Review: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre book cover
Nausea (1938), La Nausée in the original French, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel and an exploration of his early thoughts on existentialism through the meandering existence of one man. Roquentin, a man on the brink of his thirtieth birthday, is undertaking a scholarly project in the small town of Bouville (modelled on Le Havre). Having travelled the world, he has settled on writing a biography of the Marquis de Rollebon, a minor figure in the French Revolution, in the hope that the book, once finished, will afford him some form of legacy that will transcend his mortal existence. Through Nausea’s narrative, written as Roquentin’s diary, it becomes clear that Roquentin leads an empty existence, spending his days working through papers in the local library, and his evenings in cafes and restaurants – all of this in suffocating isolation. He makes love without emotion to a local café owner occasionally, and, as he goes about his research, shares small pleasantries with a fellow library user who he has named ‘the Autodidact’ and who is reading his way through Bouville’s complete library alphabetically. This is the extent of Roquentin’s contact with other human life. In his isolation, Roquentin suffers from the nausea, as he calls it – a sense of overwhelming sickness at the knowledge that he exists in a world rife with other things and people existing. Little can stave off this nausea or the sense of meaninglessness in existence, except perhaps the creation of some form of art that will endure and transcend Roquentin’s life. A meditation on art and existence, politics and society, Nausea, which Iris Murdoch called the ‘Tour de Force of a young man,’ has become a staple novel in the existentialist reading list.

Roquentin’s purpose in starting the diary which presents the narrative is to understand and document the nausea that he suffers, detailing his small perceptions so as to ruminate on their deeper meanings, and how he exists in relation to the world. This process of self-reflection is important to the novel, and, while overwhelming at first, will eventually provide Roquentin with the knowledge he seeks, namely that the consciousness of his own being is what defines his existence, and that his personal reality is all that exists. Ultimately, the diary proves a record of his rebirth, or perhaps one might say metamorphosis, from hopelessness to a sense of purpose as Roquentin, inspired by Some of these Days (a ragtime tune), determines, at the novel’s close, on writing a novel himself. Whether this epiphany of salvation through creation is ironic or not, here the creation of art, follwing the consumption of art, is used to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence completing Roquentin’s transformation, which has been hinted at by images of metamorphosis throughout the novel. In finding aesthetic solutions to the fundamental problems of its main character, Nausea has echoes of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Indeed, the two books are strongly linked thematically, both featuring a male narrator on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday who struggles with an intensified perception of the world around him. This manifests itself in a fear that must be worked out through self-reflection in diary form.

A deep loneliness pervades the novel, not only Roquentin’s but others around him. The disconnect between different people paints the picture of a rather sad world in which lives rarely merge, and Roquentin learns that he cannot rely on anyone else for his salvation, that life must be faced alone. This loneliness is representative of a godless existence in which every individual is essentially alone in the universe, surrounded by, but not connected to, the individual experiences of existence of others. This idea of disparate existence is in sharp contrast to the type of humanism espoused by Jules Romains, and Sartre challenges arguments for the solidarity of man and any fraternal feeling towards others which could be taken as a shared existence. Though well-intentioned as the humanist ideas that Sartre attacks are, Sartre satirises and dismisses them by placing them in the mouth of the Autodidact who is a rather foolish character, and looked down upon (in some ways in an elitist sense because of the Autodidact’s self-taught status). According to Sartre’s form of existentialism, every individual experiences complete freedom to respond to the indifferent world in any way they see fit (this implies being for the sake of being, a state which Sartre calls être pour-soi). Paradoxically, this immense freedom is a remarkably heavy burden. Roquentin is aware of his freedom but unsure what to do with it and overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Sartre originally intended the novel to be title ‘Melancholia,’ which links it to an engraving of a disturbed and ponderous thinker by Albrecht Dürer named Melencolia I, which was important to Sartre’s creative process while developing the novel. If one were to read Nausea literally it seems clear that Roquentin is suffering from a form of melancholy, or depression as it would now be labelled. His sense of complete superfluity in the face of an indifferent world, his hopelessness and lack of pleasure in life, and his distortions of reality through small fantasies all point to a mind suffering from mental illness. In truth, Nausea can be read in a whole number of ways: as a look at how the bourgeoisie use conventions to hide from freedom, a theory of time, a discussion of the immediate present and the memory of the past, the use of language to form reality through narrative and how this compares to the lived experience, and a discussion of the human desire of immortality. There is also the potential for a very interesting LGBT reading.

Most, though, will read Nausea as an explication of Sartre’s existentialism. As an introduction to this, Nausea is perhaps a little too opaque to afford any deep understanding of the philosophy for the uninitiated reader and must be coupled with a reading of essays, particularly Being and Nothingness, on the subject to truly appreciate everything that Sartre does in the novel. Expressing existential ideas through fiction does, however, give them an immediacy that non-fiction cannot provide, as well as a sense of how theoretical ideas relate to the reality of everyday life.

This immediacy is compounded by the reading of time that informs the narrative, refusing the existence of anything but the present. As Roquentin writes: “The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was that which exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist.” In this form of temporal negation, Roquentin finds life to be a series of present moments without a past, and his memories do little to console him from his current nausea. The biography of the Marquis de Rollebon that brought him to Bouville begins to seem an absurd task in light of this position, for, how can history exist with any authority in a world where only the present is real and all reality is subjective? However, when an old flame asks Roquentin to meet her in Paris, it becomes clear that the disconnect between the past and the present is somewhat illusory, or confined to the theoretical, as Roquentin is still guided and affected by his past.

One of the most difficult tricks of the philosophical novel is ensuring the work is successful as both a story and an explication of a particular philosophical theory. In exploring the aching vacuousness and tedium of existence, Sartre runs the risk of failing to construct a plot that works purely as fiction outside of his philosophical intent. Although necessary for his purpose, this lack of a compelling story will turn some readers off. The puncturing of the dramatic is well done, however, demonstrating the emptiness of existence. Events are allowed to pass by without any grandiose readings into them: they exist in the moment and then pass out of existence. In this way, the overriding story is subjugated in favour of creating the impression of existence that Sartre desires to represent. The details of Roquentin’s story are unimportant, it is the experience and ideas that matters.

This is not to say Sartre’s prose does not engage the reader. He conjures images that stick in the mind, often reminiscent of surrealist paintings by artists like Dali, and he is able, through Roquentin, to make observations of people which turn them into grotesquely memorable portraits of humanity. This vividness comes in snatches and Sartre would later go on to write philosophical novels that proved more satisfying on the story level, but here there is still plenty to enjoy, and through the fragmented series of images, Sartre captures a somewhat abstract impression of twentieth century life.

As already mentioned, Sartre’s later work, Being and Nothingness, sets out his form of existentialism in far clearer detail and provides an excellent companion piece to Nausea. For Sartre, every individual has total freedom over life, the ability to choose different paths at different moments. The ultimate choice is to choose being – that is, existence – over nothingness. It is a choice that is common to all, and by determining on creating a redemptive piece of art at the close of Nausea, Roquentin asserts his choice for existence over nothingness. It appears almost a non-choice on first examination, but it is in fact the largest of choices and the one that binds all humans together in a shared complicity to exist, to repress the nausea.

I've always thought of this as a trendy wanker's book (possibly in no small part down to its appearance in the first ever episode of Skins - I know, legit reason, right?), that and it is one of the first books most budding (therefore, obnoxious) existentialists run into, so it has bad associations with the sweaty adolescent philosopher. It is, however, a better book than to be consigned to that status. I knew it when I was an obnoxious teenage philosopher and I know it now, when I am marginally less obnoxious. 


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Reviews of Nausea on Amazon (UK)
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