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Nausea | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Nausea | Quotes


I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices.

Antoine Roquentin, Tuesday, January 30, 1932

Roquentin is in the Café Mably where "everything is always normal in cafés and especially the Café Mably." However, things are not normal for him. He has just been having an experience of the Nausea, in which his glass of beer fills him with an unaccountable dread. He tries to account for the Nausea by listing the qualities of the glass of beer, but the Nausea is not in the "bevelled ... edges" of the glass, nor is it in the brand name "Spartenbrau." Instead, what unsettles Roquentin is "something else. Almost nothing."

Roquentin is alone in perceiving this something else that is almost nothing. As in Heidegger's analysis of "the they" in Being and Time, for Roquentin most people, most of the time, are in flight from the truth. Once in a while Roquentin turns toward someone with the hope that they too share these experiences. Walking down the street, he wonders about passersby: "Were they like me? were they, too, afraid?" When he visits Anny and she expresses disgust, he wonders if he has found a compatriot. However, for the most part he has an arrogant and contemptuous certainty of his uniqueness.


The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall.

Antoine Roquentin, Friday, February 2, 5:30

Roquentin is in his usual café, the Railwaymen's Rendezvous, when he suddenly experiences the Nausea again. Like someone suffering the aura of an oncoming migraine, he feels sickened by intense visual phenomena. The clashing colors of the barman's shirt and suspenders and the way both of those clash with the brown wall repel Roquentin.

However, Roquentin takes pains to show this Nausea is not a subjective experience. It is not an organic illness particular only to him, like one person's experience of a migraine. The Nausea is not Roquentin's subjective illusion. Additionally, the Nausea is also not a purely objective phenomenon like the rain or the light. In the Nausea, both Roquentin and the things of the world meet in an experience of dread. "Consciousness and the world are given at one stroke," as Sartre writes in 1939 in a paper on Husserl.


I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish.

Antoine Roquentin, Friday, February 2, 5:30

Roquentin has just been listening to his favorite song, a ragtime version of "Some of These Days." Apparently he has accidentally discovered an antidote to the Nausea, although he doesn't use it this way in the rest of the novel. Listening to the song relieves his experience of the Nausea.

The song and the lessening of the Nausea might be causally connected though. It might be only chance. Regardless, Roquentin's comment at this moment reveals the gendered dynamics of the book. The experience of the Nausea is depicted as soft, wet, amorphous, and indistinct. For example, in the park, when Roquentin has his "vision" of existence, he is confronted by "soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness." This repellent collection of qualities might not necessarily be female, except when viewed in contrast to Roquentin's experiences of relief from the Nausea. Here, in this passage, the opposite of the Nausea, of a female softness, is a hardening of Roquentin's body. At the end of the novel, Roquentin also reflects on his desire "to drive existence out of me, to rid the passing moments of their fat ... purify myself, harden myself."


Transfigured, beside herself, suffering with a frenzied generosity. I envy her.

Antoine Roquentin, Friday, February 2, 5:30

Roquentin is walking at night on the Boulevard Noir. He runs into his neighbor Lucie and a man, Charles, who must be her cruel husband. Lucie doesn't notice him, but he overhears her husband tell her to "shut your trap." Her husband is a younger man who apparently only married her for her modest savings.

Roquentin envies Lucie's suffering because it gives meaning to her life. It's a terrible meaning, but it allows her to flee from bare existence and her own terrible freedom.


From time to time ... you catch the soft glint of a skull.

Antoine Roquentin, Sunday (February 11)

Roquentin spends a Sunday walking the streets and observing as the citizens of Bouville promenade, showing off their status. Roquentin is walking in the Rue Tournebride, and, being tall, he looks down on "a sea of hats." Within this sea, he occasionally glimpses a bald head, which he describes here as "the soft glint of a skull."

Like Heidegger's "the they," the middle-class citizens of Bouville are fleeing the fact of their impending death, symbolized by the glint of a skull. The combination of the flowing crowd and the presence of death recalls T.S. Eliot's modernist poem of 1922, The Waste Land.

In the poem the speaker looks at people walking over London Bridge and observes, "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many." The speaker of Eliot's poem is looking at people who have perhaps "outlived themselves," to put it in Anny's words. They are unaware they are spiritually dead. Roquentin also is aware of death, as the crowd he observes is not.


The hour when the screen ... would speak and dream for them.

Antoine Roquentin, Sunday (February 11)

Roquentin is remarking on another Sunday pastime of the citizens of Bouville, going to the movies. The movie takes over the burden of existence for them, as though they could abandon themselves to it.

However, in a chapter all about the unaware citizens of Bouville, this passage is unusually beautiful. Sartre has Roquentin describe the movie screen as "glowing like a white stone under water." It's a peculiar take on movies; Roquentin says nothing of the images, only their glowing substrate, the screen. For once Roquentin seems not to be talking about his distance from the citizens of Bouville, but, instead, as if he too loved the movies. His sense of separateness does return later in the chapter: "But, after all, it was their Sunday, not mine."


Beware of literature.

Antoine Roquentin, Monday (February 12)

Roquentin has been criticizing the previous day's diary entry. He got too lyrical in his prose, too overblown, when he wrote that he "marched like a regiment descending on a city." His goal with the diary is to figure out what this strange experience of the Nausea is, and he seems to feel the trappings of literature will distract him from that goal. It isn't only with style that literature obscures the truth. Narrative also imposes a meaning existence does not have. As Roquentin says earlier in this section, you can live or you can tell, but not both. "Nothing happens while you live," Roquentin writes, meaning adventures belong to literature, not to life. However, by the end of the book, Roquentin will have decided in favor of literature as his new project is to write a novel. This decision leaves open the possibility that the novel readers hold in their hands is the one Roquentin went to Paris to write.


I hadn't the right to exist.

Antoine Roquentin, February 17, Afternoon

Roquentin spends an afternoon in a museum looking at portraits of the town's famous founders. These men and women built up industry and made Bouville what it is. Roquentin perceives they had the right to exist. He himself feels he does not, and he seems peculiarly afflicted with low self-esteem. He also sometimes depicts himself as a crab or jellyfish, a member of a phylum well below Homo sapiens.

Even though Roquentin says he "admired the reign of man" when looking at the portraits, his admiration is rather barbed. In telling of the achievements of Bouville's founders, he notes their role in breaking a strike. Sartre was a leftist who would never admire an industrialist strikebreaker, and Roquentin seems to share his leanings. He is also fairly acid about the right to exist. He gazes up at a portrait of a Bouville founding father named Jean Pacôme, who "for sixty years, without a halt ... had used his right to live." He dryly notes Pacôme is "handsome, faultless ... now dead." What did the right to exist avail Pacôme in the end? Nothing; he's dead now. Roquentin returns to the topic of rights later in the novel, and there he reveals his real opinion of rights. The rights of man or the right to exist are just so many ways to flee from existence, Roquentin thinks. "Those bastards ... try to hide from themselves with their idea of their rights." Thus Roquentin's "I hadn't the right to exist" is a kind of humblebrag: he is not ensnared in that illusion.


I no longer existed in myself, but in him; I ate for him, breathed for him.

Antoine Roquentin, Monday (February 19)

Roquentin has realized he is through with the project of writing about the Marquis de Rollebon. Now that his relationship with the Marquis de Rollebon is over, he sees it clearly for the first time. It was a partnership: "He needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence." In a way it wasn't a 50/50 partnership because Roquentin was the one who "furnished the raw material," which was "existence, my existence."


I turn left, he turns left, he thinks he turns left, mad, am I mad?

Antoine Roquentin, Monday (February 19)

It is not clear who the "he" of this passage is. It could be Roquentin himself. Later in the book, he remarks, "Now when I say 'I,' it seems hollow to me." So in this passage, perhaps "he" and "I" have become interchangeable. On the other hand, he does mention two other male figures in this passage: a handsome man with a moustache and a Legion of Honor medal and an unnamed assailant who rapes and murders a girl, Lucienne.

Roquentin seems to identify with the rapist, overtaken by "a soft, criminal desire to rape." At the same time, he seems like the victim of an assault because this "desire to rape catches me from behind." He also explicitly makes the connection between this sense of being overcome from behind and rape. He says, "existence takes my thoughts from behind," and he also says, "little Lucienne assaulted from behind, violated by existence from behind." In this context, Roquentin has become both a victim of the assailant and the assailant.

This is the entirety of Roquentin's diary entry for this day. Earlier he began a diary entry with "nothing new," though later he admitted he was lying when he wrote that. Thus it's possible a great deal happened on this particular Tuesday Roquentin summarizes as nothing. In fact, it's impossible for nothing to have happened on Tuesday.

Roquentin's statement is ambiguous. It could mean: "Nothing happened to me today. I existed, that's all." However, the two words can also be read as forming one sentence: "Nothing existed [today]." Heidegger also meditates on this strange positivity of nothingness. "The nothing nothings," Heidegger writes in What Is Metaphysics?, a work Sartre was influenced by. How could nothing do something? How could nothing be something? Heidegger's illogical statement brings to light the ambiguities and even the errors in what he saw as a tradition of metaphysics mistakenly supposing Being is a substance or a property of things. Sartre seems to be alluding to Heidegger's sentence.


I do not believe in God ... But, in the internment camp, I learned to believe in men.

Self-Taught Man, Wednesday, February 21

Roquentin has lunch with the Self-Taught Man, who tells him about the defining experience of his life when he was a prisoner of war during World War I. He and the other prisoners were sometimes kept crowded together in a dark, silent shed for hours on end. Being surrounded by mute people in a darkened shed sounds like Roquentin's nightmare since he is such a staunch individualist with a tendency to feel disgust for the material world. However, the Self-Taught Man emerges from the experience with a faith in mankind. His statement of belief is its own condemnation though, at least in Roquentin's eyes. Just as God is an abstract idea for Roquentin, so too the humankind the Self-Taught Man professes to love is an abstract idea. It is significant that the Self-Taught Man is converted to humanism amid a silent mass of deindividualized people. As Roquentin writes, "Humanism takes possession and melts all human attitudes into one."


Existence ... must invade you suddenly, master you, weigh heavily on your heart.

Antoine Roquentin, Wednesday, February 21, 6:00 p.m.

This is part of Roquentin's vision under the chestnut tree. He has just said, "Existence is not something which lets itself be thought of from a distance." Instead, existence "must invade you." His ideas here are similar to Heidegger's. To understand the meaning of being, Heidegger claimed we have to ask beings for whom existence is an issue, beings who know they are going to die. Rather than a cool or abstract intellectual investigation, Sartre's existentialism draws on moods and experiences that reveal the human predicament.


He'll see that it is a side of rotten meat, grimy with dust, dragging itself along.

Antoine Roquentin, Tuesday, in Bouville

Roquentin imagines "the father of a family" going out for a walk and seeing a red rag in the street. As the father gazes, he realizes the rag is actually "a side of rotten meat" that is capable of independent motion. This is one of Roquentin's rare flights of fancy in Nausea. Most of the time he is concerned to "beware of literature," as he says earlier in the novel. He doesn't want to obscure the truth with literature's trappings. However, here he lets his imagination run riot when he speculates on what it would be like if the people of Bouville suddenly became aware of nature.

The nature Roquentin is aware of in this diary entry is not beautiful or majestic. He is aware of the material world as something nonhuman, pulsating, and indifferent to humans. This indifference, this meaninglessness of nature, appears horrifying to Roquentin. However, to get the rest of Bouville up to speed on how horrifying nature is in its blind persistence, its meaningless pullulating, or spreading, nature would have to become hideously present to them. Thus, Roquentin imagines what it would be like if an upstanding citizen of Bouville saw a side of beef propel itself through the streets. He'd get the Nausea as bad as Roquentin himself.


Everything suddenly crumbled, his dreams of culture, his dreams of an understanding with mankind.

Antoine Roquentin, Tuesday, in Bouville

The Self-Taught Man has been banned from the library for making sexual advances to a schoolboy. Now his "dreams of culture" are unattainable since he is forced to abandon his project of reading his way through the library. He will be forever stuck at the letter N. Even worse, his pathetic attempt at human intimacy has misfired so badly he is now scorned and repudiated by all of Bouville.

Roquentin views the Self-Taught Man as pathetic and harmless rather than as a dangerous predator. He calls the Self-Taught Man's love of boys "hardly sensuality—rather a form of humanity." Roquentin's outrage on the Self-Taught Man's behalf only makes sense if readers view him as harmless. However, on another level, it is possible to see Sartre as punishing the character whose views he disagrees with. The character who professes to love humanity is saddled with a repugnant love and made the object of the whole town's scorn.

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