Some thoughts on Sartre’s Nausea

I always found J-P Sartre a fascinating figure. He was clearly highly intelligent and a master observer of day-to-day human behaviour. His writing style was very clear and -unlike other existentialist authors- easy to understand by most. Despite this, I always had difficulty to accept some of the elements of his philosophy and worldview even though I couldn’t easily pinpoint what I felt was wrong with it.

One of the characteristics of his philosophy that alienate me most -luckily not yet visible in his early works- is his insistence in considering the individual life subordinate to ideology or political system, in short what many have justified as the ‘common good’ when seeking an excuse to abuse individual rights. Luckily this tendency is still not yet present in his early oeuvre and ‘Nausea’ feels more genuine and ‘human’ than some of his later works.

‘Nausea’ is a very good exposition of Sartre’s early ideas. As ever, the themes are clearly expressed and the protagonist’s sense of physical illness at the senseless of existence, very convincing and well-put. You can feel some empathy with the book’s conclusion as well, and the fact that our anti-hero takes solace in his own writing and regains his strength through the power of emotional expression -by getting carried away by his favourite jazz tune. But the world which Sartre depicts -one of endless freedom where we are constantly challenged to make choices between myriads of options- it’s a very schizophrenic one which I don’t feel corresponds much with the pressures of reality for most people. In most modern people’s reality, our environment and personality more often than not steer us in certain directions without us even being conscious of it -sometimes more gently than others. Very often we find ourselves either forced to make a choice between a finite and specific number of options, or making a choice and afterwards realising that that choice was actually suggested to us by the circumstances and we just went along with it.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t call here for resorting to total fatalism. Of course we still make conscious choices, and very often we are the masters of our own destiny. But looking at the worldview Sartre suggests in ‘Nausea’ -and other of his works- one can not help wondering if such a complete freedom would have exactly the opposite effect of what he is ultimately hoping to achieve, which is an empowered and liberated individual capable of making responsible choices. Such an existence of infinite freedom, would instead make a person feeling trapped in an endless array of equally valid choices that can be made at any time of their lives, leading to permanent anxiety and indecision. Such a world would be a very crippling and disabling existence indeed.

In conclusion, I feel that ‘Nausea’ reads wonderfully as a philosophical novel, but doesn’t make much sense from a epistemological, reality based point of view. Because of this I found it often difficult to identify with the thoughts of the main character Antoine Roquentin. For a more realistic explanation of how we perceive the world, including the way in which our brain often gives us the illusion of choices where there is none, I recommend this book. Unlike ‘Nausea’ it is a work of non-fiction written by a distinguished neurologist, but without the drama, absurdity and sensationalism often associated with books advocating scientific determinism. It also shares with ‘Nausea’ its clear, easily intelligible writing style that can be understood by most people.