I was a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my granny on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. It was the cover that attracted me, with its Dalí painting of a dripping watch and sickly green rock formation, plus a blurb describing it as “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being”. I didn’t know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation meant – although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I just guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who drifts around his provincial seaside town staring at tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at their sheer blobbish reality, and making scornful remarks about the bourgeoisie. The book inspired me: I played truant from school and tried drifting around my own provincial town of Reading. I even went to a park and tried to see the Being of a Tree. I didn’t quite glimpse it, but I did decide that I wanted to study philosophy, and especially this strange philosophy of Sartre’s, which I learned was “existentialism”.
No one can be completely sure what existentialism is, since its own chief thinkers disagreed about its tenets and many of them denied being existentialists at all. Among the few exceptions were the two most famous, Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir, who accepted the label mainly because they grew tired of telling people not to call them it.
They worked their philosophy out carefully, but their followers often treated existentialism more as a style or attitude than a set of beliefs. Several generations of disaffected youngsters before me had sat in cafes with slim volumes of Sartre or Albert Camus on the table in front of them, smoking strong cigarettes from blue packages and talking of nothingness and anxiety. In the 1940s, when the existentialist fashions began, the men wore raincoats and plaid shirts, and women let their hair grow long and loose in what one journalist termed the “drowning-victim” look. Later, the black woollen turtleneck took over – which must have made everybody severely sweaty in the subterranean jazz clubs of Paris’s Left Bank, where they went dancing. By day, they hoped for a sighting of the legendary writers – Camus with his movie-star looks, De Beauvoir with her turban and attractively hooded eyes, and Sartre with his pipe, his dumpy form and his comb-over. Today, the whole scene seems drenched in nostalgia. Meanwhile, existentialist ideas about freedom and youthful rebellion have become so much a part of popular culture that we hardly remember how scandalous they once were.
I am convinced that existentialism should be seen as more than a fad, however, and that it still has something to offer us today. In a spirit of experiment, here are 10 possible reasons to be an existentialist – or at least to read their books with a fresh sense of curiosity.
1 Existentialists are philosophers of living
The philosophy that Sartre, De Beauvoir and many of their friends studied at school and university was an arcane discipline, much preoccupied with the question of how we can be 100% certain of anything. It’s an important job, and someone has to do it. But Sartre and De Beauvoir tired of it and were more drawn to the 19th-century mavericks Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, with their philosophies of individual existence and “life”. They also discovered a new German method called “phenomenology”, which tried to start with immediate experience rather than abstract axioms. “You see,” said Sartre’s friend Raymond Aron, who introduced the couple to the idea over cocktails in a bar during the winter break of 1932-33, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”
Sartre was so excited when he heard this that he literally turned pale, according to De Beauvoir. He went to study philosophy in Berlin for a year, then came back to work out a philosophy based on his own very Parisian experiences. He created a philosophy not just of cocktails but of cafes and jazz songs; of the movements of waiters as they glided across the floor to top up his glass; of sleazy hotels and public gardens; of the passion for a desired lover or the revulsion from an unwanted one; of tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, vertigo, shame, war, revolution, music and sex. Especially sex.
He emphasised the importance of action in living out his philosophy, which accordingly inspired readers to struggle against colonialism, racism, sexism and all kinds of social evils on existentialist grounds. Martin Luther King Jr was among those who read both him and Martin Heidegger, the German phenomenologist who had most influenced Sartre. And when the waves of social change finally hit the students’ and workers’ uprisings of 1968 in Paris and elsewhere, the rebels painted walls with slogans rich in existentialist spirit: “Neither god nor master”, or “Be realistic: demand the impossible”. Sartre observed that the 68ers wanted everything and nothing – meaning that they wanted freedom.
2 Existentialists really care about freedom
Existentialists think that what makes humans different from all other beings is the fact that we can choose what to do. In fact, we must choose: the only thing we are not free to do is not to be free. Other entities have some predefined nature: a rock, a penknife or even a beetle just is what it is. But as a human, there is no blueprint for producing me. I may be influenced by biology, culture and personal background, but at each moment I am making myself up as I go along, depending on what I choose to do next. As Sartre put it: “There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” It is terrifying, but exhilarating.
What would it mean for us today, if we truly believed this idea? For a start, we might be more sceptical about the simplified popular-science arguments suggesting that we are out of control of ourselves – that, when we speak, click on a button, or vote, we are only following unconscious and statistically predictable forces rather than deciding freely. What intrigues me is the eagerness with which we seem to seize on this idea; it is as though we find it more comforting than disturbing. It lets us off the hook, taking away the existential anxiety that comes with making a genuine choice. It may be dangerous: other research suggests that people who have been convinced that they are not free tend to make less ethical choices.
Then there is the question of social freedom. After the 1960s, the battle for personal liberty seemed to be mostly won. The achievements have been great – and yet, in the 21st century, we find ourselves less sure than ever about how far our freedom includes the right to offend or transgress, and how much of it we want to compromise in return for convenience, entertainment or an illusion of total security. Freedom may become one of the great enigmas of our time, and the existentialists’ radical take on it may be worth a second look.
3 (Some) existentialists have interesting sex lives
Sartre and De Beauvoir applied their principle of freedom, above all, to their own partnership, a magnificently successful one that lasted half a century from its beginning in 1929 to Sartre’s death in 1980. They wanted to share their lives but didn’t want to accept conventional limitations, so they agreed to remain primary partners while indulging in polyamory with others.
This did lead to some unpalatable behaviour, as when De Beauvoir became involved with her own young students before apparently passing them on to Sartre. He was a serial seducer: one scurrilous journalist in 1945 chortled over rumours of him tempting women up to his bedroom by offering them a sniff of his Camembert cheese (well, good cheese was hard to get in 1945).
One has to remember that their way of life was motivated by vehement rejection of the “bourgeois” conventions with which they had grown up, in a world that expected people to get married, acquire property and children, and observe traditional gender roles, while having hushed-up affairs on the side. Sartre and De Beauvoir instead chose to live by their own philosophy of honesty and free choice.
De Beauvoir’s desire to break with received ideas about sexuality helped inspire her pioneering 1949 work of feminism, The Second Sex – the most widely influential existentialist text ever produced. She marshalled evidence to show, on an epic scale, how women grow up to be more hesitant and self-doubting than men, and less inclined to pursue the basic existentialist goal of taking responsibility for their lives. Many women, reading the book, decided to shake off their inhibitions and have a go after all.
The chapter that most shocked contemporaries concerned lesbianism – and Sartre, too, was a supporter of gay rights, although he remained convinced that sexuality was a matter of existential choice rather than a given reality such as blue eyes or dark hair. Either way, Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s philosophies of self-determination encouraged gay people to live freely and forthrightly, rather than trying to fit in with other people’s ideas of how they should be.
Thus, if Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s attitudes to sexuality led them to behave badly at times, it also led them to feminism and to bold declarations of LGBT rights at a time when few dared even to speak of such things.
4 Existentialists tackle painful realities
Not all existentialism is about jolly sex romps. It also confronts aspects of the human condition that we might prefer not to think about, but that will not go away.
One is anxiety. Today, we often approach this as a disorder in need of treatment, but the existentialists saw it as an essential part of human experience, and one particularly revealing of our situation in the world. Heidegger described moments of “uncanniness”, when everyday things turn unfamiliar or disturbing, and we cease to take them for granted. Camus, too, wrote about the times when, in a sudden “weariness tinged with amazement”, we abandon our daily habits and ask the most basic question: why exactly do I go on living?
For Heidegger, we also run up against the horrifying realisation that, whatever I do, I will die one day. I am mortal, and this limitation is part of what I am. If I embrace the truth of this, I can achieve a superior form of what he cheerily calls “Being-towards-Death”. Sartre and De Beauvoir wrote about death too, but for them it cannot be embraced so positively. Death is an outrage that comes to us from outside our lives and wipes them out. What we can do, at least, is to resist the false consolations of belief in immortality. Some existentialists did have religious faith, but Sartre and De Beauvoir were radical humanist atheists; Sartre said that he had lost his faith at the age of 11 while standing at a bus stop. They stuck to their conviction that this is the life we have, and that our task is to live it in the fullest and most honest way.
5 Existentialists try to be authentic
However tough it is, existentialists generally strive to be “authentic”. They take this to mean being less self-deceiving, more decisive, more committed, and more willing to take on responsibility for the world.
Most of the time, we don’t do this very well. Why? For Heidegger, the fault lies with our bewitchment by a non-entity called das Man, often translated as “the they” – as in “they say it will all be over by Christmas” (or the “one” in the phrase “one doesn’t do that”). We can’t say who exactly this “they” is, but it is everywhere, and it steals the decisions I should be making by myself.
For Sartre, the problem is mauvaise foi, or bad faith. To avoid facing up to how free I am, I pretend not to be free at all. If I haven’t managed to write my great book, I convince myself that there were too many unavoidable demands on my time, rather than admitting that I freely chose to spend that time watching cat videos on the internet.
We all indulge in bad faith. It is sometimes even beneficial, since it makes life livable. I can’t be staring into the abyss of freedom all the time – I have a train to catch. So I set my alarm clock, and when it goes off I roll out of bed unquestioningly as though the clock were controlling me like a marionette (so said Sartre; I find my own response to alarm clocks is less predictable). A fully authentic life is probably impossible, but trying for an authentic moment now and then does us good.
Authenticity has become something of a commodity now. We are sold authentic-sounding recordings on vinyl records, authentic breakfast cereal, authentic floorboards, and authentic prepackaged holiday experiences. The existentialists remind us that authentic authenticity has more to do with honesty and alertness. Another existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, said that the distinctive task of a philosopher was to remain ever-vigilant so that, when seductive political delusions or lies crept over our minds, he or she could ring like an alarm clock and wake everybody up.
6 Existentialists think it matters what we do (and may stay up all night arguing about it)
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