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Response to Sartre’s Nausea

Sartre may not have been the founder of existentialism, but his work is the body most associated with this field of philosophy. And of Sartre’s work, his most well-known may be Nausea, where the character Roquentin expresses existential beliefs to us in a literary rather than a philosophic manner. When done through philosophy, the idea may seem dry or nonsensical. But in literary form, many of us have to admit — we have felt what Roquentin feels.

From a more philosophic and less literary angle, Sartre’s existentialism does something amazing: it reverses previous philosophical truisms and turns them around for a new generation. I’d like to discuss a few philosophers who have been flipped in Nausea: Plato, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas.

Sartre may be right, he may be wrong… but with the influence he and his followers have exerted over the past fifty or so years, his work is unavoidable.

Sartre contra Plato

What makes existentialism stand out is how it takes Plato’s long-standing idea of “essence precedes existence” and reverses it: now existence precedes essence. While it was previously thought that Forms (or Ideas or Eidae) existed outside this world that all mankind is pulled from, Sartre saw no such pre-conceived idea of what man could be. We are not born to be something — we are born and then are left to become what we will, living in a void with endless choices.

Roquentin sees this all as pointless and hopeless. While some would see this as the ultimate freedom, he sees it as slavery: we are doomed to exist in a world where there is no path for us to take. He tells his acquaintance, the Self-Taught Man, “‘I was just thinking,’ I tell him, laughing, ‘that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.'” [112]

And more to the point he says to himself, “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” [133] It is not only our life that is meaningless to Roquentin, but our births and deaths as well… from our first breath to our death rattle, all actions only prolong the senselessness.

For those who see life this way, in its most empty incarnation, here is where Camus comes in. Albert Camus famously said in The Myth of Sisyphus that the only philosophic question worth considering was suicide. And Roquentin surely wonders this very thing: if each day, each action and each sense of being has no point, why bother sustaining it at all? This is a question we must all face and determine our own reasons for continuing on. And the absurdity of it is that while most of probably have no reason to live in the grand scheme, very few of us would wish to be anything but alive.

Sarte contra Descartes

Descartes set off a revolution with his “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I Think, Therefore I Am). His acknowledgment that even when we doubt we are real there is still an “I” who must be doubting started a whole new era of philosophy (what is called “modern philosophy”). While his method and conclusion have been debated, his influence is not. Roquentin calls to mind Descartes when he makes the following internal monologue:

“If I could keep myself from thinking! I try, and succeed: my head seems to fill with smoke … and then it starts again: ‘Smoke … not to think … don’t want to think … I think I don’t want to think. I mustn’t think that I don’t want to think. Because that’s still a thought.’ Will there never be an end to it? My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think . . . and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment — it’s frightful — if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing.” [99-100]

Roquentin realizes that not only does thought prove he exists, it is what keeps him existing — to stop existing, one must cut off all thought. Yet, there is no way to cut off thought as long as one is alive, even when trying to think about not thinking. Roquentin might say not only does thinking cause existence, but existence cause thinking, as they are one and the same. And as thinking is what leads to despair, it is this key part of existence that is most awful.

Thinking and existence cannot be separated, making existence by extension inherently absurd and depressing. What Descartes probably thought of as affirming, Sartre has turned into a veritable nightmare.

Sarte contra the Theologians

One of the traditional proofs of God, as argued by Thomas Aquinas, was the idea that if all life is contingent on something else, somewhere a being must exist that is necessary (or not contingent on anything). This being, of course, was the timeless God. This proof has been questioned by logicians. Sartre’s Roquentin questions it in a more personal manner.

“The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. I believe there are people who have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being.” [131]

Sartre takes up Aquinas’ point that all we have is contingent, that all we do is dependent on something else. This, if followed to his conclusion, makes things less defined as they are merely responses to everything else around us and nothing is necessary in itself. But Roquentin doesn’t see God as necessary: he sees God more as a being we feel is necessary, scared of the idea of life having nothing necessary and only contingent. As he would say, we cannot prove that all contingencies must have some necessary figure to anchor them… so why must there be a god? Yet, without this god, we are left drifting aimlessly in the world…

Towards the end of the novel, Roquentin meets up with an old friend and former love, Anny. She has been going through the same transformation that he has, though she refuses to admit it to him or herself. When Roquentin claims Anny has found him necessary in her life, she replies, “What a fool you are! Naturally I don’t need to see you, if that’s what you mean. You know you’re not exactly a sight for sore eyes. I need you to exist and not to change. You’re like that platinum wire they keep in Paris or somewhere in the neighbourhood. I don’t think anyone’s ever needed to see it.” [137]

Roquentin has become her substitute for God. While he has given up on god entirely, she has replaced Him with another necessary being. Like God, she does not need to feel him or see him — just the thought of his existence makes her feel comfortable. We are all like this in some way, I imagine: there are people and places that we can go years without seeing, but their very existence makes us feel as if the world is a safe and stable place.

Anny is more direct when she exclaims, “You are indispensable to me: I change, you naturally stay motionless and I measure my changes in relation to you.” [143] If all life is dynamic and contingent, it is all relative. Something must remain necessary or stationary — or at least appear that way — if we are to feel a difference is being made in our lives. Life is an ocean and we feel that we must reach the shore if we are to avoid drowning. By having seemingly measurable points, we think we are going o reach the shore. Though, the sad reality is we all end up drowning sooner or later, making all our progress a wash (rich or poor, young or old, your gains are zeroed out at death).

Conclusion

Existentialism is a depressing belief system, but unfortunately it is hard to overcome. Sartre tells us that “nothing that exists can be comic” [128] and given his character’s outlook, we are inclined to agree. Either everything is hopeless, pointless and always grave… or everything is “comic” by the sheer absurdity of it all — what can we do but laugh at our predicament? No escape has been found and likely never will.

Reading Sartre is a dangerous venture. Taking him too much to heart will destroy our resolve, but ignoring his warnings leaves life unexamined and of less value in a completely different way. For, what is the meaning of life if not questioned? And what is the answer but a great unknown?

Sources

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New Directions Publishing, 1964. (translated by Lloyd Alexander)

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Response to Sartre’s Nausea”

  1. TJ Lewis Says:

    Gavin,
    Im writig a paper over this very topic. Hopefully you will reply in due time. My thesis invovles the Cartesian/Sartrean discovery of the Cogito. Descartes wants to say there are more certainties in life. Sartre says we are shit out of luck and that the only thing one can be certain of is that “I exist.” My thesis attempts to switch Sartre’s view but still maintaining an ‘existence precedes essence’ viewpoint. Basically, I agree with existentialism, but I do not and cannot, give in to the fact that there is nothing more. I feel existential claims/results could entail that one can be very certain of other ‘things’ in the universe. How would I go about doing this? I use a lot of Beauvoir in my paper, but Im currently at a standstill. Any advice would make my day–no, make my semester. :)

    TJ

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