Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sarah Bakewell – ‘At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails’

As is well known, Martin Heidegger was a Nazi for part of his life, and refused to issue a categorical renunciation after the Second World War. Given that, it is amazing what he was against:
By ‘machination’ he meant the making-machine-like of all things: the attitude that characterises factory automation, environmental exploitation, modern management and war. With this attitude, we brazenly challenge the earth to give up what we want from it, instead of patiently whittling or cajoling things forth as peasant smallholders or craftsmen do. […] Moreover, we rarely use what we take at once, but instead convert it to a form abstract energy to be held in reserve in a generator or storehouse. […] When something is placed ‘on call’ or in ‘standing-reserve’, says Heidegger, it loses its ability to be a proper object. […] If we are left alone ‘in the midst of objectlessness’, then we ourselves will lose our structure – we too will be swallowed up into a ‘standing-reserve’ mode of being. We will devour even ourselves. Heidegger cites the term ‘human resources’ as evidence of this danger. (pp. 182-3)
He was interested in experience at a very basic and individual level (the craftsman hitting a nail with a hammer, the moment when the nail bends and things go wrong), but he wasn’t so interested in people. Rather than ponder this (yes of course it’s a contradiction in terms), I’ll just point out the similarity of the above to the argument Naomi Klein makes in This Changes Everything about the move from water mills to steam power during the industrial revolution, which is precisely about human resources. Coal and steam were initially a ‘tough sell’, she says, as water was free and the larger wheels produced more energy than a steam engine could. The deciding factor was that coal powered factories could be situated in cities, ‘where there were gluts of willing industrial workers, making it far easier to fire troubleshooters and put down strikes.’ She argues that energy production needs to become geographically determined once again, through solar, wind and other renewable sources: not, it is true, in order that humanity can save itself from objectlessness, but, more straightforwardly, so that humanity can save itself. Which is about as existential as you can get.

Objects interested Jean-Paul Sartre too, in a slightly different way:
Sartre knew very well that we can lose sight of the sense of things. […] Many such moments occur in Nausea, when Roquentin finds himself flummoxed by a doorknob or a beer glass. But for Sartre, unlike for Camus, such collapses reveal a psychological state: they are failures of intentionality, not glimpses into a greater truth. (p. 151)
Camus sees a great emptiness, and Sartre a call to action; but he, like Heidegger, was drawn to a political ideology (Marxism, in his case) which denies individuality: ‘For Marxists, human beings are destined to progress through predefined stages of history towards a final socialist paradise’ (p. 256). Sartre struggled to reconcile Marxism with existentialism, particularly following the Soviet put-down of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, but for Camus it was more straightforward:
he did not think that history led to a single inevitable destination, and he did not think that there was such a thing as perfection. As long as we have human societies, we will have rebellions. Each time a revolution overturns the ills of a society, a new status quo is created, which then develops its own excesses and injustices. Each generation has a fresh duty to revolt against these, and this will be the case forever. (p. 257, a summary of The Rebel)
Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes ran a review of The Rebel criticising it as ‘an apology for capitalism’, and he also wrote Camus a long letter about it which ended their friendship. Bakewell is scrupulously even-handed in her account of this, just as she is on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy versus his Nazism. She points out that Camus’ essay came at a very sensitive time politically (it was published in 1951), and was clearly intended to be anti-Communist, when the re-making of the world in the wake of the Second World War hung in the balance of two ideologies.
The world had fallen to pieces, but for that very reason almost anything could now be done with it. (p. 165)
Going back to Klein again, this is exactly what her ‘shock doctrine’ idea consists of: smash everything up, grab the pieces for profit. Sartre’s fury at The Rebel was due to its undermining of the alternative scenario: grab the pieces for the social good.

At the Existentialist Café is a tale told in a personal, engaging way, with frank opinions on the readability of the texts concerned. It weaves together philosophy with biography and historical context (cafés, jazz and zazous, the smuggling of unpublished papers from occupied territories), and follows How to Live in its attractive use of illustrations amongst the text. Bakewell despairs of Sartre’s abandonment of editing in later life, though his first novel Nausea is something of a key text, as is Being and Nothingness. In contrast, Simone de Beauvoir remained readable throughout her life, and The Second Sex ‘can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement’ (p. 210).
She showed how choices, influences and habits can accumulate over a lifetime to create a structure that becomes hard to break out of. Sartre also thought that our actions often formed a shape over the long term, creating what he called the ‘fundamental project’ of a person’s existence. But Beauvoir emphasised the connection between this and our wider situations as gendered, historical beings. She gave full weight to the difficulty of breaking out of such situations – although she never doubted that we remain existentially free despite it all. (pp. 215-16)
Finally, the book calls for a reappraisal of the existentialists for the purpose of ‘breaking out’: it is tempting to think of ourselves, in our increasingly computer-networked world, as ‘out-of-control mechanical dupes of our own biology and environment’ (pp. 318-19). Is this an excuse not to act, to abdicate from ethical choice and responsibility? You can swim with the tide, you can (as per Quentin Crisp) swim faster, you can tread water, you can drown. Or you can make another metaphor up, and go your own way.

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