“When you are living, nothing happens.”1
Antoine Roquentin in Nausea
The concept of nothingness, if one is allowed to call it a concept, is an ethereal notion that seems to slip, shimmer and slide from our grasp as we direct our focus upon it. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre introduces it through a description of looking for Pierre in a café where they have agreed to meet. Nothingness arises, though, because Pierre is not there:
“To be sure, Pierre’s absence supposes an original relation between me and this café; there is an infinity of people who are without any relation with this café for want of a real expectation which establishes their absence. But, to be exact, I myself expected to see Pierre, and my expectation has caused the absence of Pierre to happen as a real event concerning this café. It is an objective fact at present that I have discovered this absence… by contrast judgements which I can make subsequently to amuse myself, such as, ‘Wellington is not in this café, Paul Valéry is no longer here, etc.’ – these have a purely abstract meaning…”2
As we saw in the last post Catalano, gives other possible examples of nothingness occurring, such as when the person you are walking with suddenly isn’t there or when the horse you considered having a bet on, but didn’t, wins their race. I also suggested that when making decisions as to what to type next in an essay one also opens oneself up to nothingness.
The issue at stake is not absence per se, but rather that our very consciousness is not set or programmed to think in a certain way when presented with any given situation. Our consciousness is infinite in terms of how it can respond, reflect or cogitate upon the environment that we find ourselves in. And, perhaps one of the best literary examples of this facet of consciousness getting an airing is Sartre’s own work, Nausea.
Published in 1938, but written between 1932 and 1936, Sartre’s novel Nausea predates Being and Nothingness, which was published in 1943 and written in the early 1940s, and so can be thought of, arguably, as a literary pre-cursor to Sartre’s great tomb. Many of the philosophical themes in Being and Nothingness are given an initial outing in Nausea, however it is in Sartre’s treatment of his protagonist’s consciousness that we find our current interest.
The story is given a sense of truth with the opening “Editor’s Note”3 as Sartre’s situates his work within a tradition of writing that has the narrative prefaced, such as with the letters Dracula or Frankenstein:
“These notebooks were found among Antoine Roquentin’s papers. We are publishing them without alteration.”4
Immediately, then, one is guided to believe that the events that follow are real and not a work of fiction. This device helps Sartre to position what happens in the text as being grounded in reality as opposed to being something more like a fairy tale. “Once upon a time…” is replaced with a series of ‘facts’.
The next seed that Sartre sows concerns the reliability of the narrator. In most cases this seed blossoms to reveal the unreliability of said narrator. Sartre’s twist, however, is to unsettle us by having Roquentin question his own reliability and even sanity.
“The odd thing is that I am not at all prepared to consider myself insane, and indeed I can see quite clearly that I am not… Perhaps it was a slight attack of insanity after all.”5
Uncertainty and intrigue catered for, Sartre can proceed and give a bit more context to our character: “I for my part live alone, entirely alone. I never speak to anybody, I receive nothing, I give nothing.”6 It appears, then, that dialogue isn’t going to occupy much of the 250 pages. Within a few more pages the main theme, Roquentin’s nausea, arrives:
“Now I see; I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! And it came from the pebble, I’m sure of that, it passed from the pebble into my hands. Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly it: a sort of nausea in the hands.”7
Other episodes swiftly follow. In a café, the face of Madeline, the waitress, induces an ‘attack’:
“Then the Nausea [Roquentin has officially named it now] seized me, I dropped on to the bench, I no longer even knew where I was; I saw the colours slowly spinning around me, I wanted to vomit. And there it is: since then, the Nausea hasn’t left me, it holds me in its grip.”8
In an almost pre-cognition moment, Roquentin makes a significant throwaway comment: “When you are living, nothing happens.”9 The full meaning of this comment, though, is left unexplained as we read further. Indeed, it is only by dwelling with the text that one can start to grasp at the hidden meaning. So as not to complicate things further by being oblique myself I will presume to interpret. ‘Living’, in this instance, means getting on with one’s daily life and habits. The normality of ‘living’ that we each create for ourselves or have thrust upon us is in some sense a lie. Work, meals, relaxation, reading newspapers are all activities that we layer over our existence. And, it is that existence that Roquentin is beginning to experience in his attacks of nausea. The existence that lies behind our stories, facts and understanding of the world starts coming out from beneath the glib self-assurance we each adopt in order to function ‘normally’ in the world. The cracks are showing for Roquentin and he begins to believe he is accessing real the existence of objects and people that surround us and that we profess to have calm dispassionate knowledge of.
After the nausea connected with Madeline’s face, Roquentin fixates on other faces and begins to push aside humanity and empathy in his gaze:
“On the opposite pavement, a gentleman who is holding his wife by the arm has just whispered a few words in her ear and has started smiling. She promptly and carefully wipes all expression from her cream-coloured face and takes a few steps blindly.”10
“Doctor Rogé has finished his calvados. His great body relaxes and his eyelids droop heavily. For the first time I see his face without the eyes: you might take it for a cardboard mask.”11
“Once a woman’s face took shape on a level with my shoulder.” 12
“I was not alone. A woman with a waxy complexion was sitting opposite me and her hands were moving all the time.”13
“I saw the fellow in the blue cape sitting in the same place; he had a huge pale face between two ears which were scarlet with cold.”14
There is slight dysfunctional and intermittent dialogue interspersed between these snapshots, however Roquentin’s detachment from his fellow citizens is very apparent as he regards them really as objects.
Just as in Being and Nothingness, a duality is demarcated which, in Nausea, is encapsulated by those ‘objects’ Roquentin comes into contact with and the ‘I’ of Roquentin. In his philosophy, Sartre formulates the latter as ‘Being-For-Itself’. So, switching to himself, after observing the others, who are cast effectively as objects or ‘Beings-In-Themselves’, Roquentin states:
“… I had always realized that: I hadn’t any right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe.”15
His random popping up of out of the blue, strikes Roquentin as a significant realisation and, indeed, Sartre obviously thinks deeper on this in his later philosophy where he declares, “existence precedes essence.”16 The philosophic driving force being to nullify the claims of those suffering from religious preconceptions that their life has a purpose and that their divine creator has given them an essence. For now, though, we need to focus on Roquentin.
When thinking about the history he is writing on the obscure Marquis de Rollebon, a fictional character invented by Sartre who supposedly lived through the French Revolution, Roquentin develops the theme of his existence:
“Monsieur de Rollebon was my partner: he needed me in order to be and I needed him in order not to feel my being.”17
When working on his project, Roquentin recognises that as well as bringing Monsieur de Rollebon to life he distracts himself away from his own being, his existence. The activities of researching and writing preoccupy him and give him the ‘normality’ of a standard existence. However, the focus that Roquentin sees the relationship with is one where only one of them can be said to ‘exist’:
“I no longer noticed that I existed, I no longer existed in myself, but in him; it was for him that I ate, for him that I breathed… I was only a means of making him live.”18
A turning point comes when Roquentin states “The great Rollebon affair has come to an end”19 and by deciding to stop his work on Monsieur de Rollebon he forces an internal crisis: “he was my raison d’être, he freed me from myself. What am I going to do now?”20 Without his work on Monsieur de Rollebon, Roquentin is pushed back on himself with no distractions. Without Monsieur de Rollebon there is no hiding place whereby Roquentin can convince himself that he is ‘normal’, just chugging along with the rest of humanity. Instead, Roquentin is exposed. At first this exposure, or realisation, is a relief to be relished, “I exist. It’s sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light.”21 To no longer hide in the same shadows us the rest of us, but to see oneself and the world all around as existing comes to Roquentin as if an epiphany.
A change occurs however when Roquentin observes his own hand and starts to see it as crab-like and begins to realise that his new found awareness of existence doesn’t appear to have an off-switch:
“I exist. I think I exist. Oh how long and serpentine this feeling of existing is – and I unwind it, slowly… If only I could prevent myself from thinking!”22
Descartes cogito seems to swirl like a spell around Roquentin and cast him deeper into turmoil, which Sartre executes majestically by having his antihero go on a rampaging tour de force of babbling. However, just before the onset of incoherence, Roquentin announces the following to himself:
“I exist by what I think… and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment – this is terrible – if I exist, it is because I hate existing. It is I, it is I who pull myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: hatred and disgust for existence are just so many ways of making me exist, of thrusting me into existence.”23
Given as a diary, Nausea relates day-by-day Roquentin’s experiences and, rather beautifully, after the babbling rampage, Sartre writes “Nothing. Existed.”24 as the sole entry for the next day, Tuesday. Those two words, written as two separate sentences show that Roquentin was still caught up entirely in the serpent of existence and that “nothing” else of note occurred.
I have to add that Sartre cannot have formulated his philosophic ideas on nothingness at this stage because the use of “nothingness to which I aspire”25 runs contrary to his later ideas on nothingness. In Nausea, nothingness pertains to Roquentin desiring to be ‘normal’ with the blankness of living an everyday life, such as he observes in others. As we can read, though, he is thwarted in this desire by the very act of thinking so that he is unable to arrest the swirl of existence around him.
On Wednesday the internal activity has quietened down and Roquentin is able to substitute something for Monsieur de Rollebon to fill his ‘life’. He has arranged to see his ex-girlfriend, Anny, in Paris: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”26
But how does all this relate to nothingness?
Starting with Roquentin’s ‘attacks’ of nausea, we find ourselves observing a person within their environment displaying what Peter Caws, in the previous post described as a “buffer of nothingness between us and the world.”27 Roquentin, whilst under the influence of those ‘attacks’ is not engaging in the real world in a ‘normal’ manner and, as Sartre understood, he had placed himself “out of circuit.”28 Roquentin’s nausea, as such, then becomes a display or an example of nothingness, just like Sartre’s fixation upon the absence of Pierre or Catalano’s unplaced bet on the winning horse.
Nausea is a manifestation of nothingness and it helps to highlight the infinite nature of one’s consciousness in how that consciousness might actually interact with objects and people in the world. We do not absorb, ponder or engage with the world according to set programs. This being the point Sartre develops as regards freedom, something we shall explore later.
Getting back to Nausea, though, nothingness is given a twist when Roquentin starts to see behind the veil of ‘normality’ and into the pit of existence because Sartre takes down the “buffer of nothingness” and somehow presses pause on Roquentin’s consciousness or, arguably, over excites it and temporarily at least breaks it. The ‘protection’ of Roquentin’s consciousness is disabled and he loses the inherent power within consciousness to process the world in its own way according to its rules, which might vary of course but are usually always there. The protection being nothingness and without it Roquentin is thrown into mental disorder and we are left watching him babble until nothingness returns because his consciousness has found a way to process the world again: “In four days I shall see Anny again: for the moment, that is my only reason for living.”
There are, I’m sure, psychological depths to be plumbed in a character such as Roquentin, however our task is to stick with the philosophical and perhaps give one further example of nothingness contained within Nausea: Anny.
Anny’s nothingness example is wrapped up in the way she used to process the world, such as when she was with Roquentin. As she reveals to him, it was all based around her childhood fascination with the choice of pictures used to illustrate Michelet’s encyclopaedic History of France. For Anny, the limited amount of illustrations meant that each one, depicting scenes from history, had to be specially selected over other possibilities and this meant that they were very rare and precious. The fascination in pictures then turned into a desire to emulate the preciousness of the scenes but in real life, which gave rise to her yearning for “perfect moments.”29 Her way of processing life, her nothingness, was to always be on the look-out for the possibility of creating a “perfect moment” which gave rise to her pressing need to transform any environment she was in with objects d’arte that could help set the scene. The problem in her relationship with Roquentin was that she never told him at the time about her desire to create “perfect moments” and what they meant to her.
Interestingly, Sartre parallels Roquentin’s overload, where the loss of nothingness caused him to stare into the abyss of existence. For Anny, her loss of nothingness comes when she gives up on seeking “perfect moments”: “I live surrounded by dead passions.”30 Her renunciation effectively means that she is set just to exist from now on and she encapsulates this in the phrase “I am outliving myself.”31 Hope for Anny is dashed onto the floor like a smashed vase and she is destined to float from one place to another:
“’I travel,’ she goes on in a gloomy voice; ‘I’ve just come back from Sweden. I stopped in Berlin for a week. There’s a fellow who’s keeping me…’”32
Roquentin’s life almost appears positively rosy in comparison, especially when Sartre ends Nausea by having him think about writing a novel that would be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.”33 Nausea perhaps?
Perhaps nothingness always finds a way to come back, even when it gets lost, overloaded or broken? Maybe Simone will also write a book. Did I say Simone? I suppose I meant Anny, just like I suppose I meant Roquentin rather than Sartre.
- Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 61.
- Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 10.
- Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 8.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 61.
- Ibid., 69.
- Ibid., 103.
- Ibid., 105.
- Ibid., 106.
- Ibid., 114.
- Ibid., 124.
- Sartre, J-P., Existentialism and Humanism, 28.
- Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 142-143.
- Ibid., 143.
- Ibid., 142.
- Ibid., 143
- Ibid., 145.
- Ibid., 149.
- Ibid., 145.
- Ibid., 150.
- Caws, P., Sartre, 70.
- Sartre, J-P., Being and Nothingness, 24.
- See Sartre, J-P., Nausea, 204-205.
- Ibid., 207.
- Ibid., 206.
- Ibid., 216.
- Ibid., 252.