What to expect if you intend to read Sartre’s “Nausea”

Reading Jean-Paul Sartre is a very complex thing to do, considering that his thoughts are rather difficult to understand. Have read his very first book “Nausea”? If not, here’s what to expect when you do read it.

We know Jean-Paul Sartre from the very notorious and much-discussed philosophy of existentialism. Existentialist thinkers are famous for exploring issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence. They have given light to many terms used to describe ” existential angst”, through feelings of dread, disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of what existentialists call an “apparently meaningless” or “absurd world”.

Now, rest assured that you will find plenty of these feelings in Sartre’s Nausea. Of course, you will, as Sartre was an existentialist, to the point of exhaustion.

Nausea is the very first book Sartre, published in 1938. It is quite old, and even Sartre often declared that his thoughts had changed so much since Nausea was written and published. However, one major theme of Sartre’s existentialism continues to remain the same, and that is the nausea of confronting being.

The novel, which is written in the form of a diary, takes place in ‘Bouville’ a town similar to Le Havre,  a port city in the Seine-Maritime department in the Normandy region of northern France. The writing consists of the thoughts and subjective experiences—in a personal diary format—of Antoine Roquentin, a very melancholy and socially isolated intellectual who is residing in Bouville ostensibly to complete a biography on a historical figure.

As you may very well expect, this social isolation comes with a lot of consequences, as Roquentin’s alienation and disillusionment continue to grow day by day, leading to the development of an increasingly intense experience of revulsion, which he then calls ” nausea”. Whenever Roquentin experiences this nausea (which is, basically all or most of the time, as Sartre explains in the novel) the people and things around him seem to lose all their familiar and recognizable qualities. The reader needs to be precautioned that the book withholds many strong and heavy sensations, where Roquentin completely loses touch with his feelings, and his sense of self. He often looks in the mirror and begins to see himself in various shapes, melting, disappearing. Or, he gets obsessed with his hands, to the point where he finds it impossible to move them. Very rarely, Sartre gets back to his senses and manages to get out of his despair, by listening to the inspirational music he hears on a jazz record in the restaurant of the room he stays in. This, and rare conversations with another character he meets in the library, push him towards writing and finishing his novel – the only thing he can do in this world, as he considers.

It is interesting to know that Sartre’s original title for the novel before publication was Melancholia. What happens next? Does Roquantin manage to finish his book? Or does he get beaten up by the dread of existence?

I would recommend you give the book a read, as really, Roquentin is all of us, at some point in our lives. At those moments why find ourselves wondering whether anything makes any difference —  experiences, things, surroundings, people, time, by being overly aware of the absurdity of things. The only difference is that we manage to consider these feelings as temporary, and passing, whereas, for Roquantin, this was his reality, daily.


Photo: Eternalised


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