Large-scale Historical Forces

Sartre and Beauvoir

So I just turned the last page of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe. A superb book. I marked far too many pages with little sticky notes.

One such sticky note marks a single sentence on p124:

In coming years [Sartre] would become ever more interested in the way human beings can be swept up by large-scale historical forces, while still each remaining free and individual.

It caught my attention because I recalled Bakewell saying something similar about Montaigne in her previous book How To Live. I’d considered this quote for an epigram to Escape Everything! (ultimately deciding against it since Bakewell’s work is a bit too new to quote from so liberally and prominently, and also because it detracted from the centrality of the Houdini motif) so I have it to hand:

Ordinary people’s lives are sacrifices to the obsessions of fanatics … The question of any person of integrity becomes not so much ‘How do I survive?’ as ‘How do I remain free? How do I preserve my true self? How do I keep my soul?

It’s a recurring theme in Sarah Bakewell’s books. In the Existentialist book she brings in Heidegger and Husserl’s thinking around historical place, and Bouvoir’s acknowledgement of gender and race as defining situations. In the Montaigne book, she discusses the memoirs of Holocaust survivors and how they maintained a sense of self while cast asunder by these “large-scale historical forces” and “obsessions of fanatics”.

The idea originally caught my attention because it’s something I think of a lot too and it’s central to Escapology:

At this point in history–the time of neoliberalism and a time in which the institutions of employment (“what do you do?”) and consumerism are super-normalised–how do we stay true to ourselves? What happens to our perception of freedom? How do we maintain a sense of integrity and self?

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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