Playing with Nausea
By James Grant
31st May 2022
CRITICS OF SARTRE’S novel Nausea have been burdened with ‘the eternal question’ when confronting the text – is it a work of philosophy, or a novel? Christina Howells’ answer to this question is the genre of ‘existential fiction’ for which Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Nizan, Gabriel Marcel, and others, hold a permanent emeritus status.
For these authors, existentialism was a form of truth. It transcended their work, acted as the centre which gave meaning to their fiction. No doubt that Camus would have been one of history’s best writers in any context, but without existentialism he wouldn’t have been Camus. So, how can fiction, of which – in the words of Salman Rushdie - ‘the first premise is that it is not true’, portray truth through what is inherently false? Existential fiction seems, in this sense, to be an oxymoron.
The question should be phrased differently. Nausea is a work of philosophy – the quintessential blueprint of existentialism. It is also a work of fiction. Antoine Roquentin never actually walked around ‘Bouville’ and became nauseous at the sight of inanimate objects. Roquentin never existed, nor did Bouville. But what does that matter? We know the novel is also a work of fiction, it is not either a work of philosophy or a novel, it is simply both. The focus, however, should be on the truth of it in both these contexts. How true is the philosophy of this novel? Where does truth arise from the bed of falsehood?
Reading Nausea in search of its philosophical truth, it came to be apparent that there is an analogy between it and Proust’s The Way by Swann’s (the first volume of In Search of Lost Time). The analogous component ironically lies in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida – ‘deconstructionism’ – in which he introduced his notion of the ‘centre’ and the ‘event’, rather than anything existentialist. The notion of ‘centre’ can be explained through ‘logocentrism’, a term coined by Ludwig Klages and which relates to Saussure’s ‘signifier and signified’. If one is to describe a cat, we use language to communicate the idea, we use the ‘signifier’ of ‘cat’ to insinuate the material, feline existence that sleeps on your face, shits on your kitchen floor, and knocks over things made of glass or crockery. The centre is the ‘cat’ – a concept, always through the limitations of language, exterior to an actual cat. The centre sets limitations. Through a process known as eidetic reduction we can see what forms the bases for a cat to be a cat, we locate the fundamental premises of what constitutes one; the first being that ‘a cat is not a dog’, and given that this is true, it is also true that ‘a cat is not a chair’, and this can be extended to everything that does or does not exist that is not a cat. The centre of ‘cat’ allows us what Derrida called ‘free play’ – that is, allows us to have black cats, dead cats, three-legged cats, bald cats, but all the variations must adhere to the fundamental premises of ‘cat’. Derrida’s notion of ‘event’ is however, as he wrote in his essay Structure, Sign, and Play, when ‘everything became discourse’ – that is, when the ‘centre’ of a structure is removed – when the ‘cat’ is removed from the structure of ‘cat’. Following this, the notion that ‘a cat is not a dog’ no longer holds any inherent truth to it. Here we have infinite ‘play’. Cats can now be bald, black, dead, or three-legged, but they can also be dogs, doors, diets, dialogues, diaries, and dildos.
So how does this relate to Sartre and Proust? Well, in Derrida’s discussion of language, he claimed that discourse is free in itself, unlimiting of play. It has no centre, it is ultimate freedom. A centre paradoxically, limits play by permitting it, but only within its boundaries. Like a bird cage, the centre is the hook which
holds up the iron bars. Inside the cage is freedom, but it is and always will still be a cage. By allowing something to happen it must also ensure other things do not happen – by allowing a bird to fly around within the cage, it must prohibit the bird from flying around outside of the cage. Only when these limitations exist can a centre be determinate.
The Way by Swann’s and Nausea, published in 1913 and 1938 respectively, were both written before the nascency of Derrida’s philosophy of deconstructionism. In Nausea, the narrator ‘Roquentin’ is a historian and is writing a book about the fictional ‘Marquis de Rollebon’. When the realisation lands on Roquentin that his existence is structured around both this dead Marquis and history, neither of which any longer exist, an ‘event’ is triggered within him, or perhaps to him, supplying the existential theme of the book. In The Way by Swann’s, the narrator – let’s call him ‘Marcel’ – experiences an analogous ‘event’ to Roquentin, but when he does so, he gives the opposite response as the one seen in Nausea. In Proust’s book, Marcel experiences the event when his past is brought to him ‘at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me.’ (The French expression madeleine de Proust was coined precisely to describe this form of nostalgia and literary device first expressed in In Search of Lost Time) Marcel, conversely to what Roquentin does, attempts to ‘save the past from time’s oblivion,’ by exploring it and bringing it back into existence through the form of tea and a madeleine.
Roquentin, however, receives this burden, this task of living after the ‘event’. He is void of any of the romanticism seen in Marcel. During his reaction to this new burden, Roquentin acts in a manner that is opposed to Derrida’s ‘play,’ seeing the past as something that has already succumbed to oblivion, is anguished by it, perceives it as frustrating and absurd. Marcel however, though tasked with the same problem – a confrontation of history, of nothingness – reacts in a way that is welcoming of it. Yet, the philosophical parallel of the texts is drawn within these opposing narrative reactions. The bases of both novels appear to harbour an uncanny philosophical resemblance; they are both explorations of how an individual deals with living after an existentialist ‘event’ occurs.
These occurrences that remove the previous ‘centres’ allow for ‘play’ to be explored in the form of the novels – within the fiction itself. Roquentin’s ‘event’ is triggered when he realises that his work, and therefore his existence as a ‘historian’, is meaningless. The opening line of the novel, ‘something has happened to me,’ is false – he has caused something to happen to himself. Marcel makes a similar declaration, a testimony to his surprise at this occurrence; ‘all of this emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.’
Both narrators speak of ‘it’ and the ‘thing’ which is what establishes these ‘events’ as parallel. The ‘play’ of Roquentin considering his meaning breaches the boundaries of the previous structure. For Roquentin, this previous ‘centre’ was God: ‘I know that all men are admirable […] in so far as we are God’s creatures of course,’ he is seen to claim. He converses with the character, ‘The Self-Taught Man’ who replies, ‘I don’t believe in God; I learnt to believe in people’. Roquentin’s ‘event’, then, deeper than simply the realisation that his work is meaningless, instead it is the moment God is substituted for the individual, when he learns to ‘believe in people’. The claim of The Self-Taught Man is the proclamation that there is nothing transcendental, and Roquentin adopts this view without realising it. Robyn Bantel describes Sartre’s view of God as ‘the imagined theoretical fulfilment of the for-itself’s desire to become its own foundation.’ In these terms, Roquentin, replacing God with himself, becomes his own God. In essence, his work becomes meaningless, not purely because history does not exist, but because he realises that everything is meaningless if there is no God. Here we have the crux of existentialism.
With this realisation, Roquentin is ‘condemned to be free.’ In lieu of any court of divine judgement, Roquentin is liberated by the collapse of a theist structure and experiences this as a type of nausea, moving from a form of religious restriction that ‘threatened Roquentin by inhibiting his freedom,’ to one where, with the individual as the ‘centre’, he is entirely responsible for himself, thus affirming the existentialist structure of meaning that is individual subjectivity.
For Marcel, his ‘event’ is based around a different structure. It proves to be the moment where the centre, having taken form as the present, is substituted by the past in the same way as for Roquentin, God is substituted by the individual. Vladimir Nabokov described The Way by Swann’s as ‘a treasure hunt where the treasure is time and the hiding-place the past,’ echoing this claim.
The ensuing play from these structural collapses that occur in the narrators’ lives are analogous at the least in the fact that they are life changing. The narrators are not the same following either event. Both novels begin by exhibiting how their lives have been changed by these occurrences. Instead, it is simply the nature of the narrators’ reactions to them is what differs the books. These reactions are neatly contained within the titles – Nausea, is what Roquentin feels, and In Search of Lost Time is the journey on which Proust’s narrator embarks, in his welcoming of this change. Roquentin’s reactionary stance sees him attempt to ‘persuade [himself] that there was nothing wrong’. Marcel, however, wills the event to occur by drinking a ‘second mouthful [then] a third’ – each sip willing the event to reoccur or prolong itself before stopping at the danger of the tea-drinking being ‘diminishing’. What we see in these reactions, is Derrida’s ‘two interpretations of interpretation’. Roquentin interprets the ‘event’ according to the first of Derrida’s interpretations: ‘seeking to decipher […] a truth or an origin,’ by asking himself ‘so a change has taken place […] but where?’ whereas Proust’s narrator interprets the event in a way that ‘affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism’ by stating, ‘I want to try to make it reappear.’
The narrators meet the criteria of the ‘event’ being unpredictable, without expectation. As ‘other or as the coming of the other’ – a ‘negative’ experience in its disruption to pre-existing structures, prohibiting anything from returning as the same. An example would be three people sat in a silent room, one of them suddenly collapses and is taken out of the room, the ensuing silence cannot be the same silence that existed prior to the ‘event’ of the collapse. Attempting to recreate the silence would be Roquentin’s reaction, enjoying it on the basis of its new beauty would fit with Marcel. The question is, how true is the philosophy of each novel? This can be answered in another question: which one do you want to be – Marcel or Roquentin?