Nausea – Jean Paul Sartre
“Every existent is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance”
This book is about a 30 year old man called Antoine Roquentin, living alone in the fictional town of Bouville (thought to be based on Le Havre) who after acquiring a handsome fortune and after traveling the world, moves to Bouville to write a historical book about an 18th century French aristocrat. The book is not divided into chapters as such, but rather is presented as a series of diary entries all of greatly differing lengths.
Throughout the novel the protagonist suffers from intermittent feelings of nausea in relation to everyday objects such a pebble he holds in his hand, buildings as he walks down streets and trees he observes in parks. The naseua is brought about by difficulty in understanding the relationship of his own existence with the existence of these objects/his perception of them. He feels that the physical characteristics of objects and people are just a comforting facade to mask the ‘nothingness’ of existence. Such things are therefore ‘superfluous’ and unnecessary so their presence is unexplained/unjustified which leads to nausea, the feeling of the need to vomit (metaphorically).
While sitting in a park one day the protagonist he notices the root of a chestnut tree but fails to describe it adequately to himself as being ‘black’, its actual existence is not connected with names which describe it. This is an example of Sartre’s theory about existence preceding essence of things, things exist independently and before our interpretation of them. So existence of objects is primary and raw and detached from us, and there is an uneasy relationship between this fact and our experience of them.
The philosophical conclusion to be reached in all of this is that since there is no God for which existence derives direct/definite meaning then human existence is contingent. However, we remain ‘condemned to be free’ to create our own essence and take full responsibility for this.
The book ends somewhat unspectacularly by the protagonist moving to Paris in order to write another book (the subject of which he is unsure) in the hope that it will be a book which inspires people, and will be the beginning/defining point of his search for authenticity.
I have very mixed feelings about this book. There were brief moment of brilliance within it, when the protagonist describes his fleeting feelings of nausea while in the cafe and during his conversation with an acquaintance during lunch. However, the book was actually tedious to read mostly. I believe existentialism and philosophy generally are better served by writing in the traditional format i.e. almost scientifically setting out arguments and theories with brief aphorisms which may contain concise and succinct stories as examples. There is a lot of descriptive waffle in the book and very little pure philosophy as such.
The underlying philosophical concept is brilliant and very interesting, but I feel one is better off reading this summary or another summary about the book rather than drudging through the novel.