Hey, I’m a pessimist. There, I said it. I’m already horrified at my existence. I don’t need anyone else doing it for me, but that’s exactly what Jean-Paul Sartre did in Nausea, the story of a writer (Anton Roquentin) who becomes horrified by his own existence while working on a novel about a historical figure. Over the course of the novel, in true existentialist fashion, Roquentin wonders about the purpose of his life, whether or not he really has free will, the idea of “adventure,” and what it all means. In other words, if you talk to me for more than ten minutes at a time, you’ll be hearing the gist of this novel. It’s not the kind of book you can breeze through. It’s heavy, both in subject matter and in density.
I was actually surprised how much a French history course from my college days came up here. I instantly thought of the idea of the flaneur, which was essentially a person who walk, wander around, and just observe. Roquentin spends a lot of time as a flaneur, wandering around Paris and observing the lives of others. His perceived invisibility during his walks make him seem very much in the tradition of Baudrillard’s flaneur. These are the guys that stare at you when you’re out at the store.
I’ll be honest–I read Nausea in tandem with the Sparknotes on the novel. The novel is under 200 pages, but there’s a hell of a lot to unpack in this novel, and there are a lot of cultural references that I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t miss.
Roquentin looks to the Marquis de Rollebon to try to figure out his own existence, but he struggles to find anything definitive about the past, so he is forced to turn to the present. Even Roquentin’s writings about Rollebon seem more like they’re based on his own life, so he’s also calling objectivity into question. Finally, by comparing his own life to that of the Marquis, Roquentin brings up the idea of a duality present in existentialism–the conscious self and the kind of internal “other” that observes that conscious self. To Roquentin, little seems to make sense. Since it had been a few years since I studied philosophy, little seemed to make sense (until I went back over my notes).
And this was only about 50 pages in. See what I mean?
Get in a shitty mood and read this novel. You’ll say “Yeah, finally, someone else!” Read it when you’re in a good mood, and you’ll get into a shitty mood and wonder what the hell was up Sartre’s ass.