Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jean-Paul Sartre's "Nausea": Book Review.

It's much more droll, often witty, and even poetic in this 1964 translation by Lloyd Alexander (author of the wonderful Prydain Chronicles) than the author's reputation might lead you to expect. Some Gallicentric references escaped me, and a few footnotes would have helped, but this short novel, or perhaps a philosophical meditation elided into hallucinatory, realistic, and jumbled fictions, deserves wide attention. Perhaps existentialism seems dated by other, often French-dominated, schools of thought in the decades since Sartre debuted with this in 1938, but Antoine Roquentin's disgust at the absurdity of our simply being here that nearly any thinking person, if honest, has experienced permeates and energizes these pages. This review cites representative passages that expressed for me this vibrancy.

Poet Hayden Carruth in his helpful introduction notes how if existentialism's a philosophy, it "has been independently invented by millions of people simply responding to the emergency of life in a modern world." (v-vi) It'd be impossible to film Roquentin's consciousness, but many moments he relates hit you with the immediacy of intimate cinema. Longing to have his own life follow a recurring melody he hears, he contemplates how time suspends under enchantment before breaking down again. At times we feel as if we have total control over the next moment; other times the chain that pulls us along tightens its grip.

He relates how "behind me, the beautiful melodious form sinks entirely into the past. It gets smaller, contracts as it declines, and now the end makes one with the beginning. Following this gold spot with my eyes I think I would accept-- even if I had to risk death, lose a fortune, a friend-- to live it all over again, in the same circumstances, from end to end. But an adventure never returns nor is prolonged." Instead, the "idea" of nothingness haunts him, "unnameable. It waits, peaceful." It asks him if that's what he wants, and then reminds him how he's only fooling himself. (38)

In the little town museum, scoffing at its gallery of great men, Roquentin blanches. On "those somber canvases" he sees the vanity of those who prospered, with confidence, coldness, and cruelty; "they had enslaved Nature: without themselves and within themselves." (90) Unlike Bouville's bovine bourgeoisie, "I hadn't the right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant or a microbe. My life put out feelers towards small pleasures in every direction. Sometimes it sent out vague signals; at other times I felt nothing but harmless buzzing." (84) This book fills with sensations. It's far more febrile and alive than you may suppose.

Sartre conveys well the tedium not only of living, but of scholarship, the death of inspiration. Roquentin abandons his biography of one M. de Rollebon; he wanders the streets and cafes bereft; he puts up with the splendidly phrased tedium of The Self-Taught Man we all have met in a library or on the bus. Freshness vanishes. His labor appears to shrivel like dried ink: "we have so much difficulty imagining nothingness. Now I knew: things are entirely what they appear to be-- and behind them...there is nothing." (96) Seventy years later, these revelations still reverberate for those schooled, like his hapless yet idealistic, humanist and socialist counterpart, in such nostrums as contained in the autodidact's (he's making his earnest way through the library's books alphabetically by the author's surname) inspirational title by "an American author," "Is Life Worth Living?" The shelves then as now may fill with Chicken Soups for the Soul, but Sartre's bitter remedy still, on the backlist, in my copy's in its 38th printing!

Roquentin's not always cruel or patronizing. He understands the self-will of Self-Taught Man's need that crosses his own loneliness. Yet, Roquentin distrusts answers, theories, or explanations. Parts of his resistance reminded me of Buddhism or psychedelic insights: "each event, when it had played its part, put itself politely into a box and became an honorary event." (96) "Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist." (98) He wriggles his arms like crabs: "I am these two beasts struggling at the end of my hand." (99) A chestnut tree repulses him as earlier a pebble alienated him. He wanders thus through a land of people and things that he cannot enter, and he's dragged along by thought, as if endlessly. But, of course, that itself's only a prolonged illusion.

"I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: the hatred, the disgust of existing, there are many ways to make myself exist, to thrust myself into existence." (100) As thoughts emerge, they surround his mind "and I always yield, the thought grows and grows and there it is, immense, filling me completely and renewing my existence." But this union cannot last. He's challenged by the chestnut tree, and bristles. "Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance. I leaned back and closed my eyes. But the images, forewarned, immediately leaped up and filled my closed eyes with existences: existence is a fullness which man can never abandon." (133)

One is stuck existing. The naked, nude world unveils itself, and without reason. Nothingness appears to be another existence, neither before nor after creation, "this flowing larva." Maybe "the smile of the trees," or the "suspicious transparency of the glass of beer" sums up the mystery we can never solve? He invents a role with his former lover, Anny, as he views other couples trapped in their own relationships; one cannot explain the Void to another person. "This is the girl, here, this fat girl with a ruined look who touches me and whom I love." (143) Anny, too, flails within her self, struggling for meaning in "the privileged situations." Roquentin's moment of connection only reveals her own isolation: "we have lost the same illusions, we have followed the same paths." (150) She tries the imagination evoked by Loyola's "Spiritual Exercises," but even that fails to satisfy. "You haven't found me again," she assures him as she turns him away.

Restless, he wonders about his own freedom: "there is absolutely no more reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can't imagine any more of them." (156) Luckily, he's still young, if that's any hope; he's exhausted by the effort to endure. "Alone and free. But this freedom is like death." (157) Preparing to leave the provincial port, he finds no epiphany: "Existence is what I am afraid of." (160) A Corsican and the Self-Taught Man brawl; the flesh betrays his former companion, and Roquentin faces his future. "I savor this total oblivion into which I have fallen. I am between two cities, one knows nothing of me, the other knows me no longer." (169) Perhaps the tune that's kept in his head the whole narrative will be enough? "I find the same desire again: to drive existence out of me, to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note." (175)

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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