The existentialists asked the essential questions and still have much to offer us today. So don your turtleneck and make like Sartre and De Beauvoir

I was a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my grandmother on Jean-Paul Sartres Nausea . It was the encompas that attracted me, with its Dal painting of a dripping watch and sickly green stone formation, plus a blurb describing him as a novel of the estrangement of personality and the mystery of being. I didnt know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation entailed although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I simply guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who float around his provincial seaside township look at this place tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at their sheer blobbish reality, and stimulating scornful remarks about the bourgeoisie. The book inspired me: I played truant from school and tried floating around my own provincial town of Reading. I even went to a park and tried to see the Being of a Tree. I didnt quite glimpse it, but I did decide that I wanted to study philosophy, and especially this strange doctrine of Sartres, which I learned was existentialism.

No one can be completely sure what existentialism is, since its own chief thinkers disagree about its tenets and many of them denied being existentialists at all. Among the few exceptions were the two most well known, Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir, who accepted the label chiefly since they are grew tired of telling people not to call them it.

They ran their philosophy out carefully, but their adherents often treated existentialism more as a style or attitude than a situated of faiths. Several generations of disaffected youngsters before me had sat in coffeehouse with slim volumes of Sartre or Albert Camus on the table in front of them, smoking strong cigarettes from blue packages and talking of nothingness and nervousnes. In the 1940 s, when the existentialist fashions began, the men wore raincoats and plaid shirts, and women let their hair grow long and loose in what one journalist worded the drowning-victim seem. Subsequently, the black woollen turtleneck took over which must have attained everybody severely sweaty in the subterranean jazz clubs of Pariss Left Bank, where they went dancing. By day, they hoped for a sighting of the legendary writers Camus with his movie-star appears, De Beauvoir with her turban and attractively hooded eyes, and Sartre with his pipe, his dumpy kind and his comb-over. Today, the whole scene seems drenched in nostalgia. Meanwhile, existentialist notions about freedom and youthful uprising have become so much a part of popular culture that we barely remember how scandalous they once were.

I am convinced that existentialism should be seen as more than a fad, however, and that it still has something to offer us today. In a spirit of experimentation, here are 10 possible reasons to be an existentialist or at least to read their volumes with a fresh sense of curiosity.

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Deux Magot, Paris, which was frequented by Sartre and De Beauvoir. Photo: Terry Cryer/ Corbis

1 Existentialists are philosophers of living

The philosophy that Sartre, De Beauvoir and many of their friends examined at school and university was an arcane discipline, much preoccupied with the question of how we can be 100% certain of anything. Its an important undertaking, and someone has to do it. But Sartre and De Beauvoir tired of it and were more drawn to the 19 th-century mavericks Friedrich Nietzsche and Sren Kierkegaard, with their philosophies of individual existence and life. They also detected a new German technique called phenomenology, which tried to start with immediate experience rather than abstract axioms. You see, said Sartres friend Raymond Aron, who introduced the couple to the idea over cocktails in a bar during the winter break of 1932 -3 3, if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and attain philosophy out of it!

Sartre was so excited when he heard this that he literally turned pale, according to De Beauvoir. He went to study philosophy in Berlin for a year, then came back to work out a philosophy based on his own very Parisian experiences. He generated a doctrine not just of cocktails but of coffeehouse and jazz songs; of the movements of waiters as they glided across the floor to top up his glass; of sleazy hotels and public gardens; of the passion for a desired lover or the revulsion from an unwanted one; of tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, vertigo, dishonor, war, revolution, music and sexuality. Especially sex.

He emphasised the importance of action in living out his philosophy, which accordingly inspired readers to struggle against colonialism, racism, sexism and all kinds of social evils on existentialist grounds. Martin Luther King Jr was among those who read both him and Martin Heidegger, the German phenomenologist who had most influenced Sartre. And when the waves of social change finally hit the students and workers uprisings of 1968 in Paris and elsewhere, the rebels painted walls with slogans rich in existentialist spirit: Neither god nor master, or Be realistic: demand the impossible. Sartre observed that the 68 ers wanted everything and nothing means that they wanted freedom.

2 Existentialists really care about freedom

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De Beauvoir and Sartre in Paris, June 1977. Photograph: Related Press

Existentialists think that what stimulates humans different from all other beings is the fact that we can choose “what were doing”. In fact, we must choose: the only thing we are not free to do is not to be free. Other entities have some predefined nature: a stone, a penknife or even a beetle simply is what it is. But as a human, “were not receiving” blueprint for producing me. I may be influenced by biology, culture and personal background, but at each moment I am making myself up as I go along, depending on what I choose to do next. As Sartre put it: There is no traced-out route to lead human to his salvation; he must constantly fabricate his own route. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him. It is scaring, but exhilarating.

What would it mean for us today, if we truly believed this idea? For a start, we might be more sceptical about the simplified popular-science debates suggesting that we are out of control of ourselves that, when we speak, click on a button, or referendum, we are only following unconscious and statistically predictable forces rather than choosing freely. What intrigues me is the eagerness with which we seem to seize on this idea; it is as though we find it more comforting than disturbing. It lets us off the hook, taking away the existential nervousnes that comes with making a genuine selection. It may be dangerous: other research been shown that people who have been convinced that they are not free tend to make less ethical choices.

Then there is the question of social freedom. After the 1960 s, the fight for personal liberty seemed to be mostly won. The achievements have been great and yet, in the 21 st century, we find ourselves less sure than ever about how far our liberty includes the right to offend or transgress, and how much of it we want to compromise in return for convenience, amusement or an illusion of total security. Freedom may become one of the great mystery of our time, and the existentialists revolutionary take on it may be worth a second look.

3( Some) existentialists have interesting sex lives

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Camembert, Sartres food of love? Photo: Maximilian Stock Ltd/ photocuisine/ Corbis

Sartre and De Beauvoir applied their principle of freedom, above all, to their own partnership, a magnificently successful one that lasted half a century from its beginning in 1929 to Sartres death in 1980. They wanted to share their lives but didnt want to accept conventional limitations, so they agreed to remain primary partners while pandering in polyamory with others.

This did lead to some unpalatable behaviour, as when De Beauvoir became involved with her own young students before apparently passing them on to Sartre. He was a serial seducer: one scurrilous journalist in 1945 chortled over rumors of him seducing women up to his bedroom by offering them a sniff of his Camembert cheese( well, good cheese was hard to get in 1945 ).

One has to remember that their way of life was motivated by vehement rejection of the bourgeois conventions with which they had grown up, in a world that expected people to get married, acquire property and children, and observe traditional gender roles, while having hushed-up affairs on the side. Sartre and De Beauvoir instead chose to live by their own philosophy of honesty and free choice.

De Beauvoirs desire to break with received notions about sexuality helped inspire her pioneering 1949 run of feminism, The Second Sex the most widely influential existentialist text ever created. She marshalled proof to present, on an epic scale, how women grow up to be more hesitating and self-doubting than humen, and less inclined to seek the basic existentialist aim of taking responsibility for their lives. Many females, reading the book, decided to shake off their inhibitions and have a go after all.

The chapter that most shocked contemporaries concerned lesbianism and Sartre, too, was a supporter of gay rights, although he remained convinced that sexuality was a matter of existential option rather than a given reality such as blue eyes or dark hair. Either way, Sartres and De Beauvoirs philosophies of self-determination promoted gay people to live freely and forthrightly, rather than trying to fit in with other people ideas of how they should be.

Thus, if Sartres and De Beauvoirs positions to sexuality led them to behave badly at times, the committee is also led them to feminism and to bold declarations of LGBT rights at a time when few dared even to speak of such things.

4 Existentialists tackle painful realities

Not all existentialism is about jolly sex cavorts. It also tackles aspects of the human condition that we might prefer not to think about, but that will not go away.

One is anxiety. Today, we often approach this as a disorder in need of therapy, but the existentialists saw it as an essential part of human experience, and one particularly expose of our situation in the world. Heidegger described moments of uncanniness, when everyday things turn unfamiliar or disturbing, and we cease to take them for granted. Camus, too, wrote about the times when, in a sudden weariness tinged with astonishment, we abandon our daily habits and ask the most basic question: why exactly do I go on living?

For Heidegger, we also run up against the horrifying realisation that, whatever I do, I will die the working day. I am mortal, and this limitation is part of what I am. If I espouse the truth of this, I can achieve a superior kind of what he cheerily calls Being-towards-Death. Sartre and De Beauvoir wrote about death too, but for them it cannot be embraced so positively. Death is an outrage that comes to us from outside our lives and wipes them out. What we can do, at the least, is to defy the false succours of belief in immortality. Some existentialists did have religious faith, but Sartre and De Beauvoir were radical humanist atheists; Sartre said that he had lost his religion at the age of 11 while standing at a bus stop. They stuck to their conviction that this is the life we have, and that our task is to live it in the most comprehensive and most honest way.

5 Existentialists try to be authentic

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The real thing vinyl records. Photo: Lisa Valder/ Getty Images

However tough it is, existentialists generally strive to be authentic. They take this to entail being less self-deceiving, more decisive, more committed, and more willing to take on responsibility for the world.

Most of the time, we dont do this very well. Why? For Heidegger, the flaw lies with our bewitchment by a non-entity called das Man , often translated as the they as in they say it will all be over by Christmas( or the one in the phrase one doesnt do that ). We cant say who exactly this they is, but it is everywhere, and it steals the decisions I should be making by myself.

For Sartre, the problem is mauvaise foi , or bad faith. To avoid facing up to how free I am, I pretend not to be free at all. If I havent managed to write my great volume, I convince myself that there were too many unavoidable demands on my day, rather than admitting that I freely chose to spend that time watching cat videos on the internet.

We all indulge in bad faith. It is sometimes even beneficial, since it stimulates life livable. I cant be staring into the abyss of freedom all the time I have a train to catch. So I set my alarm clock, and when it goes off I roll out of bed unquestioningly as though the clock were controlling me like a marionette( so said Sartre; I find my own response to alarm clock is less predictable ). A fully authentic life is probably impossible, but trying for an authentic moment now and then does us good.

Authenticity has become something of a commodity now. We are sold authentic-sounding records on vinyl records, authentic breakfast cereal, authentic floorboards, and authentic prepackaged holiday experiences. The existentialists remind us that authentic authenticity has more to do with honesty and alertness. Another existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, said that the distinctive undertaking of a philosopher was to remain ever-vigilant so that, when seductive political delusions or lies crept over our minds, he or she could ring like an alarm clock and wake everybody up.

6 Existentialists think it matters what we do( and may stay up all night arguing about it)

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Demonstration in Algiers for French Algeria, April 1958. Photograph: Raymond Darolle/ Europress/ Sygma/ Corbis

Most existentialists were in favour of getting out into the world and making a difference, rather than being authentic all by themselves in a room. Sartre and De Beauvoir made a point of being engaged or committed in their political lives. It was not just talk: they campaigned for many causes , notably on the side of independence fighters during the Algerian war of 1954 to 1962. This stimulated them many foes. On 7 January 1962, person planted a bomb in the apartment above the one Sartre shared with his mother. By sheer luck , no one was hurt, though both flats were damaged. He and his mother moved out, but he did not let the attack stop his activism. The faith in the importance of commitment had roots in an idea borrowed from the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant: that even small decisions should be made as though we were deciding for the whole of humanity , not just for our paltry selves. This faith in the mattering of everything attained the Parisian existentialists passionate debaters: it seemed so important to get everything right. They remained up all hours arguing with friends who were not always friends any more by the time morning came.

What principles could be worth losing friends over? Well, some decisions actually do matter in that life-or-death style. After the -Abombs were fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Sartre wrote an essay pointing out how this changed everything. From now on, he said, we know we can destroy ourselves, so we must decide every day whether we want to keep living. Camus also watched humanity as being confronted by a selection between collective suicide and learning a more intelligent use of its technology between hell and reason. They are still right about this.

7 Existentialists are not conformists

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De Beauvoir and Sarte on a Paris street after their release from police detention, June 1970. They were arrested for selling a newspaper advocating the depose of the French government. Photograph: Bettmann/ Corbis

Contrary to general belief, Sartre and De Beauvoir did not generally toe a party line, although they kicked a few around. Sartre briefly deemed himself a communist convert in the early 1950 s, especially after a bizarre incident in which the French Communist party leader, Jacques Duclos, was arrested and held during a month after being caught in a auto containing two dead pigeons. The authorities guessed the birds had been intended for taking messages to Moscow; Duclos said he was taking them home to cook for dinner. Sartre wrote, after 10 years of ruminating, I had come to the breaking point: this absurd affair capped years of petty harassment of socialists in France. He defended the party by writing articles, but even now he did not sign up. He later rejected the Soviet model and experimented with Maoism, but Sartres politics are likely best summed up by a statement he made in 1968: If one rereads all my books, one will realise that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.

On their side, the communists never accepted existentialism. They disliked its insistence on freedom: how could a load of haywire existentialists ever contribute to a properly organised collective revolution? One leftist dismissed existentialism as an introspective embryo that one would take distinct pleasure in crushing. Rightwingers disliked it just as much, and so did the Catholic church, which in 1948 put Sartres entire works on the Index of Prohibited Books, followed subsequently by De Beauvoirs The Second Sex . They feared that reading atheist existentialists would lead people to doubt their religion and church authority which it did. Existentialism inclines people to doubt and challenge almost everything even if its own practitioners sometimes took a while to see this.

8 Existentialists can be fun to read

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Famously readable Albert Camus. Photo: Loomis Dean/ Time& Life Pictures/ Getty Image

A rarely noted fact about existentialists and their allies is that they wrote some wonderful volumes along with some dreadful ones.

Camus is famously readable: he intentionally modelled his novel The Outsider on jagged American crime tales, rather than on the poised elegance of high French literature. De Beauvoir made gripping psychological fiction out of the real-life drama and debates raging among her friends, and she fostered Sartre to induce his Nausea more like a whodunnit than a treatise. Actually, even his treatises had novelistic qualities. He incorporated many personal experiences into his masterwork Being and Nothingness , often to startling consequence, since his view included peculiar hangups about trees, ski tracks, honey and slimy things, and terrifying post-mescaline flashbacks in which he was pursued by imaginary lobsters.

As for Heidegger, his writing affords different kind of pleasure although that word is not often mentioned in relation to his books. He wrote them in a style filled with idiosyncratic coinages. Instead of talking about humans or conscious intellects, for example, he talks about Dasein , literally meaning being-there. The notion is to keep us from slipping lazily into traditional habits and mistakes of think. After reading a few dozen pages, you find his speech becoming seductive and contagious at least until you come across a phrase such as ahead-of-itself-already-being-in( a world) as being-together-with( beings encountered within the world ), at which point you either swoon in delight or breakdown in despair.

Besides writing in unconventional styles

9 Existentialists also write about unconventional subjects

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Heidegger wasnt fond of many 1950 s contraptions, including typewriters. Photograph: Alamy

They and their phenomenological friends often took topics previously considered on the fringes of doctrine, such as the body, gender, sexuality, social life, child development and our relationship with technology, and brought them into the very centre of their thought.

Take technology. Heidegger was a pioneer in noticing how much it has changed the very nature of human experience. In a lecture on the subject in 1953( attended by Werner Heisenberg , among others ), he said that the essence of technology is not itself anything technological. That is, it has nothing to do with building machines more user-friendly or efficient or productive. The real question is about our own style of being: analyse technology takes us into deep the issue of how we work, how we occupy the Earth and who we are. He also warned against our endless desire to attain everything on the planet more exploitable and storable. Ultimately, we even challenge and store ourselves, as is evident in the phrase human resources.

Heidegger was chiefly thinking of 1950 s contraptions such as combine harvesters, hydroelectric dams, typewriters and cinema projectors, to name just a few things he didnt like, but one cant read this today without thinking of our online lives, and computerised surveillance. One prescient German commentator, Friedrich Heinemann, remarked in his 1954 volume Existentialism and the Modern Predicament that the coming ultra-rapid computing machine would create the most genuinely existential question of all: that of how we can remain free. In 2001, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus described the internet as the ultimate Heideggerian device: one that sought to convert everything( including the stuff of our own lives) into a smooth network of stored resources, instantly available but stripped of depth and privacy.

Fifteen years after these terms were published, many of us are already so immersed in that network that we can hardly find a separate vantage point from which to gues critically about it. Heidegger is there to remind us not just to topic the technology itself, but to question ourselves.

This whole issue makes a good example of the final reason 😛 TAGEND

10 Existentialists guess big

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