Monday, November 2, 2015

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

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.”

And later,

“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.


Suko said...

Incisive and interesting post, Brian Joseph! I read No Exit by Sartre many years ago (I had to refresh my memory of it just now on Wikipedia). It sounds as if life was making the protagonist of Nausea, Antoine, sick; though he longed for meaning and purpose in life, he dwelled on existential emptiness. I'm glad the book at least presents the idea that art has value, and contributes meaning to existence (although as you point out, other things do, too). It does sound like a very thought-provoking book.

JacquiWine said...

I enjoyed reading your review, Brian - this sounds like a very thought-provoking work of literature. While I agree with the idea that art and creativity can add meaning to existence, as you say, many other things have the potential to enrich our lives - not least our relationships with other human beings.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I want to read No Exit soon. Like several other thinkers. Sartre puts enormous value upon art and seems to center life's meaning on it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui.

I agree with you in regards to relationships giving life much of its meaning. Though I do not agree with him, Sartre does address the in the narrative and seems to be saying that this ultimately does not work.

Vishy said...

Wonderful review, Brian! I have wanted to read Sartre's book for a long time. I have a mixed opinion about him - I think he was one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, but he was probably not very likeable too, and I don't know why he fought with his great friend Camus. But this is a book that I want to read and from your review, I think I will love it. Thanks for this beautiful, enlightening review!

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Whilst doubtlessly thought provoking I'm sure I'd personally find this depressing.

Interesting to think on reports that link depression with those who are highly philosophical, to me it sounds that Sartre was not without his 'demons.

James said...

This is a very thoughtful review of what I found to be both a difficult and troubling novel. I think you identified some of the key reasons I found it so problematic. And I like your suggestion that the novel would have been stronger if Sartre had been more comprehensive in his development of the philosophical implications of his novel. While the idea of deriving meaning from creativity and art is appealing I believe that there is more to the search for meaning in life.

So many books, so little time said...

I need to look this one up Brian, I didn't read your post in depth because I don't want to read the spoilers as I aim to seek this book out. The title is grabbing, think I will go have a nose at the synopsis and if it doesn't seem for me I will come back and read your thoughts. If I do I will get it and then come back and read your thoughts on it.


Scott W. said...

Funny - Nausea just came up a couple days ago during a dinner discussion about works and writers everyone used to read that don't seem to get read much anymore. I guess we were all wrong!

Scott W. said...

I meant to add that I'm never able to think of this book now without thinking of Boris Vian's send-up in his novel L'Ecume des jours, in which the philosopher "Jean Sol-Partre" is writing a 20-volume encyclopedia of Nausea and selling, at readings, vials of preserved vomit. (Vian and Sartre were actually quite good friends in real life).

HKatz said...

With the wrong author, a novel built on these kinds of ruminations can be exasperating. But I'm interested in reading this. I think I'd first have to become better acquainted with his philosophy.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Vishy.

I agree that Sartre was a difficult character to figure out. There is also the fact that he supported Stalinist Russia during some of its worst excesses.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Thanks for stopping by. If you give this a read I would love to know what you think of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I never heard that about philosophical folks and depression. It makes sense though.

The ending was actually very optimistic so it might counter the depressing aspects of this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James- In terms of the difficulty this would have been near impossible for me without a little reference material.

You described what I thought was one of the main shortcomings of the book perfectly. The end theme was underdeveloped.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - I am sometimes a little out of the reading loop so I am not sure that anyone else is reading this in this day and age ;)

Vian's takeoff of this sounds hilarious.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - One nice thing about Sartre, is that summaries of his philosophy are over the internet.

Knowing the basics of it was instrumental in me getting much out of this book.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I've never read Satre although I know he is considered the father of modern French thought and philosophy.
Also interesting that he, by your account, finds meaning in music and art. I agree that art and music (speaking as a musician) enrich and deepen my joy of life.
However, I then wonder why artists and musicians are more prone to suicide.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - The issue with artists being unhappy is on some ways a paradox.

Though Sartre had enormous influence upon French philosophy, I think that many also do not like him.

Jonathan said...

Great post Brian. Although I liked Nausea, Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy of books is even better. I always thought it a shame he didn't write more novels.

Violet said...

For me, Sartre perfectly captures the experience of depression combined with an existential crisis. I think that when Roquentin's cold, empty heart is touched by music, he has a momentary sense of joy and hope that through art and creativity he might find a purpose in life, and a reason to carry on living. I like that the book ends suddenly with that notion because it makes us think about how the idea might be played out in real life. I haven't read Nausea for years but I should probably give it another whirl now that I'm older and less angst-ridden. :) I'm glad you read it and wrote about it: Sartre doesn't get enough attention these days.

thecuecard said...

I guess I haven't tried reading Sarte but I did read Camus' The Stranger which perhaps had a bit simpler language. Do you know if they had any major differences in their philosophies? It's been so long ago that I read Camus that I have forgotten it. Nausea sounds tough! The meaningless of life seems a bit too dark or unpleasant to contemplate on a daily basis. I'd rather con myself and not think about that at all. Life is short.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jonathan. I have not heard much about Roads to Freedom. I will have to check it out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I understand what you mean, Roquetin's future is left as so open. This indeterminate future does have value. I wonder what happened to Roquetin.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I found Camus to be more accessible then Sartre for a lot of reasons.

One big difference in the Philosophies of the two is that here, Sartre champions that value of art as meaningful. Camus laid out on The Plague, advocates the alleviation of human suffering as giving life the ultimate meaning.

Maria Behar said...

Fascinating, outstanding commentary as usual, Brian!

This is one of those books that I came across in college, and never dared to read. I wanted to do so, but I was having some issues with the meaning of life myself back then, and didn't want to feel worse. Lol.

I do have a nonfiction overview of existentialism that I should really read for my literary fiction/nonfiction blog. I just have a cursory knowledge of this philosophical movement.

From what you've revealed of the plot, the title of the novel is very appropriate indeed! This is the perfect word to describe the feelings many people must have felt when things like the Holocaust and 9/11 took place. This is the reason I no longer watch the news on TV. Most of the events reported are negative and frequently even tragic. Watching this sort of thing definitely brings up questions of meaninglessness and despair.

I'm surprised that Sartre ended this novel on an optimistic note. After all, his philosophy is entirely pessimistic. As you say, it just doesn't make sense, so maybe he intended the ending to be ironic. On the other hand, perhaps he finally acknowledged that his views were too horribly depressing, even for him! Lol.

Finding meaning in creativity and art is certainly true. I have found, for instance, that book blogging has really helped me find meaning in life. Of course, I also have my religious beliefs. I find these to be comforting, even though I do have some quibbles with organized religion.

Blogging, for me, is rewarding not only because of the writing involved (and I do love to write!) but also because of the aesthetic elements. With the help of the Blogger software, I have designed two blogs (the backgrounds, colors, and fonts are provided by the software, so it was a matter of combining them in ways pleasing to me) that I'm very happy with. So yes, art and creativity -- to which I would add the joys of intellectual analysis -- do indeed give life meaning! And it's not necessary to become famous in these fields, either, in order to derive enjoyment from them.

Thanks for another great post!! Have a good one! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Based upon both the text of this book and other things that I have read about Sartre, he really was optimistic about finding meaning in artistic beauty.

I can tell how you have found meaning in creativity through your blog. A perusal of it shows that it is a labor of love. It is full of both visuals and content that are superb.

Maria Behar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maria Behar said...

(Some editorial changes...)

You're very welcome, Brian!

Indeed art, beauty, and creativity give meaning to life! Sharon made an excellent point, though, when she mentioned that, ironically, many artists and musicians are more prone to commit suicide than the average person. I think that relates to the fact that these people are very sensitive souls. They feel and see the world differently from average folks, and thus, are frequently misunderstood, and suffer great emotional pain as a result. Van Gogh is a case in point. To compound the irony, Picasso did not seem to suffer as much. Although he obviously had an artistic temperament, his was not of the idealistic type, as was Van Gogh's. His numerous affairs and obvious misogyny bear this out.

Jacqui mentions the value of relationships with other human beings. I didn't refer to this in my previous comment because I happen to think that relationships are frequently not a source of either meaning or happiness, but instead, of much frustration and misery. At least, that has been my experience. Others have been luckier.

Book Blogging has been a source of great personal fulfillment and happiness to me since I began to engage in this activity in Sept., 2010! It combines my love for art, books, and writing, and I do consider it a labor of love! When you do something because you love it, then no monetary reward is even necessary.

Thank you so much for your compliment regarding my blogging!! It means a lot to me to have this profoundly rewarding activity so appreciated!! ; )

The Bookworm said...

I agree that finding meaning through creativity is essential. As a teen, I'd keep journals to jot my thoughts down and I would also sketch. It was an outlet for me. Now creating with my hands, with my crochet, is therapeutic.
Interesting post on a book that sounds thought provoking.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida -I agree, creativity, both our own as well as enjoying that of others, is indeed one of several reasons that one can find meaning in life.

Anonymous said...

I had to read this during the summer between high school and prep school, it was a mandatory read.
I remember I struggled with it greatly.

Reading your interesting review, it seems it didn't age well.

On the contrary, L'écume des jours by Boris Vian (The Foam of Days, I think it is in English) is a marvelous piece of literature. I highly recommend it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I do think that this is still an important book though I think that I more fleshed out ending would have benefitted the work.

The other thing is that I would have found this nearly incomprehensible had I not had access to outside sources to help me.

Caroline said...

I read this as a teenager and it didn't do me any good at the time. I read it just after reading Moravia's La Noia (Boredom). I can absolutely not remember the ending.
To be honest, I don't think he's a good novelist. His writing isn't very stylish.
I like him much better a sa playwright.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - This would have gone completely over my head if I read it as teenager.

I have not read any of his plays. I need to give them a read.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I'm kind of fascinated by your post here Brian. I've never read this one, and i do like when I try something new and it has the surreal effect - definitely a plus. Thanks for sharing

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Diane - This one definitely had moments of surrealism though it does not dominate the narrative. I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian, read this & a lot of Sartre years ago seem to recall enjoying The roads to reason trilogy & like yourself felt that this was underdeveloped although I've always preferred Camus & his absurdist take on things to Sartre's existentialism

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian, read this & a lot of Sartre years ago seem to recall enjoying The roads to reason trilogy & like yourself felt that this was underdeveloped although I've always preferred Camus & his absurdist take on things to Sartre's existentialism

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - At least based upon this one book, I like Camus better also.

I like his writing better. I am also more partial of his theme of helping others as a primary reason to exist.