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Existentialism: from the Club Tabou to the 21st Century

Existentialism. You probably haven't heard the term since reading Waiting for Godot in high school, and while its definition may At the Existentialist Cafeseem murky, it's not just something literature majors are pondering over at Starbucks. A fervent celebration of free will tempered with personal responsibility is a signature of existentialist philosophy, making it no less relevant today than it was in the late 19th and 20th centuries when great minds like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus shaped and espoused its virtues. Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café further proves why the ideals of this movement are still very much pertinent and necessary, especially when it comes to navigating the increasingly complicated world we live in.

You've probably seen the photographs: those Parisian streets of the late 1940s and 1950s, with brooding existentialists turning up their coat collars against the cold, or gathering round café tables to argue and smoke Gauloises, or descending into jazz cellars like the Tabou or Lorientais to dance till dawn. The scenes seem to come from an old movie, or a lost world.

But is there really nothing left of the existentialists except black-and-white photos and a romantic atmosphere? Is this a philosophy to be lived out only in Paris, and only in the past tense?

I don't think so. For a start, as with all of us, the existentialists did not think of themselves as creatures of atmosphere and memory. They lived in a vividly present whirl of expectations, desires, stresses and uncertainties, having no idea what would happen next but trying to make the best choices they could. What was unusual was the way they acknowledged this uncertainty and made it central to their philosophy; they were fascinated by their own dizzying freedom to choose. Just occasionally, they paused to wonder what posterity would make of them. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous among them, wrote in 1952, "our age will be an object for those future eyes whose gaze haunts us." Other generations might look on them disapprovingly, but meanwhile he and his contemporaries could only respond to events as they unfolded. He quoted an earlier thinker, Søren Kierkegaard: "It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards."

The Parisian existentialists not only lived forwards, but tended to do it at breakneck speed and with little sense of caution—partly because they had been cooped up so long under the Nazi Occupation. They were liberated in every sense of the word, and made a philosophical principle of it in life as well as in thought. As Anne-Marie Cazalis, one of the famous "existentialist muses" of the jazz clubs, later remarked, "If you were twenty in 1945, after four years of Occupation, freedom also meant the freedom to go to bed at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning."

Along with the great exhilaration came great fears. As the communist and capitalist worlds faced each other across a debilitated Europe after the war, it seemed increasingly likely that there could be a new World War, perhaps ending in global catastrophe this time. As both Sartre and his friend Albert Camus observed, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the human race had to decide every day whether to live or die—and if people wanted to live, they had to find a way to take responsibility for their world and make it happen.

So what does all this have to do with us? The existentialists' terrors and hopes show how deeply rooted they were in the problems of their time. Yet they also remind us how dynamic they tried to be, and how little there was of the misty or soft-focus in their thinking. Existentialism was (among other things) about trying to make free, responsible and honest choices in personal and public life, looking for paths to a sustainable world, and dealing with other people's perspectives and ideologies. The existentialist thinkers did not always come up with good answers, but they consistently asked the important questions.

Those questions have never gone away. In the twenty-first century, we too can try to understand our situation by looking backwards, yet we have to keep living it forwards, and we have to keep dealing with those real-world problems. The existentialists do us the service of reminding us how difficult it is to do it well.

Fortunately, they also remind us that it's sometimes possible to have fun along the way.

© Sarah Bakewell 2016. 'At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails' is published by Other Press in the US and Chatto & Windus in the UK.

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