by others, but would have learned to generate his own without worrying so much about the content of this public mental jerking off.

      That wouldn't be much use, however, for a media criticism blog.

    4. "Sartre was modeling independence of mind by refusing to tell others how to live or how to choose."

      The student was looking for advice, and he refused to give any. Some philosophy.

    5. If he had advised the guy to go to Spain and the Nazi's had dumped his mum's dead bum in front of the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse, Sartre's student might have held that against him for the rest of his guilt laden Apricot cocktail sipping pathetic life.

    6. So impCaesarAvg, does that make the Nazi's weaker than Trump?

    7. "It is the point most commonly made by Howler devotees to rebut critical comments."

      No it isn't.

      The point most commonly made is that self-styled "critical" comments generally consist of nothing but wind in the imagined form of parody.

      The second most commonly made point is that ALL rebuttals of self-styled "critical" comments are ALWAYS referred to as being made by "Howler devotees."

      The irony is scalding: There are none so devoted to the Howler as his trolls.

  3. "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..."

    Sounds like Oliver in Love Story.

  4. You can toss down a couple more Apricot cocktails over the next few days with Bob and hope the recipe never makes Rachel Maddow's happy hour segment, or you can read some great reporting in the New York Times via our old friend Uncle Drum.

  5. Wasn't it the German Occupation?

    1. Don't be so provocative over such a minor error is such a slender post.

  6. Wait a minute. Didn't I read somewhere science has proven that free will (choice) is an illusion? Or does that depend on the observer, too?

    "You mean," said the old existentialist, his normally impassive face now registering dismay, "life is NOT a bowl of cherries?"

    Having sullenly swilled too many apricot cocktails, Jean-Paul bangs his fist down on the little table in aggrieved rage, sobbing, "In all ze cafes in all ze villes in all ze monde, Simone walks into mine."

    1. If he had too many apricot cocktails was that the fault of the provost or the professors?

    2. All too clever by half

    3. The apricot is a delicious fruit, eaten ripe and fresh, without alcohol.

  7. Beckett would have talked about the futility of any action. But at least he was funny.

  8. In a recent experiment, cats were shown to register surprise when a box that rattled when shaken was overturned to reveal nothing inside, leading scientists to conclude that cats use logic and rudimentary knowledge of physics to assess the world around them.

    1. Fur ball, please! Cats register surprise when a box is turned over, regardless of what preceded it. My cat clearly thinks boxes are a portal to another dimension, so I'd say more than a rudimentary knowledge of psychics.

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