In Jean Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, the origin of Roquentin’s nausea is shown to be the essence by which things are named and which acts as a façade over the more genuine nature of their existence. Throughout his experience, Roquentin realizes that much of what is touted as important in life is really non-essential. In fact, he finds that the deepest mysteries are hidden by a more frivolous veneer of plurality, to which people give names based on their attributes.
These plural objects he finds himself disgusted with—beginning with the stone he held in his hand at his moment of epiphany. This nausea that is experienced by Roquentin is in direct contrast to individuality, because at root he believes that all comes down to existence. People and objects exist; that is all that can and should be said about them. All their other attributes are merely decoys blinding people to the real truth about themselves and their world. Therefore, any individualism is a mere illusion, and further claims made by persons concerning ideologies are simply efforts at distracting oneself from the confounding mystery of existence.
Roquentin’s nausea manifests itself as a reaction to the nominal nature of objects. This idea of naming objects (nouns) is one that distracts the mind from the fact that the object is there, in existence, without any real explanation as to why it exists. Roquentin says, “Everywhere, now, there are objects like this glass of beer on the table there. When I see it, I feel like saying: ‘Enough!’” (Sartre, 8). In fact, this is the way his nausea reacts to all attributes of objects, including color, taste, and other features by which people describe them.
The apprehension of an object as a “blue book,” for instance, explains away the existence of the object and prevents one from marveling at the fact that it exists at all. This kind of “apprehension” can occur most readily when a thing can be seen, and this explains why Roquentin’s nausea occurs only in the light. The light, according to the reasoning put forth by Roquentin, is where an object’s existence becomes obscured. In the dark (or even in the mind of a subject who thinks of the object) the subconscious is likely to think of the thing only in terms of its being “there”—that is, being in existence. However, in the light, the senses are apt to pick up such things as shape, color, and text. These peripheral things are mere distractions–frivolities that serve to concoct a reason for the things existence and to divert the mind from the profound fact of the thing.
In the same way, Roquentin’s nausea rises against personalities of his and past eras, and this can be seen as a method of criticizing any tendency toward individualism. This can be seen as he views certain paintings and portraits of personalities. It can also be seen in his nauseated reaction to such persons as the Self-Taught Man and others, whose past lives he comes to dismiss as being non-existent like all things past. These people, he argues, have succumbed to an illusion of past glory and exploits, and from this have come to deny their own existence by promoting their essence.
In contrast, Roquentin views such historical personalities as Robespierre, Lenin, and Cromwell all as one (Sartre, 69). This proceeds from the idea (noted earlier) that the attributes of a given thing act as a glare that prevents the viewing of the more important fact of existence which lies beyond the glare. Following this reasoning, then anything or anyone that seeks to make a name for himself and denies his/her oneness with the inexplicable existence of the universe acts futilely.
The work that Roquentin constructs around the marquis Rollebon is described as conjecture rather than reality. In fact, the only reality that Roquentin acknowledges is the present. This underlines the concept within the novel that debunks individualism, as Roquentin’s mining of the past to create the marquis can only create a false version of the man. This is further demonstrated in the fact that the marquis’ life is recreated only through retelling his actions or describing his features. Yet, these are both examples of the things that nauseate Roquentin—the very attributes that distract from the mystery of the marquis’ existence.
In fact, Roquentin says of Rollebon, “He is a bubble of fog and desire, he is pale as death in the glass, Rollebon is dead,” (Sartre, 102). The significance of this is that, through Roquentin’s book, these attributes attempt to mask the fact that Rollebon is dead and therefore no longer in existence. It is existence that is important. Non-existence equals unimportance, regardless of ones attributes and exploits. Therefore, Roquentin ceases to continue writing Robellon’s history. This idea can be further generalized to all persons who somehow become distinct from all others in existence (whether by naming at birth or subsequent celebrity) as this is all meaningless.
The nausea experienced by Roquentin is also a reaction to human beings’ tendency to generalize ideas and form them into ideologies. His reaction to Self-Taught Man’s socialism highlights the movement as a frivolous regard for “brothers,” “sisters,” “fellow humans” and “mankind” which in reality are names and attributes that merely mask a more homogeneous existence that is common to all that are in the world. This existence unites man with animal and with inanimate objects, and any attempt to individualize or distinguish those things around which ideologies are formed is fruitless.
Roquentin also refers to what he terms “contingency.” He writes, “The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity” (Sartre, 131). This hints at the idea that any particular reason concocted by the human mind that points toward the need for a thing’s existence is beside the point of existence, which is by no means essential. In Roquentin’s conception, therefore, such explanations are non-essential. The only thing that matters is that a thing exists at all, and not ideologies that explain why it exists.
The nausea that is experienced by Roquentin exists as a result of his growing disgust with the nominalization of the homogeneous world. He experiences a vertiginous reaction to the illumination of individual objects, which highlights the thing’s attributes. Yet it is these attributes that most prevent the apprehension of their profound existence, as they offer an illusory reason for the thing’s otherwise inexplicable presence in the world.
This represents a form of individualism that Roquentin believes is a façade, as all things (persons, objects, animals, etc.) are one in existence. This idea, which is the origin of Roquentin’s nausea, presents therefore an argument against individualism. It also presents a similar argument against ideology, as these so-called universal concepts are based on beliefs about (or on attributes of) particular things—and these attributes in reality do not exist.
Sartre, Jean Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.
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