Philosophy, the Sartre blend: uncovering the birth of existentialism

On YouTube there is a three-minute clip of the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre. The funeral took place on Saturday 19 April 1980 and the television coverage from which the clip is taken follows the journey of the hearse from the hospital where Sartre died to Montparnasse Cemetery, where he was to be buried – a distance of about three kilometres. Along the way, the hearse moves through a staggering number of people. The commentator says that there are 50,000 mourners in total, 30,000 on the streets leading to the cemetery and another 20,000 at the cemetery itself. When the camera pans out, you can see how extraordinarily packed the streets are; when it homes in on some of the faces, you notice that many of the mourners are young, in their early twenties. If you did not know whose funeral it was, you would guess a famous actor or actress, a rock star, or some such popular public figure as Diana, Princess of Wales or Winston Churchill. It would never occur to you that what you were seeing was the public reaction to the death of a philosopher.

It is often remarked that this shows the difference between French and British culture, because it is unimaginable that so many people in this country would be so deeply affected by the death of an intellectual. But, in fact, it is a pretty unusual event anywhere and at any time. It is said that when Kant died, the whole of Königsberg turned out to pay its respects, and there were big crowds at Voltaire’s funeral in Paris, too. In Russia, the funerals of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attracted huge numbers of mourners. However, these occasions of mass public grief on the death of a writer or intellectual are few and far between. What is shown by the crowds that lined the Boulevard du Montparnasse to catch a glimpse of Sartre’s hearse is not something about France, but something about Sartre in his own right, something that demands explanation. Why were so many people drawn to him? Why did he matter to so many?

For Sarah Bakewell, the answer lies in the peculiar appeal, and the timeliness, of the philosophy that he espoused: existentialism. In her wonderfully engaging and readable book At the Existentialist Café, she traces the history of the existentialist movement through the lives, personalities and thinking of its leading members. In addition to Sartre, these included his lover Simone de Beauvoir, his friends Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his main philosophical influences, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

The book is a joy to read. Bakewell shows enormous skill in bringing to life not only the leading figures, but also the times and places in which they lived, their ideas and their works. There is an awful lot of research packed into it which extends far beyond the literary and philosophical writings of her chief protagonists. She deftly places those writings in their political, social and historical context, often by considering the films, books, fashions and trends that formed their cultural backdrop. In many ways, hers is a study not of a particular philosophical movement, but of the ideas that shaped the art, literature and politics of the 20th century. Yet all this knowledge is carried ­remarkably lightly, and the book does not, for one moment, get bogged down or become a chore to read.

Another feature of At the Existentialist Café that makes it enjoyable is the author’s occasional mention of her personal engagement with the work of her subjects. The jacket blurb tells us that “Sarah Bakewell was a teenage existentialist, having been swept off her feet by reading Sartre’s Nausea, aged 16”, and in the book she tells us that she has watched the online clip of his funeral “a dozen or more times, peering into the low-definition images of the many faces, wondering what existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre meant to each of them”. One feels that, had Bakewell been in Paris at the time (which was just a year after her teenage introduction to Sartre’s work) she would have been one of those mourners, because, she writes, “Sartre’s books changed my life, too.”

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