Let’s get nauseous! With a front cover made resplendent by Salvador Dali’s Little Cinders (1927), our edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s legendary Nausea (La Nausée) is something of a literary marvel.
Its innards are drenched in the depraved philosophical meandering known as existentialism which, upon the novel’s publication, made it a bold step by a brilliant writer into examining the human condition.
Along with contemporary philosophical novels such as Albert Camus’ The Outsider (also known as The Stranger) and The Myth of Sisyphus, Nausea doesn’t mess around and digs into human nature to uncover the simple absurdity of being alive and how we all deal with it.
The Road to Nausea
Against the rise of atheism, how does one go about living one’s life when it’s seemingly superfluous? This is the question Sartre went headlong into like the heretical madman he well and truly was.
During a lecture in 1945 he described existentialism as: “The attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism.” Nausea, published in 1938, built on this notion as part of the ever growing atheistical movement, highlighting how humans are free agents in this world and they can choose their destiny.
This follows thousands of years of deeply religious belief when all powerful, omnipotent deities presided over existence, bestowing awe and fear in equal measure. Stuff like attending church and not eating Big Macs on Monday mornings were adhered to for millennia by well meaning pious sorts.
Scientific discovery over the last 200 or so years has brought new meaning to the world. As humans we have, for the first time, truly begun to understand the world around us, but this age of discovery has brought with it great angst as we struggle with the realisation we’re not special or protected by some all knowing force (not even Luke Skywalker can save us).
Indeed, we’re seemingly constantly on the precipice of disaster (typically brought about by ourselves, ironically, through wars over pointless differences) and extinction, so how does one deal with this mentally?
In what was, incidentally, Sartre’s first novel, he foists Antoine Roquentin upon us. He’s a young writer (a historian, precisely) who has suffered an existential crisis (typically a moment when one stops and thinks: “Cripes! What the hell am I even doing?!” as one picks one’s nose or posts another Selfie or whatever).
Unlike other Sartre works we’ve covered (The Wall and the excellent Age of Reason), this is a really full on examination of existential thought. “Something has happened to me” grunts Roquentin in the very first sentence:
"It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all. Once it was established, it didn't move any more, it lay low and I was able to persuade myself that there was nothing wrong with me, that it was a false alarm. And now it has started blossoming."
Asides from all this philosophical rambling, you’ll find in Nausea what can also be considered an extensive psychological study. This is what makes the novel particularly fascinating (if philosophy isn’t your thing), with Sartre’s lively writing style lampooning the way us modern humans go about things.
The writer treads a fine line between genuine art and pretentiousness with Nausea, but on the whole it’s a triumph and Sartre considered it his masterpiece (if our memory serves us correctly on that one – we’re 90% sure that’s a truth).
Suitably inspired after this assured debut and ready to take things to a new level, he’d go on to scrawl out the epic tome Being and Nothingness, which we may cover another time. Maybe. It depends if we’ve understood our very being in time.
Whilst some people we’ve met seem to be terrified of atheism and existentialism and consider them concepts of pure evil, it’s an entirely peaceful and therapeutic mode of thought based on now well established liberal and Humanistic leanings. Plus, free sandwiches if you ask nicely enough.
You are a free agent (kind of like James Bond) and you’re encouraged to live a morally sound life helping others and ensuring you’re happy by doing nice things such as listening to Beethoven and picking your nose – not too difficult to go wrong there, right? Indeed, so delve into Sartre’s world to find out more. At the very least, he was a brilliant writer.