In 1949, Francois Mauriac put Sartre forward for election to the Academie francaise, but Sartre refused it. `My life and my philosophy are one and the same', he once wrote in his diary, and he stuck to this principle unflinchingly. This blending of life and philosophy also made him interested in other people's lives. He became an innovative biographer, publishing around two million words of life-writing, including studies of Baudelaire, Mallarme, Genet and Flaubert as well as a memoir of his own childhood. Beauvoir too collected the minutiae of her own experience and that of friends, and shaped it all into four rich volumes of autobiography, supplemented by one memoir about her mother and another about her last years with Sartre. Sartre's experiences and quirks found their way even into his most serious philosophical treatises. This could make for strange results, given that his personal take on life ranged from bad mescaline flash-backs and a series of embarrassing situations with lovers and friends to bizarre obsessions with trees, viscous liquids, octopuses and crustaceans. But it all made sense according to the principle first announced by Raymond Aron that day in the Bec-de-Gaz: you can make philosophy out of this cocktail. The topic of philosophy is whatever you experience, as you experience it.
Such interweaving of ideas and life had a long pedigree, although the existentialists gave it a new twist. Stoic and Epicurean thinkers in the classical world had practised philosophy as a means of living well, rather than of seeking knowledge or wisdom for their own sake. By reflecting on life's vagaries in philosophical ways, they believed they could become more resilient, more able to rise above circumstances, and better equipped to manage grief, fear, anger, disappointment or anxiety. In the tradition they passed on, philosophy is neither a pure intellectual pursuit nor a collection of cheap self-help tricks, but a discipline for flourishing and living a fully human, responsible life.
As the centuries went by, philosophy increasingly became a profession conducted in academies or universities, by scholars who some-times prided themselves on their discipline's exquisite uselessness. Yet the tradition of philosophy as a way of life continued in a sort of shadow-line alongside this, often conducted by mavericks who had slipped through the gaps in traditional universities. Two such misfits in the nineteenth century had a particularly strong influence on the later existentialists: Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Neither was an academic philosopher: Kierkegaard had no university career, and Nietzsche was a professor of Greek and Roman philology who had to retire because of ill health. Both were individualists, and both were contrarians by nature, dedicated to making people uncomfortable. Both must have been unbearable to spend more than a few hours with. Both sit outside the main story of modern existentialism, as precur-sors, but had a great impact on what developed later. Soren Kierkegaard, born in Copenhagen in 1813, set the tone by using `existential' in a new way to denote thought concerning the problems of human existence. He included it in the unwieldy title of a work of 1846: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: a mimical-pathetical-dialectical compilation: an existential contribution. This eccentric title was typical of him: he liked to play games with his publications, and he had a good eye for the attention-grabbing phrase: his other works included From the Papers of One Still Living, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Anxiety, and The Sickness Unto Death. Kierkegaard was well placed to understand the awkwardness and difficulty of human existence. Everything about him was irregular, including his gait, as he had a twisted spine for which his enemies cruelly mocked him. Tormented by religious questions, and feeling himself set apart from the rest of humanity, he led a solitary life much of the time. At intervals, though, he would go out to take 'people baths' around the streets of Copenhagen, buttonholing acquaintances and dragging them with him for long philosophical walks. His companions would strug-gle to keep up as he strode and ranted and waved his cane. One friend, Hans Brochner, recalled how, when on a walk with Kierkegaard, 'one was always being pushed, by turns, either in towards the houses and the cellar stairwells, or out towards the gutters'. Every so often, one had to move to his other side to regain space. Kierkegaard considered it a matter of principle to throw people off their stride. He wrote that he would love to sit someone on a horse and startle it into a gallop, or perhaps give a man in a hurry a lame horse, or even hitch his carriage to two horses who went at different speeds— anything to goad the person into seeing what he meant by the 'passion' of existence. Kierkegaard was a born goader. He picked quarrels with his contemporaries, broke off personal relationships, and generally made difficulties out of every-thing. He wrote: 'Abstraction is disinterested, but for one who exists his existing is the supreme interest.' He applied the same argumentative attitude to the personnel of philosophical history. He disagreed, for example, with Rene Descartes, who had founded modern philosophy by stating Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. For Kierkegaard, Descartes had things back to front. In his own view, human existence comes first: it is the start-ing point for everything we do, not the result of a logical deduction. My existence is active: I live it and choose it, and this precedes any statement I can make about myself. Moreover, my existence is mine: it is personal. Descartes' 'I' is generic: it could apply to anyone, but Kierkegaard's 'I' is the 'I' of an argumentative, anguished misfit. He also took issue with G. W. F Hegel, whose philosophy showed the world evolving dialectically through a succession of 'forms of con-sciousness', each stage superseding the one before until they all rise up sublimely into 'Absolute Spirit'. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit leads us to a climax as grand as that of the biblical Book of Revelation, but instead of ending with everyone divided between heaven and hell, it subsumes us all into cosmic consciousness. Kierkegaard countered
Hegel with typically awkward questions: what if I don't choose to be part of this 'Absolute Spirit'? What if I refuse to be absorbed, and insist on just being me? Sartre read Kierkegaard, and was fascinated by his contrarian spirit and by his rebellion against the grand philosophical systems of the past. He also borrowed Kierkegaard's specific use of the word 'existence' to denote the human way of being, in which we mould ourselves by making 'either/ or' choices at every step. Sartre agreed with him that this constant choosing brings a pervasive anxiety, not unlike the vertigo that comes from looking over a cliff. It is not the fear of falling so much as the fear that you can't trust yourself not to throw yourself off. Your head spins; you want to cling to something, to tie yourself down— but you can't secure yourself so easily against the dangers that come with being free. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom', wrote Kierkegaard. Our whole lives are lived on the edge of that precipice, in his view and also in Sartre's. There were other aspects of Kierkegaard's thought that Sartre would never accept, however. Kierkegaard thought that the answer to `anguish' was to take a leap of faith into the arms of God, whether or not you could feel sure that He was there. This was a plunge into the Absurd' —into what cannot be rationally proved or justified. Sartre did not care for this. He had lost his own religious beliefs early in life: apparently it happened when he was about eleven years old and stand-ing at a bus stop. He just knew, suddenly, that God did not exist. The faith never came back, so he remained a stalwart atheist for the rest of his life. The same was true of Beauvoir, who rejected her conven-tional religious upbringing. Other thinkers followed Kierkegaard's the-ological existentialism in various ways, but Sartre and Beauvoir were repelled by it. They found a philosophy more to their taste in the other great nineteenth-century existentialist precursor, Friedrich Nietzsche. Born in Rocken in Prussia in 1844, Nietzsche set out on his brilliant career in philology, but turned to writing idiosyncratic philosophical trea-tises and collections of aphorisms. He directed these against the pious dogmas of Christianity and of traditional philosophy alike: for him, both were self-serving veils drawn over the harsher realities of life. What was needed, he felt, was not high moral or theological ideals, but a deeply critical form of cultural history or 'genealogy' that would uncover the reasons why we humans are as we are, and how we came to be that way. For him, all philosophy could even be redefined as a form of psychology, or history. He believed that every great philoso-pher actually wrote 'a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir' rather than conducting an impersonal search for knowledge. Studying our own moral genealogy cannot help us to escape or transcend our-selves. But it can enable us to see our illusions more clearly and lead a more vital, assertive existence. There is no God in this picture, because the human beings who invented God have also killed Him. It is now up to us alone. The way to live is to throw ourselves, not into faith, but into our own lives, con-ducting them in affirmation of every moment, exactly as it is, without wishing that anything was different, and without harbouring peevish resentment against others or against our fate. Nietzsche was unable to put his ideas into much effect in his own life, not because he lacked the courage, but because his body betrayed him. In his forties, he fell victim to a disease, possibly syphilis or a brain tumour, which destroyed his faculties. After a distraught episode on the streets of Turin in January 1889, during which (the story goes) he weepingly threw his arms around the neck of an abused horse, he fell into irreversible dementia and spent the rest of his life an invalid. He died in 1900, having no idea of the impact his vision of human exist-ence would one day have on the existentialists and others. Probably it would not have surprised him: while his own time failed to under-stand, he always felt his day would come. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were the heralds of modern existential-ism. They pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself — the life of an individual.
Having absorbed these older influences, the modern existentialists went on to inspire their own and later generations in a similar way, with their message of individualism and nonconformity. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, existentialism offered people reasons to reject convention and change their lives.
Roquentin, in Nausea, stares at the root of a chestnut tree which looks to him like boiled leather and threatens to overwhelm him by the sheer opaque force of its being. I loved all this and was intrigued to learn that this story was Sartre's way of communicating a philosophy called 'existentialism'. But what was all this about 'being'? I had never been overwhelmed by the being of a chestnut root, nor had I noticed that things had being. I tried going to the public gardens in my own provincial town of Reading and staring at one of the trees until my eyes blurred. It didn't work; I thought I saw something move, but it was just the breeze in the leaves. Yet looking at something so closely did give me a kind of glow. From then on, I too neglected my studies in order to exist. I had already been inclined to absenteeism; now, under Sartre's influence, I became a more dedicated truant than ever. I became aware that the existentialists were already considered out of fashion. By the 198os, they had given way to new generations of structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstruction-ists and postmodernists. These kinds of philosopher seemed to treat philosophy as a game. They juggled signs, symbols and meanings; they pulled out odd words from each other's texts to make the whole edifice collapse. They searched for ever more refined and unlikely wisps of signification in the writers of the past. Although each of these movements disagreed with each other, most were united in considering existentialism and phenomenology the quintessence of what they were not. The dizziness of freedom and the anguish of existence were embarrassments. Biography was out, because life itself was out. Experience was out; in a particularly dis-missive mood, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss had written that a philosophy based on personal experience was 'shop-girl metaphysics'. The goal of the human sciences was 'to dissolve man', he said, and apparently the goal of philosophy was the same. These thinkers could be stimulating, but they also turned philosophy back into an abstract landscape, stripped of the active, impassioned beings who occupied it in the existentialist era. For decades after my second dropping-out I dipped into philoso-phy books occasionally, but lost the knack of reading them with the deep attention they needed. My old favourites remained on the far reaches of my bookcase, making it look like a spice shelf in a demi-urge's kitchen: Being and Nothingness, Being and Time, Of Time and Being, Totality and Infinity.
—Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence.
—They consider human existence different from the kind of being other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free —
—and therefore I'm responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes
—an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself. On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors in my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown.
—Despite the limitations, I always want more: I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds. —Human existence is thus ambiguous: at once boxed in by bor-ders and yet transcendent and exhilarating. —An existentialist who is also phenomenological provides no easy rules for dealing with this condition, but instead concentrates on describing lived experience as it presents itself. — By describing experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives.
So now let us return to 1933, and to the moment when Sartre went to Germany to learn about those new philosophers who called on him to pay attention to the cocktail on the table, and to everything else in life — in short, to the things themselves.
from Sarah Bakewell's terrific book, At The Existentialist Cafe