This post contains major spoilers.
I read the Lloyd Alexander translation of this novel.
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre is an existentialist classic. First published in 1938, this is the tale, told in journal entries, of Antoine Roquentin. In it, the protagonist faces an existentialist crisis. This is a deeply philosophical, metaphysical and, at times, challenging account of this crisis. As he wanders around a French seaport town, Roquentin is beset with despair and a kind of sickness of the soul that he likens to nausea.
A picture slowly emerges of a man who is facing a malaise brought on by what he perceives as meaninglessness to existence. Much of this work involves his inward ruminations and pain, as well as his interactions with other characters. These include “The Self-Taught Man," who is an intellectual humanist, and Anny, who is Roquentin’s ex-girlfriend, who are present for the protagonist to exchange ideas and emotions with.
A basic understanding of existentialist philosophy as well as Sartre’s version of it is indispensible in deciphering this book. Any summary of the themes presented in this novel is an oversimplification. However, it begins to dawn on Roquentin that the real world, as well as people’s beliefs and lives, contain absolutely no meaning. Furthermore, the protagonist concludes that the past is also meaningless, and it is only the present that counts. Thus, all of humanity seems to be constructing false personas as well as invalid narratives of their lives based upon the past. The above comprehensions weigh on Roquentin, increasing his depression and anguish.
At one point he observes about humanity.
“We were a heap of living creatures, irritated, embarrassed at ourselves, we hadn’t the slightest reason to be there, none of us, each one, confused, vaguely alarmed, felt in the way in relation to the others.”
“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”
Roquentin is often disorientated and continually experiences strange physical and mental perturbations. Often, his musings veer into the metaphysical. His thoughts take him into long and complex ruminations upon the nature of existence. Some of the passages make fairly clear sense. Others are very complex and obtuse, and I found that they were difficult to discern. I did turn to outside sources of commentary relating to both this book and to Sartre’s philosophy in general. These were extremely helpful.
This novel’s ending is surprising, not because of its conclusions, but because of its abrupt change in tone. This book is, up until its last few pages, unrelentingly grim. At the end, it takes an abrupt optimistic turn. Throughout the story there are hints, that in creativity and art, Roquentin might find meaning. In the concluding pages, while he is listening to his favorite jazz record, Some of These Days, in a café, he has an epiphany.
In this moment he observes,
"I feel something brush against me lightly and I dare not move because I am afraid it will go away. Something I didn’t know any more: a sort of joy."
Roquentin quickly decides that he is going to write a novel that will be deeply impactful. At that point, this book seems to end on an optimistic note.
Finding meaning through creativity and art is a somewhat common idea that I find to be intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The turnaround, however, was just a bit too abrupt. In my opinion, the novel would have been philosophically and aesthetically stronger had Sartre had more comprehensively developed this idea and devoted more pages to it. Such a dramatic change in attitude may lead one to suspect some irony. However, based upon some of my readings concerning Sartre’s philosophy, he was apparently serious about this ending.
As someone who has pondered the meaning, and possible meaninglessness, of life, I have always thought that art and creativity is one of the valid factors that can give life meaning. However, as Sartre seems to be proposing this as the primary reason for existence, I think that he is missing a lot of other things.
Many will find this book challenging, as it contains difficult prose that includes a lot of passages that are surreal and some that are in the stream of consciousness style. Furthermore the philosophical ponderings are often dense and difficult to follow. Much of the book is also very dark. With all that, this is a thought provoking and adventurous excursion into the meaning of life. Hence, I found it to be both enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. It is full of ideas that are interesting and that have had an important impact on modern thought. This work is a must read for anyone who is interested or likes to read stories involving existentialist philosophy.