Wednesday, 23 June 2010

'Nausea' by Jean-Paul Sartre

For various complex reasons I decided to read Jean-Paul Sartre's novel, 'Nausea' (Penguin Classics, 1963) and found it to, indeed, be a very sickening read!

In his Introduction, James Wood, who has been Chief Literary Critic fo the Guardian and editor at the New Republic, in Washington, DC had this to say about Nausea. It:

" one of the few books devoted to the logical exploration of a world without meaning. It is a philosophical novel which, if it does not quite propose philosophical arguments in the formal sense, discusses and dramatizes is one of these books...which becomes the document of its own such books, the writer-narrator talks about writing, and exhorts himself to write a great, solving work; only slowly do we realize that we are reading that very work." (p. vii).

So, the narrator, Antoine Roquentin in the book is himself writing a book. Even so, he lacks any real purpose and direction in his life; and walks around in a state of sickening confusion. He frequently visits the library and the art gallery and talks to the Autodidact. As James Wood says:

"He goes for walks in the town; watches his solidly bourgeois fellow-citizens; writes his book; goes to the library; has occasional encounters with a man he has nick-named the Autodidact; thinks about his former love, Anny, and so on." (p. viii)

Whilst writing this book Sartre (as an existentialist) believed that we were truly free and could make free and sensible choices. Roquentin is left with the responsibility of trying to implement this; and he wasn't doing it all that successfully in many ways. Although he did write the book of course, and that was a big deal. Writing it must have really liberated Sartre, I think, and enabled him to move on.

Sartre was only a young man (33 years old) when he wrote Nausea and this fact, in itself, probably tells us quite a lot. I think that he was trying to sort out and make sense of, many of his own thought processes. However, in the process, he seemed to care nothing, or next to nothing, for his readers at all. It is very hard to engage with the book and the character; instead, one just does indeed feel sickened by it all! Perhaps, in that way, it achieved its objective anyway, although I do think it was rather self-indulgent on Sartre's part. I also think that Virginia Woolf's writing was very self-indulgent. But Sartre really changed and progressed.
Even so, Sartre certainly portrayed vividly what can happen to someone if they think in the way that Antoine Roquentin did: with no clear aims and direction; with muddled and circular thinking and being and ways of operating; with an unwillingness to take responsibility and to engage properly with life; with a lack of interest in communicating effectively with others etc. Take this paragraph from the novel, for example:

"My thought is me: that is why I can't stop. I exist by what I think...and I can't prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment - this is terrible - if I exist, it is because I hate existing. It is I, it is I who pull myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: hatred and disgust for existence are just so many ways of making me exist, of thrusting me into existence. Thoughts are born behind me like a feeling of giddiness, I can feel them being born behind my head...If I give way, they'll come here in front, between my eyes - and I go on giving way, the thought grows and grows and here it is, huge, filling me completely and renewing my existence." (p. 145)

And here we have something about the nausea - he is indeed, heartily sick of himself, it seems.

"The Nausea is giving me a brief respite. But I know that it will come back: it is my normal condition. Only today my body is too exhausted to stand it. Sick people too have happy weaknesses which relieve them for a few hours of the consciousness of their suffering. Now and then I give such a big yawn that tears roll down my cheeks. It is a deep, deep boredom, the deep heart of existence, the very matter I am made of. I don't let myself go, far from it; this morning I took a bath, I shaved. Only, when I think back over all those careful little actions, I can't understand how I could bring myself to perform them. They are so futile. It was my habits, probably, which performed them for me. They aren't dead, my habits, they go on bustling about, gently, insidiously weaving their webs, they wash me, dry me, dress me, like nursemaids. " (pp. 223-224).

And so it goes on and on and on.

Enough of all this sickening stuff!


  1. I just passed by ur blog and cant believe ur take on nausea. For me this book is amazing and breaks barriers. A fantastic read and his style can be seen to be emulated by members of the beat generation, especially burrows.

  2. I didn't enjoy reading 'Nausea', it has to be said (and it was touch and go whether I would actually finish it!). But at time goes on and I reflect, I realise that the book has had an important and lasting effect on me. Indeed, quite a profound effect really, and has helped me to develop my own thinking in certain ways. So, I am glad that I persevered with the book.