MONDAY, AUGUST 15, 2016
The critics agree to agree:
What did we read on our summer vacation? When did this vacation occur?
We'll grant you, the vacation in question was short. It happened last weekend—and, to answer your first question, we enjoyed another bout with Sarah Bakewell's unintentionally amusing and instructive new book, which bears this instructive title:
"At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others"
What makes the title instructive? Just this—everyone know what existentialism is, or at least what it is alleged to be. Existentialism is alleged to be, or to have been, a deeply instructive branch of philosophy, one which was most commonly discussed in parodies and satires.
As compared to the satirists, Bakewell treads the lonelier road. She treats existentialism and its forerunner, phenomenology, as significant schools of thought devised by important thinkers. That's what makes the title of her widely-praised book so instructive.
Bakewell has written a book designed for non-specialist readers. As such, she must pretend to discuss the allegedly great ideas while keeping us entertained.
Hence the apricot cocktails! They aren't just found in Bakewell's title. They appear, for the first time, right in her book's second paragraph.
This is the way the book begins. Just this quickly, the cocktails arrive. For fuller excerpt, click here:
BAKEWELL (page 1): It is sometimes said that existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to anguished novelists of the 19th century, and beyond that to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified by the silence of infinite spaces, and beyond that to the soul-searching St. Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Testament’s weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission. To anyone, in short, who has ever felt disgruntled, rebellious or alienated about anything.
But one can go the other way, and narrow the birth of modern existentialism down to a moment near the turn of 1932-33, when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails.
To keep our gazes from wandering off, Bakewell makes a quick allusion to gossip, then cites the apricot cocktails. (Had such distractions existed in Old Testament times, would we have an Old Testament at all?
No one can answer that question.)
Just to correct the record, there were no "philosophers" at that table drinking those apricot cocktails that day. More correctly, three graduate students were catching up on gossip and specializing in the manner described. Two would go on to be famous.
In fact, two became extremely
well known. Bakewell keeps us reading:
BAKEWELL (continuing directly): The one who later told the story in most detail was Simone de Beauvoir, then around 25 years old and given to watching the world closely through her elegant hooded eyes. She was there with her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, a round-shouldered 27-year-old with downturned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions, for his almost-blind right eye tended to wander outwards in a severe exotropia or misalignment of the gaze. Talking to him could be disorienting for the unwary, but if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence: the eye of a man interested in everything you could tell him.
Sartre and Beauvoir were certainly interested now, because the third person at the table had news for them. This was Sartre’s debonair old school friend Raymond Aron, a fellow graduate of the École normale supérieure. Like the other two, Aron was in Paris for his winter break. But whereas Sartre and Beauvoir had been teaching in the French provinces—Sartre in Le Havre, Beauvoir in Rouen—Aron had been studying in Berlin. He was now telling his friends about a philosophy he had discovered there with the sinuous name of phenomenology—a word so long yet elegantly balanced that, in French as in English, it can make a line of iambic trimeter all by itself.
Beauvoir had the hooded eyes, Sartre the grouper lips. Aron, of course, was debonair. Did we mention the setting was Paris?
There's nothing wrong
with telling stories, of course. Depending on the situation, it may be the best way to introduce a collection of allegedly important alleged ideas.
On the other hand, in the context of modern publishing, journalism and academics, instant recourse to apricot cocktails should perhaps be viewed with suspicion. Those apricot cocktails may turn out to be a dose of gorilla dust!
Is dust being thrown in this opening passage? That is a matter of judgment. A bit later, though, Bakewell provides the background to the apricot-flavored excitement. Here's part of what the debonair Aron explained:
BAKEWELL (pages 2-3): The phenomenologists’ leading thinker, Edmund Husserl, provided a rallying cry, “To the things themselves!” It meant: don’t waste time on the interpretations that accrue upon things, and especially don’t waste time wondering whether the things are real. Just look at this that’s presenting itself to you, whatever this may be, and describe it as precisely as possible.
Another phenomenologist, Martin Heidegger, added a different spin. Philosophers all through history have wasted their time on secondary questions, he said, while forgetting to ask the one that matters most, the question of Being. What is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say that you yourself are? Until you ask this, he maintained, you will never get anywhere. Again, he recommended the phenomenological method: disregard intellectual clutter, pay attention to things and let them reveal themselves to you.
“You see, mon petit camarade,” said Aron to Sartre—“my little comrade,” his pet name for him since their school days—“if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”
But why would someone want
to make "philosophy out of" an apricot cocktail? For our money, Bakewell never quite handles that point. But by page 5, she's telling us that that's what Sartre did!
"[Sartre] did indeed turn phenomenology into a philosophy of apricot cocktails," Bakewell writes at that point. Citing a later account by Beauvoir—an account Bakewell says was embellished—she also says that "Sartre turned pale" at the Paris cafe when his debonair friend said such a thing could be done.
Does any of this ever make sense at any point in this well-received book? In fairness, Bakewell's book turns into a breezy, page-turning set of biographies once she stops discussing the allegedly great alleged ideas at the heart of her exploration.
We learn that the gnomish Sartre got women in bed through use of his Donald Duck imitation. We learn that the original existentialist fashion in Paris didn't
involve the long, straight hair, black turtlenecks and the "drowning victim look."
Originally, right after the war, "there was a particular craze for plaid shirts and jackets," we learn from this book. If you could return to a Parisian jazz club of that era, "you would not find yourself in a sea of existentialist black," Bakewell instructively writes. "You would be more likely to think you'd walked into a lumberjacks' hoedown."
Insights like these may keep us reading, but what happens when we're forced to confront the important-ideas-in-themselves? Despite what you'll read in mainstream reviews, such confrontations go badly.
For our money, they produce reams of unintentional entertainment. Parsimoniously, we'll offer just one example.
Bakewell's second chapter, To the Things Themselves, is an account of the aforementioned Husserl's work.
(For ourselves, we prefer the alternate translation of Husserl's defining cry, "to the things-in
-themselves," because it sounds more cumbersome and silly. In Chapter 3, The Magician from Messkirch, Bakewell chides Heidegger for using such locutions as "Sich-vorweg-schon-sein-in-(der Welt) als Sein-bet (innerweltlich begegnen-dem Seienden),
or 'ahead-of-itself-already-being-in-(the-world) as being-together-with (beings encountered within the world).' ” But these are matters of taste.)
In Chapter 2, Bakewell falls to the task of explaining HusserlThink. On pages 44 and 45, she introduces the concept of "intentionality," saying Husserl made this concept "central to his whole philosophy."
Sartre to the rescue! According to Bakewell, no one ever explained Husserl's concept any better than Sartre did. On pages 46 and 47, she quotes from a "short essay" by Sartre in which he nailed this key concept.
Sartre's essay appeared in 1939. Below, you see the passage in question, exactly as Bakewell quotes it in her well-received book. The italicized material is the quotation from Sartre:
BAKEWELL (pages 44-45): The philosophers of the past, [Sartre] wrote, had been stuck in a "digestive" model of consciousness: they thought that to perceive something was to draw it into our own substance, as a spider coats an insect in its own spittle to semi-dissolve it. Instead, with Husserl's intentionality, to be conscious of something is to burst out—
to wrest oneself from moist, gastric intimacy and fly out over there, beyond oneself, to what is not oneself. To fly over there, to the tree, and yet outside the tree, because it eludes and repels me, and I can no more lose myself in it than it can dissolve itself into me: outside it, outside myself...And, in this same process, consciousness is purified and becomes clear as a great gust of wind. There is nothing in it any more, except an impulse to flee itself, a sliding outside itself. If, impossibly, you were to "enter" a consciousness, you would be picked up by a whirlwind and thrown back outside to where the tree is and all the dust, for consciousness has no “inside.” It is merely the exterior of itself and it is this absolute flight, this refusal to be substance, that constitute it as a consciousness. Imagine now a linked series of bursts that wrest us from ourselves, that do not even leave an “ourself” the time to form behind them, but rather hurl us out beyond them into the dry dust of the world, on to the rough earth, among things. Imagine we are thrown out in this way, abandoned by our very natures in an indifferent, hostile, resistant world. If you do so, you will have grasped the profound meaning of the discovery that Husserl expresses in this famous phrase: “All consciousness is consciousness of something.”
Bakewell's deletion. The italicized material is the quotation from Sartre's 1939 essay.
Wonderfully, Bakewell then writes that Sartre's essay is "the most readable introduction to phenomenology ever written."
It's also "one of the shortest," she writes. "It is certainly a better read than anything Husserl wrote."
We won't attempt to explain or justify our reaction to that remarkable passage, in which Bakewell presents that impenetrable quotation from Sartre, calling it part of "the most readable introduction to phenomenology ever written." We're willing to gamble that some foolishness speaks for itself.
assert that amusement of this unintentional type suffuses Bakewell's book—at least, those parts of the book in which Bakewell takes us to the alleged ideas-in-themselves. We'll say that this book is wonderfully incoherent—until one reads its reviews.
In terms of the allegedly important alleged ideas-in-themselves, this book is a very large mess. Until one reads the book's reviews, in which case it's "a bracingly fresh look at once-antiquated ideas and the milieu in which they flourished" (Maslin, New York Times), involving "impressively lucid descriptions of what these thinkers thought and what they said in their writings" (Mendelson, New York Times).
According to McAlpin in the Washington Post, "Bakewell lucidly breaks down dense philosophical texts while avoiding the pitfalls of over-simplification." According to Simpson in Newsday, "her intellectually sharp and fluent narrative" "combines confident handling of difficult philosophical concepts with a highly enjoyable writing style. I can’t think of a better introduction to modern intellectual history."
Praise for Bakewell's astounding lucidity pretty much spans the globe. According to the Guardian, "Bakewell is a skilful and nuanced teacher. Her explanation of the mysteries of phenomenology, clear and succinct, is as brilliant as any I’ve heard in a French university classroom."
(No, that doesn't seem to be an attempt at damning the book with faint praise.)
"She had me at apricot cocktails," Suzi Feay sadly says in the Independent. But also this: "Bakewell has a wonderful skill in expressing complex ideas."
Even our neighbors to the north joined this international parade. According to the National Post, "Bakewell offers a light but extremely lucid guide to their philosophies, which are not always coherent or easy to untangle." According to the Globe and Mail, "Bakewell is well-informed and great at conveying difficult ideas."
As one reads this book's reviews, one senses that the occasional reviewer is trying to avoid
remarking on its constant incoherence. Bakewell had already written a well-received book on Montesquieu, who no one knows or cares about. It would be our impression that word was out on the street, and in the salons, that this new book should be well treated. This is a familiar occurrence in book and film reviews.
Baffling group assessments dominate much modern journalism. This culture suggests that man (sic) is actually the script-reading
animal, rather than the "rational" creature of Aristotle's earlier mistaken view.
The script-reading animal is willing to say all sorts of things as long as he knows that whatever he's saying is being said in a group. This desire to recite approved standard scripts has dominated this nation's political journalism over the past twenty years.
Those modern high-end elites! It seems the word was out on the street concerning Bakewell's follow-up book. Reviewers may have gotten the word at cocktail hour, as poor Sartre once did.
Unintentional amusement is constant in Bakewell's new book—until one reads the reviews. Then we drink from the script-in-itself, the poisonous brew which has made a joke of our modern discourse.
Al Gore said he invented the Internet. Also, Sarah Bakewell is wonderfully lucid in her insightful new book!