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.
Once the haunt of French intellectuals, Café de Flore, Les 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.
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.
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.
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)