Monday, October 8, 2018

Sartre's Nausea, doubtless very well known to you - and which I am incompetent to expound

Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (La Nausée, 1938) is discussed in a substantial chunk of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, most of the fifth lecture, which I remind myself was to an audience at Bryn Mawr in 1965, mostly, presumably undergraduates.

The book is doubtless very well known to you; I can’t undertake to tell you much about it, especially as it has often been regarded as standing in an unusually close relation to a body of philosophy which I am incompetent to expound.  (133)

Nausea appears to be – Sartre argued that it was – something of an anti-novel, working against whatever one thought a typical or traditional novel might be.  Kermode uses it to ask “How far is it inevitable that a novel gives a novel-shaped account of the world?” (143) and a number of variations on the question.

What kills me, first, is that Kermode’s first line is likely true.  How things have changed.  What novel, published almost twenty-seven years earlier, in English for sixteen years, could today’s lecturer use?  The Savage Detectives is doubtless very well known to you.”  Impossible.  A new English translation of Nausea, Robert Baldick’s, had just been published.  The previous year, Sartre had declined the Nobel Prize.  Maybe the undergraduates had merely read a lot of reviews of Nausea.  Very funny.  It was a different world.

Nausea was almost completely unknown to me.  Twenty years after The Sense of an Ending, when I began paying attention, Sartre’s reputation had deflated, maybe a lot.  I do not remember him being mentioned in literary or cultural journals much; not as much as Foucault and Derrida.  Nor do I remember him from class.  We read Simone de Beauvoir in Western Civ, not Sartre.  I do remember enjoying his plays, The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944), which I tried because they were in a Vintage International edition.  Back then, that meant “this is the good stuff.”

My understanding is that Sartre’s reputation has fallen quite a lot in France, too, but this is all relative.  He is much-read, much-discussed, just not at what must have been the exhausting level of the 1960s and 1970s, when he was the kind of figure who was in the newspaper every day, his opinion sought on every subject.  I was pleased and surprised to discover that La Nausée was within my reading level, early high school, maybe, although for ideas and interest it is more advanced.  The novel has an “existentialism for beginners” aspect, but it does not appear to be taught in French high schools at this point.  A new school edition of The Flies came out just this spring – I do not want to exaggerate.

So, poked by Kermode, I read La Nausée, in French, and plan to write about it for a couple of days, beyond today’s throat-clearing or context-setting or whatever it is.  Not only am I incompetent in the philosophy, but also in the French, so I assume I have made some basic errors in comprehension.  Not only am I incompetent in the philosophy, I now see that, as a solid materialist, I am antipathetic to it.  I take it for granted that the world outside of myself exists, that I exist, that kind of thing.  But that is all right.  I like reading about people different than me.

In the end, it is just a novel, and I have some idea how to read those.


  1. I haven't revisited Nausea since university, but I seriously doubt that I'll ever again be able to give it whatever gravity it may deserve after reading Boris Vian's L'Écume des jours. Vian and Sartre were friends, but in L'Écume Vian portrays him as "Jean-Sol Partre," celebrity philosopher, who arrives at a conference riding on an elephant as the mob around him is kept at bay by a corps of sharpshooters. Partre is about to finish his 20-volume encyclopedia of nausea, and at the conference hands out vials of different kinds of preserved vomit as souvenirs to his fans.

  2. Ha, that's pretty rough. I'll read that Vian novel someday, I hope.

    I suppose one way back into La Nausée, around Vian, is to remind oneself that the novel is not really the work of a celebrity philosopher, but of an unknown lycée teacher.

    Hey, no wonder it feels like it was written for lycée students. This deep thought just occurred to me.

  3. "What novel, published almost twenty-seven years earlier, in English for sixteen years, could today’s lecturer use?"

    A Game of Thrones, maybe? (27 years + 16 years)/2 = 22 years ago. Your point about this being a different world is just reinforced by that example, though.

  4. Yes, or Rowling, and for more accuracy, "The filmed versions are doubtless very well known to you."

  5. I saw a production of No Exit once. I enjoyed it for about 20 minutes. It would have made a cracking short play, but once it makes its point, it just goes on making it, and making it. That is very probably the main point. It's not a patch on The Third Policeman.

  6. Your comment makes me think of Louis Guilloux's terrific Blood Dark (Le Sang Noir), which is actually about a lycée teacher - though not so unknown. Georges Palante, on whom the novel was based, must certainly have been known in the philosophical circles in which Sartre moved, and Blood Dark, written around the same time as La Nausée, would make for a pretty interesting comparison since the main character suffers from a similar kind of existential nausea.

  7. Maybe there is an advantage to just reading No Exit. In the Vintage edition, it is only 44 pages. It is a short play!

    I have never heard of Guilloux, nor Palante. Strange stuff.

  8. Guilloux is terrific. I'd never heard of him either before about a year ago, but Le Sang Noir is tremendous.