cover image At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

Sarah Bakewell. Other Press, $25 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59051-488-7

Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to “the task of responsible alertness” and “questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.” Through vivid characterizations and a clear distillation of dense philosophical concepts, Bakewell embeds the story of existentialism in the “story of a whole European century,” dramatizing its central debates of authenticity, rebellion, freedom, and responsibility. Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all strut and fret across the stage, with cameos from Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Iris Murdoch, among others. Casting his shadow over all is Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps existentialism’s most famous face, and beside him Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminist masterpiece The Second Sex, was as “revolutionary in every sense” as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Bakewell illustrates how existentialism contributed to “almost all the great liberation movements” of the 1950s and ’60s, arguing persuasively for its continued relevance. This ambitious book bears out Bakewell’s declaration that “thinking should be generous and have a good appetite,” and that for philosophers and the general reader alike, “ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.” Photos.[em] (Mar.) [/em]