Celebrating libertarian lives of Sartre and de Beauvoir
Biography: Existentialism and Excess
Gary Cox Bloomsbury €13.99
Kate Kirkpatrick Bloomsbury €18.99
What exactly is existentialism and when did it arise? Whittling down the philosophical and literary term to a single author in one specific historical epoch is almost impossible because it encompasses a broad sweep of ideas that stretches across a large geographical landscape over a period of roughly 100 years. It began in Scandinavia during the mid-19th Century, moving east to Russia, then making its way across central Europe, before finally moving westward to France, where it found a new lease of life as World War II reached its nihilistic conclusion.
European wordsmiths typically seen through the prism of this angst-ridden world of uncertainty include people like Soren Kierkegaard, Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett.
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Existentialism is often mistakenly labelled as a belief in nothing. This misreading may arise because it's a philosophy that refuses to offer a preordained favoured outcome where the future looks bright and rosy, like, say, Christianity or Marxism. Existentialism's central message speaks not of a coming world, but this one. Putting the individual and their psychological complexity centre stage, it looks at how the actions that govern your everyday life determine your personal identity, your ontological existence, and your relationship to others.
As Gary Cox points out in Existentialism and Excess, the philosophical movement lacked a poster-boy who could eloquently tie its ideas together under one unified cultural banner until Jean-Paul Sartre gladly took on the role. Sartre had dreamt of global literary stardom for many years. It finally arrived in 1938 with the publication of Nausea: his debut novel merges fiction and philosophy in a refined minimalist prose style that expresses the thoughts of one individual from the depths of his personal isolation.
The Parisian intellectual, novelist, playwright, critic and philosopher thus began to cultivate his creative energies in tandem with an idea he gleaned early on from his studious reading of Henri Bergson and the notion of temporality: that time and consciousness are intimately related. Sartre furiously beat those ideas into shape to eventually blend together an original thesis that in time became the cornerstone of existential philosophy, Being and Nothingness.
Cox unpacks a multitude of ideas from the infamous 1943 existential bible in a lucid lingo that is easy for the reader to get their head around. Of particular interest is Sartre's paradoxical notion of freedom: he claimed it makes a prisoner of human beings because they are consistently caught up in complicated power struggles with other people, where domination plays a crucial role.
Cox's biography isn't all rigorous intellectual analysis though. Sartre's colourful love life was of as much interest as his abstract cerebral ideas were.
And no conversation about this subject can take place without mentioning his intellectual partner in crime, lifelong companion and part-time lover, Simone de Beauvoir. As Kate Kirkpatrick notes in Becoming Beauvoir, the couple made a pact almost as soon as they met back in 1929 that their relationship would be built on three fundamental principles: a shared goal of pursuing intellectual ideals that relentlessly valued liberty without censorship; absolute trust that emphasised equality and openness in all matters between both parties, and, most crucially, the freedom to explore other sexual relationships through polyamorous living. Cox and Kirkpatrick can't help momentarily taking a break from analysing rigorous ontological questions to assume the role of giddy tabloid gossip columnists. Indeed the kiss-and-tell stories are sometimes more interesting than the philosophy.
Both books focus attention on a number of moral questions that arise from Sartre and de Beauvoir's free love libertarian arrangement. Were some individuals exploited in the process? How much of a role did sexual jealousy play? Was there an abuse of power and privilege going on? Many of those involved in these menage a trois liaisons were young women who came from de Beauvoir's philosophy classes.
Cox's book is a lighter affair than Kirkpatrick's, which is heavy in detail, tone, and content. The latter author sticks her neck out for her subject matter, consistently driving home a point that is central to what her book is all about - de Beauvoir was not an existentialist, but a feminist, and her philosophical humanist vision had much more faith in the connectivity of human beings than Sartre's did.
Considerable ink is also given over to de Beauvoir's two volume 1949 book, The Second Sex, which feminists have continually cited when thinking about topics like reproductive rights, the female body, and equality between the sexes. The book's two main arguments were fairly spot on: women's bodies shouldn't be reduced to their reproductive function, and, the sexual objectification of women's bodies only further adds to the discrimination from which they tend to suffer. But Kirkpatrick points to many examples where de Beauvoir's argument had gaping holes elsewhere. She was accused of having no understanding of what the maternal instinct consisted of since she never had children. Some of de Beauvoir's misjudged and histrionic language did her no favours either. Referring to pregnant women as "hosts to parasites and slaves to the species", still seems almost inhuman read 70 years later.
Cox also points to numerous flaws in Sartre the intellectual and Sartre the man. His output of work was so vast and fuelled by amphetamines that it could be rushed, shoddy, and convoluted. And his palling around with communist dictators that served as easy propaganda photo shoots was as laughable as it was hypocritical.
Reading both these books at a time when liberalism is going through its worst crisis since World War II puts forward an interesting question that neither author here attempts to answer: is the pursuit of immediate pleasure seeking and individual liberty more important than ideas like self-sacrifice and personal responsibility? Especially when thinking about the long-term utilitarian societal benefits. Sartre and de Beauvoir clearly thought so. For them individual liberty was everything. But the contours of western culture have rapidly shifted in the interim.