donderdag 10 september 2009

Sartre, Levinas and the Café

The café was Sartre’s habitat. That’s where he worked and observed his fellow Parisians. There he arrived at his ideas and it offered a décor for illustrations of his ideas.

Levinas didn’t like café’s. He has never been caught sitting at a terrace and he describes the café rather severely and denoting as “an open house, at streetlevel; the place of the comfortable living together, without mutual responsibility. People don’t come there to do something, they sit down without being tired, they drink without being thirsty”.

This opposition between Sartre and Levinas does not need to surprise us very much, because a lot of their other ideas are also opposed to oneanother. That applies for instance to the human gaze which for Sartre is the vehicle of domination over other people and for Levinas of being touched by another person. Or to the embracement by Sartre of totalitarian systems, while Levinas does not get tired of warning against totalitarianism.

The remarkable thing is that the inspiration for the thinking of both of them originates from the same spring, namely the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. This philosophy aspired to taking seriously concrete experiences and concrete meanings within thinking.

Funny enough Sartre’s acquaintance with Husserl at the beginning of the thirties took place in a café. His friend Raymond Aron directed his attention to a glass on the bar and told him that the German philosopher Husserl could talk about that glass in such a way that it became philosophy. That appealed to Sartre immediately. For him things, in their impenetrability, constitute the biggest concreteness. So, that’s what philosophy should be about. All objects then become interesting, also those in a café. That in the café (in Paris anyway) also people become impenetrable exteriority can make the café only more interesting for him.

Levinas has no business there. He too is, in Husserl’s footsteps, searching for the concrete. But the most concrete for him is: being affected by others; that means most for him. But precisely that is what does not happen in Sartre’s café. Because in the Parisian café prevails what some call an atmosphere of purposelessness and aggressive individualism. Levinas somewhere calls it a non-place for a non-sociality, for a society without solidarity, a community of mere diverting play.

I must acknowledge that this characterization of the Parisian café is a bit new for me. Until now I had a somewhat more romantic image of the catering industry in the Quartier Latin in the forties and fifties. Of terraces and cellars and café’s where people until late night were engaged in talking and where intense, intellectual encounters took place.

So that’s not how it was, but that could have been more Levinas’ taste. Perhaps he should have tried – at least for a more homey atmosphere – an Amsterdam bruin café.