Nausea is Jean Paul Sartre’s first novel and in his own words, one of his best works. It is also one of the most well known pieces of Existentialism, Nausea delves into the pure absurdity of the world with Sartre’s wild imagination and explores the randomness and superfluity of the world. Everything that we take for granted and seems normal to us, is disintegrated and torn apart to make it look absolutely absurd.
The main protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is a French writer whose only purpose is to write a history book about an 18th century historical figure called Rollebon. His life revolves around writing this book, going to cafés and visiting the library. He is a solitary figure, a solipsist, a lone-wolf, has no friends and usually eavesdrops on other people’s conversations and watches their actions.
Roquentin, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, is a militant and a sufferer. He is at war with Bouville (the town in which he lives), at war with the regulars at the café, at war with Anny and the Autodidact (the two principal characters with whom he interacts, which are in some way his doubles), and at war with himself.
The book is written in the form of a diary in which Roquentin documents his every feeling and sensation about the world and people around him. He starts feeling horrified of his existence and its meaninglessness. He finds situations and inanimate objects imbued with meanings which bear the stamp of his existence, all that he encounters in his everyday life is permeated with a horrible taste, evoking in him a sense of Nausea.
These are episodes in which afflicted by his sense that there is absolutely no reason for living, he is simultaneously alienated from and overimmersed in reality.
“Nothing looked real. I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could suddenly be removed. The world was waiting, holding its breath, making itself small – it was waiting for its attack, its Nausea”.
Everyday things such as a pebble, a beer glass, a tree, his own hand, oppresses him with their heavy contingency (an event you can’t be sure will happen or not) and awful superfluity.
“The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being. But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift.”
Sartre was an Existentialist Atheist, his philosophy project was to develop a ‘consistent atheist position’, he was interested more in exploring the role that God plays in the human experience, especially with respect to freedom and not metaphysical claims about the existence of a God.
In a peculiar scene, Roquentin finds himself at awe looking at a train seat, he sees it as a pile of dead animal skin. A seat is only a seat by name, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or anything at all, he says: “I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names.” Sartre sees that we structure life by absences, by nullity. We call a tree a ‘tree’ rejecting all other possible names for it.
The concept of freedom is the most important part of the book, to understand how truly free we really are, and how terrifying it actually is as ‘one can do anything.’ But it would be a mistake to consider this as freedom. While Roquentin comes to the realisation of this, the citizens of Bouville whom Roquentin watches going about their everyday business, are still veiled in ignorance of their arbitrariness. They are as unfree as Roquentin, yet they hide the terrible imprisonment of their existences by getting up and going to work and so on. They are examples of what Sartre calls bad faith, a way of denying the fundamental nature of our freedom and responsibility, it is a way of making excuses for ourselves to avoid the anguish of absolute freedom.
Roquentin believes he is free, but his freedom is without value, because his sense of life’s randomness has robbed him of meaningful choice. On one hand it is anguishing since we are sentenced by our freedom, imprisoned by it (since it makes us afraid) and on the other hand it is optimistic because we are truly free and can make free choices.
“Standing in front of the passage Gillet, I no longer know what to do. Isn’t something waiting for me at the end of the passage? But in the place Ducoton, at the end of the rue Tournebride, there is also a certain thing which needs me in order to come to life. I am full of anguish: the slightest gesture engages me. I can’t imagine what is required of me. Yet I must choose: I sacrifice the passage Gillet, I shall never know what it held for me.”
One of Sartre’s famous quote is:
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
His sense of life’s pointlessness concerns his awareness that life’s occurrences are random. Life resembles a pack of cards, which he sees earlier in the novel. When we play at cards, we invest each card with a useless significance; for what is more random that that fine King of Hearts, say, which we hold in our hands?
“Handsome king, come from so far away, prepared for by so many combinations, by so many vanished gestures. Now he disappears in his turn, so that other combinations may be born, other gestures, attacks, counterattacks, changes of fortune, a host of little adventures.”
He dreams of killing himself, but even that would’ve been superfluous. The key to his existence, to his Nausea, is the Absurdity of the World. In the climax of the novel, he finds himself looking at a chestnut tree and is flabbergasted by the roots of it, he feels at one with the tree.
“A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn’t exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed in so far that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to its own existence.”
Only at the end of the novel does a chink of hope glance on this hero, when he listens to Some of these days by Sophie Tucker (1927) in a record player and is moved by the idea of living for the first time in years.
He thinks of doing something similar to this, not in the realm of music, but in the realm of art. Not a history book, because that is about what has existed. But perhaps an invented story, about something that has never existed:
“It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence… A book. A novel.”
The novel being his diary entries, Nausea.