How (not) to Party Like an Existentialist

sartre and beauvoirPhilosophers are not noted for their revelry. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen “philosopher” and “party animal” used in the same sentence. But there are exceptions. According to Skye Cleary, the French existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were the life of the party.

Existentialism has a reputation for being angst-ridden and gloomy mostly because of its emphasis on pondering the meaninglessness of existence, but two of the best-known existentialists knew how to have fun in the face of absurdity. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spent a lot of time partying: talking, drinking, dancing, laughing, loving and listening to music with friends, and this was an aspect of their philosophical stance on life. They weren’t just philosophers who happened to enjoy parties, either – the parties were an expression of their philosophy of seizing life, and for them there were authentic and inauthentic ways to do this.

What, you might be wondering, is an authentic way to party?

De Beauvoir wrote of her wartime parties in occupied Paris: they saved up food stamps and then binged on food, fun and alcohol. They danced, sang, played music and improvised. The artist Dora Maar mimed bullfights, Sartre mimed orchestra-conducting in a cupboard, and Albert Camus banged on saucepan lids as if in a marching band…

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, but with the threat of Nazis banging down your door, any sort of laughter is an act of rebellion. But apparently not all their parties were so tame:

For de Beauvoir, there’s nothing philosophically wrong with having orgies, it’s the same as with any other aspect of life: it matters how you approach the situation. If a person, she wrote, ‘brings his entire self to every situation, there can be no such thing as a “base occasion”’. And it’s true that de Beauvoir and Sartre had many lovers, but casual sex wasn’t part of their repertoire. They thought that promiscuity was a trivial use of freedom and, instead, wanted intense love affairs and friendships.

That sounds like a lot of work for a lot of heartache; casual sex has its virtues. And then we find out what fueled the fun:

Both de Beauvoir and Sartre spent their rich lives embracing new undertakings, but took their whiskey and vodka bottles with them. This led to serious health problems, including cirrhosis, but they never regretted their partying or drinking, and by their own philosophy, there is no reason they should have done. They chose it freely, did it on their own terms, and took responsibility for the consequences. That’s what partying like an existentialist is all about.

Sartre liked his mescaline too, and they both used amphetamines. Brown liquor, clear liquor and “speed”—that’s a lethal combination.

For de Beauvoir in particular, philosophy was to be lived vivaciously, and partying was bound up with her urge to live fully and freely, not to hold herself back from all that life had to offer. She wrote that sometimes she does ‘everything a little too crazily … But that is my way. I have rather not to do the things at all as doing them mildly.’

I’ve always been suspicious of this view that to get the most out of life you have take every activity toward its extreme.

Wine drinkers think differently about these matters; we’re more Aristotelean, everything in moderation. If they had been wine drinkers perhaps neither they nor existentialism would have burned themselves out.

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