Nausea | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Nausea | Context



Jean-Paul Sartre was a proponent of the philosophy of existentialism, a 20th-century philosophical movement that examines human existence and emphasizes the centrality of human freedom. Existentialism has roots in 19th-century Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. However, there are many different schools of thought within existentialism. Kierkegaard believed life is absurd; people are born only to die. In the face of this absurdity, Kierkegaard believed it took a "leap of faith" to find meaning in life through Christianity. Nietzsche believed the realization that "God is dead" laid a burden on humanity. Nietzsche thought that scientific progress made it impossible for people to believe in God and that humankind would eventually have to find meaning and morality another way. Another important proponent of existentialism was 20th-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who believed philosophy's purpose was to reveal the nature of being, as in "being-in-the-world," being oneself, and reaching a state of freedom of being in the world. He believed extreme experiences, such as suffering and death, reveal the nature of being.

Existentialists believe that "existence precedes essence." This is a slogan of Sartre's, which means that first a person exists, then the person develops who they are (essence) through the choices they make. The idea behind it is that humans and what they are is not a fixed and static thing; people must invent themselves and choose their values. For Sartre, self-invention does not mean every person can become absolutely anything: astronaut, supermodel, rock star. Rather, he believed human beings have the responsibility to live consciously and engage with others in improving the world.

Edmund Husserl

In the early 1930s Jean-Paul Sartre spent time in Berlin and Freiburg, Germany, on a stipend from the Institut Français, and there he immersed himself in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Husserl is the founder of phenomenology, a branch of philosophy focused on consciousness. In contrast to metaphysics, which tries to state what is real, phenomenology focuses on human experience. However, Husserl and Sartre believed consciousness was not a thing in the world that could be studied like other things. There was not an essence, called soul, mind, or spirit, that could be studied in isolation from the world. Instead, phenomenology describes the way consciousness relates to the world.

When Sartre first heard about this aspect of Husserl's phenomenology—that it studied the world along with consciousness—he was fascinated. Sartre's longtime partner Simone de Beauvoir tells an anecdote about the day Sartre's friend Raymond Aron introduced him to Husserl's ideas. In a Parisian café, de Beauvoir, Aron, and Sartre were drinking cocktails. Aron told Sartre, "If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!" (In Sartre's telling, the cocktail is a glass of beer, like the one Roquentin stares at in Nausea.)

Since the terms consciousness and experience are somewhat abstract, it might help to make a comparison. The French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) set out to study his own consciousness. In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes describes his method. He isolated himself in a darkened room: "I shall now close my eyes, I shall stop up my ears, I shall call away all my senses." He reasoned that to know what the mind was, one had to isolate it from the world. This understanding of the relationship between the material body and the immaterial mind is known as Cartesian (after Descartes) dualism. Husserl objects to the duality and argues, "Consciousness is always consciousness of something." Thus it is not possible to isolate consciousness from the world. Sartre finds a middle ground between Descartes and Husserl, and he wrote in 1939 in a paper on Husserl, "Consciousness and the world are given at one stroke." However, this does not mean mind and matter are melded into a unity. On the contrary, consciousness is different from the world but aimed toward the world. As Sartre writes, "To know is to 'burst toward' [the things of the world] ... veering out there beyond oneself."

Another conclusion Sartre drew from Husserl's phenomenology is that consciousness is nothing but a directedness toward things, with an emphasis on the "nothing but." For Sartre, consciousness was almost nothing. "There is nothing in [consciousness] but a movement of fleeing itself, a sliding beyond itself," writes Sartre. At the same time, this nothingness is dreadful. "Husserl has restored to things their horror and their charm," writes Sartre. Many critics suggest that Sartre never quite resolved the problem of consciousness; he explored what consciousness is not (object, subject, past, or body) and carved out a space where it can be maintained that consciousness exists independently of anything in the physical world and yet remains oriented toward the physical world while being self-conscious of itself.

These Husserlian themes and Sartre's attempt to solve the problem of consciousness can be seen in Nausea. Roquentin's wanderings in Nausea are all about the "horror and charm" of things and the simultaneous fascination and dread Roquentin feels in the grip of the "the Nausea." Roquentin's experience of the failure of language can also be seen as a Husserlian idea since people cannot know themselves by trying to understand how their minds picture the world in representations. Staring at the exposed root of a chestnut tree, Roquentin finds his representations of the object useless. Words fall away from him; he tries to describe the root as black, but this representation is inadequate: "Black ... did not exist. I looked at the root: was it more than black or almost black?" This example of Roquentin's contemplation of the relationship between the word for a thing and the thing itself anticipates poststructuralism, which critiques the theories of structuralism, though philosophers and linguists who developed and worked in this discipline were not necessarily fans of Sartre's philosophy.

Martin Heidegger

In the early 1930s when Jean-Paul Sartre studied in Germany, he also discovered the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Heidegger was influenced by Husserl's phenomenology, and he was seen as the philosopher who inherited and continued Husserl's work. Husserl's phenomenology studied the phenomenon of consciousness while clearing away the inherited or customary philosophical and scientific preconceptions. Husserl called this clearing away reduction. In Heidegger's hands, this reduction became deconstruction, which was his method of clearing away philosophical preconceptions to arrive at the fundamental task of philosophy: to understand the meaning of being. Today, the term "to deconstruct" usually means simply to analyze a text. For Heidegger though, it meant to show how the texts of metaphysics obscure what he called "the question of the meaning of being."

The primary source for understanding the meaning of being was, for Heidegger as for Husserl, consciousness. Heidegger called this consciousness "being-there," or in German Dasein. Being-there can be thought of as another name for "human." Heidegger, however, would have resisted this, since for him the concepts of "humanity" and "mankind" were too overlain with philosophical and scientific preconceptions to be of any use in his philosophical inquiry. Dasein can ask the question of being because Dasein is fated to die, and, unlike birds, chestnut trees, and stones, Dasein knows this. Heidegger called Dasein's awareness of death "being-toward-death."

Just as metaphysics, for Heidegger, busies itself in obscuring the fundamental task of philosophy, so too Dasein tends to run away from the fundamental question of its own being. Dasein will die, but Dasein spends most of its time fleeing this fact. Heidegger's name for the people happily engaged in denying death was "the they." Most people, "the they," spend most of their time denying death, thought Heidegger. However, certain experiences or moods can reveal the truth Dasein flees from. Heidegger found these in being-toward-death, as well as boredom and dread. In the most illuminating form of dread, thought Heidegger, we are not dreading a particular thing, such as a tax audit or a root canal. Instead, what we feel "dread of and for is undefinable," Heidegger writes in What Is Metaphysics?, a text that influenced Sartre during his time in Germany. This undefinable dread comes upon people in moods when their everyday life seems meaningless: "As beings slip out of meaning, only this 'nothing' remains, and it overwhelms us. Dread reveals the nothing."

In Nausea Roquentin is bored and isolated. He split up with his girlfriend years ago, and now his only project, his historical study, has revealed itself as pointless. These facts could be understood as saying something about Roquentin's psychology. However, Sartre intended to also show how Roquentin's nausea revealed a truth of existence.

Heidegger was associated with fascism, a philosophy and political movement that exalts nation and often race over individuality and whose power is located in a dictatorial leader. While the character Roquentin in Nausea is a leftist, he has some Heideggerian attitudes. In 1933 Heidegger became rector of Freiburg University. One month after acceding to the rectorship, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party. This was not lip service; he promoted Nazi policies at the university. Scholars have disagreed about the extent to which Heidegger's philosophy is fascistic. One place where Heidegger's philosophy connects to fascism may be in Heidegger's disdain for everyday life, for the people he calls "the they." Authentically being-toward-death is a solitary experience, and Roquentin sometimes expresses a similar disdain for people. "Idiots," he hisses, looking at the people of Bouville.

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