Nausea (Le Nausée) is Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel and an early expression of his existentialist philosophy. Sartre worked on the novel for nearly ten years before it was published in 1938. Originally titled Melancholia, Sartre's publishers changed the name of the book to Nausea. Through the diary of a young man named Antoine Roquentin, the novel reveals the fundamental precepts of Sartre's philosophy.
Roquentin is an aspiring historian living in the imaginary French port city of Bouville (literally Mudville). He lives off of an inheritance and has come to Bouville to research the life of a mysterious eighteenth-century nobleman, the Marquis de Rollebon, whose biography he is attempting to write. His diary opens with an ominous tone:
The best thing would be to write down events from day to day. Keep a diary to see clearly-let none of the nuances or small happenings escape even though they might seem to mean nothing. And above all, classify them. I must tell how I see this table, this street, the people, my packet of tobacco, since those are the things that have changed. I must determine the exact nature of this change. (Nausea, p. 1)
Roquentin thus begins a ruthless record of his thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. His ordinary, day-to-day experiences and his extraordinary and even frightening perceptions lead him to a series of epiphanies that subtly expose some of the most important teachings of Sartre's existentialism.
Roquentin's descriptions of his environment, we soon notice, frequently dwell upon the disgusting and the morbid. Thus, he sees a man's hand as "like a fat white worm," everything about him is "flabby," he feels a "sickening sweetness" all about him. This is the feeling he begins to call "the Nausea." His search for the sources of this Nausea lead him to discover and reveal Sartre's most important existentialist principles.
The Nausea's most obvious connection to existentialism is anxiety, which Lavine describes as "the dread of the nothingness of human existence." (From Socrates to Sartre, TZ Lavine, p. 330) Roquentin's anxiety manifests itself strongly in the aforementioned morbid, angst-ridden tone of his diary (a tone which now feels almost cliched and a bit too much like a goth's diary... remember that Sartre wrote this before every depressed kid in the world could publish her sad musings on the internet and keep at the sometimes overwhelmingly dark imagery he uses).
Existentialism empahsizes the barriers that exist between conscious beings and the world. Roquentin expresses this as he attempts to describe relationships between things. "In the way: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones... each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, overflowed." (p. 134) This closely relates to the theme of "existence over essence," which I'll examine later.
Existentialism also emphasizes the barriers that exist between conscious beings and other conscious beings. Roquentin quite literally has no real friends, only Anny, an ex-lover and travelling companion who turns out the be almost sadistic in her treatment of Roquentin and as emotionally broken as him; the Self-Taught Man, a misguided Humanist who Roquentin secretly despises; and Lucie, his sometime lover. Roquentin feels either ambivalence or misanthropy toward all other people, especially the Bouville bourgeoisie. The twisted relationship between Roquentin and Anny foreshadows Sartre's later teachings regarding human relationships, that "Hell is other people," that conflict is the root of all social relations, and that people constantly attempt to enslave others as objects.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and early existentialist, perhaps stated the idea of absurdity best:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then.
"Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance," writes Roquentin, expressing his idea of absurdity. "...without formulating anything clearly, I understood that I had found the key to Existence, the key to my Nauseas, to my own life. In fact, all that I could grasp beyond that returns to this fundamental absurdity." p. 129
The awareness of nothingness is central to the feeling of Nausea. It is an awareness which causes fear and is a primary source of the aforementioned anxiety. Existentialism reduces everything to the bare minimum of existance, leaving the conscious being alone in a meaningless universe. Roquentin writes that his feeling of nothingness is "the naked World suddenly revealing itself."
Sartre later wrote that man is "condemned to be free." Nausea touches on the existential idea of freedom as Roquentin ponders the failings of Humanism. "No one has any rights;" he decides, "they are entirely free..." (p. 131) In a world that is absurd and based upon nothingness, all possibilities are truly open. One is absolutely free to do as one wishes with one's life- for good or for ill. Indeed, this freedom is not the lovely idea that is espoused by Democracy or by liberal society. This is a frighteningly unrestrained freedom, a world with no absolutes.
The single most important point of the existentialist philosophy, indeed, the idea from which it garners its name, is the idea of existence over essence. Lavine puts it very well:
...existentialism gives primacy or priority in significance to existence, in the sense of my existence as a consicious subject, rather than to any essence whch may be assigned to me, any definition of me, any explanation of me by science or philosophy or religions or politics. (From Socrates to Sartre, TZ Lavine, p. 328)
In Nausea, this primacy of existence over essence is also applied to objects. In his climactic epiphany beneath a great chestnut tree, Roquentin loses all sense of essence, though it had been slipping earlier. Colors no longer mean anything to him, and as he stares at the chestnut tree's root its essence slips away, revealing its bare, disgusting existence:
Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, brought me back unceasingly to its own existence. In vain to repeat: "This is a root"-it didn't work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was ... below all explanation. (p. 129)
Roquentin also applies this to people, refuting the Self-Taught Man's Humanist "love" for random people in a café. The Self-Taught Man only recognizes and appreciates the symbolic properties of the people, not reality. "You see that you don't love them," says Roquentin. "You wouldn't recognize them in the street. They're only symbols in your eyes. You are not at all touched by them: you're touched by the Youth of the Man, the Love of Man and Woman, the Human Voice." "Well, doesn't that exist," offers the Self-Taught Man. "Certainly not, it doesn't exist!" exclaims Roquentin. "Neither Youth nor Maturity nor Old Age nor Death..." (p. 120)
This inability to capture essence, in fact, the inexistance of essence, leads Roquentin to abandon his biography of the Marquis de Rollebon. He has come to see that he can never capture the man's existence in his words, he has seen the folly of history- always subjective, biased, never an actual representation of reality and existence.
Finally, this rejection of essence leads to Roquentin's rejection of his own essence and the embrace of his consciousness as the only reality. "Now when I say 'I,' it seems hollow to me... A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin . . . and suddenly the 'I'pales, pales, and fades out. Lucid, forlorn, consciousness is walled-up; it perpetuates itself. Nobody lives there any more." (p. 170) This leads, of course, to the trouble with existentialist ethics- when the only truth is one's own existence, there is not much to build upon to create the moral foundation for life. (See Active vs Passive Nihilism for an interesting treatment of this problem in regards to Nihilism.) Also, this leads one to consider Solipsism, another philosophy that leaves little room for the establisment of truth, morals, or ethics. As Roquentin writes, "A madman's ravings, for example, are absurd in relation to this situation in which he finds himself, but not in relation to his delerium." (p. 129) Though existentialism never denies that things other than the conscious observer do exist, it has no really persuasive reason for doing so.
This all sounds terribly depressing, of course. Again, a look at Active vs Passive Nihilism, which gives some insight into living a productive life that is still devoid of meaning. Nausea itself, however, is not without a glimmer of hope. At the novel's end, Roquentin, having abandoned his biography and finalized plans to move to Paris, hears his favorite jazz record in his usual café. He is suddenly struck by the thought of the Jewish worker who took some of his spare time, who poured some of his life into the creation of this musical art. He thinks of the composer and of the Negress who sings the song, and realizes that his only salvation is through the immortalizing power of art, of creation. He determines to write a novel, "a story, for example, something that would never happen, an adventure. It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence." (p. 178) "I might succeed-in the past, nothing but the past-in accepting myself," writes Roquentin. His travails end in a sort of transcendent destiny, then, in his realization of the artistic calling, a purpose that can give his life some small meaning. While uplifting after such a depressing work, it doesn't seem fitting that Roquentin would accept this destiny, since it is really no less illusory than the motivations of the rest of humanity, which he has oft maligned.
I hope I have given a good overview of the existentialist themes covered in Nausea. Of course, the above is no substitute for actually reading the book. It's quite short and is very interesting, if one does not get bogged down in the depressing imagery. Actually reading the work that introduced Sartre's philosophy to the world gives one a much better understanding of it. Sartre covers other interesting topics such as our perception of time and delves more deeply into the problems with history. His prose sometimes reminds me of the work of Edgar Allan Poe or even H.P. Lovecraft in tone... I think they would be proud of the genuine horror story he concocts at times. The power of this horror story, however, is that its horror is found in existence itself.
Sources, works cited:
Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre
From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest, TZ Lavine