Wednesday, December 25, 2013

An Absurd Existence

Nausea Nausea 
by Jean-Paul Sartre

“My thought is me: that's why I can't stop. I exist because I think… and I can't stop myself from thinking. At this very moment - it's frightful - if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.” 

“I am going to outlive myself. Eat, sleep, sleep, eat. Exist slowly, softly, like these trees, like a puddle of water, like the red bench in the streetcar.”   ― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

This is Sartre's first novel and one of his best-known. I read it as part of an introductory class on Existentialism at the University of Chicago's Basic Program of Liberal Studies. Sartre's novel depicts the life of a dejected historian in a town similar to Le Havre, who becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in the protagonist a sense of nausea. Colin Wilson commented on this novel that "Roquentin feels insignificant before things. Without the meaning his Will would normally impose on it, his existence is absurd. Causality — Hume’s bugbear — has collapsed; consequently there are no adventures." While it is widely considered one of the canonical works of existentialism I did not find it as helpful as The Plague by Camus or The Trial by Kafka for my development of a better understanding of existentialism. I was not impressed with Sartre's approach to Roquentin, the main character, who seemed to lack direction, unable to process or even recognize reality. I found it difficult to appreciate Sartre's handling of this and other issues. Even the humor present in the actions of Ogier P., the autodidact, fell flat.

In his essay "What Is literature?", Sartre wrote, "On the one hand, the literary object has no substance but the reader's subjectivity . . . But, on the other hand, the words are there like traps to arouse our feelings and to reflect them towards us . . . Thus, the writer appeals to the reader's freedom to collaborate in the production of the work." His appeal did not work well for me in this novel. Perhaps another time it will.

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Brian Joseph said...

I have been wanting to read this work for a long time. Interesting that you did not find that it lives up to its reputation. If I am correct many of the thinkers that we label as existentialist were very much at odds as how they saw the world. Perhaps that is one reason why Sartre's view seems unfocused.

James said...

There certainly are some very different takes on "existentialism" from Kierkegaard to Sartre. Of those I have read I admire Camus' views the most.