My mother wants to know what existentialism is

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Breakfast. Mother licks her index finger and pats it onto the crumbs of pain au chocolate on her plate, while casually asking my daughter what existentialism is.

‘It was all the rage thirty years ago. But you don’t hear people talking about it anymore,’ Mother says, as if mourning the end of the golden age of dinner party banter. 

My daughter stops supping up Cheerios and takes a deep breath. She says she doesn’t know why existentialism is unpopular now, but she does know that existentialism is a philosophical concept from the ‘Forties’ and is a major influence on post War thinking.

‘Some academics would call existentialism a cultural movement more than a philosophy,’ she goes on.

“Ooooh,’ gasps Mother, as if my daughter had pulled a talking rabbit from the box of Cheerios.

Can philosophy be a fad?

My daughter goes onto suggest that philosophies are like fads and perhaps existentialism is out of fashion right now. Mother sweeps the last flakes of the pain au chocolate into a small funeral mound, grunts thoughtfully, and then dabs her damp finger into the pile, again.

‘It’s a French thingamy, isn’t it?’ she says.

‘Jean-Paul Sartre was French, and he invented existentialism together with his partner Simone de Beauvoir,’ says daughter.

There’s a brief pause while Mother digests this.

Does it matter of Sartre wasn’t good looking?

‘He was terribly ugly. He looked like a toad,’ says Mother. ‘I’m surprise any woman went near him.’

‘I guess she was attracted by his ideas not his looks,’ says my daughter, irked by her grandmother’s focus on Sartre’s looks rather than his learning.   

‘Wonky eye, too,’ says Mother.

My daughter sighs and asks why she is thinking about existentialism. Mother says she doesn’t really know it was just something that popped into her head.

‘Like a piece of toast,’ she laughs.

I have never heard Mother talk about philosophy before. She has always struck me as more interested in people than philosophy, the concrete not the conceptual. I am not saying this makes her superficial or stupid. 

In fact, she reads alot and ploughs through every page of the Times each morning. She even reads the sport and business sections though she has no interest in either. She thinks business is a pastime for crooks and sport is a refuge for people who never got used to wearing trousers at school.

Novels are too heavy for her to hold now

Mother’s reading habits have changed, though. She’s given up on reading novels because the books are too heavy for her to hold up for long. She also finds their length a challenge.

‘By the time I’m halfway through a novel I’ve forgotten who all the characters are. And by the end I can’t remember what happened at the beginning. So it’s pointless reading them now,’ she smiles.

Mother reads short stories now not novels. She’s reading a collection by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The book is thirty years old and a present from her dead elder sister, and its pages have aged a strange terracotta tint.

‘I am more likely to drop dead before I finish a novel than a short story and you know I hate to start a book and not finish it,’ she says.

Back at the breakfast table, my son asks if my daughter has finished her philosophy lecture. She pokes her tongue out at him. I watch a video compilation of cats reading Shakespeare Sonnets because Mother stole the sports section from me when I got up to make her a cup of tea.

Commenting on her legs annoys her granddaughter

Mother seems absorbed in the sports until my daughter gets up to make coffee. My daughter’s wearing shorts and bare legs.

‘Look at your legs,’ says Mother.

‘What do you mean?’ asks my daughter. 

‘They go all the way to your hips,’ says Mother.

‘Where else would they go?’ asks my son.

‘Why is everything so body centric with you this morning?’ says my daughter.

‘I just mean they’re good legs,’ laughs Mother, her compliment is not going down how she meant it to.

Is Mother posing a philosophical question: are my daughter’s legs capable of making ethical decisions by themselves, like boycotting BooHoo or refusing to wear tights which aren’t Fair Trade?

I hope she doesn’t mean good as in attractive. If she does, she may find herself on the receiving end of a lecture from my daughter on why women shouldn’t objectify other women’s bodies. There’s more than enough men doing that already.

My daughter lets the moment pass. Mother’s compliment reflects an attitude which looks as out of date to my daughter, as existentialism seems unfashionable to her granny.

She also realises that – sometimes – it’s best not to take offence if you want don’t want the different values of the old and the young to trigger inter-generational war.

Published by Man in the Middle

Ecce Man in the Middle. The stale meat in the inter-generational sandwich.