Title: Nausea (original title: La Nausée)
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Publication date: 1938 (original French); 1949 (English translation)
Genre: Existential novel

What’s it about?Nausea

Historian Antoine Roquentin becomes increasingly disturbed by existential angst. He feels that the mundane, indifferent physical world is placing limitations on his ability to find intellectual and spiritual meaning in life.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Yet another checkout from the university library!

What did I learn from it?

I learned, rather hearteningly for this blog, about the value of stories.

I found Nausea quite heavy going: not because I couldn’t grasp the philosophical concepts, but because not much ‘happens’ – and this made me realise just how much we use stories as a means of remembering or making sense of things. Trying to retain all the narrator’s (sometimes quite wild) observations on life was much more difficult than trying to remember a plot with a defined beginning, middle and end. I would go over passages again and again to make sure I’d fully understood them, fearful that I’d get to the end of the novel without a clear picture of the direction Roquentin’s thoughts had taken. Because if that happened, I knew I’d experience my own existential crisis: what exactly did I read the book for?

It was also interesting to perceive that Roquentin sometimes finds meaning (or at least the illusion of meaning) in the connections we make between ourselves and other humans: the relationships we have with the rest of society, or the stories we tell ourselves about our purpose and our place in history. Telling stories is perhaps the only way we can define ourselves and make sense of our lives, which are essentially just strings of random occurrences that we only link together after the event.

Stories, therefore, are key to our understanding of the world and our ability to find meaning within it.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The book was a salutary lesson in how we have limited time and opportunity for finding purpose in life – and how it’s possible, ironically, to waste that time by agonising overmuch about it. Whilst I’ve not exactly had an existential crisis any time in recent years, I’ve certainly found myself pondering, with alarming frequency, ‘what it’s all for’ and how I can balance my need for personal freedom with a need to play a valuable part in society.

Nausea has reminded me that life is a work in progress, and that we need to run with whatever inspiration we find at any given time. Just as, when you stare at a word for too long, the letters start to become jumbled, if we stop and think about life for too long, we risk losing sight of the many little stabs of meaning that we encounter on a daily basis and which are what propel us forward. Seize your purpose – and your human connection – when you find it, and the rest will follow.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Pick any day and you’ll find me agonising over which of my many creative projects to focus on: should I do one this month, then another one next month? should I try to do a little bit on each of them every single week, and accept that means progress will be slow? or do I eliminate all but one and concentrate on that alone until it is complete? The thought process involved in all this is exhausting, and more often than not I end up going round in circles, failing to achieve anything.

So I will learn my lesson from Nausea, and stop agonising. I will figure out what the absolute priorities are in any given week, and do those – and then see how I feel about what comes next. Maybe one week it will be one project, and the next week something completely unrelated. The point is, I will do what I am inspired to do – and I hope that this means I will find an energy and an enthusiasm that have so far been sorely lacking.

One of the things I’m working on will even factor in this new understanding of how we use stories to give shape to our lives. But I’ll wait for the inspiration to strike and the words to flow before I make any promises as to when it will be released into the wild 🙂

A musical interlude

As I was reading a particular passage in Nausea, the following song sprang to mind. I’m not sure why, as I’m not entirely certain what it’s about, but it’s surreal enough for me to feel that it could be about just the kinds of concerns meditated on by Sartre in this novel…