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A story of our wasted time

Existentialisterna. A story of freedom, being and apricot cocktails
Forfatter: Sarah Bakewell
Forlag: Albert Bonniers (Sverige)
Existentialists stared at the emptiness in the white eye – and still tried to preserve their humanity. Göran Rosenberg reads a brilliant story about a bunch of philosophers who remain current even today.


When Nietzsche's fool towards the end of the 1800 century rushed around with a lit lantern in the middle of bright dan and shouted "God is dead! God had already been dead for a long time, but only the fool (or Nietzsche) seemed to have grasped what it meant. What it meant to the fool (and Nietzsche) was the end of the certainty of man's place in existence and the beginning of endless wanderings in empty nothing for something to hold on to.

When the fool saw that the people around were just staring at him in amazement and not grasping anything, he threw the lantern into the ground so it crashed and went out.

"I'm coming too soon," he said.

Hannah Arendt. About thirty years too early in particular. With World War 1914, the social and moral order in Europe broke apart and millions and millions of people again were forced to stare blank in the white eye, and the fraudulent bubble of external certainty and confidence burst with a bang.

"The days before and after the First World War are different, not as the end of an old and the beginning of a new era, but as the day before and after an explosion," wrote Hannah Arendt, who was eight years old when the world exploded, and twenty-seven when the Nazis pulled the ground off her feet and nothing was left to hold on to, and just over forty years when in her headache, The origin of totalitarianism, tried to put into words what it was that had happened.

Hannah Arendt belonged to those who very well understood what the fool (and Nietzsche) had meant. Many others also understood this and tried to put into words what it was they had understood. Some of them were philosophers. Some of the philosophers would eventually call themselves existentialists. Hannah Arendt would not call herself an existentialist or anything else, but already as a young student in Germany in the 1920 century, she was drawn into the magnetic field around the philosopher who, more than anyone else, would pave the way for the currents of thought in 1900 century Europe which came to be summarized under the name of existentialism. His name was Martin Heidegger.

The author had gathered around his table "at the existentialists' cafe" a circle of thinkers – including Husserl, Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Martin Heidegger. Martin Heidegger is the darkly shining star of Sarah Bakewell's masterfully interwoven story of the existentialists; the small circle of predominantly French thinkers who, at a time of yet another catastrophic collapse in Europe (fascism, Nazism, war, occupation, Auschwitz, etc.), lived and worked to find a new foothold for human existence. "How can man remain a man in a world where there is nothing certain to believe in and nothing fixed to adhere to?" Was the question they asked themselves and as they were in a battle stream of philosophical treatises, novels, plays, essays and articles from the middle of the 1930 century onwards sought the answer.

It certainly distinguished a world between Martin Heidegger's anti-modern rural and forest life ideal and Jean-Paul Sartres and Simone de Beauvoir's dedicated social life in Paris's streets and cafes. In the 1930 century, Heidegger was also attracted to Nazism and placed himself in the service of the Hitler regime, while in the ruins of yet another European collapse, Sartre and Beauvoir were drawn to revolutionary Marxism and positioned themselves on the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Insofar as their philosophies of man's "existence" had anything in common, it was hardly possible to deduce from their choices of life and life's destiny.

Edmund Husserl. Still, the connection was there. It is not possible to think of existentialism but to think of Heidegger (and Edmund Husserl, Heidegger's mentor and teacher, whom Sartre met with 1933), and it is Sarah Bakewell's championship that for a contemporary reader she is able to evoke the almost cultic radiance that towards the end of 1920 The number emanated from the dark star of Freiburg. With Heidegger, the question of man's place in existence seemed to be possible to ask again and to make meaningful again. Not by filling the void after God with another «higher» (metaphysical) response, but by using the very existence as a starting point (why is there something instead of nothing) what Heidegger called being (Being) to the core of the question. In the ability to heed the being and learn to think about it and marvel at it and be actively present in it (To be there), man had the opportunity to discover his authentic self and, through his authentic action, connect with the being and find his place in it.

Longer than that, I do not intend to try to reproduce what it was in Heidegger's innovative language and thought world that was perceived as so perplexing, only to note that it also left deep traces in the wars of Paris. Heidegger's philosophical headline from 1927 was entitled "Be and Time", Time and time. Sartre's philosophical headline from 1943 was titled "Be and nothing", L'Être et le néant. Whatever could be, and whatever it might mean, it was a concept that opened up a new way of thinking about man's place in existence, a thinking that meant nothing less than that in the void after Nietzsche's death God, in a world without external certainty and meaning, yes also in a world that could look absurd, give man something to associate with and hold on to.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. This is also what ultimately united the circle of thinkers that Sarah Bakewell had gathered around her table "in the existentialists' cafe" (the book's English title), from Husserl and Heidegger to Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus; the ambition to instill existential courage in man, to give her the strength to face empty nothing without being frightened, to make concrete and meaningful again with the help of philosophy and thinking.

What also united them was the conviction that it was in the individual, the self, the human subject's own power to do just that.

By "phenomenologically" learning to heed the thing and marvel at it.

By learning to think and act "authentically" and thereby take responsibility for the distinctive human freedom that at every moment is forced to choose between doing one thing and another. The infinite weight and immeasurable lightness of freedom and being could have been the title of the Bible of existentialism – if there had been any.

Heidegger is the darkly shining star of Sarah Bakewell's masterfully interwoven story of the existentialists.

But, of course, none of these could be found, because the existentialists were just as different as uniting them. In a circle of strong personalities where everyone in their own way wanted to make the question of existence a matter of individual thinking and action, it was only a matter of time before both thinking and action would go different ways. Heidegger betrayed his mentor and friend Husserl (who had a Jewish background) both philosophically and humanly. The close friendship between Sartre-Beauvoir and Camus turned into enmity. The moral and social breakdown in Europe, which was the dramatic backdrop to their philosophical projects, came to affect their lives in a wide variety of ways and give an unmistakably personal color and form to their "existentialisms".

Existentialism in our time. At Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, in particular, they also came to adopt lasting literary expressions (two Nobel Prizes). The existentialists had a poetic approach to the world and Sarah Bakewell shows an outstanding ability to weave philosophy with poetry, life meaning with life's destiny, which is ultimately what makes her book so uninterruptedly stimulating to read, also in Joachim Retzlaff's responsive translation. What we encounter here is not only a circle of thinkers who, in the wandering Europe of the 1900 century, sought a foothold for human existence, but also a circle of deeply peculiar personalities who themselves roamed in this Europe and occasionally got lost in it; both philosophically and politically.

Thus, this is also a story of our troubled time. Existentialists may have done their thing (the "authentic" individual turned out to be a treacherous foothold), but the big question they were trying to revive is: How can we live at the edge of existence and stare into the emptiness of the white eye without losing our humanity ?

A book that, with such brilliance, is able to bring that issue back to life, is worthy of its place in both the literature shelf and the philosophy shelf.

The book review was published 18.10.2017 in Swedish Expressen.
(Printed with Rosenberg's permission.)

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