Guest Book Review: At the Existentialist Cafe

Please welcome Laura Stutz, who’s kicking off our Guest Book Reviews! Head to the bottom of this post for more information on submitting a guest review.


It’s a Parisian café, in the late 1940’s. The devastating effects of WWII weigh heavily on the minds of two philosophers there, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as they debate definitions of what it means to live one’s life.

Existentialism, the philosophy they practice, is the starting point of Sarah Bakewell’s new book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016). Bakewell’s definition:

As a human I am whatever I chose to make 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.

Soon though, Sartre and de Beauvoir encounter the “new” philosophy of Phenomenology in the writings of German philosopher Edmund Husserl. The heady “intellectual chatter” of Existentialism, in his view, is softened by focusing upon one’s surroundings bringing us into “the moment” and thereby relieving the anxiety. Nature seems to be the best in its infinite variety of offerings—so, too, the play of light on an apricot cocktail. I see the light as a warm gold because the sun is hitting the glass from my side of the table. But you, on the other side of the table see a bluish shadow. Because experience is subjective, it can become a format for discussion.

From this beginning the author takes us on a journey through the fascinating lives of such twentieth-century intellectuals as Camus, Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty. Their interactions and influences on each other make for a compelling read, and Bakewell’s insights are brilliant and witty. I did not have to read sentences over again for lack of understanding—I read them again only for the pleasure they brought.

Laura Stutz
This Guest Book Review is by library patron Laura Stutz. Laura lives in South Berwick in the old Gray, then Rodier, then Blakeslee farm house. She is an oil painter and interior wall designer, and works at Ceres Bakery as a cook, counter, and lover of people! She loves horses, reading and the ocean. Want to write your own guest book review? Contact Laura Horwood-Benton, Programming & Community Relations Librarian, at

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