“There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.” – Cicero
The absurdity of philosophy has ancient roots for good reason: it is true. If you want proof read the history of existentialism by Sarah Bakewell.
Her new book, “At the Existential Café,” even carries an absurd subtitle: “Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails.”
“Jean-Paul Sartre mixed his ideas with those of the earlier Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard to apply phenomenology to people’s lives. However, he did it in a more exciting, personal way. Sartre thus became the founding father of a philosophy that had international impact: modern existentialism.”
Now do you understand existentialism?
The language gets denser and denser and worse and worse.
“The dizziness of freedom and the anguish of experience were embarrassments. Biography was out because life itself was out. Experience was out. Philosophy was turned back into an abstract landscape, stripped of the active, impassioned beings who occupied it in the existential era.”
Author Bakewell admits existentialism is hard to define then uses nine meanings to define it. One of them is insane-asylum gibberish: “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.”
More gobbledygook chosen at random from the book:
• Sartre on existentialism: “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition: that it must be lived forward. It becomes evident that life can never be really understood in time. The reason is that at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting place from which to understand it.”
• Sartre on existentialism in three words: “Existence precedes essence.”
• Bakewell: “In this chapter we meet revolutionaries, outsiders and seekers after authenticity.” (Does it take a ridiculous philosophy to be authentic?)
• Sartre: “The eyes of the least-favored idea is as radical as other-directed ethics and more radical than communism.” (Huh?)
• Here is more “deep thought” by Bakewell: “The bloom of experience and communication lies at the heart of the human misery. It is what makes possible the living, conscious embodied beings that we are. It also is the subject to which phenomenologists and existentialists devoted much of their research.” (Research garbage?)
• Kierkegaard defined existential as “denoting thought concerning the problems of human existence.” (At last! Something understandable.)
Albert Camus is the most understandable of existentialists and the only one worth reading.
In Camus’ “The Stranger” his protagonist is about to be executed. A shriving priest visits his cell but is angrily told by the stranger: “None of your certainties is worth one strand of a woman’s hair.” The truth is clear and stinging.
Aside from all the nonsense, Bakewell’s pages are strewn with pictures of street scenes, people and famous philosophers without captions. None is identified although we know or can guess the names of some people.
The acknowledgements page is copious with praise and thanks for all the “insightful” editing of friends and advisers yet all committed the elementary crime of any book or newspaper publisher: failing to identify photos.
Here is a final word on existentialists. Sartre wrote in his play “No Exit”: “Hell is other people.” That is understandable and readers can easily relate to it.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)