on… sartre?


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As a junior lecturer at the Lycée du Havre in 1938, Sartre wrote the novel La Nausée (Nausea) which serves in some ways as a manifesto of existentialism and remains one of his most famous books. Taking a page from the German phenomenological movement, he believed that our ideas are the product of experiences of real-life situations, and that novels and plays can well describe such fundamental experiences, having equal value to discursive essays for the elaboration of philosophical theories such as existentialism. With such purpose, this novel concerns a dejected researcher (Roquentin) in a town similar to Le Havre who becomes starkly conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain absolutely indifferent to his existence. As such, they show themselves to be resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them.

– from this Wikipedia article on Jean-Paul Sartre & La Nausée

So it has finally happened. I have arrived at the “Sartre” book of my undergrad education, which happens to be the compressed “novel-version” of his enormous philosophical treatise called L’Etre et le Néant or Being and Nothingness. Yep, I’m heading into the miry (but oh-so-intellectually-stimulating) territory of existentialism.

And actually, I’m so stoked. Yep, it may be a little geeky/presumptuous to say that I like this stuff but actually today was like the first breath of exciting, literary air that I have breathed all semester. I am enrolled in three French Lit courses – this one, on 20th century French Lit, another survey one where we’ve read some plays (ick) and are currently reading Les Liasons dangereuses – an epistolary, libertine novel about sex and revenge which you can read about here, and an African Lit course, which is interesting but just doesn’t do it for me as much as this Sartre-involving course (where we’ve also covered a little Proust and Gide and will be moving on to Claude Simon and Camus).

But please don’t get me wrong here and overestimate my brain’s capacity for actually getting this existentialist stuff… I honestly don’t get it. I pretty much don’t get it at all. But there’s something in me that likes it. I love reading this so much more than any morality play or supposed page-turner filled with libertine decadence.

And if I think about it more, I should be able to trace why I love a book like La Nausée. For one, it’s written like a journal, which I guess allows me to identify a lot more readily with the author. It’s as though his account of experiencing disgust at the contingency (big word, hey?) of life is something I have experienced before… though I wouldn’t say that I’ve completely come face to face with the absurdity of my life and decided to write a book about it. I just feel like I’ve sort of ventured into that territory before… and even if I haven’t completely arrived there yet, one day I might. And I think it’s important to venture into that territory and say something about it before trying to say other things. I guess for me it’s kind of like reading a book where the author expresses thoughts that have crossed your mind before (though in my mind they are never half as eloquent and maybe only contain faint hints of the author’s thoughts). I get this when I’m reading Kirkegaard too, which explains my fascination with him. But again, I don’t get this stuff… it’s just a heart feeling. Weird.

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