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Jean-Paul Sartre meets Bertie Wooster

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Of all those who start out in philosophy — not those who take it up for the sake of getting educated when they are young and then drop it, but those who linger in it for a longer time — most become quite queer, not to say completely vicious; while the ones who seem perfectly decent … become useless.

— Plato, The Republic

Earl Fowler

It finds an eloquent expression in Raphael’s School of Athens, that marvellous, 500-year-old fresco in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican depicting a congregation of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians from Ancient Greece (with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo thrown in for good measure).

Raphael had learned perspective from Leonardo, whose image stands in for Plato’s at the heart of the painting, pointing his hand to the heavens and inviting us to indulge in otherworldly speculations. Standing next to his former teacher, Aristotle’s palm faces down, returning the observer’s focus to more quotidian, sober, sublunary affairs.

That back-and-forth, representing humanity’s perpetual tendency to vacillate between THE BIG PICTURE and a cautious, well, let’s call it a scientific outlook, was highlighted in Irish-British philosopher/novelist Iris Murdoch’s essay “The Idea of Perfection,” included in a 1997 collection titled Existentialists and Mystics:

There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart (J.M.E. McTaggart, an English idealist metaphysician who died in 1925) says that time is unreal, Moore (G.E. Moore, an English philosopher and common-sense advocate who made it to 1958) replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both of these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.”

It would be a mistake to cast the first of the 20th century’s two major forms of Western philosophical inquiry — existentialism — as the building of any kind of theory, elaborate or otherwise.

But its prominent thinkers, building on the work of such 19th-century figures as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, were certainly interested in paramount questions like the meaning and value of human existence, and explored such concepts as dread, absurdity, authenticity, courage and vice. Novelist Albert Camus’s work comes down to one simple question: If our lives are as futile as the labour of Sisyphus, condemned to an endless, absurd task (in his case, upwardly mobile rock’n’roll), how should we respond?

The cast of characters whose personal lives are (one hopes) illuminated here with a series of anecdotes and juicy stories includes Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger. There are also cameo appearances by Karl Jaspers, Arthur Koestler, Kate Millet, Nelson Algren, Herbert Marcuse, James Baldwin, Claude Lanzmann, Richard Wright, Raymond Aron, Alberto Giacometti, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Edmund Husserl, Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir and others.

On the anti-metaphysics side of the menu, we’ll take a look at what is usually called linguistic or analytic philosophy, which reached its pinnacle at Oxford University between 1920 and 1960 and took the central concern of philosophy to be analysis of language. Its most ambitious practitioners believed the linguistic methods they were developing would dissolve traditional philosophical and theological problems — the meaning of life, the existence (or not) of God and like that — by showing them to be meaningless.

Among the key figures in for the same treatment as the aforementioned existentialists: Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, Elizabeth Anscombe, R.M. Hare, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch (although she has a foot in both camps) and Ludwig Wittgenstein. With cameos by Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, W.H. Auden, Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson), Naomi Campbell (that Naomi Campbell), Mary Wilson (no, not that Mary Wilson), David Lewis (not that David Lewis), Patrick Nowell-Smith, Peter Geach, F.H. Bradley, J.M.E. McTaggart, Geoffrey Warnock, W.V.O. Quine, John Rawls, Peter Stawson, Saul Kripke, Frederick Copleston and others.

Plenty of excellent books have been and continue to be written about the ideas and concepts, texts and arguments bandied about by both camps. Two recent ones — Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, published in 2016, and Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy and War at Oxford 1900-1960, which hit the bookstands in July — are by far the most entertaining accounts I’ve ever encountered of the human drama behind the high-falutin’ thinkin’, wishin’ and hopin.’ Very little prayin’, as it turns out.

Explains Krishnan in his introduction:

I have tried to make more of that drama, if only as compensation for the cold impersonality of the conventional histories, where idea commutes with idea, argument clashes with argument, without anyone having to stop for lunch.

Bakewell concludes her book with a similar justification for her approach:

When I first read Sartre and Heidegger, I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important. This was the orthodox belief in the field at the time, but it also came from my being too young myself to have much sense of history. I intoxicated myself with concepts, without taking account of their relationship to events and to all the odd data of their inventors’ lives. Never mind lives; ideas were the thing.

Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion. Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.

Most of what follows was plucked and distilled from those two books, with an exception or two that will be noted when we get there. First, let’s add a little scenery and some ferns to the rear of the proscenium.

At the mention of mid-century Oxford philosophers like Ayers and Austin, a caricature springs to mind (I’m willing to bet) of hair-splitting, logic-chopping, cloistered, grandstanding, spectacled, round-shouldered, rabbit-toothed, filibustering, tweed and elbow-patch wearing, pipe-sucking, upper class, highbrow-chess-playing clever chaps and Bertie Wooster grad students who conversed in sibilant consonants and patrician vowels (whenever Murdoch spoke of her academic career in Oxford, she always trotted out words like “phlossofeh” and “litch-cha”) while flaunting their moral gravity and supercilious apoliticism over buttered crumpets at 4 o’clock. For by then they were all a little peckish after blathering and babbling off the bourgeois comforts of the hot lunch prepared earlier by the wife or, for the bachelor dons, a dutiful member of the college staff.

Toodle pip, old boy.

Bertrand Russell, like G.E. Moore and (for a long while) Ludwig Wittgenstein a Cambridge man, objected to the Oxfordian version of linguistic philosophy on the ground that with its “tone of unctuous rectitude” and general ignorance of mathematics and science stemming from a narrowly classical education, it trivialized philosophy. Leftist intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse levelled the same accusation at both the Oxford academics and the French existentialists, who mostly paid their bills by freelancing, reporting, editing, school-teaching, writing books … anything to avoid academic tenure and conformity.

Most of all, Krishnan writes, Russell objected to the Oxford approach because it risked having philosophers replicate “the muddle-headedness they have taken over from common sense.”

That last complaint from a man revered as a logician’s logician particularly stung, because as a prime objective the Oxford philosophers were seeking to put an end once and for all to the hangover of Hegelian idealism and other metaphysical muddle-headedness from the 19th century in favour of common-sense thinking about words and what they signify — a project which turned out to be way more complicated than you might think.

Speaking of which.

The word “existentialism” conjures two images, dating to the just after the Second World War, that quickly diverged on either side of the Atlantic. Writes Bakewell:

For the French in the 1940s, it tended to be seen as new, jazzy, sexy and daring. For Americans, it evoked grimy cafés and shadowy Parisian streets: it meant old Europe. Thus, while the French press portrayed existentialists as rebellious youths with outrageous sex lives, Americans often saw them as pale, pessimistic souls, haunted by dread, despair and anxiety à la Kierkegaard. This image stuck. Even now, especially in the English-speaking world, the word “existentialist” brings to mind a noir figure staring into the bottom of an espresso cup, too depressed and anguished even to flick through the pages of a dog-eared L’être et le néant (1943’s Being and Nothingness, Sarte’s most influential philosophical work). One of the few to challenge this image early on was (African American author, expat and Parisian) Richard Wright, who, after first meeting the existentialists, wrote to his friend Gertrude Stein that he could not understand why Americans insisted on seeing it as a gloomy philosophy: to him it meant optimism and freedom.

The key thing to remember is that in all of their works, fiction and philosophical, writers like Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus never waver from the conviction that humans are whatever they choose to make of themselves at every moment. Existence precedes essence, in Sartre’s classic formulation … which means we’re responsible for everything we do … which sounds ducky until you think about it and are swamped by a wave of anxiety. We are, of course, boxed in by such factors as our own physiology as well as social and historical variables over which we have no control, but within those borders everything that happens is contingent on our decisions and actions.

After moving to Germany in 1933 (just as the Nazis were coming to power) to study phenomenology — roughly, the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view, as developed by Husserl and Heidegger — and then swirling this cocktail around with his readings of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and others, the young Sartre (born in 1905) was off and smoking with what Bakewell calls:

… the distinctively French seasoning of his own literary sensibility. He applied phenomenology to people’s lives in a more exciting, personal way than its inventors had ever thought to do, and thus made himself the founding father of a philosophy that became international in impact, but remained Parisian in flavour: modern existentialism.

The brilliance of Sartre’s invention lay in the fact that he did indeed turn phenomenology into a philosophy of apricot cocktails — and of the waiters who served them. Also a philosophy of expectation, tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, a walk up a hill, the passion for a desired lover, the revulsion from an unwanted one, Parisian gardens, the cold autumn sea at Le Havre, the feeling of sitting on overstuffed upholstery, the way a woman’s breasts pool as she lies on her back, the thrill of a boxing match, a film, a jazz song, a glimpse of two strangers meeting under a street lamp. He made philosophy out of vertigo, voyeurism, shame, sadism, revolution, music and sex. Lots of sex.

From a prima facie interest standpoint (buttered crumpets versus apricot cocktails), the analytic philosophers — who haughtily dismissed Sartre and his circle as romantic and “ergo unsound” — are up against it in the face of such dizzying competition. In a slightly altered rendition of the words of those eminent thinkers, the Bee Gees, it’s only words and words are all they had to take our hearts away.

And yet, as a breeding ground for eccentrics, oddballs and quirky duelling anecdotes, there’ll always be an England.

To give an also slightly altered formulation of phenomenology founder Husserl’s famous exhortation: Back to the juicy things themselves!


“There is a big secret about sex,” American scholar Leo Bersani observed in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” — an influential queer theory text written in 1987 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “Most people don’t like it.”

If that’s true, for once Sartre was, ahem, solidly in the majority.

Not that he didn’t have plenty of sex. Despite being remarkably homely, five feet tall and strikingly squinty because of poor eyesight, his charming conversational skills and rock star celebrity were, ’ow you say, poussin aimants in a France just emerging from Nazi Occupation and Liberation. Bakewell:

Sartre first realized what a celebrity he had become on 28 October 1945, when he gave a public talk for the Club Maintenant (the “Now Club”) at the Salle des Centraux in Paris. Both he and organizers had underestimated the size of the crowd that would show up for the talk by Sartre. The box office was mobbed; many people went in free because they could not get near the ticket desk. In the jostling, chairs were damaged, and a few audience members passed out in the unseasonable heat. As a photo-caption writer for Time magazine put it, “Philosopher Sartre. Women swooned.”

Journalists of the time, like the websites of today that thrive on salacious tales of the sexual escapades and other stunts and transgressions of Kardashians (ew), fading matinée idols and the British royal family (double ew), were intensely interested in the personal affairs of Sartre and his soulmate, Simone de Beauvoir.

They didn’t have to dig very deep.

Beauvoir’s 1943 novel L’invitée, published in English as She Came to Stay, sketches out a three-way affair involving herself, Sartre and one of Beauvoir’s former students, Olga Kosakiewicz. “In real life,” Bakewell explains, “this was a fragile triangle that drew in more people until it became a love pentagon and eventually dissolved. By the time it ended, Olga was married to Sartre’s former student Jacques-Laurent Bost, Sartre was sleeping with Olga’s sister Wanda, and Beauvoir had retired to lick her wounds — and to conduct a long, secret affair with Bost.”

In other words, a typical Mardi soir en France. To put it in terms of what was then America’s favourite pastime, à la Abbott and Costello: Qui est en premier, qu’est-ce qu’il y a en deuxième, je ne sais pas en troisième.

The same love-in unfolds as a thread in the first volume of Sartre’s incomplete Roads to Freedom series of novels (not Roads of Freedom, as Bakewell calls it in a rare slip). And here she is again on Beauvoir and Sartre’s tangled, 50-year romance, which ceased to be physical fairly early on (it was never overly fulfilling for either in that regard) but devolved into a flood of letters, shared diaries and endless conversation:

The pair were known to have an open relationship, in which each was the primary long-term partner of the other but remained free to have other lovers. Both exercised this freedom with gusto. Beauvoir had significant relationships later in life, including with the American writer Nelson Algren and Claude Lanzmann, the French filmmaker who later made the nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah. As a woman, Beauvoir was judged more severely for her behaviour, but the press also mocked Sartre for his serial seductions. One story in Samedi-soir in 1945 claimed that he tempted women up to his bedroom by offering them a sniff of his Camembert cheese. (Well, good cheese was hard to get in 1945.)

In reality, Sartre did not need to dangle cheese to get women into his bed. One may marvel at this, looking at his photos, but his success came less from his appearance than from his air of intellectual energy and confidence. He talked enthrallingly about ideas, but he was fun too: he sang “Old Man River” and other jazz hits in a fine voice, played piano, and did Donald Duck imitations. Raymond Aron wrote of Sartre in his schooldays that “his ugliness disappeared as soon as he began to speak, as soon as his intelligence erased the pimples and the swellings of his face.” Another acquaintance, Violette Leduc, agreed that his face could never be ugly because it was illuminated by the brilliance of his mind. as well as having “the honesty of an erupting volcano” and “the generosity of a newly ploughed field.” And when the sculptor Alberto Giacometti sketched Sartre, he exclaimed as he worked, “What density! What lines of force!”

En bref, the guy looked like a raccoon but made out like a bandit. Sartre and Beauvoir never married and never lived together. En fait, he lived much of his life with his mom in an apartment above the Bar Napoléon.

Bakewell’s take:

Instead, she (Beauvoir, that is; not Sartre’s mom) had a great sex life — better than Sartre’s, apparently, thanks to his squeamishness. Beauvoir’s memoirs attest to moods of “languorous excitement” and “feelings of shattering intensity” in her youth, and her later relationships were physically fulfilling. Sartre, if we can judge by the vivid descriptions in his books, found sex a nightmarish process of struggling not to drown in slime and gloop.

Murdoch’s take: In his novels, at least, Sartre turns love into a “battle between two hypnotists in a closed room.” His real-life entanglements were much the same.

This isn’t in The Existentialist Café, but in her 1990 book Simone de Beauvoir, American biographer Deirdre Bair reported that it was Nelson Algren — the bard of down-and-outers, drunks, pimps, prostitutes, prize fighters, freaks, hoodlums and, surtout, Chicago — who in 1947 helped give Beauvoir her first orgasm on a visit to New York City. Neither Sartre nor any of her other lovers, male or female, had tripped the light fantastic before then.

I was amused to read in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1991 “autobiographical collage,” Fates Worse than Death, that his bitter buddy Algren, when they were both teachers at a writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa in 1965, “would refer to (Beauvoir) as ‘Madame Yak Yak’ because she had given their relationship so much publicity.”

The most remarked-on love affair involving an intimate member of the Sartrean circle, at least from the perspective of an America then emerging from the Jim Crow era (and now being recklessly dragged back into it by Ron DeSantis and his fascist friends), was the relationship between jazz genius Miles Davis and Juliette Gréco that had blossomed in Paris.

Gréco — a vibrant chanteuse who started the fashion for long, straight, “drowning victim” existentialist hair and the thick sweaters that soon evolved into those iconic black woollen turtlenecks — visited Davis in New York in 1949. Bakewell notes that “he had to warn her that they should not go round together as openly as they did in Paris. People would call her ‘a black man’s prostitute’, and her career would be ruined.”

There’s plenty more to say — the sexual antics and exploits of the existentialist posse in the 1940s and ’50s would make for a more erotic, disturbingly deranged movie than Fellini Satyricon or Last Tango in Paris, with way less wastage of butter — but it’s time for a bump n’ grind to the other end of the carnal cabaret. All’s fair in love and crumpets.

Speaking of butter.


It’s 1958, and 58-year-old Gilbert Ryle — the man who had coined the phrase “ghost in the machine” in his revolutionary critique of Cartesian dualism (and hence, attempted evisceration of the longstanding notion that we have an immaterial mind as well as a meat brain) in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind — is driving his old student, A.J. (Freddie) Ayer, 48, to Venice for a meeting of the World Congress of Philosophy.

Krishnan picks up the story:

They had been talking philosophy for nearly thirty years, and there wasn’t a great deal left to say. And Ryle did not share Ayer’s greatest non-philosophical interest, that is, women. Curious, perhaps, Ayer asked him if he was a virgin. Ryle said he was. But if that were to change, Ayer went on (his reputation as a talker was not for tact), would it be boy or girl, did he think? “Boy, I suppose,” said Ryle, hands still on the steering wheel; they continued, silent, across the flatlands of France.

Silent, upon not a peak not in Darien.

Ryle’s revelation wouldn’t have shocked one of Britain’s best-known atheists and humanists, a “logical positivist” celebrated and vilified throughout the country after his appearances on popular BBC program The Brains Trust and known for his theological debates (taking up the mantle from Bertrand Russell) with Jesuit scholar and historian Frederick Copleston.

Krishnan writes that Ayer, “flamboyantly rational, the public slayer of sacred cows,” denounced by many as “the wickedest man in England,” obligingly represented most people’s idea of a philosopher:

In the 1950s and 1960s, he announced publicly — as few of his fellow liberals dared — that he was in favour of the decriminalization of homosexual behavior. After all, he remarked, “as a notorious heterosexual I could never be accused of feathering my own nest.” He was married four times, to three women (he remarried his second wife after the death of his third). Some thought his ways a betrayal of philosophy’s ancient promise of seriousness. The Daily Telegraph’s obituary was titled “The Man Who Hated Wisdom.”

It is said he died twice, declaring after the first near-death experience that he had seen nothing to merit a late-life conversion. Two years before his death, in 1989, he managed — in an encounter that made for a much-repeated anecdote — to rescue the supermodel Naomi Campbell from the unwanted attentions of Mike Tyson. Tyson informed Ayer, in rather strong words, that he was the world heavyweight champion. Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both preeminent in our field; I suggest we talk about this like rational men.”

The winner by unanimous decision: A.J. Ayer.

Commitments to chastity and abstinence, just to be clear, were not among the admission criteria to become an Oxford don. Nor were timidity and dourness. Patrick-Nowell Smith of Trinity College, whose paperback guide to ethics had been a surprising bestseller for Penguin, argued in later years — only half-ironically, according to Krishnan — “that he had not just a right but a moral duty to sleep with other men’s wives as a way of increasing the amount of happiness in the world.”

Jeremy Bentham meets Warren Beatty.

Iris Murdoch, who always gave as good as she got, ipso facto and mutatis mutandis, was an equally generous soul in the free-love-with-bisexual-abandon department.

In 1953, Murdoch, best known up to then as a carelessly dressed, frequently-proposed-to, hard-partying tutor of philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford, published Sartre: Romantic Realist — her first book and the first book in English about what was happening just across the channel.

Krishnan notes that a “barbed line of hers comparing Sartre’s world to Ryle’s became justly famous.”

The Concept of Mind, she said, evoked a picture of a world “in which people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus; not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.

At the time, it seemed like a comparison much to Ryle’s disfavour; but the statement is in fact distinctly ambivalent. If something was missing from Ryle’s world, perhaps something was missing from Sartre’s, too. What sort of life would it be where we lurched from a meeting of the Free French to a secret transaction with a backstreet abortionist to violent sex in a seedy hotel but never baked a cake, looked back to a childhood birthday party or went to the circus?

There are more g-strings in heaven and Earth, Ryle-atio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy. And if I knew you were coming, J-P, I’d’ve baked a cake.

Speaking of. One more tasty tidbit about Ayer, who descended from Dutch Jews on his mother’s side and had had to put up with the usual casual diet of antisemitic louts and bullies as a schoolboy at Eton:

When teenage Ayer arrived as a first-year undergraduate reading Classics at Christ Church, writes Krishnan, “he was assigned a set of oak-panelled rooms in a corner of the college’s eighteenth-century Peckwater Quad. Their previous occupant had been W.H. Auden (b. 1907). In Auden’s day, the room was kept permanently dark. It was rumoured that the mantelpiece had been adorned with a mouldering orange — a symbol of the West — and a loaded revolver to save time once the owner had decided, as he (being a poet) surely must, to end it all.”

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and sits at our own table.

“Ayer, inspired by the artistic girlfriend he had met in Paris, kept his curtains open and his walls adorned with prints of the still-controversial Cézanne (The Railway Cutting) and Van Gogh (Portrait of Patience Escalier), aesthetic choices that signalled his idea of modernity.”

Party like it’s 1929.


So far as international standing and reputations go, philosophy’s biggest loser in the period leading up to the Second World War was a man Ryle had once hailed in a review as “a thinker of real importance” for “the immense subtlety and searchingness of his examination of consciousness.”

Sadly, as Krishnan and many before him make clear, Martin Heidegger was also a man who showed his true colours and mauvais caractère in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

(Heidegger) accepted the position of rector at the University of Freiburg, where he demonstrated a striking willingness, if not only to champion the Nazi cause openly, to enable it, by innumerable acts and omissions. He was observed at a book burning, and delivered explicitly pro-Nazi speeches to his students. His own notebooks, only widely available since 2014, are full of unambiguously antisemitic remarks. His attempts to protect the interests of Jewish colleagues were, at best, half-hearted. Asked by a student, a few decades later, if he had retained an interest in Heidegger after that review, Ryle is supposed to have answered: “No, because when the Nazis came to power, Heidegger showed that he was a shit, from the heels up, and a shit from the heels up can’t do good philosophy.”

That Heidegger was a shit from the heels up is incontestable. He abandoned mentor Edmund Husserl, who came from a Jewish family but had converted to Lutheranism as a young man, and cravenly ghosted and rudely abused Hannah Arendt, a 17-year-old Jewish student half his age at the start of their four-year affair, and Gertrud Mayer, the Jewish wife of German existentialist and onetime friend Karl Jaspers.

Though Heidegger had ample chances to disavow Nazi sympathies after the war, he never did. Instead, he behaved as though he had been done a great injustice by people who couldn’t understand Germany, and retreated into a xenophobic Black Forest rusticism while spouting nationalistic, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist “Blood-and-Soil” language not far removed from Dostoevsky’s mystical mythologizing in the previous century of feudalism, the peasantry and Mother Russia. The Moscow Patriarchate being the last refuge of a scoundrel and all that. As it remains today.

No good ever comes of men swinging flags or incense.

Former student Herbert Marcuse, once an impassioned Heideggerian but by 1947 a committed Marxist, cut off communication with the Old Man of the Mountain, as Sartre derisively called the reclusive German, after repeatedly trying and failing to get an explanation for Heidegger’s treachery or to at least coax a clear repudiation of his Nazi past. What he got instead was a letter comparing the Holocaust to the post-war expulsion of Germans from Soviet-dominated zones of Eastern Europe.

To give the monstrous “magician of Messkirch” his due, Heidegger was obviously highly charismatic to have cast a temporary spell over admirers as intelligent as Sartre, Ryle and Arendt — the last of whom vacillated throughout her life between condemning her former tutor and trying at other times to help rehabilitate his reputation. Even today, Heidegger’s work — which includes some lovely, poetic images (Bakewell is especially taken with his “notion of humans as a ‘clearing’ in which Being emerges into the light”) — is cited as a source of inspiration by such seemingly unlikely enthusiasts as movie director Terrence Malick.

This is a mere bagatelle and won’t hurt any devotee’s feelings. But as someone who has tried and failed a few times to read Heidegger’s signature work, Sein und Zeit, i.e., Being and Time, I’ve consistently come away with the impression that except for poetic images and half-baked gibberish, there’s no there there.

The book is partly an attempt to purge the German language of the legacies of philosophy from Plato and Aristotle on down by creating neologisms and many-barrelled compounds of everyday words and phrases. The dubious assumption is that doing so, thus taking us back to an earlier, pre-Socratic time, will somehow bring us closer to describing reality as it is.

I’ve never been known for the quality or quantity of my introspective thoughts, and I get that German welcomes monumental word constructions. I can handle Sein as Being more or less as it is (whatever that means) and Dasein as lower-case being-in-the-world, whatever that means. Mais franchement and ach du lieber, how can anyone take seriously such railway-carriage pileups as ahead-of-itself-already-being-in-(the-world) or being-together-with-(beings-encountered-in-the-world)?

Kommen again?

Not for nothing-(in-the-world) did Günter Grass’s 1963 novel, Dog Years, parody the slippery sage by having a character fall under the influence of an unnamed philosopher who refers to underdone potatoes as “spuds forgetful of Being.” Not for nothing-(presence-in-hand) did logical positivist Rudolf Carnap write a gleeful paper in 1932 mocking such Heideggerian phrases as “das Nichts nichtet” — the nothing nothings.

Is that the negation of anything goes?

And not for nothing(-eat-drink-and-Being-merry) have untold scores of philosophy students on both sides of the pond — but particularly, I suspect, the Anglo-American side of the divide — reached a conclusion about Heidegger’s work parallel to his own reaction upon receiving a copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, a title that bowed to Heidegger’s magnum opus.

Reports Bakewell: “When the American scholar Hubert Dreyfus saw Being and Nothingness on Heidegger’s desk and remarked on it, Heidegger snapped, ‘How can I even begin to read this Dreck!’ — this rubbish.”

As they say down in Freiburg, damn gute Frage.


One might suppose that as sensible, sober, supposedly dull and pedantic chaps mainly interested in questions of language and meaning — disclaiming what they saw as the airy-fairy, argy-bargy, pointlessly speculative, metaphysical philosophies of their predecessors (all while fighting the good fight on the wine committee and trading droll speeches at the annual boat club dinner) — the Oxford academics would have been less prone than the existential dreamers to fall for the vague, vatic sonorities of an oracular, charismatic dispenser of superhuman revelations. Charlatans like Heidegger need not apply.

One might suppose that.

But that would be to ignore the amazing cult of believers and cloud of woolliness inspired by the Austrian phenom still considered by many to have been the West’s greatest philosopher of the 20th century: Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Once again, I can’t for the life of me figure out why he continues to be held in such high esteem. But here’s a quick biographical sketch from Wikipedia to bring you up to speed. Maybe the key to the mystery will be clearer to you:

Born in Vienna into one of Europe's richest families, he inherited a fortune from his father in 1913. Before World War I, he made a very generous financial bequest to a group of poets and artists chosen by Ludwig von Ficker, the editor of Der Brenner, from artists in need. These included Trakl as well as Rainer Maria Rilke and the architect Adolf Loos. Later, in a period of severe personal depression after World War I, he gave away his remaining fortune to his brothers and sisters. Three of his four older brothers died by separate acts of suicide.

Wittgenstein left academia several times: serving as an officer on the front line during World War I, where he was decorated a number of times for his courage; teaching in schools in remote Austrian villages, where he encountered controversy for using sometimes violent corporal punishment on girls and a boy … especially during mathematics classes; working during World War II as a hospital porter in London; and working as a hospital laboratory technician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne. He later expressed remorse for these (classroom) incidents, and spent the remainder of his life lecturing and attempting to prepare a second manuscript for publication, which was published posthumously as the hugely influential Philosophical Investigations.

First, since I know you’re wondering, about that money: Karl Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s father, was a German-born Austrian steel tycoon who by the 1890s had acquired one of the biggest fortunes in the world. He was pals with Andrew Carnegie, with whom he was often compared. Karl was 65 when he died in 1913.

After a fateful 1911 encounter in Cambridge with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was then still, in Krishnan’s words, a “gauche young engineering student with his peculiar ideas,” Bertrand Russell was so impressed that he declared the young man his intellectual heir in the field of logical studies (by that time, Russell, a prominent pacifist and anti-imperialist, was more interested in the life of politics and society for which he is best known today).

Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and made a fellow at Trinity College in 1929 after submitting the only book of philosophy he published in his lifetime, a 1921 German-language work translated the following year into English under the forbidding Latin title Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He remained at Cambridge until 1947 and died four years later at age 62.

Any attempt to explicate the Tractatus or the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations would be well beyond the scope of this already-too-long blither blather. Let’s just say that the former is concerned with the relationship between propositions (think declarative sentences, such as “the sky is blue”) and the world. His belief then was that by exploring the logic of that relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems.

The “later Wittgenstein,” the guy speaking to us in Philosophical Investigations, had rejected many of the assumptions at the heart of the Tractatus and come around to the view that the best way to understand the meaning of words is to situate them within the rules of a “language game.” For example, the simple utterance “Water!” could be the answer to a question, an order, or some other form of communication, depending on context.

Don’t worry if you don’t grasp the breathtaking depth of this. Nobody else did either.

But with his forceful, dominating personality; his eristic ploys of rhetorical sophistry (the long pauses, the strained expressions to connote deep thoughts, the burial of head in hands, the fumbling for words, the speaking in red herrings … “No, no — that is wrong — what is to be done? It is all so difficult. How is one to approach it?”); his open-neck shirts with a trendy 1940s Viennese cadence; and, most important, his gift for evocative, enigmatic, possibly profound turns of phrase, Wittgenstein won the adulation and hero worship of Oxford disciples like Elizabeth Anscombe (who became Wittgenstein’s literary executor and translator of his later works). He also received, to my way of thinking, a sensible vetting and reining in by “ordinary language” philosopher J.L. Austin.

To give you a sense of Wittgenstein’s pronouncements from Olympus, here are five propositions pulled from my dusty but once-well-thumbed copy of the Tractatus (can’t track down my Philosophical Investigations, but then, I haven’t missed it for 40 years so am not inclined at this point to notify Interpol):

The world is everything that is the case.

What is the case (a fact) is the existence of states of affairs.

A logical picture of facts is a thought.

A thought is a proposition with a sense.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Ba-da-boom. You can see why, especially with the strong endorsement of Cambridge giants like Russell and G.E. Moore — who wasn’t quite sure what to make of this but was sure it must be important — the “what do you mean by whatever you just said?” Oxford crowd would be intrigued.

For my money, Wittgenstein’s continued renown as an epic thinker disproves one of his favourite Austrian maxims: “You can’t shit higher than your arse.”

(This concludes the fecal reference portion of our program.)

Anscombe, a convert to Roman Catholicism, relentless debater, mother of seven and pur et dur anti-abortionist who became Wittgenstein’s most ardent champion after his death, contrived to be buried a few inches from the Austrian seer when she died in 2001. Twelve years later, so was her husband, the philosopher Peter Geach. The couple had spent a good deal of their lives apart — Geach, who taught logic at the University of Leeds, referred to their relationship as a “telegamy,” a marriage at a distance — so one likes to imagine that they’re now closer than ever.

Which brings us back (at last) to the realm of the juicy stuff. Notorious heterosexual A.J. Ayer — who, on the outside, by the way, was about as much of a Hollywood leading man as Sartre but just as good a talker, overflowing with learned allusions — suggests in his book Part of My Life that Wittgenstein had a crush on him. And not merely in a bromance sense.

That took me back to Wikipedia, which you can usually count on for the dirt people actually care about:

Wittgenstein had romantic relations with both men and women. He is generally believed to have fallen in love with at least three men, and had a relationship with the latter two: David Hume Pinsent in 1912, Francis Skinner in 1930, and Ben Richards in the late 1940s. He later claimed that, as a teenager in Vienna, he had had an affair with a woman. Additionally, in the 1920s Wittgenstein fell in love with a young Swiss woman, Marguerite Respinger, sculpting a bust modelled on her and seriously considering marriage, albeit on condition that they would not have children; she decided that he was not right for her.

Good call, sweet Marguerite.

The Tractatus is dedicated to the memory of Pinsent, a by-all-reports brilliant descendant of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s brother. Pinsent died in a flying accident while training as a British test pilot a few months before the end of the First World War. Skinner was a student and sycophant of Wittgenstein who helped shape his work for a time in the early Thirties. Richards was a London medical student, 35 years Wittgenstein’s junior, who seems to have had a meaningful, loving relationship with him the last five years of the philosopher’s life.

Hey. I just thought of some propositions. Kind of a syllogism, even.

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

The 20th century’s ineffable Socrates proved to be eminently effable, after all.



Like everyone else in France, Sartre and Beauvoir had seen their lives turned upside down even before June 14, 1940, when Paris fell to the invading Nazi forces. After seeing Sartre off with his army kit and boots at the Gare de l’est in 1939, Beauvoir lost track of where he was for months.

Ever resourceful during that surreal period of relative normality known to Parisians as the drôle de guerre, Beauvoir settled into drafting and redrafting her L’invitée while managing to find time for affairs with a couple of her students, Nathalie Sorokine and Bianca Bienenfeld. (Not to worry; both would later become involved with Sartre as well. The left fielder’s name? Pourquoi. The pitcher? Demain.)

En passant, notwithstanding the then shocking chapter on “la lesbienne” in The Second Sex, which so outraged Camus, the topic of Beauvoir’s same-sex experiences, including with her later companion and adopted daughter Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, was a touchy one (no pun, etc. etc.) as she got older.

Biographer Deirdre Bair, the author of 2019’s lively Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me: A Memoir, received a huffy response when she ventured a question about it during a 1984 interview: “ ‘Oh sure, we kiss on the lips, we hug, we touch each other’s breasts, but we don’t do anything’ — and here another downward flick — ‘down there! So you can’t call us lesbians!’ ”

A clear case of putting the bof in boffing. But back to la guerre.

Fresh food was hard to come by. Beauvoir devised ways of cooking smelly, maggot-infested meat by washing it in vinegar, then stewing it for hours. Her room, Bakewell writes, “had no heating, so she went to bed wearing trousers and a woolly sweater, and sometimes taught her classes in the same outfit. She took to wearing a turban, to save on hairdressers, and found it suited her. ‘I aimed at simplification in every sphere,’ she wrote in her memoirs.”

One necessary adjustment was learning to put up with the idiotic and moralistic homilies emanating every day from the collaborationist government — reminders to respect God, to honour the principle of the family, to follow traditional values. It took her back to the ‘bourgeois’ talk she had so hated in her childhood, but this time backed by a threat of violence. Ah — but perhaps such talk was always backed by hidden threats of violence? She and Sartre later made this belief central to their politics: fine-sounding bourgeois values, for them, were never to be trusted or taken at face value.

That’s a response that surely resonates in a time of Putin, Modi, Erdoğan, the House Freedom Caucus. Épater the bastards, I say.

Entre-temps, elsewhere in the Saskatoon of the Continent, Bakewell writes:

(Hungarian-born author and journalist) Arthur Koestler was observing how everything seemed to be turning grey, as though a disease was attacking Paris’s roots. The journalist and short story writer Albert Camus, who had come to the city from his home in Algeria, holed himself up in a room and listened to the street sounds outside his window, wondering why he was there. “Foreign, admit that I find everything strange and foreign,’ he wrote in his notebook in March 1940. “No future,” he added in an updated note. Yet he did not let the mood stop him from working on literary projects: a novel, L’étranger (The Stranger or The Outsider), a long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, and a play, Caligula. He called these his “three absurds,” because they all dealt with the meaninglessness or absurdity of human existence, a theme that seemed to come naturally during this time.

And then dark faded to black.

Jews, and anyone actively suspected of Resistance activity, had a grimmer sense of what the Occupation really meant — but they too could be blithe for too long. When the regulation came in on 29 May 1942 that Jews must wear a yellow star, many of Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s Jewish friends ignored it. They also defied the bans on using restaurants, cinemas, libraries and other public places. As each new rule was announced, a few took their cue to flee if they could, usually via Spain to Britain or America, but others stayed. It seemed possible to live with the insults and threats — until it wasn’t.

At the most unexpected times, terrifying holes could open up in the fabric of things. Sartre described it with his usual cinematic sense:

“You would phone a friend one day and the telephone would ring and ring in the empty apartment; you would ring his doorbell and he wouldn’t come to the door; if the concierge broke in, you would find two chairs drawn up together in the hallway with German cigarette ends between the legs.”

And what of Sartre the soldier? His military experience puts one in mind of a joke that never gets old. Q. Why do the French fight so many civil wars? A. So they can win one once in a while.

Spared the indignity of ever having to point a rifle at anyone thanks to his terrible eyesight, our monstre sacré would end up with a meteorological posting in Alsace, near the German border, where he had little to do but read and write. This is where he jotted down the notes for what would become Being and Nothingness and the first drafts of Roads to Freedom.

All went swimmingly until German Panzer divisions ploughed through Holland and Belgium en route to circumventing the Maginot Line and quickly overwhelming France. Bakewell’s take: “With memories of the First World War so fresh, French commanders and politicians favoured an early surrender, avoiding futile loss of life.”

Other members of the existentialist circle — Raymond Aron and Maurice Merleau-Ponty — were among those taken prisoner. Sartre wound up at POW camp Stalag 12D, near the Luxembourg border.

(Asked if any of his fellow guards ever did double duty at Stalag 13, a stout, personable sergeant with a Hitler moustache grew suddenly reticent: “I see nothing! I hear nothing! I know nothing!” Bonus trivia: John Banner and Werner Klemperer, the actors who portrayed Sgt. Schultz and Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, were both Jewish.)

But back to der Krieg. While a guest of the Nazis, Sartre exchanged letters with Beauvoir and immersed himself for the second time in Heidegger’s Being and Time, which sounds to me like a violation of the Geneva Conventions. And then … quel miracle! He escaped. As Bakewell explains, Col. Robert Hogan himself couldn’t have planned it better:

It wasn’t a very swashbuckling escape, but it was simple and it worked. (Sartre) had been suffering a great deal from his eye problems, thanks to all the reading and writing — which were mostly done one-eyed. Sometimes both eyes were so sore that he tried to write with them closed, his handwriting wandering over the page. But his eyes gave him an escape route. Pleading the need for treatment, he procured a medical pass to visit an ophthalmologist outside the camp gates. Amazingly, he was then allowed to walk out, showing the pass, and he never went back.

Sartre’s eyes had in fact saved his life several times over. First they exempted him from front-line combat, then they saved him from forced Nazi labour; now they gave him his ticket out of the Stalag. This blessing came at a cost in the long run: exotropia can cause a degree of tiredness and difficulty in concentrating that may have contributed to his destructive tendency to self-medicate with stimulant drugs and alcohol in later times.

But now he was free and headed back to a decidedly ungay Paris.


While Sartre’s wartime experience played out as a bit of a sitcom, the rarely told story of how bourgeois Oxford fuddy-duddy philosophers helped win the war provides the raw material for a yet-unmade thriller as compelling as any of the films and TV shows based on Alan Turing’s codebreaking heroics.

Start with the wild adventures of R.M. Hare, whom I knew only from his “prescriptivist” approach to ethics, according to which moral language is understood not as describing the world but as prescribing courses of action. No need to get into it here, but Hare was vigorously attacked by Anscombe for elaborating on the ideas of unbeliever David Hume, who 200 years before in his Treatise of Human Nature had concluded that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Anyway, how’s this for a course of action?

In the winter of 1940, 21-year-old Hare — then of the 22nd Mountain Regiment of the British Indian Army — arrived in Singapore and was attached to the 4th (Hazara) Mountain Battery, Frontier Force. Krishnan, who was himself born in Bangalore, India, and arrived in Oxford in 2007 as an undergraduate (he now teaches at Cambridge), has traced Hare’s wartime history:

He formed close relationships with the Punjabi soldiers and got along easily with the Indian officers in the regiment, most of whom had come out of the Royal Prince of Wales Military College at Dehradun, designed to be a simulacrum of an English public school for promising boys who might go on to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

Singapore was no safe haven. The Japanese armed forces invaded Thailand and Malaya in December 1941 and Hare’s regiment found themselves in action. The Japanese had early victories; morale was poor. Hare was in hospital for a time with malaria. He recovered just in time for the Battle of Singapore in the early months of 1942. The Allied forces were small, poorly organized, and utterly unprepared for the precision of the attack. Hare was part of their last gun position, next to an old people’s home in Singapore city, while artillery fire and bombs rained from every side. The place stank of death: human corpses on the streets, and the carcasses of cows floating down the Singapore River on their backs, bloated and ghastly. After the surrender, the Allied forces disabled their guns and were rounded up in Changi jail.

Conditions there, of course, were horrific and many men died or were scarred for life. I’ll skip over most of that except to note that in the spring of 1943, Hare was among the officers sent to labour as coolies on the railway the Japanese were building from Thailand to Burma: the infamous “Death Railway.”


On the march up the River Kwai to the Three Pagodas Pass, he saw things he preferred not to mention in his autobiographical essay about his war: “enough to say that, of the groups we were in, between 20 and 40 per cent died of various diseases and malnutrition.” And in all those eight months, he managed to keep hold of his secret list of Indian loyalists (a record he kept of the names of Indian soldiers who had not defected to the Indian nationalist movement after coming to believe that India’s best chance at gaining independence from Britain would arise from supporting the Japanese), and was never parted from An Essay in Monism (an early work setting out “my philosophy”). The popular 1957 film about the episode, The Bridge on the River Kwai, he insisted in later years, was “a silly travesty,” and the only thing to commend it was its evocative film design.

After barely surviving the march, Hare was returned to Singapore and housed with fellow officers in huts outside Changi jail. When the war ended in 1945, there was a sorry parade with the soldiers in rags, an address by Lord Mountbatten and a ship ride home aboard SS Tegelberg. “When Hare boarded,” Krishnan writes, “An Essay in Monism came with him. But when he read it, as the ship made its way through the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal, he decided that the words in it were almost entirely worthless. The ledger (of loyal Indian soldiers), on the other hand, was a precious souvenir of his ordeal.”

While Hare’s youthful war saga was physically far more gruelling than anything his older academic peers experienced, Gilbert Ryle (almost 40 when the war broke out) and J.L. Austin (almost 30) played much more important roles in securing the Allied victory. This is the part where the comparison to Bletchley Park comes in.

Let’s begin with the fascinating Lieutenant-Colonel Austin, who would return to Oxford in his mid-thirties, married with four children, and become the dominant figure who more than anyone exemplified linguistic philosophy at its finest and most maddening.


Austin’s war remains shrouded in secrecy, though some facts are reasonably well established. He spent the summer of 1940 in preliminary training, first in Aldershot in Hampshire and then in Matlock in Derbyshire. Then, some perceptive person had arranged for him to get a commission in the Intelligence Corps, which took him to London and the War Office. There, he was set to work on the German Order of Battle: a massive project in military intelligence trying to work out, from bits and pieces of information, just what kinds of military resources Hitler had at his disposal, what the command structure of the German armed forces was, the size of the different battalions, and where they had been deployed. The work had been difficult, the amount of detail overwhelming, and the costs of failure high. It was like classical philology, only no one had yet died from a mistake in construing a line from Catullus. There were no shortcuts, no theories. There was no room for mere approximations of the truth. Austin was in his element.

The following year, Austin got married, to Jean Coutts, a recent graduate of Somerville and a promising philosopher herself; they were to have two daughters and two sons. In 1942, he was put in charge of a small section tasked with doing the preliminary intelligence work for a land invasion of Western Europe. The section had been active before he took it over, but its organization was shambolic, its methods amateur. Austin, with the brisk efficiency of a house monitor asked to whip the small boys into shape for a founder’s day parade, set about putting his stamp on the place. Suddenly, there was a sense of purpose, of urgency, and the shocked realization that better methods made for quicker results. Men superior to him in rank began to defer to him on all aspects of military intelligence. The amateur, an enthusiastic exile from academe, would teach the professionals how it was done.

Two quick observations: 1) Sometimes those who teach, can. 2) If Sartre had been in charge, the D-Day invasion would have happened not in Normandy but over brunch at Les Deux Magots. About 15h00, give or take. Pass the Bordeaux, s’il vous plaît. Back to Krishnan:

In 1943, the section was enlarged and Austin was now a major. As D-Day came nearer, the logistics for it reaching a complexity unprecedented in the history of war, Austin kept calm and carried on, an encyclopedia of information. He seemed to know the German army about as well as any German general. He knew the civilian administration in occupied France almost as well. He knew where the guns were placed along the coast of Northern France. He knew too how to distinguish between the important and the trivial, preparing weekly reports that contained everything anyone realistically needed to know about the latest changes in German dispositions. A guidebook was prepared — a vade mecum — with enough information for invading troops, but not so large it wouldn’t fit into their rucksacks. It was almost certainly his idea that the book was called Invade Mecum: Invade with me. He was, an unnamed military colleague was later quoted as saying, “more than anybody … responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day Intelligence.”

In the summer of 1944 Austin’s section was moved to Normandy, where he took part in interrogations of enemy prisoners. His usual demand for accuracy, clarity and imperviousness to bluster were naturally deemed useful assets.

Wartime suited Austin, and at the end of it all, he told his colleague, with a slightly chilling eagerness, that “if he were to become involved in another war,” he would enjoy working on the logistics of supply. Mr. Austin, sometime fellow of Magdalen (College), returned to Oxford with a British OBE, a French Croix de Guerre, and an American appointment as an Officer of the Legion of Merit.

For his part, Ryle turned out to be a fighter, not a lover. Krishnan again:

Ryle had had an excellent war. Part of the little-known MI8, the signals department of the War Office, he had worked out of headquarters at Arkley View near Barnet at Hertfordshire, north of London. He was one of several Oxford dons working there, including Stuart Hampshire and the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. Theirs was not the task of journeymen in wartime intelligence, to discover German intelligence “secrets.” With enough work, the order of battle, logistics, manpower could be discovered. Much harder was the business of solving intelligence “mysteries.” How did Hitler and the Nazi command think? What was their outlook? Without that broader understanding, a secret was in itself useless. As Trevor-Roper later put it, “it was only by understanding the general character of the German Secret Service — its organization, personnel, nomenclature (and) style — that we could judge the significance of particular actions or projects.” This was a project of decryption beyond the best machines that Alan Turing, working not far away in Bletchley Park, could design.


Once the war was over, Turing would have needed a finely calibrated slide rule, an immensely complex network of Venn diagrams, and an infinite supply of the house special — apricot cocktails — had he been tasked with keeping track of the volatile relationships among the existentialist partisans down at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on rue Montparnasse.

They were inutile at fighting Huns, mais zut alors!, were they ever crackerjack gangbusters when it came to hurting each other’s feelings and falling out with all the brio of a light opera. To use an idiom more contemporary on this side of the Atlantic: Esti de câlice de tabarnak, c’est pas possible comment que t’es cave! (Which I’m given to understand is Hindi for “How’s your father?”)

From those heady days when discussions centred around the big questions of human existence — such as the meaning of life in a meaningless universe and, even more urgently, how to work out what the French once called “la disposition de lits”— philosophical conversations had a way of becoming personal and argumentative. Writes Bakewell:

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 back on him. In France, Gabriel Marcel attacked Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre fell out with Albert Camus, Camus fell out with (Maurice) 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.

This would also make for a pretty good war movie. Working title: The Dirty Tisane.

Bakewell’s dissection of all the details is consistently an absorbing read, but I particularly like this description of late-night carousing in 1947:

Koestler clinched his side of it (an argument) 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!”

Camus, who unlike Sartre accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature when it was offered to him 10 years later, would soon fall out irrevocably with Sartre and Beauvoir over their gradual embrace (later renounced) of Communist ideology (as would Merleau-Ponty, who had once been the most pro-Communist of them all).

Merleau-Ponty, by the way, was quite an interesting mec. He was a well-adjusted family man (most of the time) not afflicted by the usual angst and anxiety, enjoyed an active night life (counting Sonia Brownell — later the wife of George Orwell — among what we used to call mistresses), and was (so far as I know) the lone member of Sartre’s circle to have considered a move to England. He even wrote to A.J. Ayer, a friend, seeking help in securing a post at University College London. Nothing came of it.

Merleau-Ponty, whom Sartre came to consider an Establishment sellout for his rise through the ranks at the Collège de France, becoming its head in 1953, was the fittest, happiest guy in the crowd and slim as ever when struck down by a fatal heart attack in 1961. He was 53 and working on an essay on Descartes at the time.

Cogito ergo non sum.

Sartre was never an Establishment favourite. His vocal support for Algerian independence from France provoked 10,000 French army veterans marching in an anti-independence demonstration in 1960 to shout such unambiguous slogans as “Shoot Sartre!” No linguistic analysis needed.

Writes Bakewell:

When (Sartre) signed an illegal petition urging French soldiers to disobey orders that they disagreed with, he faced prosecution and prison, until President Charles de Gaulle allegedly ruled this out with the remark, “One does not imprison Voltaire.” Finally, on 7 January 1962, someone took the incitements to murder seriously. At 42 rue Bonaparte, where Sartre lived with his mother, a bomb was planted in the apartment above theirs. The explosion damaged both storeys and tore off the apartment doors; it was only by good luck that no one was injured.

Sartre spurned the offer of the Nobel in 1964, as he had the Légion d’honneur for Resistance activities in 1945 and a nomination for election to the Académie française in 1948, all on the ground that a writer must maintain his independence. In 1982, Beauvoir cited the same principle in turning down the Légion d’honneur.

When it comes to writing flair, the only Oxfordian who bears comparison to the leading existentialists was Murdoch, whose books, broadly, span such topics as the power of the unconscious, the nature of good and evil, morality, and sexual relationships. Her 1978 novel, The Sea, The Sea, won the Booker Prize. In 1987, before beginning her slide into dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease (a decline movingly portrayed by Dame Judi Dench in Richard Eyre’s 2001 film Iris), Murdoch was also made a Dame by the Queen for services to literature.

It was Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, expressing his disillusionment with Bolshevism in the wake of Stalin’s Great Purge and Moscow show trials, that prompted Murdoch to give up her Communist Party card. But she never lost her conviction that philosophy was, as Krishnan puts it, “other than — more than — the exposure of linguistic confusion,” leaving her permanently at odds with the conservative dons she left behind.

Murdoch’s guiding dictum: “Ordinary language is not a philosopher.”

When English existentialist Colin Wilson exploded briefly onto to the scene during Britain’s Angry Young Man phase in the mid-1950s thanks to his bombshell book The Outsider, superb hair, chunky turtleneck and fascinating back story (beautiful beatnik vagrant sleeps under tree by night, writes under British Museum’s venerable dome by day), Murdoch came to his defence during the ensuing backlash over what a sloppy researcher and vainglorious tosser he was. (A Times Literary Supplement correspondent soon pointed out 86 major and 203 minor errors in Wilson’s many quotations of such figures as Fyodor Dostoevsky, H.G. Wells, T.E. Lawrence, Vaslav Nijinsky and even literary characters created by Sartre and Camus: Nausea’s Roquentin and The Stranger’s Meursault, respectively.)

Writes Bakewell:

One of the few reviewers to show a certain sympathy to Wilson after the Outsider blow-up was Iris Murdoch, who considered him an ass yet wrote in the Manchester Guardian that she preferred Wilson’s “rashness” to the pedantic “dryness” of more established philosophers. She too had a tendency to write in generous spillage of words and ideas. In 1961, she wrote a kind of manifesto, “Against Dryness,” in which she urged writers to abandon the “small myths, toys, crystals” of beautiful writing that had been fashionable, and to return to the real writer’s task, which was to explore how we can be free and behave well in a complicated world, amid the rich “density” of life.

Murdoch had stolen a page here from ancient Athenian playwright Aristophanes, who in his bawdy work The Clouds portrays the main interest of his famous contemporary, Socrates, as examining the rear end of a gnat. Bakewell, too, makes it clear her sympathies lie entirely on the Left Bank. Quelle surprise:

Even when existentialists reached too far, wrote too much, revised too little, made grandiose claims, or otherwise disgraced themselves, it must be said that they remained in touch with the density of life, and that they asked the important questions. Give me that any day, and keep the tasteful miniatures for the mantelpiece.


The most ardent Pro Dryness aficionados, if there are any, would have to admit that their boys run a distant second whenever the Daily Double clue turns to “captivating philosophical eccentrics.” In fact, they can’t compete with their Oxfordian idealist predecessors, let alone a bug-eyed Sartre being tormented by visions of lobster-like horrors while tripping on mescaline (and later Corydrane), or a kohl-eyed Beauvoir hallucinating swooping birds pulling her hair while messed up on the orthedrine she took to counter anxiety attacks. Maybe not the best strategy.

My favourite anecdote from Krishnan’s book concerns the dotage of F.H. Bradley, once the argumentative voice of British idealism (“reality is sentient experience”), who “by 1920 had turned into a recluse, his ears and kidneys failing, his polemical instincts sublimated in armed nocturnal expeditions around the grounds of Merton College that ended in a tally of dead cats. (He loved birds.) R.H. Collingwood, a kindred spirit who ‘lived within a few hundred yards of him for sixteen years,’ didn’t see him at all; Ryle saw him once, but they said nothing to each other.”

I’m not sure what it was about felines for those outlandish idealists of the pungent Hegelian variety, but Schrödinger had nothing on those cats. Tricycle-riding J.M.E. McTaggart was known for saluting every kitty he came across. (I dig cats as well but am less sold on metaphysical idealism. As I see it, you know that we are living in a material world, and I am a material Earl.)

Back to the dry guys. It would be a mistake to assume that partisans of one subtle viewpoint or another never became, to repurpose Beauvoir’s description of her and Sartre’s break with Koestler while crossing her forearms in a big X, “croisés comme ça about everything.” Occasionally, that cold English blood would get hot enough to melt the butter right off those 4 o’clock crumpets.

Elizabeth Anscombe was out of step with the more cautious, ponderous approach of her colleagues due to her tendency to go whole hog on the things she was enthused about — Roman Catholicism, the cult of Wittgenstein, the rightness of her positions on what was self-evidently moral and immoral.

Her animus for Austin — who fully shared with Wittgenstein a disdain for the old-style idealist metaphysics of a Bishop Berkeley or a Bradley — took on a decidedly personal hue.

“We want to replace wild conjectures and explanations by quiet weighing of linguistic facts,” Wittgenstein says in The Big Typescript. Austin’s signature counterpart: “We are using a sharpened awareness of the words to sharpen our perception of … the phenomena.” Total accord.

Above all, the two giants agreed, pace Murdoch, that “ordinary language is all right” for all philosophical analysis. Unlike Wittgenstein, though, Austin had no truck with what he pointedly called, in French, the “ivresse des grandes profondeurs.”

Krishnan suggests that what most got Anscombe’s goat about Austin was that in her eyes, he transmuted what she took to be sublime, resonant, beautiful, inspiring and therapeutic in the Austrian genius’s oracular approach into “something contemptibly little-English, petty and shallow.”

Mary Wilson (a philosopher and baroness, not the former member of the Supremes), who married Austin acolyte and future Oxford vice-chancellor Geoffrey Warnock, whom Anscombe routinely referred to as “that shit Warnock,” quotes Anscombe in her book A Memoir as fuming while fumbling with her bike lock: “To think that Wittgenstein fathered that bastard (Austin).”

(Oops! … I did it again. We weren’t quite through with poop references, after all.)

Anscombe was on more solid ground — ground zero, as it were — along with Australian classicist Margaret Hubbard and moral philosopher Philippa Foot and her husband, Michael — in courageously challenging the otherwise overwhelming decision by Oxford’s Congregation (effectively its parliament, consisting of academic and other staff) to award Harry Truman an honorary doctorate during a 1956 visit to the U.K. by the American president.

“Anscombe addressed the house,” writes Krishnan, setting the scene:

She thought it was perfectly simple. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (ordered by Truman) was murder. That made Truman a murderer. The university should not be giving honorary doctorates to murderers. It may as well be honouring Nero, or Genghis Khan. Alan Bullock (b. 1914) of St. Catherine’s, fresh from writing an authoritative biography of Hitler, defended Truman. He didn’t have to try very hard; the audience didn’t need much persuading.

If the testy exchange between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Truman in the movie Oppenheimer is accurate, Give ’Em Hell Harry was even more of a heartless shit than Anscombe, never a pacifist, believed him to be when she declaimed: “Choosing to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder.”

No shit.



Rousing conclusion: It might seem as though the two dominant movements in 20th century Western philosophy have little in common.

And in calling them that, yes, I’m aware that the influence of the Oxford school waned after lung cancer claimed Austin in 1960 when he was only 48.

De plus, as Bakewell allows, existentialists were out of fashion by the Eighties and “had given way to new generations of structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and postmodernists. These kinds of philosophers seemed to treat philosophy as a game. They juggled signs, symbols and meanings; they pulled out odd words from each other’s texts to make the whole edifice collapse. They searched for ever more refined and unlikely wisps of signification in the writers of the past.”

Biography was out, because life itself was out. Experience was out; in a particularly dismissive mood, the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had written that a philosophy based on personal experience was “shop-girl metaphysics.” The goal of the human sciences was “to dissolve man,” he said, and apparently the goal of philosophy was the same.

Quelle connerie, of course, like all that Death of the Author Roland Barthes/Michel Foucault erasure of man “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” tripe.

“Who cares about freedom, bad faith, and authenticity today?” postmodernist Jean Baudrillard asked at the turn of this century. Better question: Given that we still read Sartre and Murdoch and Camus and Beauvoir, and continue to be influenced by linguistic analysis in cultural ripples playing out in all sorts of unexpected areas, who cares about postmodernist claptrap today? Who cares about Jean Baudrillard?

Shrinking humanities departments are hanging on by a thread at universities throughout Britain and North America, but academic, Oxford-style linguistic analysis survives in philosophy courses everywhere.

“What we share,” onetime POW R.M. Hare wrote in his article “A School for Philosophers,” based on 1957 lectures, “are not tenets but standards (which we may or may not live up to, but go on trying); Oxford, that is to say, is not so much a school of philosophy as a school for philosophers.”

More poetically, what critical thinkers share is Keats’ “wreath’d trellis of a working brain.”

And more surprisingly, pipe-smoking, mid-century mansplaining Austin has inspired what Krishnan calls “a large tranche of feminist theory.”

Feminist writers have found that his ideas can illuminate everything from sexual consent (what goes wrong when a woman’s “no” is not understood as a real refusal of consent?) to heterosexual marriage (what more is needed to make something a real marriage than people saying the words “I do”?). It isn’t so much that Austin’s theory had some well-hidden feminist core as that the framework of concepts and terminology he introduced made it possible to raise, in a joined-up way, political questions that had previously been seen as quite separate.

As the centre of international philosophy moved westward, from the Old World to the New, such Harvard philosophers as W.V.O. Quine (he of the slogan “philosophy of science is philosophy enough”) and John Rawls (best known for his 1971 book A Theory of Justice) built upon their Oxfordian inheritance. Such seminal figures as Peter Strawson, Saul (all possible worlds are more than possibly possible) Kripke and David (all possible worlds are real) Lewis have increasingly opened the door to the sort of metaphysical thinking that Ayer dreamed he’d banished forever. But as ever, the ebb and flow of philosophical thinking takes us back to Raphael’s School of Athens.

As for the continued influence of the ideas of Sartre & Beauvoir Ltée, their application to the African American milieu is evident in the writing of French imports James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is as existentialist as it gets.

In his 1956 address at the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists at the Sorbonne, writes Bakewell, Wright “was the only speaker to draw attention to the almost total absence of women in the debate.”

He pointed out how parallel the key topics at the conference were to what Beauvoir had explored in The Second Sex: power struggles, the alienated gaze, self-consciousness, and the construction of oppressive myths. Feminist and anti-racist campaigners, Bakewell adds, also shared the existentialist commitment to action: the “can-do” belief that the status quo could be understood in intellectual terms, but should not be accepted in life:

… As well as The Second Sex, many women took inspiration from Beauvoir’s four volumes of autobiography, which started in 1958 with The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and continued until All Said and Done, in 1972. … Kate Millet, who became an eminent feminist herself, remembered thinking: “There she is in Paris, living this life. She’s the brave, independent spirit, she’s writ large what I would like to be, here in Podunk.” She also admired Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s joint political commitment. “What both of them represented was the adventure of trying to lead an ethical life, trying to live according to a radical ethical politics, which isn’t just a leftist bible — you have to invent situation ethics all the time. And that’s an adventure.”

Bakewell traces the influences of existentialist thought on the development of “feminism, gay rights, the breaking down of class barriers, and the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles” of today. She descries it in the generational dissatisfaction of the 1950s exemplified in such movies as Rebel Without a Cause and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She sees it in the rise of student radicals and the counterculture of the 1960s, which Sartre and Beauvoir of course applauded while denouncing the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, their “useful idiot” blindness — particularly Sartre’s — toward the brutality of Stalin and Soviet subjugation of other East Bloc nations will be a blot on their reputations forever. Even after finally waking up and rejecting the Soviet model in 1968, after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in to crush Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring, our enfants terribles — no longer forgivable enfants — went on to praise Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

Still. Sartre’s anti-authoritarian parables and arguments for activism helped motivate the likes of recently deceased Czech novelist Milan Kundera and Czech playwright Václav Havel, no less, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in the 1990s.

In a 1955 book called The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron — Sartre’s old chum and schoolmate — tellingly accused Sartre and his allies of being “merciless towards the failings of democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes in the name of proper doctrines.”

Seventy years ago, that was a lamentable tendency on the Left. These days, it’s a constant refrain of the drain-the-swamp Right. If you need convincing, spend a minute or two watching Fox News.

Me, I’m with unholy virgin Gilbert Ryle, who could spout naughty epigrams in dead languages, down a pint of beer in five seconds and impishly poke holes in any and all ideologies and fuzzy convictions.

Writes Krishnan: “Once asked by an earnest Christian undergraduate visiting Oxford if he could explain the difference between the soul and the intellect, Ryle replied, beer mug of course at hand: ‘The intellect is that part of you with which you read books other than the Bible.’ ”

Take religion, take philosophy, take anything in life too seriously, and you run the risk of winding up like Simone Weil, who rebuffed Beauvoir’s generous attempts to befriend her.

Because there are people in the world who cannot sleep in a bed, Weil slept on the floor. Some people lack food, so she stopped eating almost entirely. After a few years of this piety, Weil fell ill from tuberculosis and had a fatal heart attack at age 34.

Another painting — Millais’s drowned Ophelia — springs to mind. So does Ryle’s bottom line: “Not interested in isms.”


Ryle’s admonition to think for oneself, carefully and analytically — to place one’s trust in “particular inquiries” as opposed to “global positions” — to not, as William Blake might have put it, be enslaved by another man’s system — surtout, to avoid disappearing down rabbit holes of pettifogging theology and nutbar conspiracy theories — has familiar echoes in popular culture. As a later 20th-century philosopher of some standing would put it during his Janovian primal-scream phase (another man’s system, but what the heck):

I don’t believe in magic

I don’t believe in I-ching

I don’t believe in Bible

I don’t believe in Tarot

I don’t believe in Hitler

I don’t believe in Jesus

I don’t believe in Kennedy

I don’t believe in Buddha

I don’t believe in Mantra

I don’t believe in Gita

I don’t believe in Yoga

I don’t believe in Kings

I don’t believe in Elvis

I don’t believe in Zimmerman

I don’t believe in Beatles

I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.

But if each of us is a little island universe of reality, a little bubble of consciousness and unique sets of memories, it’s the ultimate paradox (tragedy? absurdity? meaning?) of life that those worlds pop out of existence like soap bubbles when we die. (As Christians, Anscombe and Marcel believed otherwise, but the great majority of the players striding through this essay, this walking shadow, were either atheists or agnostics.)

When Simone de Beauvoir was buried next to Sartre in Montparnasse cemetery in 1986, her lover Claude Lanzmann read a reflection on life, death and loss from Force of Circumstance, the third volume of her autobiography written 23 years before. Lanzmann had joined heir Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir in caring for the 78-year-old writer as her health failed due to cirrhosis of the liver (salut, apricot cocktails).

This is why, as when Sartre died in 1980 at 74, thousands of people watched the hearse pass through the streets, piled with flowers. This is why Beauvoir et ses grands amis still matter. This is what Lanzmann read:

I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing. They made no honey, those things, they can provide no one with any nourishment. At the most, if my books are still read, the reader will think: There wasn’t much she didn’t see! But that unique sum of things, the experience that I lived, with all its order and its randomness — the Opera of Peking, the arena of Huelva, the candomblé in Bahía, the dunes of El-Oued, Wabansia Avenue, the dawns in Provence, Tiryns, Castro talking to five hundred thousand Cubans, a sulphur sky over a sea of clouds, the purple holly, the white nights of Leningrad, the bells of the Liberation, an orange moon over the Piraeus, a red sun rising over the desert, Torcello, Rome, all the things I’ve talked about, others I have left unspoken — there is no place where it will all live again.

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An amazing piece. Whatever the ism, it’s ephemeral doggerel and does nothing to slow the inevitable return to dust. Thanks Scruggs. I wasn’t sufficiently depressed.

Respondendo a

Thank you. Posted it initially with way too many typos, but that's what comes of being a beery swine who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

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