I found Nausea to be more comprehensible than No Exit, maybe because I’m no stranger to a good existential crisis. While I haven’t riffed on the cartesian dictum to the point where everything becomes unintelligible and I am left shaking in the corner whimpering: “I do not think therefore I am a mustache,” (p.147) I have wandered through the streets of Florence whispering palindromes under my breath as if they were a sacred incantation… “Able was I ere I saw Elba….” I didn’t go insane…but the fear of madness was the background noise to my daily existence.
And this is where the book begins, on the razor thin edge separating the sane from the mad.
“Perhaps it was a slight attack of insanity after all. There is no longer any trace of it left. The peculiar feelings I had the other week strike me as quite ridiculous today: I can no longer enter into them. […] There’s nothing more to fear. […] I’m going to bed. I’m cured, and I’m going to give up writing my impressions, like a little girl, in a nice new notebook. There’s only one case in which it might be interesting to keep a diary: that would be if *
*The text of the undated sheet ends here.” (p.11)
Immediately we know we are in for a ride.
In some sense, Nausea is an existential atheistic version of Pilgrims Progress. As a modernist novel the plot is not developed through action, but rather through aimless wandering and lots of introspection. Our protagonist, Antoine Roquentin occasionally has conversations with an Autodidact, who represents Socialism and Humanism without substance, and his ex-girlfriend Anny who represents Stoicism and Cynicism without hope.
Roquentin is our unreliable narrator and tour guide into the chaos of meaninglessness. In the ‘undated sheet’ at the beginning of the project we are told that this will be an attempt to classify the unintelligible details of life. We are also warned about how limited his view of reality is:
“I think that is the danger of keeping a diary: you exaggerate everything, you are on the look-out and you continually stretch the truth.” (p.9)
As we get to the last page, Roquentin has made the progression from obscure biographer, to hopelessly ‘un-projected’, to author of fiction which is more honest than reality:
“…not a history book: history talks about what has existed - an existent can never justify the existence of another existent. My mistake was to try and resuscitate Monsieur de Rollebon. Another kind of book. I don’t quite know which kind - but you would have to guess, behind the printed words, behind the pages, something which didn’t exist, which was above existence. The sort of story, for example, which could never happen, an adventure. It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.” (p.252)
And this is the book we now hold in our hands. Something that doesn’t quite exist, a story behind a story, an adventure where the hero must come to terms with the fact that complete and total freedom actually results in the oppressive weight of personal responsibility. If there is nothing larger than yourself, no preordained meaning or labels to hide behind, each action you take defines meaning not just for yourself but for the rest of humanity.
If Roquentin has stumbled onto something, a vague methodology for living, then the other two characters, the Autodidact and Anny are foils for what it is not.
While we don’t meet Anny until the end of the book, she haunts its pages from the beginning. The two things that have given Roquentin meaning for his existence are his biography project of Monsieur de Rollebon and Anny. While arguably Anny is a verbal abuser and Roquentin is suffering the after effects of PTSD, she has framed his reality and he sees himself through her eyes.
“In the past - even long after she had left me- I used to think about Anny. Now, I don’t think about anybody any more; I don’t even bother to look for words. It flows through me, more or less quickly, and I don’t fix anything, I just let it go. Most of the time, because of their failure to fasten on to words, my thoughts remain misty and nebulous. They assume vague and amusing shapes and are then swallowed up: I promptly forget them.”(p.17)
Misty and nebulous. I love that.
Anny is the antithesis of Roquentin and yet they arrive at the same crisis of meaning. While Roquentin is suspicious of words and their ability to actually penetrate the nexus of meaning, Anny believes words, with a certain scientific precision, are foundationally reliable. In their exchange Roquentin asks her six times what a ‘perfect moment’ is and she bludgeons her way through with more and more words, entire stories and anecdotes, assuming that behind the verbosity is an easily accessible kernel of truth.
Anny’s thoughts are not vague and nebulous. Instead they are strangely rigid, scientific, almost mathematical…but behind her words is the same understanding that everything is meaningless. There are no perfect moments. There are no privileged situations. So Anny chooses to give up the projects and goals that gave her life meaning, (albeit her project was the quest for the allusive ‘perfect moment’ that seems closer to play acting than authenticity)…and in doing so she has untethered herself. She is condemned to be free…but she rejects freedom, if everything is meaningless what’s the point? She chooses to stay alive, but no longer attempts to wrestle with meaning. Instead, she chooses to becomes a ‘kept woman,’ a label pinned to a specimen of wriggling humanity. She wears the clothes, plays the part and disappears into the herd, to live as Thoreau would describe “a quiet life of desperation”.
Granted…Anny’s projects are terrible. She’s constantly perfecting the set design for the impromptu beautiful moments of life…which Roquentin is destined to misunderstand and destroy. It reminds me of Pessoa, in the Book of Disquiet:
“…I, who did not even know whence I came, having only woken up at the crossroads. I realized that I was on a stage and did not know the words that everyone else picked up instantly even though they did not know them either. I saw that though I was dressed as a pageboy they
had given me no queen to wait on and blamed me for that. I saw that I had in my hands a message to deliver and when I told them the paper was blank, they laughed at me. I still don’t know if they laughed because all such pieces of paper are blank or because all messages are only hypothetical.” (fr. 306)
As he once again begins the process of ruining everything he watches her graceful languid forms harden, she puts on her exoskeleton and begins her “ ant-like tasks” of fixing everything. Occasionally shouting out the directives: “Go back, go and sit in the shadow; you understand what you have to do? Oh, come now! How stupid you are! Speak to me!” (p. 93)
“I could feel that the success of the enterprise was in my hands: the moment had an obscure significance which had to be trimmed and perfected; certain gestures had to be made, certain words spoken: I was bowed under the weight of my responsibility, I opened my eyes wide and saw nothing, I struggled in the midst of rites which Anny invented on the spur of the moment and I tore them with my long arms as it they had been spiders’ webs. At those times she hated me.” (p. 93-94)
Pausing to discuss insects.
There is some super disturbing insect imagery throughout the novel…second only to Jeremias Gotthelf’s Black Spider… for example, towards the end as Roquentin is once again wandering through the streets of Bouville…wondering what it would take to shake humanity from their stupor he wonders what would happen if:
“…somebody else will feel something scratching inside his mouth. And he will go to a mirror, open his mouth: and his tongue will have become a huge living centipede, rubbing its legs together and scraping his palate. He will try to spit it out, but the centipede will be part of himself and he will have to tear it out with his hands.” (P.226)
Yikes. That might be the mescaline talking…but I think that would work. I think most people would instantly be awoken from apathy to deal with their bizarre and terrifying centipede tongue.
After another even more disturbing ‘what if’ scenario that involves male anatomy growing out of the ground like “bulbous onions,” predatory birds, claws, talons and spewing sperm etc. he pauses and says:
“Or else nothing like that will happen [thank God!!], no appreciable change will take place, but one morning when people open their blinds they will be surprised by a sort of horrible feeling brooding heavily over things and giving the impression of waiting. […] I shall lean against a wall as they go by and I shall shout to them: ‘What have you done with your science? What have you done with your humanism? Where is your dignity as a thinking reed?” (p.227)
This is the atmosphere of the book: A horrible feeling brooding heavily over things, with the impression of waiting.
Back to Anny.
There’s a moment where Roquentin is having obligatory sex with the pattron of his cafe. It’s not particularly pleasant sex. (I’m not sure that’s a thing for existentialists…) He participates absent-mindedly while thinking about his novel that he’s writing. Situationally, the two things that are trapping him in a lifestyle of inauthenticity converge: The pursuit of a reality that doesn’t exist, i.e. the writing of a biography, and Anny. Even though he’s having sex with another woman, Anny perpetually haunts him. As he notices his arm, moving alongside the woman, almost disembodied with a life of its own, he is thrown into a post coital insect dream/vision:
“…Suddenly I saw a little garden with low, wide-spreading trees from which huge hairy leaves were hanging. Ants were running about everywhere, centipedes and moths. There were some even more horrible animals: their bodies were made of slices of toast such as you put under roast pigeon; they were walking sideways with crab-like legs. The broad leaves were black with animals. Behind the cacti and the Barbary fig trees, the Veleda of the municipal park was pointing to her sex. ‘This park smells of vomit,’ I shouted.” (p.89)
‘Ants’ are mentioned twice in the novel. The first time is in the passage above, he’s having sex, which reminds him of Anny and the second time five pages later to describe Anny scurrying about tending to her set design. What’s the point? How do terrible visions of insects relate to his ex-girlfriend?
I think relationships tend toward play-acting which then tends to induce apathy. Which results in seeing the world through someone else's vision and taking their word for it. Or seeing yourself in their eyes and being judged ugly. And what is ‘ugly’? It is a derivation from the ‘norm’ or what is deemed by consensus/the masses to be ‘beautiful’…an equally futile representation.
Being ‘ugly’ is a motif throughout the book. We first encounter ‘ugliness’ in Rollebon:
“Monsieur de Rollebon was extremely ugly. Queen Marie Antoinette was fond of calling him her ‘dear monkey’. Yet he had all the women of Court, not by clowning like Voisenon the baboon, but by a magnetism which drove his beautiful victims to the worst excesses of passion.” (p. 24)
Roquentin thinks his face is ugly because he has been told so. (p.30) His characterization of himself has been based on what others have told him, through their gaze he sees himself, and when confronted with an actual mirror, he sees nothing. His reflection is without significance. He looks alive, or at least he’s been told so by Anny, (p.31) but when he observes himself, nothing seems to makes sense, he’s not sure what’s looking back at him resembles something that is even human.
His crisis leads him to a place where he redefines his existence.
“The world was so ugly, outside me, these dirty glasses on the table were so ugly, and the brown stains on the mirror and Madeline’s apron and the kindly look of the patronne’s burly lover were so ugly, the very existence of the world was so ugly, that I felt completely at ease, at home. (p.245)
Recognizing the absurdity of life should ultimately be freeing. The definitions and labels you’ve been burdened by evaporate and you’re left alone, standing in front of the grand cosmos. A universe before you, waits for you to speak into it definition.
“I am free: I haven’t a single reason for living left, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine any more. I am still quite young, I still have enough strength to start again. But what must I start again? Only now do I realize how much, in the midst of my greatest terror and nausea, I had counted on Anny to save me. My past is dead, Monsieur de Rollebon is dead, Anny came back only to take all hope away from me. I am alone in this white street lined with gardens. Alone and Free. But this freedom is rather like death.” (p. 223)
It’s hard to comprehend how revolutionary some of these ideas were in the 1940’s. The ‘existential crisis’ has become ubiquitous, a rite of passage of sorts. In At the Existential Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Mzerleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell she argues:
“…existentialist ideas and attitudes have embedded themselves so deeply into modern culture that we hardly think of them as existentialist at all. People (at least in relatively prosperous countries where more urgent needs don’t intervene) talk about anxiety, dishonesty and the fear of commitment. They worry about being in bad faith, even if they don’t use that term. They feel overwhelmed by the excess of consumer choice while also feeling less in control than ever.” (317)
Throughout the novel is woven the question of authenticity, a question that perhaps we would do well to consider. As we take our world for granted, as we get lost in the identifiers given to us by others, as we choose to believe we have little choice, agency or the ability to change, we have become Annys…disappearing into the void.
Even though Sartre speaks from an almost incomprehensible world of bourgeois luxury (his hero spends all his time walking back and forth between the library and cafes…and his nightmares involve specific toast that you put under roast pigeon….) I think his point is still valid. We are what we make of ourselves. We can’t hide behind an online avatar and think we’re contributing to society…and yet how to wake up a populace that seems to be drifting farther and farther into self-induced apathy?
I think Sartre would suggest reading books.
Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existential Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Mzerleau-Ponty and Others. Great Britain: Chatto & Windus, 2016.
Pesso, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. Ed. Jeronimo Pizarro and trans. Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent’s Tail’s, 2018.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000.