Nausea, by French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, is without question, an existentialist masterpiece. A poignant and incisive analysis of what it is to exist. It rightly takes its place beside other important works such as Camus’ L’Etranger and The Trial by Kafka. It is a novel of such dizzying depth and sophistication that it’s easy to miss a few of the more subtle (and not so subtle) themes and ideas. With that in mind, I’m going to try and shed a little light on some of the less talked about aspects of Sartre’s novel.
To fully understand Sartre’s insight, some wider context is needed. Specifically on existentialist philosophy. So what is existentialism? It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to define. In a broad sense, it is a philosophical (and artistic) tradition that explores human existence, and how we interact with an apparently meaningless world. The core idea is that on some level, we are responsible for our own development. Existentialism has its roots in the 19th century and came to real prominence as a movement shortly after the Second World War. It was at this time that Sartre lived and worked, publishing Nausea in 1938.
Our protagonist is Antoine Roquentin, a former adventurer, now an antisocial recluse. He has no friends or family and spends his time observing others from a distance. The novel is framed as Roquentin’s novel or diary, and so the reader is privy to his innermost thoughts. This is how we learn that he has recently begun to experience bouts of what he describes as “The Nausea”. He feels dizzy, sick, and frightened. At first, the causes of this feeling are unclear, but that changes in spectacular fashion. Sat on a park bench, Roquentin is struck by the sensation that “the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, in disorder – naked, with a frightening, obscene nakedness”. What does this mean?
Without language, without subjective consciousness, everything that exists is a single, “monstrous ” mass. A big thought in itself, but we still haven’t discovered the precise cause of Roquentin’s nausea. What really affects him is the idea that “existence is not a necessity”. To exist is simply to “be there”, without reason or cause. In other words existence, (even Roquentin’s) is gratuitous. It is this glimpse of a meaningless world that brings on Roquentin’s sickness. This is a classic “existential crisis”, one that Sartre and a number of other writers have explored in a variety of fascinating ways. I won’t be able to do it full justice here though. I want to examine some of Nausea’s other insights. All of this will however help in grasping the novel’s other ideas.
As you can tell by the title of this article, what really intrigued me was the way Sartre wrote about the concept of adventure. He asks two questions, what is an adventure? And do they ever actually happen? These might seem odd questions. The answers are obvious. Of course there are adventures, people have them all the time. Roquentin is an ex-adventurer after all. We know what an adventure is. Why is it then, according to Sartre, that “When you are living, nothing happens”? What is it that motivates this skepticism about adventure? To try and understand we first need to look at what exactly an adventure is.
According to Sartre, something only becomes an adventure upon being recounted. There is a parallel here between the structure we impose on being and the structure we impose on events, which will become clear. Again, Sartre’s point seems a little strange. Why is it that something becomes an adventure only once recounted? The key thing to understand is that what we typically recognise as an adventure has a particular structure. A narrative arc, a beginning, middle, and end, a climax, a hero or heroine. None of these things exist as events actually unfold. In telling a story we (consciously or unconsciously) distort what really happened and turn it into an “adventure”. As Roquentin says himself “When you tell about life, everything changes; only it’s a change nobody notices”.
We experience time, people and events, in an unreflective sense in the present. It is only once they have become past that we encounter them reflectively. This divide is what gives rise to the immaterial nature of adventures. We cannot help but twist events into stories because we experience them in a different way once they are over. I think this is a fascinating insight, and it affects Roquentin deeply. He spends much of the novel attempting to write a biography of the Marquis de Rollebon, a mysterious and rogueish aristocrat. At first, Roquentin feels as though he knows the Marquis. However, as the novel progresses he realises that the man he thinks he knows is one fashioned only from what is written in books, which as we know do not reflect events in an exact sense.
This may seem something of a low point. If stories and adventures cannot reflect our lives, how can we accomplish anything that leaves a legacy? Realising that the real Rollebon will be forever beyond his reach, Roquentin abandons his biography. The man he thought he knew is gone. Nothing that is written about him can capture his essence. But then how can anything we do ever have any meaning? If nothing about us reflects our life, do we cease to be entirely when we die? Not a comforting thought.
Roqeuntin is distraught. Nothing anyone does seems to have any meaning at all. Later on, however, he hears a piece of music that affects him deeply. It brings on thoughts of its author, and of the singer. The melody and the lyrics say something beyond themselves. He feels a connection to these people that no “adventure” has ever provided. This music is a real legacy. It touches him so profoundly in fact that he is moved to create something beautiful of his own. And so Nausea ends with Roquentin resolving to write a novel, one he hopes will justify his existence.
Perhaps there is salvation in the production of something beautiful. Something that transcends the diaphanous nature of adventure. Something that speaks for itself. In a broader sense, we should create, rather than recount. This is how we give our lives meaning. Whether or not you agree, there is undeniable poetry to this sentiment. The redemptive power of art, and the timeless nature of beauty. Nausea is a unique literary experience. Bittersweet in a truly meaningful way. Our gratuitous, ephemeral nature is brought to the fore, but there is hope for every one of us.
Much of Sartre’s other work is almost impenetrable. Nausea, on the other hand, I recommend it to everyone. There is just so much packed into it. You may or may not find it uplifting (as I do), but even if you don’t, it’s still worth a read. If you want more to read in a similar vein, try Camus, Kafka, and De Beauvoir. They are all excellent.