My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic 1938 first novel, you can find many of the characteristics of the last decade or two’s contemporary fiction: fragmentation, negative affect, indifference to plot or style, veiled autobiography, and a general conviction of ambient meaninglessness lit only by brief flares of scarcely consoling insight. Sartre’s novel also exemplifies the limits of this aesthetic.
Given the persistence of its theme and method, then, Nausea necessitates a closer look. The novel takes the form of a lonely and well-traveled intellectual’s diary. Antoine Roquentin has come to the seaside town of Bouville to research the Marquis de Rollebon, an 18th-century political intriguer. But lately Roquentin feels unable to write, unable to order his research into any meaningful pattern that does not feel merely willful:
I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved. These are honest hypotheses which take the facts into account: but I sense so definitely that they come from me, and that they are simply a way of unifying my own knowledge. Not a glimmer comes from Rollebon’s side. Slow, lazy, sulky, the facts adapt themselves to the rigour of the order I wish to give them; but it remains outside of them. I have the feeling of doing a work of pure imagination.
Roquentin has spent three years in Bouville, a regular in its local library, its museum, and its cafes. He has no connections—only the memory of his former love, Anny, and of his global travels—and the relationships he forms in Bouville are ironical and alienated ones. Notable here is an oleaginous library regular Roquentin calls the Self-Taught Man, who is reading his way through the shelves alphabetically. He is successively revealed over the course of the novel to be a humanist, a socialist, and a predatory pederast—all of which allow Sartre to poke fun at the pretensions of the would-be cultivated and civilized in this meaningless and moral-less universe.
For Roquentin’s problem is a metaphysical variant on the title affliction: he has perceived that the world is a scene of bare phenomena, that any order we claim to perceive is only one we have imposed, and that existence is in reality nothing but a disordered mass of teeming slop. Sartre puts the main energy of this novel without any plot or much characterization into vivid evocations of life as slimy mess and affront:
And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.
Existence everywhere, infinitely, in excess, for ever and everywhere; existence—which is limited only by existence. I sank down on the bench, stupefied, stunned by this profusion of beings without origin: everywhere blossomings, hatchings out, my ears buzzed with existence, my very flesh throbbed and opened, abandoned itself to the universal burgeoning. It was repugnant.
The novel does rouse itself to a few great scenes. My favorite comes when Roquentin goes to the museum and judges himself against the imposing portraits of the burghers who built the town. Roquentin here stages the 19th-century bourgeoisie’s world-making energies of social organization and familial reproduction against his own impotence, suggesting a political and sexual context for his bohemian queasiness:
But his judgment went through me like a sword and questioned my very right to exist. And it was true, I had always realized it; I hadn’t the right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant or a microbe.
I was neither father nor grandfather, not even a husband. I did not have a vote, I hardly paid any taxes: I could not boast of being a taxpayer, an elector, nor even of having the humble right to honour which twenty years of obedience confers on an employee. My existence began to worry me seriously. Was I not a simple spectre?
Further supporting the sexual argument are Roquentin’s figurations of existence as masculine rape (“existence takes my thoughts from behind and gently expands them from behind; someone takes me from behind…”) and as overwhelming female flesh (“Fat, hot, sensual, absurd, with red ears. I could see the woman’s neck and shoulders […] attentive to the swelling of her breasts…”). Existence is sex and the flesh as such, which is “sticky filth” when seen without the idealizations of erotic or familial love.
Furthermore, forming a motif with the Self-Taught Man’s pederasty, raw existence when seen without illusion is a kind of cosmic sexual abuse: the terrorized child’s experience of the father’s invading phallus and the mother’s smothering breast. If this poignant theme were developed with any nuance or sensitivity, rather than jeering cynicism, it might have lifted the novel to a higher plane of complexity and feeling. But Sartre is not interested.
In a late scene, Roquentin meets his lost love Anny in Paris; in their long hotel-room conversation, she discloses that she has undergone a similar conversion to nihilism—significantly, she has grown fatter since he’s last seen her, signifying her own submission to existence’s plenitude of meaningless matter. Having given up on life, she announces that she’s now a kept woman and will not see Roquentin again.
Roquentin decides to leave Bouville for Paris at the end of the novel, but not before finding a way out of his bilious predicament, unlike Anny. All through the novel, he has enjoyed listening to a jazz song in a cafe. This motif culminates in his projection into the lives of those exotic Americans he supposes to have crafted it, and thereby beatified their otherwise futile lives: “So the two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress.”
In other words, art is the only way to order the universe legitimately, provisionally, without the bad faith of those sober, bourgeois men and women who claim absolute truth for their arbitrarily imposed meanings. That this saving insight comes from America, and particularly from American minorities, hints that the modern and the marginal best understand this precarious solution to the existential dilemma, at least in act if not in thought (whether we should concede this patronizing Gallic primitivism is another question). The novel ends, therefore, with Roquentin finally in a position to write—not history or biography but a “work of pure imagination,” which is to say the very book we’re reading.
Existentialism in a nutshell: the world has no pre-given essence, so our proper response, once we have gotten over the anxiety this occasions, is to create our own values in absolute commitment to a life-project that we nevertheless recognize as contingent, provisional, and ever in progress.
(Sartre spells out this thesis with pedagogical lucidity in his postwar lecture, Existentialism Is a Humanism, where he distinguishes his version of humanism, which grants each human being creative agency, to the kind he represents in the Self-Taught Man, which passively worships human achievements without recognizing that the human project is unfinished and calls for endless ongoing invention from all of us.)
Most of the above argument follows logically, but not all: Roquentin’s disgust at life is not actually entailed by the thesis that existence precedes essence. What is his revulsion but another imposed meaning, no less than if he’d found existence beautiful or rational instead? Presuming this disgust—as if there were no possible response but nausea to a tree or a town or a penis or a breast, as if this affect were not conditioned by a drive épater la bourgeoisie in lieu of disinterested argument—allows Sartre to justify, rather self-righteously, his fiction’s utter charmlessness, to disparage as a rube anyone who ever thought to take any pleasure from nature or novels.
As Nabokov wrote in infamously, amusingly damning 1949 review of Lloyd Alexander’s translation:
The crux of the whole book seems to be the illumination that comes to Roquentin when he discovers that his “nausea” is the result of the pressure of an absurd and amorphous but very tangible world. Unfortunately for the novel, all this remains on a purely mental level, and the discovery might have been of some other nature, say solipsistic, without in the least affecting the rest of the book. When an author inflicts his idle and arbitrary philosophic fancy on a helpless person whom he has invented for that purpose, a lot of talent is needed to have the trick work. One has no special quarrel with Roquentin when he decides that the world exists. But the task to make the world exist as a work of art was beyond Sartre’s powers.
And as the most memorable review on Goodreads, by MJ Nicholls, observes:
No attempt to create a novel has been made, apart from using that most lazy of constructs, the diary, opening the whole work out to a meandering thought-stream of excruciating random dullness.
However excused by Sartre’s unwarranted metaphysical resentment, Nausea is not fully imagined enough—even in its initial nihilism—to redeem Roquentin’s despair or to reconstellate his experience as significant form. His concluding epiphany is belied by the balance of the book; he is like a student essayist who gropes his way to a successful conclusion and then forgets to revise his text to make it appear inevitable from the first sentence, which knowing illusion is the order Roquentin perceives in his favorite song, in all achieved art, traditional or experimental. The philosopher’s spite defeats his insight, and his spite, not his insight, lives on today.