Sartre’s existentialism – the nausea of life’s meaninglessness as a call to action

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published his philosophical novel “Nausea” in 1938. “Nausea” was his very first work and it can be seen as the forerunner of Sartre’s existentialism, which he was going to formulate in his work “Being and Nothingness“ in 1943.

“Nausea” is about a man at the age of thirty, who becomes increasingly disgusted by his own existence. His name is Roquentin and he is the novel’s main character and narrator at the same time. Roquentin is writing a history book about a person called the Marquis de Rollebon, an eighteenth-century diplomat and traveller. By going through everyday life Roquentin is regularly afflicted by attacks of what he calls his “nausea”. This nausea overcomes Roquentin in various situations: once in a café, in a street and also in his study. His nausea attacks embody Roquentin’s sudden awareness of life’s meaninglessness and absurdity. He feels the nausea whenever he suddenly becomes aware of the fact that there is “absolutely no reason for living.” Furthermore Roquentin lives life’s absurdity. He does certain things only because there is no reason for doing differently. Being disgusted and annoyed by his own existence Roquentin tries to not thinking about existing, which he can’t: He is nauseated by knowing that he exists due to his thinking of hating his existence; disgusted to know that his “hatred and disgust for existence” are thrusting him into existence. Life bores him and he tries to make time pass. He for example eats, although he is not hungry, just in order to pass the time. There is no enthusiasm about anything he does and the decisions he made or still makes appear to have only a passive character.

The basic element that underlies the novel and Sartre’s existentialism more generally is the matter of human freedom. At one part of the novel Roquentin says to himself. “I am free now. I do not have the slightest reason for living.” Roquentin suffers by being confronted with his total freedom. He suffers from

life’s and the world’s contingency, its randomness and superfluity, aspects that are all linked to the crucial aspect and matter of freedom.

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Roquentin is not free. Not more and not less compared to all the other characters of the novel. Although he is the only one who is aware of this complete freedom, he is not able to take advantage of this knowledge. “He is ‘free’ only in the sense that he is really unfree; he is ‘alive’ only in the sense that he is really dead.”  But in one aspect Roquentin outperforms the citizens of the town where he lives. At least he does not pretend to be free as all the other citizens do.

Sartre believed in man’s total freedom. This freedom can be both: It offers boundless possibilities but at the same time includes a huge responsibility, which may be (and often is) felt as a burden and which makes people afraid and even prompts them to flee this huge responsibility, which they do not seem to be able to handle. Sartre believed in human freedom and in man’s free will. It is certainly true that the novel primarily shows and unmasks the human failure (represented by Roquentin) of making use of it tough. Roquentin’s freedom is of no use to him- maybe until he finally decides to write a novel. “Nausea” is depressing, but at the same time urging us to give our existence a meaning. Because existence doesn’t have any meaning- as long as we do not dare to meet the challenge of facing our total freedom and accepting the following responsibilities.

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