The book that I would like to analytically introduce and recommend today is one that is most assuredly not for everyone. And I don’t mean that it’s not for everyone because its content is shocking, like American Psycho, nor because its content is controversial, like Lolita, nor because its content is difficult, like Gravity’s Rainbow.
No, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea is not for everyone because it’s entirely possible to read the book cover-to-cover without noticing what the book is doing; and if you do exactly that, then you are likely to find the book rather boring. In fact, Nausea is at its best and most likeable when its unassuming content becomes for you shocking, controversial, and difficult. So I’m now going to try my best to prevent you from having that first experience, so that you can enjoy this amazing work of literature.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Literature and Philosophy:
Two months ago, the topic of Your Friday Phil was a critique of the ethical system presented in Sartre’s essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In that article, I bookended my remarks about his essay with claims concerning my evaluation of his literary efforts (i.e. his plays, short stories, and novels) as superior to his philosophical efforts. If you mistakenly take that as a slight of Sartre’s philosophical clout, allow me to correct your perception; this evaluation is meant to say much more about the immense power and worth of his literature than about the possible weaknesses that exist in his some of his philosophical work.
Of the portion of his literary works with which I am familiar, I recommend his short story “The Wall” as a great starting point if you’ve never read any of Sartre’s writing. It does a good job of introducing both of the things that are at play in Nausea and liable to be missed by an inattentive reader: proto-surreal symbolic situations and the relationship between organic matter and existential revelations. If you came out of that sentence more confused than you went in, give me a moment and I’ll clarify.
On the surface, Nausea is the fitful journal of an increasingly disillusioned historian named Antoine Roquentin, who records his thoughts and experiences as he mills around the town of Bouville (which literally translates to ‘mud town’). But just below that fairly unremarkable surface lie those two elements mentioned above.
Symbolism in Nausea:
The first subtle element, proto-surreal symbolic situations, is my way of saying the events, objects, and locations in Sartre’s literary works are potently symbolic of concepts and ideas—so much so that they verge on (without truly becoming) surreal in nature. The eponymous wall in “The Wall” is a case-in-point of this. In Nausea, everything from navigating the area’s fog to surveying paintings in the local museum to sitting in a cafe and listening to a record carry with them the psychological and philosophical weight of Antoine Roquentin’s (and by extension, Sartre’s) considerations.
Yet, as I said above, if you’re not reading with a suspicious eye scanning for what Sartre is really getting at, then sequences like the lengthy episode in the museum may seem to trod along; if you notice what’s going on, however, that same sequence feels like a gathering earthquake, shaking loose assumptions that Roquentin (and possibly you) had long held dear.
Letting events, objects, and locations serve dual purposes as symbols and subjects is nothing new in literature, but what sets Sartre’s application of this technique apart is the aplomb with which Sartre grasps the irony of his project. Sartre expresses meaninglessness by imbuing meaning, and expresses the contingency of life through the necessity of a work of art. As much as I might favor the symbolic content in some other books, they do seem to lack a certain self-awareness after seeing how Jean-Paul Sartre handles them. These notions are considered explicitly in Nausea, yet the novel form itself adds that final layer of intelligible irony.
Philosophy in Nausea:
The second subtle element, the relationship between organic matter and existential revelations, brings the reader of Nausea closer than anything else in the book to Sartre’s own philosophical underpinnings. I have previously written in this series about existential philosophy in the work of Leo Tolstoy, but Tolstoy was a writer first and a philosopher second, unlike Jean-Paul Sartre (regardless of my above ranking of his different pursuits).
Antoine Roquentin rests his hand on a chair and suddenly the arbitrariness of the notion of ‘function’ as ostensibly possessed by objects like chairs becomes overwhelming. And, after all, worries Roquentin, isn’t it possible that the chair has a better claim at a definite meaning and purpose than a person does? Similar encounters with other people, with his own body, and with plants often attack Antoine Roquentin with an ambiguous, light-headed malady: nausea.
The pervasive unease of this nausea carries within it favorite existentialist topics like angst and despair. You may find this phenomenon strangely familiar: you consider something, and you are struck by the notion that there is no reason that the thing should be one way, and not another.
The most common version of this experience is probably with language. What is the actual relationship between the word ‘tree’ and those things outside with bark and leaves? This is what is meant by arbitrariness (and, in other contexts, social construction). Well, turn that revelation up to its maximum, where it starts applying to almost everything, and you too may experience Sartrian, Roquentin-esque nausea.
The book is unhurried, but it is not, overall, a book of droll, banal depression. Though not so humorous as Catch-22 or The Canterbury Tales, there is a good deal to laugh at (not least of all at the expense of Antoine Roquentin). And, without spoiling anything, I promise that Nausea does not endeavor to leave its reader wallowing in angst and despair—nauseated—when it is over.
It is an odd book, but if you have even a passing interest in philosophy (i.e. a passing interest in thinking about anything in your life with more than the minimum investigation), then Nausea is a must-read classic, and a gateway into the arenas of thought that try to answer life’s biggest questions.
Meeting Angst and Despair: