Everything You Need to Know About What It Means to Be Alive - OZY | A Modern Media Company


This isn’t what you learned in high school. 

By Libby Coleman

Press the “share” button if you were required to read Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir in high school or college. Great! Here’s a way for you to go back again.

The recently published At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell, tells the history of existentialist ideas and the people behind them. Amusing and enlightening, it goes beyond what you might have picked up in high school English, particularly if you were asleep. A strong point is that “she is reading the existentialists from the perspective of 2016 and from her own perspective,” says professor Robert Bernasconi, an expert in existentialism and Bakewell’s former professor. In the mid-1900s, existentialism shot up, asking questions about human existence. These, folks, were the basic questions: What does it mean to be alive? What is an authentic life? Can we exercise free will, and what responsibility do we have if we do indeed choose our own actions?

Existentialist Café does not provide all the answers, unfortunately, but it does dig into the lives of the existentialists asking all those existential questions. These thinkers were celebrities, and they had personality. Jean-Paul Sartre was an inveterate flirt who, probably apocryphally, lured women up to his suite with the promise that they could sniff his good Camembert. (Why did that work?) Martin Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer not known for good deeds (although he apparently occasionally did some). These philosophers walked their talk — by speaking out against pro-wealthy laws, participating in strikes and having a lot of sex with a lot of partners (free will’s great, isn’t it?). Also: Their parties were not filled with sophisticates in black, puffing on cigarettes. Turns out existentialists liked plaid.

Bakewell recommends three works: The Second Sex (Beauvoir), The Rebel (Camus) and Nausea (Sartre). In Sartre’s No Exit, the only way to exist in the living world after death is when others think of you. So, perhaps, Sartre and his fellow existentialists are still “alive” today. Their ideas sure are.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories