Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

You must love people.  Men are admirable.  I want to vomit--and suddenly, there it is: the Nausea. 
My wife's copy

One summer while I was in college I had a part-time job with a company called RGIS, doing inventory of retail stores. I worked with a young woman who turned out to be the valedictorian or salutatorian of my high school in the year after my class.  (I think I was our forty-seconduatorian.) She was into existentialism, and we talked about Camus and Sartre. At Rutgers I read The Stranger, which I liked, and I tried to read Nausea in my free time, but it defeated me. Five or ten years ago I read The Plague, and finished it, but found it kind of boring.

Anyway, this week I took another stab at Nausea. I have to admit that as I took my wife’s copy off the shelf I had second thoughts about spending over 200 pages with a guy whom I'd heard would run around Gay Paree praising Stalin and Mao and denouncing the bourgeoisie and Proust, but I told myself that it would be like a literary version of TV’s “Chopped,” where they sometimes trick a vegetarian into cooking up an octopus.  (Summer Kriegshauser, I have not forgotten your plight!)

I need not have worried--Nausea, first published in 1938 and translated by Lloyd Alexander (apparently not the Black Cauldron guy) in 1959, isn't a Communist propaganda screed or even a particularly difficult novel.  (I guess I failed to finish it back in the late '80s out of sheer laziness.)  My wife's copy is the ninth printing of New Directions' paperback edition, copyright 1964. 

Nausea is the diary, dated 1932, of Frenchman Antoine Roquentin.  After spending some years traveling the world, getting involved with various women and getting caught in various scrapes, Roquentin, age approximately 30 years, is staying in the French port town of Bouville, researching a book he is writing on the Marquis de Rollebon, an adventurer of the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Era.  Many of the Marquis's papers are deposited in the library of Bouville.  As the story begins, Roquentin has noticed a change in his life; he used to enjoy touching paper, picking up stray bits of paper from the ground, but all of a sudden he can no longer bring himself to pick up pieces of paper--they disgust him.  Similarly, picking up a stone on the beach, he find that the feel of the stone disgusts him.  Soon, everything disgusts him, from a statue in the town square to the way a barkeep's purple suspenders blend in with his blue shirt.  Our narrator calls this existential disgust "the Nausea."

Roquentin describes in detail his walks through the town, his time sitting in the library and in bars and cafes, and a visit to a local museum full of portraits of the prominent men of Bouville, the bourgeois types who made Bouville a bustling place of trade and maintained order in the town during periods of social unrest.  Roquentin seems to be subtly mocking the middle class, their Sunday rituals of church attendance and promenading in the commercial district, their devotion to business and public order (he thinks it hilarious that one of the civic leaders memorialized in the museum was very short.)  But he also envies them their family life and respectability--Roquentin himself has no family to speak of, and no friends.

A later translation
The most interesting character in the novel is perhaps a man who frequents the library and who approaches Roquentin and tries to strike up a friendship with our narrator. This man has taken up the task of systematically reading all the nonfiction books in the library, starting with the authors whose names begin with "A" and proceeding through the shelves alphabetically.  Roquentin dubs him "The Self-Taught Man."  The Self-Taught Man is a socialist, and hopes Roquentin shares his sentiments.  However, when The Self-Taught Man dramatically reveals his creed, our narrator finds him ridiculous and staggers off, afflicted with an attack of The Nausea.    

At the end of the novel things go to pieces for our small cast of characters.  Roquentin abandons his work on his book.  He meets for the first time in four years the woman with whom he had a long term relationship, and the subject of numerous flashbacks, Anny.  Anny explains that she has abandoned her career as an actress and is a kept woman; she is as disgusted by life as Roquentin and all her dreams have been discarded.  Roquentin's hopes of renewing their relationship are dashed.  The Self-Taught Man is caught touching a teenage boy in the middle of the library, and is exposed as what we would nowadays call a pedophile.  (This was foreshadowed by earlier references to a flasher who wanted to expose himself to a little girl, and the rape and murder of a little girl reported in the newspaper, as well as the Self-Taught Man's description of his socialism as "a love for all men.")  The Self-Taught Man's quest to read all those books has been aborted; he won't be allowed to return to the library.

Roquentin determines to leave Bouveille for Paris.  He sits in one of his haunts one last time, asks to hear his favorite record one final time, a jazz record that includes the lyric, "Some of these days/You'll miss me, honey."  He thinks about the Americans who produced the record, the black female singer, and the man who wrote the song, whom he imagines to be a fat sweaty Jew on the 21st floor of a Manhattan skyscraper(!)  On the last two pages of the book Roquentin realizes that if he produces a work of art, a novel, say, maybe people will think of him the way he is thinking of the "negress" and the New York Jew, and so maybe life won't be meaningless after all!     

Despite Sartre's purported hostility to Proust, Nausea actually reminded me quite a bit of In Search of Lost Time.  Both Marcel and Roquentin are slacker writers who have inheritances and need not work, and have trouble knuckling down and making progress in their literary enterprises.  They both expend a lot of ink describing minutia, like what they see out the window or what the ocean looks like and so forth. They both talk about memory, and describe odd people they encounter.

Sartre adds a dark or cynical twist to Proustian themes.  In Swann's Way Marcel is fascinated and inspired by the sight of two church steeples in the distance; as his carriage follows a winding road the steeples appear to be moving in relation to each other.  The narrator of Nausea is similarly fascinated by mild optical illusions, like the aforementioned purple suspenders (which the people at New Directions saw fit to mention on the back cover of my wife's copy), but he finds these illusions sickening rather than inspiring.  Sartre describes at length the influence on Roquentin of that jazz record, and a particular musical composition, the sonata of Vinteuil which serves as the "national anthem" of the love of Swann and Odette, plays a major role in In Search of Lost Time.  But while Marcel, Swann and Odette knew Vinteuil and listened to the powerful "little phrase" of his sonata played live, Roquentin's favorite song is a jazz vocal on an old scratched gramophone record, and Roquentin (for over 200 pages) rejects it and all art: "To think there are idiots who get consolation from the fine arts."  Where Proust's novel is a vindication of the arts, Nausea reads like a debunking of the arts for 235 pages, until art is vindicated at the last minute.

(The Self-Made Man's description of enjoying being crammed into a building with fellow prisoners during the First World War also reminded me of some of Proust's remarks about his military service.)
What does the novel have to tell us about Sartre's philosophy (I'm tempted to call it his "brand"), existentialism?  In the absence of God, life has no essential meaning, it is merely existence.  The obvious response to this knowledge is for individuals to create a meaning for their own lives, and one can see the existentialist revelation as a heavy burden of responsibility, and/or as liberating: how much better to be free to determine the essence of your own life than to have a meaning imposed upon it by a distant and omnipotent figure, but also how much more challenging.  When The Self-Taught Man directly suggests this to Roquentin, attributing it to the unnamed American writer (apparently William James) of the book Is Life Worth Living? ("Life has a meaning if we choose to give it one.  One must first act, throw one's self into some enterprise...."), Roquentin immediately rejects it (only to embrace it later.)

Another Dali cover from Penguin
Roquentin also implicitly rejects the many ways one could give one's life meaning.  All through the book the narrator talks about individuals who have pursued various paths in life, paths that have given their lives meaning, and Roquentin (and, I suspected, Sartre) rejects them all.  He rejects the middle class people who gave their lives meaning by pursuing the project of maintaining order in the face of the Commune and other uprisings, and who built Bouville into an economic success.  The Self-Taught Man, who, as a socialist has ostensibly dedicated his life to changing the world for the betterment of the workers (though it seems in reality that he has devoted his life to sterile reading and taking sexual advantage of boys) is rejected by our narrator and beaten up by a library employee in his favorite locale, the library.  Roquentin says he doesn't understand sculpture, is critical of the painter of the museum portraits, and both the narrator and Anny, whom Roquentin believes has come to the same bleak conclusions about life he has, abandon their creative projects.  Roquentin also rejects a life devoted to human relationships, friendship and love, making little effort to cultivate friendships, having a mechanical sexual relationship with the patroness of a bar, and finding the young lovers he sees in a restaurant sickening.

In the last few pages of the novel Roquentin, after rejecting all these strategies for living a meaningful life, embraces the idea of writing a novel; creative endeavor can "save" him as it saved "the Jew and the negress."  Is Sartre telling us Roquentin, all through the book, was wrong to reject other people's chosen enterprises?  Or just wrong to reject art as a worthwhile enterprise?  Is Sartre endorsing the solution to the meaning of life quoted by the Self-Taught Man (an idea produced, like the pivotal jazz record, by an American)? 

Nausea is a pretty good novel; I laughed at times, and it contains thought-provoking puzzles (I was never sure to what extent Sartre was denouncing or sympathizing with the middle class, homosexuals, artists, Americans, socialists, etc.)  And I have to admit the ending was a surprise; I thought Roquentin was going to kill himself or just drift away into a life of empty despair and depression.  But I don't know if I would say it is "unquestionably a key novel of the Twentieth Century," as the people at New Directions assure us it is.  For one thing, the idea that we should devote our lives to some project in order to give our lives meaning, while definitely sound, feels more like folk wisdom than some tremendous modern revelation.  (Compared to the world-changing theories of Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud, existentialism, at least as expressed in this novel, seems minor and even obvious.)  There is also the fact that Roquentin's nausea seems to come out of nowhere (why does he suddenly find everything disgusting and life meaningless?) and then to be cured just as abruptly.

Not as fun as Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fe, but a worthwhile read.  With Sartre under my belt, who should be my next Nobel Laureate?

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