Jean Paul Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, gave a name for existential angst. He considered it as one of his best works. It is a philosophical novel with existentialist vibes, that 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.
Antoine Roquentin has no need to earn a living. For the past ten years, he has devoted himself to writing a history book about Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat.
His life revolves around writing this book, going to cafés, and spending many hours in the library. He is a solitary figure and a solipsist; he has no friends and usually eavesdrops on other people’s conversations and watches their actions.
Roquentin is a militant and a sufferer. He is at war with Bouville, literally “mud-town” (where he lives), at war with the regulars at the café, at war with the two principal characters with whom he interacts, which are in some way his doubles: Anny (his former lover) and the Autodidact (who has spent hundreds of hours reading at the library, and who thinks he can learn all there is to know by reading every book available in alphabetical order), and finally, he is at war with himself.
Roquentin is overcome by a feeling of nausea as he realises that he had been attempting to resuscitate a historical figure from the past in order to justify his own existence. He experiences an existential crisis. Roquentin decides that the past is a meaningless concept that does not exist, people use the past to take a “vacation from existence”. Thus, he loses interest in his work and decides to live in the present.
He constantly repeats “I exist” and mocks the people of his town. However, he is horrified of his existence and its meaninglessness, but he does not understand why.
“I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think any more, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!”
He begins to write in a diary to help him explain the strange and sickening sensations that have been bothering him. He documents his every feeling and sensation about the world and people around him. He is struck by episodes that simultaneously alienate and overimmerse him from 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”.
Roquentin 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 nauseating sensation.
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 cards, we invest each card with a useless significance; for what is more random than 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 thinks about killing himself, but concludes that given life’s randomness, suicide too would be random, and thus meaningless – death itself would have been superfluous.
He furiously writes down every insignificant detail. Everyday things such as a pebble, a beer glass, a tree, his own hand, oppresses him with their awful superfluity.
In a peculiar scene, Roquentin finds himself at awe looking at a train seat, he sees it as a pile of dead animals. 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 says that we structure life by absences, by nullity. We call a tree a “tree” rejecting all other possible names for it.
One of the key themes is the idea of “contingency”. There is no necessary reason for anything to exist. If evolution were to happen over again, the results would be completely different. He thinks that people attribute essences to objects to supply a reason for their existence. However, Roquentin finds only “nothingness”, an empty vacuum that paradoxically makes up existence. As he explains to the Autodidact, human beings are an accidental offspring of a meaningless reality.
Sartre uses the theme of contingency to criticise the emphasis on a rational world with human existence as its focus and purpose.
In the climax of the novel, Roquentin 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.”
Roquentin realizes that the root first existed and then he attributed an essence to it by describing it as “black.” He realizes that his perception of the root’s essence, in fact hides the truth of the object’s existence.
The comforting facade of tastes, colours, smells, weight, and appearance are thus the creation of the observer. Looking through the essence of objects (the physical characteristics), Roquentin is confronted with the bare existence of things, and thus the source of his Nausea.
He has an epiphany, he discovers that “existence precedes essence”, one of Sartre’s central philosophical claims. Roquentin concludes that the essence of objects are just comforting “facades” that hide the unexplainable nakedness of existence.
He confronts his existential anguish in the face of “nothingness.” Although he can’t see it, “nothingness” is a force that makes up a purposeless reality. He believes that his overwhelming presence of existence is too much for people to handle.
The concept of freedom is an essential part of the book. To understand how truly free we really are, in this case it is optimistic. However, it is also terrifying as we are immersed in an infinite sea of possibilities, in which we must choose.
Sartre said that: “Man is condemned to be free.” We are free to make our own choices but we are condemned to always bear the responsibility of the consequences of these 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.”
4. Bad Faith
The people whom he 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.
However, Roquentin defiantly asserts his own existence, claiming that everyone else he sees is afraid to acknowledge that they exist.
Only at the end of the novel does a chink of hope glance on this hero, when he listens to his favourite song on the record player. First, he scoffs at the idea that music “consoles”. But then he begins to think about the melody existing beyond the record player.
“It is beyond, it does not exist, since it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which is superfluous in relation to it. It is.”
For the first time in years, Roquentin is moved by the idea of a human being. This reliance on artistic creation to understand oneself becomes the ultimate cure to his Nausea. Rather than give into despair, he thinks about 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.“
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Nausea in 10 Minutes | Jean Paul Sartre
Jean Paul Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, gave a name for existential angst. He considered it as one of his best works. It is a philosophical novel with existentialist vibes, that delves into the pure absurdity of the world with Sartre’s wild imagination and explores the randomness and superfluity of the world.