Nausea

Nausea

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…

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Title: A Vindication of the Rights of WomanBook Challenge
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft
Publication date: 1792
Genre: Non fiction (philosophy; feminism)

What’s it about?A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft’s book is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. The author is responding to the widely held belief of the time that women should not receive an equal education to men, and the majority of the work focuses on the importance of education to women.

Feminism was not a known term or philosophy in the late 18th century. It is not even clear whether Wollstonecraft herself believed men and women to be necessarily equal in all spheres; her main point is that, if women are deemed unequal to men, then they cannot be held responsible for the superficial way they behave. To educate them, she insists, would be to equip them with the same rights – and therefore responsibilities – as men, and society could only benefit as a result.

The book was intended as the first of three volumes, but sadly the author died before she could complete the rest. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly direct attack on the educational system of the time, and lays the responsibility for change – and the betterment of society – firmly at the door of the men in power.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was another one from the university library, which I took out at the same time as Faust. When I went back to return Faust, having already renewed both books once, I ended up spending an entire afternoon in the library finishing this book, so that I could return it at the same time and not have to renew it again. There’s nothing like a deadline to get you working!

What did I learn from it?

I learned a fair amount about the educational system in the UK in the late 18th century, and how that has developed into what we have today. For example, in the 21st century the term ‘public school’ in the UK (although not in the US) means what many of us would actually refer to as a ‘private school’. But back in Wollstonecraft’s day, the word ‘public’ differentiated these schools (predominantly all-male and boarding) from private education carried out at home.

Wollstonecraft raises issues with both systems – boarding and home schooling – and states that it would benefit both girls and boys to attend co-educational day schools. This would enable them to mix with each other, allowing them to see the opposite sex as companions rather than strangers, and would also help both sexes remain aware of the importance of the domestic sphere.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As with several of the other books I’ve read in recent months, there’s a recognition that, although we have clearly made progress since the author’s day, human nature is such that bad things will still happen.

Women, at least in the UK, are now educated in essentially the same way as men, and many go on to achievements in traditionally male spheres in far greater numbers than was possible in 1792. However, for every woman (or man…) who is keen to develop themselves with a view to fixing the world’s issues, there is another who prefers to skim over the hard work in favour of surface niceties.

I have an optimistic view of human nature, and I am not convinced that this is down to any innate defect in individuals. Rather, I suspect it is a matter of what we are raised to believe. Are we encouraged to think that we hold the power to change our lives, or are we suckered into a hamster wheel of meaningless, underpaid, overworked jobs? If the latter, it’s not surprising that we fall back on easy treats and superficial cares to make life bearable. Ironically, it may even be the very system of education desired by the likes of Wollstonecraft that is now depriving people of the habit of thinking for themselves.

The question is how everyone can be encouraged to realise that they (a) have the power to act independently and (b) can actually make a difference. Everyone has some quality that makes them stand out from the rest, even if that is not in the areas Wollstonecraft envisaged. And if everyone were to recognise their power for good and their ability to create change, the chances of their turning the other way would be much smaller.

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

I’m pretty well educated, but I am just as guilty as the next person at listening overmuch to what others tell me. Now, obviously that is not in itself a bad thing! We need to take on board others’ views if we wish to develop a tolerant, balanced perspective of the world.

But what can happen, when you try to honour other people’s attitudes too much, is that you lose sight of your own way. Even – or perhaps especially – when those you’re listening to are good, helpful, insightful people, it’s easy to get caught up in the shoulds, the oughts and the mustn’ts. By paying too much attention to what others think, we lose the ability to discern what we, deep down, in our hearts feel to be true. The constant stream of likes, favourites and shares on social media only adds to this problem: our inner wisdom gets drowned out by the noise, and it can be a struggle to regain it. ‘Other people who had this view also thought…‘ could be the algorithm for our times.

I decided at the start of this year that my word for 2015 would be ‘Intuition’. I would use this as a focus for homing in on what I believe to be my truth, my way in the world, and not let my path be muddied by what the masses around me might want from me. To some extent I’ve achieved this, but I realised recently that I still have an inclination to ask others what I should do when, really, I already know what I want to do and am only seeking validation.

And so I am taking the step of disengaging from some of the communities I have been frequenting: mostly online groups populated by people just like me. I’ve grown too used to asking what they think before I do something new, and I have far too many ideas to be checking each and every one of them before I start. So I’m removing the temptation to do that, and will be leaving a number of these groups in the next few days. I will still seek practical help when I need it – but I won’t let my own truth be tempered by the many other truths out there.

I intend to write my own algorithm for life.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingTitle: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (original title: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí)24 book challenge
Author: Milan Kundera, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Publication date: 1984 (French translation); 1985 (original Czech)
Genre: Literary fiction

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingWhat’s it about?

The novel follows the story of two couples (Tomáš and Tereza, Sabina and Franz), in Czechoslovakia around the time of the Prague Spring of 1968. Their private lives, beliefs, and ideals play out alongside their public roles and identities, illustrating the philosophical concepts explored in the novel.

Kundera challenges Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ (the idea that life experiences come round again and again), which he regards as ‘weight’, as the recurrence imposes a responsibility to ensure that appropriate decisions are made. As a contrast, the concept of ‘lightness’ is presented in a variety of forms as experienced by the characters, for example an unwillingness to maintain a serious, committed relationship, on the basis that if life does not recur, it does not matter what we do with it.

The ‘unbearable lightness’ of the title suggests that this lightness might not be the desirable (free) state it at first appears: for example, perhaps responsibility and commitment can bring a relief and contentment that betrayal cannot. The characters, notably Tomáš, go on this journey throughout the novel, and readers are ultimately left to make up their own minds as to what they believe.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I managed to get this one out of the local public library. I’ll take it back when I attend my next writers’ workshop on Thursday.

What did I learn from it?

I learned about Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’, which was particularly interesting as this book followed on from Sophie’s World in my book challenge. Nietzsche wasn’t covered in great detail in the latter book, so this felt like a progression of my philosophy lesson; and again, the key points of the philosophy were well made in the illustration of the characters’ lives.

I also learned about the Prague Spring and Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which is a period of history I know very little about. It was especially revealing to see the characters’ lives played out over a number of years after the events as well as during, to see how their motivations changed with their shifting political and personal viewpoints.

How did it make me see the world differently?

To be honest, the greatest effect it had on me was to show me ‘myself’.

I found the book very difficult to get through. I don’t mean difficult to understand; and it’s not that I didn’t care about the characters; but I realised that I prefer, by far, novels that have a plot based around action than around philosophical musings. Even Sophie’s World was more appealing, despite its heavy philosophical content, possibly because it also featured a mystery that needed solving – and I do love a good detective story.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is clearly a classic of literary fiction, and I’m aware that admitting to my lack of enthusiasm will risk me being regarded as a bit of a philistine. But there are two key points I’d like to add in my defence:

  1. We are who we are, and our preferences are what they are. No one style of fiction should be regarded as ‘better’ than another simply because it is more ‘intellectual’. I know that I have a good working brain and can engage in philosophical enquiry should the need arise; I’m also not averse to thinking about difficult political questions. I just prefer my fiction to focus on ‘live’ decisions, actions, and consequences rather than abstract theorising – possibly because once I start theorising, my brain goes off on all sorts of tangents and my reading grinds to a halt! (This was, in fact, one of the reasons I needed to give my reading a kick-start in the first place…)
  2. Although it is important to read outside of your comfort zone on a regular basis, it helps to know what your comfort zone is. Sometimes we want to stretch ourselves, sometimes we want to remind ourselves of familiar thoughts and feelings; and if we are clear on which books will offer us which experiences, we can make better choices of reading material to accompany different times in our life.

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

I’ve actually decided to read more – not less – of my beloved sci-fi and fantasy! I won’t abandon literary fiction altogether, but my awareness of the sharp contrast in how the two genres are regarded in society has filled me with a desire to defend my favourite, and demonstrate to fantasy non-fans the range of ideas, beliefs, and theories explored within it.

Fantasy is a much-maligned genre, but I believe it can have as much to offer as any literary text. My aim in pursuing this book challenge is to seriously consider different forms and styles of writing – and now I want to persuade the rest of the world to ‘return the favour’ and seriously consider the merits of fantasy.

You can therefore expect to see some blog posts on this very subject in the hopefully not too distant future!

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

Sophie’s World

Sophie's WorldTitle: Sophie’s World (original title: Sofies Verden)24 book challenge
Author: Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Møller
Publication date: 1991 (original Norwegian); 1995 (English translation)
Genre: Fiction; philosophy

Sophie's WorldWhat’s it about?

One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen receives two notes, with one question on each: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where does the world come from?’ Thus she embarks on a strange correspondence course with a mysterious philosopher called Alberto Knox, who teaches her about the history of philosophy, from the ancient Greeks through to the French existentialists.

As the course progresses, Sophie starts to receive other letters, addressed to another fourteen-year-old girl she has never met and never heard of. Between them, Sophie and Alberto must use their philosophical knowledge to unravel the mystery of Hilde and her father – before their world is changed forever.

Part novel, part philosophy text, this is a fascinating introduction to the history of philosophical thought, intermingled with a thrilling mystery story.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I already owned it. I knew I’d first acquired the book years ago, but a few months ago I realised I couldn’t find it anywhere. Then, by chance, I spotted a secondhand copy in the book shop at my local National Trust property – so I snapped it up.

What did I learn from it?

Wow! What didn’t I learn? The book is a history of philosophical thought, from its very beginnings in ancient Greece (also touching on the Big Bang Theory) right up to the twentieth century. Philosophical systems and schools of thought from names such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant (to name but a very few) are covered in just enough detail to be comprehensible without being overwhelming. Real-world examples make it easier to understand complex philosophical theories, yet it never feels ‘dumbed down’.

However, whilst I was able to understand all of this while I was reading it, I’m not sure how much has stuck with me now that I’ve finished. If I were genuinely trying to learn about philosophy, I’d need to read it a few times to take everything in – or, better still, use it as a jumping-off point for pursuing further study on each of the philosophers covered.

Even if I haven’t retained everything, I do at least now have a handy guide to refer to if I need to check something out on this topic in future. And ‘knowing where to go’ is probably just as important as ‘knowing’…

How did it make me see the world differently?

This is almost too big a question to answer! Or, the answer is that I now see the world in a myriad of different ways: through the eyes of the materialists, the rationalists, the existentialists, the empiricists, the humanists… and so on.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the way in which I felt the urge to see which philosopher’s school of thought rang the most bells with me. What I wasn’t expecting was to find that, as I progressed through the centuries and the pages, each successive theory added to what had gone before, refining the thinking process and presenting new angles. So while I was reading about Socrates, he made great sense; then when I got on to Hume, he made even more sense; and so on and so on until I got to the existentialists, who said that, as life has no inherent meaning or purpose, we are free to create it afresh for ourselves according to our needs. Which, in some ways, makes the most sense of all. It certainly resonates with where I am in life at the moment.

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

I will be more aware of different schools of thought the next time I muse on the meaning of life. While this may not sound like much of a practical change, it is quite a step for me. I have so many of my own ideas whizzing round in my head, every minute of every day, that I have a tendency to focus solely on my own thoughts when trying to work out a belief system or critical theory. I suspect this may be one reason I got a Lower Second at university rather than the First my tutor seemed to expect of me (bless him): I spent way too much time reading primary texts and assembling my own views on them, rather than taking on board the variety of other critical opinion out there.

But – obviously – this approach means I miss out on a LOT of useful stuff that I can also incorporate into my own theories. And reading Sophie’s World has reminded me that I need to pay more attention to other views; to use them as a sounding board or a test for my own opinions; to make sure I’ve run my thoughts through the whole gamut of other possibilities out there, so I can be certain I’ve come to the best conclusion for me.

To quote the book (in itself paraphrasing Socrates): ‘Wisest is she who knows she does not know.’

I need to remember that…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!