On Sunday I had a discussion with Sean Webb, Stan Martin, and Yannick Kilberger about Sartre’s novel Nausea (1938), which you can download from the Citizen Free Stuff page. If you’re not yet a Citizen, sign up to get access to this file and more than a dozen other discussions.
Moreso than Sartre’s philosophical work, a novel like this is supposed to tell us what existentialism is really all about, and sure enough, we get the narrator Roquentin feeling the raw existence of his surroundings: “existence which unceasingly renewed itself and which was never born” (p. 132). What seems to happen is that while ordinarily we see objects as meaningful, e.g. as tools, as decoration, as things with history and often purpose, we can set that aside and see things instead as brute and meaningless. We can’t handle that, aren’t meant to handle that, and so instead of this being a machine-like, unemotional way of experiencing things, it is (for Roquentin) intolerably icky.
So before he figures this out (and spells it out for us), we get 80+ pages of him just walking around the French city of Bouville having variations on this experience of slipping: of his own perceptions slipping away from the usual, engaged type that doesn’t look too hard. We get a few hints in his observations of others of “bad faith,” but no real diagnosis of the protagonist himself. Is he sick? In bad faith? Is he doing phenomenology for us, showing us what all of us can see if we adopt this viewpoint which is somehow primal or important? He eventually has a couple of conversations so we can compare and contrast his view with others: a self-proclaimed humanist, and then his ex-girlfriend who’s had similar experiences, also feeling that she’s “outlived herself” and can no longer find life dramatic and engaging. Roquentin is not able to personally connect with either of these people, but we get some hope at the end that we may be able to sort of connect with others sympathetically through art.
Despite its gorgeous language, vivid imagery, and some philosophical interest, it’s still a hard slog, and we all felt pretty proud of ourselves for getting through it. Go listen to the discussion so you won’t have to read it yourself!