Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre
Published in 1938, Nausea depicts one man’s experience of existentialist angst and I think everyone has this crisis at some point in their human development.
Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist of the story, is a historian who lives a quiet life, quite anti-socially and quite materially bare. He spends his time writing a book on an 18th Century political figure, listening to people’s conversations and guarding against the waves of nausea that existence inflicts upon his conscious self. He makes a vague friend in the form of the ‘Auto-didact’ and talks about Anny a bit – a past love he later goes to visit.
It’s an extremely interesting novel and the first I’ve read that explicitly discusses that existential feeling of everything being reduced in importance to everything else, whether it’s a human being or a decomposing leaf in a park. He attempts to describe that moment in man’s consciousness with real force and totality. Of course, human experience makes it difficult to translate that emotion into literature but Sartre achieved it almost absolutely. Furthermore, the language in the novel is very beautiful – stark but celebrating that starkness, which elevates it to something magnificent.
I think that that is where Sartre and I part ways, however. Where Sartre and existentialist philosophers believed that because of this clarity and conscious moment of remarkable magnitude, so much so that it changes the way you see the world, indicates the absurd meaninglessness of life and the absence of God, I find it has does the opposite. Sartre’s protagonist understands and accepts this concept of life and yet still searches to form some meaning in his life, he still chooses to live even though he realizes that his life is meaningless and therefore superfluous. It is this choice, the choice to find meaning and to construct one’s own meaning for one’s life which suggests to me that there may be meaning in the world and in our lives – something which may be unarticulated or beyond our comprehension to see or understand, but still something which draws us back into believing that there is some reason to keep living.
It is an extremely interesting read and encourages one to question the world around us. Never a dull moment with great literature, eh? It’s well worth a read even if you don’t believe the theories being promoted, as it will help shape your own.