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Friday, August 10, 2018

The Argumentative Existentialists: Koestler, Camus, and Sartre

Camus; Koestler
The existentialist movement dominated the cultural life in Europe after the Second World War, but by the 1980s, it had fizzled out, and the word “existentialist” with a capital  “E” was seen as an embarrassment. But why did existentialism fail? It failed because the movement was more about identity and less about philosophy; it had too many rockstars and too few thinkers.

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers an account of the of emotional and egoistical conflicts between the rockstar existentialist thinkers. Here’s an excerpt:
Their intellectual battles form a long chain of belligerence that connects the existentialist story end to end. In Germany, Martin Heidegger turned against his former mentor Edmund Husserl, but later Heidegger’s friends and colleagues turned their backs on him. In France, Gabriel Marcel attacked Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre fell out with Albert Camus, Camus fell out with Merleau-Ponty, Merleau-Ponty fell out with Sartre, and the Hungarian intellectual Arthur Koestler fell out with everyone and punched Camus in the street. When the philosophical giants of each nation, Sartre and Heidegger, finally met in 1953, it went badly and they spoke mockingly of each other ever after. 
Bakewell’s description of the drunken brawl between Koestler, Camus, and Sartre is revealing of the mindset of the existentialist elite:
Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus and Koestler had previously become good friends, debating political topics in high spirits during convivial, drunken evenings. During one of their wild nights out at an émigré Russian nightclub around 1946, the question of friendship and political commitment came up. Could you be friends with someone if you disagreed with them politically? Camus said you could. Koestler said no: ‘Impossible! Impossible!’ In a sentimental buzz of vodka, Beauvoir took Camus’ side: ‘It is possible; and we are the proof of it at this very moment, since, despite all our dissensions, we are so happy to be together.’ Cheered by this warm thought, they boozed on happily until after dawn, although Sartre still had to prepare a lecture for the next day on, of all things, the theme of ‘The Writer’s Responsibility’. They all thought this was hilarious. At dawn, they left each other in exuberant spirits. And Sartre did somehow get the lecture written in time, on almost no sleep.  
During another late-night carousal in 1947, however, the friendship question came up again, and this time the mood was less good-humored. Koestler clinched his side of it by throwing a glass at Sartre’s head — not least because he got the idea, probably rightly, that Sartre was flirting with his wife Mamaine. (Koestler was known as an unscrupulous seducer himself, and an aggressive one to say the least.) As they all stumbled outside, Camus tried to calm Koestler by laying a hand on his shoulder. Koestler flailed out at him, and Camus hit him back. Sartre and Beauvoir dragged them apart and hustled Camus off to his car, leaving Koestler and Mamaine on the street. All the way home, Camus wept and draped himself on the steering wheel, weaving over the road: ‘He was my friend! And he hit me!’ 
The flight from existentialism started soon after Sartre’s death in 1980, and within a few years the movement was finished. Many of those who left existentialism branded themselves as structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and postmodernists. 

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