Month: November 2015

An Existential Pilgrimage


Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

The lives of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have been romanticised for years. I’m guilty of an obsession in a couple that challenged conventions to the point of polygamy governed by a contentious moral philosophy that denied actual right and wrong.

Despite judgement, the 20th century existentialists continue to swoon students and literature buffs to the Parisienne district of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. But it’s not just geeks attracted to the cafés where Sartre and Co. would mingle.

In fact, the overwhelming majority are the exact bourgeois type that Sartre was attempting to overthrow. Perhaps it’s rather ironic for the bourgeoisie to take responsibility for Sartre turning in his grave, but it’s really not surprising as capitalism prevails.

Cafe Flore

Sartre wrote a large part of Being and Nothingness at Café de Flore

Once the haunt of French intellectuals, Café de FloreLes Deux Magots and other local coffee houses are now the high priced stopovers on any Parisienne tourist map. But why get so worked up?

As a philosophy major or a Sartrean sympathiser, I suppose I wanted a different experience: An existential pilgrimage that was supposed to introduce me to the sights and hosts of my literary icons. Although, I was naive to think that I could have somehow captured the spirit of Sartre by visiting a cafe.


The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, The Second Sex is considered a feminist’s bible, but what can we make of Sartre’s legacy in the 21st century? “You are aware that no one likes him anymore” said a friend of mine living in Paris.

Without becoming defensive, I made an attempt to only promote his philosophy of freedom as a profound influence and reminder that we are not bound by society and its obligations to dictate how we lead our lives. We always have a choice. It is the moments whereby we believe that we don’t have an option, Sartre would argue, is acting in bad faith.

This notion of bad faith is still reminiscent in modernity, although some would argue that existentialism is no longer relevant. Baroness Mary Warnock told Nigel Warburton that existentialism is a “totally forgotten little sub-branch of philosophy that nobody thinks about at all anymore.”

Cafe De La Mairie was my final attempt to embrace any existential energy that may have been loitering opposite the stunning Church of Saint-Sulpice.

I sat down by the window and ordered the omelette champingnons with a black coffee. The humble decor looked as if it hadn’t changed since Albert Camus and Sartre met here for the last time in 1951, shortly before their famous falling out.


Cafe De La Mairie feat. Ferrari

Considering the rich history, the aged furnishings and the veteran staff, this had to be my one opportunity to feed my psyche with some sort of temporal, yet inspirational experience. But, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t necessarily a problem with obnoxious clientele, but rather obnoxious forms of transport; the brand new Ferrari across the street. I couldn’t help but think what Sartre and Camus might have said if they spotted a 1951 Ferrari 212 out the window of Cafe De La Mairie. Then, suddenly Sartre’s “idiotic” approach to money came to mind.

“I know it makes me look like a big shot to pull out a fat bundle. I remember a hotel on the Côte d’Azur where we often went, Simone de Beauvoir and I. One day the substitute for the manageress complained to Simone de Beauvoir that I had brought out too much money to pay her.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Although, Sartre had a particular way with money that was the complete opposite to an obnoxious consumer of Ferraris. He never had the desire to buy his own apartment, his furniture was modest, his clothes were – as he admits – “almost always the same” and he was a very generous tipper at the cafés he would frequent.

“The waiters in the café appreciate the fact that I give them big tips, and repay me in kindness. My idea is that if a man lives off tips, I want to give him as much as I can, because I think that if the livelihood of a man is my responsibility, then he must live well.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Perhaps reading Sartre is the only way to absorb any type of Sartrean spirit. It certainly isn’t in the streets of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. Marketed as the stomping grounds – exploiting the seeds – of existentialists, they are out of sight and out of mind.


Shakespeare and Company: Books in English

As much as one tries, it’s impossible to channel the French intellectuals. It is here where we must return to the written word for encouragement. The pilgrimage came to fruition at the popular Shakespeare and Company bookstore where I collected an early copy of Sartre’s Nausea. Yes, I too have succumbed to consumption.

Let’s let Sartre have the last word on cafés:

“Things are bad! Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, the Nausea. And this time it’s new: it caught me in a café. Until now cafés were my only refuge because they are full of people and well lighted: from now on I shan’t have even that; when I am run to earth in my room, I shall no longer know where to go.”
– Sartre (Nausea, 1938)



A Moral Experiment

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Man fishing. Scauri, Italy. 2013

My view inspired by Peter Singer, Propagandhi and animal welfare groups was met with disdain when my first generation Italian parents found out that I was a vegetarian. Although as an ordinary adolescent, I was determined to do the very opposite of their wishes. I have been a vegetarian for about eight years and I have only recently decided to conduct an existential exercise.

A few weeks ago I went to the local fish shop and I ordered grilled calamari. Perhaps this is one of those things that vegetarians would prefer to keep a secret, but to make my point, my moral compass needs to be recalibrated.

The squid arrived and I stared down at my plate trying to comprehend the act of eating something that had been alive a short while ago. I considered the contentious argument that fish don’t have feelings or that their central nervous systems are less complex than humans. And after all, it wouldn’t be much of an existential experiment if I didn’t evaluate my morals as I intended.

When I was able to put my moral self aside, I continued without a great deal of guilt. That was at least until I got home and began Youtubeing giant squid vs shark videos to learning how squid are caught and farmed. However, shortly after I faced a great deal of melancholy.

I began to think about how detrimental abattoirs and fisheries are for ecosystems, fish population and the environment in general. But more personally, I thought about how vegetarianism provides meaning in my life and how my values contribute to my greater purpose.

For years, I have claimed the title of ‘vegetarian’ and adopted a strict diet within its restricted parameters. I did not crave childhood comforts like sopressa, prosciutto and cotoletta but I wanted to climb the fences and see over the confined borders of a title.

Perhaps the strangest thing was that I chose to conduct the exact same experiment one week later. This time, I ordered a barramundi burger. I knew what the consequences of my actions would be, so I didn’t understand why I decided to eat fish, again. I was confused to think that I would go against my better judgement after my previous moral lesson.

“No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course.”
– Socrates, via Plato (Protagoras)

In the 4th century BC, Plato coined the term, ‘akrasia’ also known as weakness of will to describe when one acts against their better judgement. Socrates and Aristotle hold opposing opinions of akratic behaviour. For Socrates, akrasia wasn’t achievable; it was a mere misjudgement, whereas Aristotle believed it should be studied as an empirical phenomenon.

Whilst the study of wrongdoing contains entertaining experiments for moral philosophers, I too have found interest in my own musings. Reflecting inwards is the position I wish to take as my point of departure to considering my own moral philosophy.

My own values were stripped from me when I acted against my better judgement. It is here where anxiety caught me like a fish out of water. Life suddenly seemed nebulous and I was stunned in the face of freedom. Our personal choices have consequences, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the future of my moral self.

It is always my desire to challenge conventional thinking, and that extends to testing my own beliefs. This moral exercise provided evidence of a sense of purpose, meaning and identity. And for some, this is fair and rational reasoning. Although, to challenge idealism also operates within the boundaries of my domain.

The exercise also provided a lucid example of the enkratic alternative to akrasia; the ability to act within my power, or reason. It is here where I find solace in my decision to exercise freedom as an act of its own. Perhaps this attitude is synonymous with Nietzschean affirmation or a farfetched Sartrean reaction to bad faith. Although, to reconsider the conventions of morality would lead to another contentious debate about actual moral right and wrong that we shall save for another day.