Existentialism

Review: “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre [1938]; translated from French by Robert Baldick [1963]

Nausea. Simply hearing the title and author make many shiver with trepidation. It’s even more difficult to review!

Nausea is the published (fictionally) diary of writer Antoine Roquentin and it appears to have been published posthumously. It begins with Roquentin beginning his diary and vowing to record things down as they appear. In diary’s preface, it appears that Roquentin has returned to France after many years of travelling. His first proper entry is Roquentin’s description of his first experience of what he labels as ‘nausea’:

Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more. 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 … and now it has started blossoming. – p. 13

A change has occurred in Roquentin and has altered the way he perceives the world. Every little thing is just that little bit more different, a little bit more absurd and senseless. Everything in Roquentin’s world becomes superfluous. As he struggles through the daily motions of researching in the Bouville library, his encounters with the people he regularly sees there and his musings on his long, lost love Anny, Roquentin becomes even more unhappy trying to live in the now:

I build my memories with my present. I am rejected, abandoned in the present. I try in vain to rejoin the past: I cannot escape from myself. – p. 53

Roquentin realises that he was much happier before this nausea, before his new perception of the world he lives in. Perhaps it’s another aspect of the idea that ignorance may indeed be bliss. But the real question that haunts Roqeuntin is what does it mean to exist?

My thought is ‘me’: that is why I can’t stop. I exist by what I think … and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. – p. 145

The paradox and contradictory terms of existence makes itself known to Roquentin as he slowly examines the ideas of existence and arrives at various, however futile, theories of how Roquentin might live out his life.

The crux of Sartre’s existentialist theory (theories) is that a being is essentially free but when one realises that they are entirely free (arguably – but let’s not get into that right now), the sense and responsibility of the freedom is overwhelming.

This is a rather short and blunt review but it is quite difficult to review this novel because of all the aspects and details. I had no trouble reading this but while I struggled at times with the theoretical subtext of Nausea, I usually just let it wash over me while I read the book. The novel is very enjoyable and it’s a marvellous read if only for the story. The writing is simply beautiful and often quite poetic. I think the readability of Sartre’s novels is very underrated. I remember being so amazed at how much fun I had reading The Age of Reason. Don’t let it intimidate you and simply enjoy the ride.

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Review: “The Age of Reason” by Jean-Paul Sartre [1945]; translated from French by Eric Sutton [1947]

I am going to be brave and review Sartre.

Set in Paris on the eve of WWII, during a summer heat wave in 1938, the story follows Mathieu Delarue, a philosophy professor, over two days. Over the course of these two days, Mathieu is trying to procure four thousand francs for a safe abortion for his mistress, Marcel. As Mathieu tries to raise the money through family and friends, he reassesses his life, its meaning and the beliefs he has followed.

Along the way, we meet his circle of acquaintances. We meet Daniel who, out of spite and with curiousity to see Matheiu’s downfall, to see him lose his freedom, lies that he doesn’t have the money. He also plays the go-between between Matheiu and Marcel, who secretly desires the baby. There is Jacques, Mathieu’s older, successful and stable brother who refuses to lend the money to Mathieu but instead, offers him ten thousand francs to marry Marcel. Jacques tells Matheiu:

You are thirty-four years old … your youth has gone, and the bohemian life doesn’t suit you at all. Besides, what is bohemianism, after all? It was amusing enough a hundred years ago, but today it is simply a name for a handful of eccentrics who are no danger to anybody, and have missed the train. You have attained the age of reason, Matheiu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so. – p. 108

Mathieu replies that “your age of reason is the age of resignation, and I’ve no use for it”. But his brother’s words has struck something in Matheiu who, for all his life, has believed he could remain free, with personal and sexual freedom, and free to live his life any way he chose without consequences. To attain the age of reason would mean that Matheiu would lost his freedom.

As the day progresses, he meets up with Ivich, the beautiful but cold sister of one of his favourite pupils and friend, Boris. Matheiu is attracted to Ivich but it is not reciprocated. While Ivich is anxiously waiting for her exam results, fearful that if she fails once more she would have to return to her parents in the country, Mathieu tries his best to distract her by taking her to galleries as part of his attempt to teach her to appreciate culture and art.

The novel explores the idea of existentialist freedom and what it means to be free – free from responsibilities, free from expectations and conformity, free from material attachments. Or is the idea of freedom, whatever it may mean to each individual, merely an abstract thought and may not even exist?

The book was a beautiful and, surprisingly, a very accessible read. This is my first attempt to read Sartre after being highly intimidated. There is bound to be comparisons, but Sartre’s writing (or the translation) is highly reminiscent of de Beauvoir’s. There is one striking similarity in the form of Ivich who resembles Xaviere. Must both Sartre and de Beauvoir write such detestable female characters? Apparently, according to wikipedia (…), both Ivich and Xaviere are based on the same woman in Sartre and de Beauvoir’s menage-a-trois. Nevertheless, this is truly a wonderful and enlightening read and provides many points to ponder over. At times, Sartre’s writing is almost poetic and there were many pages that I’d marked. But my most favourite passage of all is this.

The Age of Reason is the first of the The Roads to Freedom trilogy. The next two in the series are The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul or Troubled Sleep.