What happens if you’re a young, academically brilliant and fiercely ambitious intellectual with a profound belief in your own genius as a writer, and you seem condemned to teach philosophy to teenagers in a regional secondary school in a dull industrial harbour city far away from the cultural vibrancy of Paris? If you’re Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), you write Nausea (La Nausée). Published in 1938, it expounded an extremely bleak view of the meaning of life, a radical and utterly unyielding version of Existentialism that made it one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.
The tale recounted in Nausea takes place in “Bouville” (a homophone of boue-ville, “mudville”) a town similar to Le Havre, the city where Sartre had been posted right out of college to teach philosophy. He’d been posted there despite his exemplary results in the elite national examinations where he had placed first, beating even the brilliant young Simone de Beauvoir into second place. He had stormed through school and university, easily acquired the equivalent of an MA, and had expected to be appointed to a plum position in the French delegation in Japan, about which he was at the time fascinated.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Instead, he felt he’d been dumped in Le Havre—“washed up on its shores”—and he soon took the opportunity to take out his resentment on the “fat, pale crowd” of the city, the self-satisfied and complacent salauds (swine) who were excessively secure in their conventional existence, guilty of mauvaise foi, as he would come to call it, and certainly unworthy of his presence.
Sartre had already achieved some local disrepute: courting the friendship of his students, encouraging extreme informality in class, wearing an open-necked shirt and jacket, allowing the class to smoke while he drew endlessly on his pipe, improvising his lessons while sitting on his desk, inviting his students to make oral presentations rather than take notes, and meeting up with a few favoured students in the local cafés to smoke and drink together. Now he was about to deliver the school’s annual prize-giving lecture to the parents of the students and the “good bourgeoisie of Le Havre” who’d come along, curious about the twenty-six-year-old, prize-winning, academic star who’d lately arrived in their city.
A diminutive figure (he was only 1.55 metres—five feet one inch—tall), notoriously plain-looking, with a lazy right eye, Sartre mounted the platform dressed in an ermine-trimmed academic robe and cloak that were too big for him and announced that, as the youngest and newest member of the teaching staff, it was his punishment to have to talk to them, and that he’d chosen as his subject that new art form, the movies.
The cinema had an exceptional significance for Sartre. He saw in it confirmation of a powerful intuition about the irreducible contingency of the world. This thought had long possessed him and would become the master-concept that shaped his thinking. As Carole Seymour-Jones explains in A Dangerous Liaison (2008): “Sitting in the back row of a picture-house, watching the ‘flicks’, he understood for the first time the full meaning of contingency.
This occurred immediately the film ended. In that moment, Sartre experienced the sudden dissolution of the immersive sense of order created by the narrative structure of the movie, swept away by the sudden implosion of chaos as the house lights came on, the audience got up, stretched their legs, started chatting, and began moving about as they filed out into the “real world” outside. The cinematic sense of continuity and necessity created by the unfolding of the film’s plot disappeared and “the randomness of the streets replaced the narrative of the movie.
Where there had been a brief period of order there was once again chaos. This acute sense of the underlying contingency of the world is the key to Sartre’s version of Existentialism, and to his creative vision as a novelist and playwright. It also fundamentally shaped Sartre’s view of the meaning of life.
What does contingency mean here? Traditionally, for over two millennia, in the philosophy and theology of the monotheistic faiths, contingency is opposed to necessity, and refers in those traditions to the fact that the world is contingent for its existence upon God, who alone is the only necessary fact: God brought the world into being and God can expunge it at any time. But now, in Sartre’s atheistic version of Existentialism, God is eliminated from the equation, taking necessity with Him. Consequently, nothing is any longer necessary and only the contingency of the world remains. Suddenly, it seems that nothing brought the world into existence and nothing sustains it; it is entirely unnecessary, as is everything and everyone within it.
And in a world robbed of necessity, human life can have no meaning, and can possess no ultimate logic, structure or destiny. Unlike the world represented in films, dramas or novels, it proceeds to no final conclusion or “happy ending”. Consequently, Sartre’s radicalised notion of contingency led to a radicalised conception of the mission of the novelist. Hitherto, the novelist’s primary art had been to provide meaning, structure and logic in the story they had to tell. But this will no longer do, as Gary Cox observed in The Sartre Dictionary (2008):
Sartre’s challenge as a philosopher expounding an ontological theory of contingency [was] to use language to try to convey a sense of a world stripped of … meaning. He clearly felt that literature, with its scope for description, its levels of irony, its capacity to convey ideas through action, atmosphere and streams of consciousness, is more effective than straightforward philosophy at achieving this difficult feat. This is the reason why his major work on contingency, Nausea, is presented as a novel rather than as a theory maintained in argument.
In other words, Sartre faced the challenge of writing a novel—his “factum on contingency”, as he called it—about how the fundamental premise underlying novel-writing must be rejected.
Nausea takes the form of a diary recording the thoughts, mental experiences, and reflections of Antoine Roquentin, an increasingly alienated and isolated intellectual who shares many characteristics with Sartre himself. Roquentin is living in Bouville while he completes a biography of a certain Marquis de Rollebon, a local aristocrat who lived during the French Revolution. He has been working on this for ten years, supported by a small inheritance, but he has run into trouble. Even though the Marquis’s life seemed to have been full of swashbuckling events, Roquentin finds himself unable to relate this in his biography. Life, he has discovered, is not at all like an adventure story—it lacks structure and any apparent point or meaning—and he is reluctant to falsify history by making it appear otherwise.
It also seems Roquentin is being consumed by a strange mental malady. He has come adrift in life: he has no family, his research is routine and seems increasingly pointless, and he finds it almost impossible to bother with the local people, as he hears them chatting inanely, or watches them going about their ordinary bourgeois activities. He occupies his time wandering around aimlessly, or in the local library, or in the café drinking beer, listening to music on the record player.
Above all, he has begun to keep this diary as a record of the increasingly intense and sickening sensations of revulsion at the things that surround him in his everyday life, an experience he has come to call “nausea”. These objects seem to lose all their familiar and recognisable qualities and to assume inexplicable and grotesque forms. For example, when he holds a stone, grabs a doorknob, stares at a glass of beer, touches a soggy piece of paper in the street, or is confronted by the gnarled roots of a tree, they all melt into shapeless globs of matter accompanied by an ominous and amorphous presence that threatens to overwhelm or engulf him: “Things are bad! Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, nausea!” Moreover, things refuse to be what they are: purple suspenders are suddenly not purple, and when he looks in a mirror, he is not sure if the face he sees there is still his own and has not become that of Rollebon, the subject of his obsessive study. Worried and unsure about what may be wrong with him, he begins desperately to list every fact, detail, feeling and impression—however incidental—that occurs both within himself and in the outside world.
Slowly Roquentin comes to realise that his feelings of “nausea” have something to do with the nature of existence, its fundamental contingency—the fact that it lacks necessity, it could be “other”, or indeed it could not be at all—but nevertheless, for some “reasonless reason”, things are. Looking at a large chestnut tree in a park, he realises it is the sheer being of the tree and its surroundings that evokes the nausea: “I slumped on the bench, dazed, stunned by that profusion of beings without origin: blooming, blossoming everywhere, my ears were buzzing with existence, my very flesh was throbbing and opening, abandoning itself to the universal burgeoning.”
It seems Roquentin has seen through the surface of things to the nothingness beneath, and the pointlessness beyond, and that this is the source of his nausea: “Contingency is not an illusion … It is absolute … Everything is gratuitous, this park, this town, and myself. When you realise that, it turns your stomach over and you start floating about.”
Roquentin experiences a “horrible ecstasy as he sits alone in the park and seems to see existence revealing itself”. As a militant atheist, Sartre deliberately described this episode in terms that make it the reverse of the familiar mystical experiences of the great religions. Instead of recognising an uplifting spiritual presence in nature, he is confronted by its oppressive materiality, as Hazel Barnes wrote in Sartre (1974):
Roquentin senses the heavy weight of teeming matter, gobs of it surrounding him everywhere like pervading filth. Rather than grasping a transcendent unity in cosmic consciousness, Roquentin finds that the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, there remained only soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful obscene nakedness.
Roquentin’s acute sense of the ultimate absurdity of existence spreads like a contagion from the natural world to engulf the human world as well. He realises that much of human life is an attempt to cover up the fact that in a godless universe the world and everyone and everything in it are utterly contingent and totally without meaning. People, he becomes convinced, avoid facing up to this daunting fact by happily occupying themselves with the triviality of everyday life, skating about on the surface of things, desperately hiding from the true nothingness of existence.
His realisation engulfs him also. He himself, he realises, “did not have the right to exist. I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe”, or some other trivial, inconsequential object. And he had been justifying his own existence by using his endless research into Rollebon and the history of his times to create an illusion of structure, to impose meaning where it doesn’t really exist and, above all, to give his own life some point.
Later, Roquentin visits his ex-lover, Anny, in Paris, hoping they might get back together, but sadly they can no longer communicate. He attempts to explain to Anny his experience of nausea and his thoughts about it, but she can’t understand him. In the end they part, knowing they will never see each other again. Back in Bouville, Roquentin also tries to explain his views to the “Autodidact”, a pathetic denizen of the local library who is attempting to give meaning to his life by reading every book on its shelves in alphabetical order, but this also proves to be futile.
Unsurprisingly, Sartre’s title for the novel that is this diary was originally “Melancholia”, but the experience he describes and analyses in Nausea goes well beyond depression: Roquentin is teetering on the edge of an existential abyss, into which he may soon plunge, and from which he may never emerge. He is saved, it seems, by a revelation recorded at the end of the novel. Roquentin is sitting once again in his favourite café, listening to a recording of the song “Some of These Days” sung by Sophie Tucker. It begins with a musical introduction and then segues into Tucker’s warm, rich voice. Sarah Bakewell describes it in At the Existentialist Café (2016):
for the next few minutes, all is right with Roquentin’s world. Each note leads to the next: no note could be otherwise. The song has necessity, so it bestows necessity on Roquentin’s existence too. Everything is poised and smooth: when he lifts his glass to his lips, it moves on an easy arc, and he sets it down without spilling it. His movements flow, like those of an athlete or musician.
Entranced, Roquentin pictures the singer and the composer of the song: through their imagination and creativity they have created an island of structure and necessity in the ocean of emptiness that is human life. Suddenly, he sees the path forward for himself: he will go to Paris and write a novel (Nausea?) that will also import some order—even if only for a time—into the abysmal meaninglessness of the world. Moreover, he feels, it will serve to structure his own life in the same way that an adventure story structures the lives of its characters: “I would feel my heart beat faster and would say to myself, ‘It was on that day, at that hour, that it all started’. And I should succeed … in accepting myself.” Later Sartre conceded that he was Roquentin and that Nausea recorded his thoughts as he struggled to come to grips with his seemingly meaningless life as a provincial schoolteacher in “Mudville”.
It can never be known what happened to Roquentin, but Sartre did escape Le Havre and go on to become one of the most prominent intellectuals of the twentieth century. Throughout this time his life was inextricably linked with that of Simone de Beauvoir, as is well known, and it is instructive to compare the different versions of atheism to which they were committed.
Simone had rebelled against a repressive childhood, and hers was a libertarian atheism, based on a resentment that some other being could control her life, and on a desire to be free of moral constraints, so that sensual pleasures could be indulged free of censure or guilt. Sartre, on the other hand, was possessed by an ontological atheism, arising from the conviction that there was something fundamentally amiss with the world—that it was floating unanchored in a meaningless universe—and that this required not only a denial of God, but a recognition that neither God nor anything like a god was present in the universe to give it order or provide an ultimate meaning to human life.
This brings us to the core of Sartre’s version of Existentialism and of his view of the meaning of life. Sartre proclaimed that, in a godless universe, there can be no transcendent meaning or destiny for human life; the individual person is thrown into the world and condemned to be free; and for Sartre, such freedom is absolute. The only way out, the only way to give meaning to his life, is for the individual to seize his freedom, and to construct an authentic existence fully committed to whatever life projects he has chosen, and for which he assumes sole responsibility. Anything less, to deny the freedom to which one is condemned, is to plunge into “bad faith” (mauvaise foi), and to lead an inauthentic life, the condition in which most people live, and especially the bourgeois “salauds” that Sartre reviled in Le Havre.
Freedom is therefore simultaneously the greatest gift to the individual, but also the heaviest burden; it opens up an undetermined future, but requires recognition of the abysmal void that underlies an utterly contingent world. Sartre worked this all out in detail in his huge magnum opus, Being and Nothingness (1943), which became the bible of Existentialism. Unfortunately, such an approach provides no moral compass whatsoever, and it could be as easily adopted by a monster as by a hero, perhaps by the Marquis de Sade, who never once deviated (pun intended) from his demonic mission in life and who was at the time a figure of veneration by many French intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote a long laudatory essay on “the Divine Marquis”, as he was known by the antinomian Left.
Indeed, in their own lives, Sartre and Simone confronted not only an ontological void, but a moral one as well, as has been revealed in recent memoirs and biographies, not only of this pair, but of their friends, lovers and young protégés. These reveal the complex series of exploitative and destructive intimate relationships in which the pair indulged (for example, Simone was dismissed from her teaching post for paedophilia), and which punctuated Sartre’s decline from a front-rank philosopher in the Continental tradition to the status of a propaganda hired-gun for the communist bloc during the height of the Cold War.
This descent, however, didn’t prevent Sartre from producing some works of genius. Indeed, the moral swamp into which he had sunk inspired an outstanding play, Huis Clos (1944; No Exit/In Camera), which vividly illuminates Sartre’s vision of the fate of those who don’t succeed in giving an authentic meaning to their lives but wallow instead in mauvaise foi.
The drama begins with three characters, strangers to each other, being ushered one-by-one into a mysterious room: Joseph Garcin is a journalist, Inèz Serrano is a postal clerk and Estelle Rigault is a high-society lady of leisure. It soon transpires that they are three damned souls, consigned together to the same room in Hell for all eternity, without sleep, dreams, books, windows, mirrors or anything else to distract them from their situation. Bemused, they look around for the diabolical devices or other means of torture that they expect, but find only a plain room furnished in a banal French Second Empire style. They then discuss how it is that they’ve been damned. At first, all three refuse to confront the inauthentic nature of the lives they have led or admit to the reasons for their infernal fate: Garcin claims he was executed for being an outspoken pacifist, and Estelle insists a mistake must have been made. Only Inèz wises up and demands they all stop lying, face facts, and confess their sins. Notably, she also realises that it is no accident that the three of them are there together in Hell.
After some fruitless bickering, they decide to describe their crimes so they will at least know what to expect from each other. Garcin explains that he was executed for desertion in the war, his cowardice causing his wife to die of shame and grief. Despite her loyalty, he’d been unfaithful to her, further contributing to her death. Inèz, a lesbian, seduced her cousin’s wife, Florence, while living with them, and manipulated her into leaving her husband; the cousin was later killed in an accident and a guilty and grief-ridden Florence turned on the gas and asphyxiated both herself and Inèz while they slept. Estelle had married an older man for his money and then had an affair with a younger man. Although it was an insignificant fling to her, it meant much more to him, especially after she bore his child. Utterly self-centred, she drowned the baby, driving her devastated lover to commit suicide in a gruesome fashion.
After these revelations, they continue to get on each other’s nerves, and Garcin suggests they leave each other alone and just be silent. However, the sadistic and manipulative side of Inèz asserts itself and she starts to sing tauntingly about executions, while Estelle vainly searches for a mirror to check on her appearance and reassure herself of her attractiveness. Inèz then tries to seduce Estelle by offering to be her “mirror”, but this merely disgusts Estelle, who, in turn, finds herself drawn to Garcin. He, however, is not interested in either woman, but finally gives in to Estelle’s lascivious advances, which drives Inèz crazy. Nevertheless, much to Estelle’s chagrin, Garcin is continually thwarted in his attempts at love-making by his burden of guilt. He then begs Estelle to tell him that she knows he is not a coward, but while she complies, Inèz mockingly tells him that Estelle is just saying what he wants to hear so that she can be with a man … any man, even a coward like him!
The horror of his failure drives Garcin to attempt an escape. After failing repeatedly to open the door, it inexplicably opens of its own accord. This is a crucial moment that encapsulates Sartre’s jaundiced view of the inauthentic lives led by the common herd. Confronted with the open door and this one chance at freedom, Garcin lacks the courage to take the step outside. Defeated, he remains with the others, declaring that he cannot be saved until he can convince Inèz that he is not cowardly. She refuses, saying that he is obviously a coward, and promises to taunt him and make him miserable forever. In a moment of revelation, Garcin suddenly sees the true nature of Hell: it is not demons, fiery pits, machines of torture, or hideous physical punishment … No! … “Hell is other people.”
And so, trapped in an infernal triangle, the trio continue their mutual torment, each wanting from one of the others something that other cannot provide. Estelle perseveres in her futile attempts to seduce Garcin, but he insists that he cannot make love while Inèz is watching. Estelle, infuriated, picks up a paper knife and repeatedly stabs Inèz. Inèz rebukes Estelle, pointing out that they are all already dead, and then stabs herself to prove the point.
It also transpires that, because they are dead and can never change, they therefore cannot adjust their behaviour or learn from their experiences together, or even comprehend or repent the crimes that delivered them to Hell. Instead, they must go on repeating the same mutually excruciating behaviours for all eternity, desperately seeking something that is not there to be had. Overwhelmed by the horror of it all, Estelle begins to laugh hysterically, and the others join in. Finally, taking in the magnitude of the pain they will cause each other until the end of time, Garcin fatalistically concludes, “Well then, let’s get on with it …” The play ends, their Hell begins.
Was there truly “no exit” from humanity’s existential predicament? Was the meaning of life a hellish nihilism? Such questions confronted intellectuals amidst the global crisis that defined the era of Existentialism. Less than a year after the end of the Second World War, the Cold War broke out: the famous “Long Telegram”, prepared by George F. Kennan at the US embassy in Moscow, arrived in Washington in February 1946, describing the scale of the Soviet threat and the need to oppose it; in March, Winston Churchill pointed to the “Iron Curtain” of communist oppression that had been drawn across Europe; a year later Moscow set up the Cominform to co-ordinate global communist revolution; and in June 1948, Stalin blockaded West Berlin, precipitating the Berlin Airlift. NATO was established in April 1949, to be quickly mirrored by the Warsaw Pact. And then, in August 1949, the threat of a nuclear holocaust intensified as the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb, after which the nuclear stockpiles grew until there were many thousands of warheads ready to be deployed, with bombers and missiles targeting hundreds of cities across the northern hemisphere. There was little doubt that a full-scale nuclear war could destroy humanity and most other life on earth.
In the ever-looming presence of this apocalyptic threat there began decades of intense political rivalry and military tension, played out in many arenas, involving massive defence spending, a relentless arms race, proxy wars across the globe, duplicitous diplomacy, espionage, subversion and propaganda. This tension followed a wave-like rhythm, fuelling and re-fuelling the general social trepidation, periodically building towards a cataclysmic climax only to recede, constrained always by the certainty of “mutually assured destruction” if the superpowers ever crossed the threshold into full-scale hostility.
In culture, the name for the period was provided by W.H. Auden with his book-length poem The Age of Anxiety (1947). Striking a nerve, this quickly became famous, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948, and inspired a symphony, a ballet and a play. Auden echoed Sartre in finding the origins of this anxiety in man’s unease with his existential freedom, a theme taken up by others, including the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who had declared in The Nature and Destiny of Man (1943), that “Anxiety is the inevitable concomitant of the paradox of freedom and finiteness in which man is involved. Anxiety is the internal precondition of sin. It is the inevitable spiritual state of man”, colouring the meaning of life at the height of the Cold War.
How did Sartre deal with this situation, one that he, more than anyone else, had helped define and make central to the intellectual and cultural concerns of the time? For a time, he had stood firm in his existential atheism but, as T.S. Eliot observed in Burnt Norton (1936), “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. And so Sartre capitulated, shrinking back from the nihilistic implications of his own initial insights, unable to sustain the increasingly demanding pose of the Existential Hero, constructing a life of authenticity in defiance of the Nothingness that confronts Being, as he detailed in his magnum opus.
Having shrunk back from this abysmal void, Sartre gravitated to Marxism, embracing it like a security blanket. From now on, he viewed its grand conception of History as the quasi-transcendent source of all meaning in life, and the class struggle as a vast irresistible force in which he could embed himself and partake of its “world-historic” significance. History, he concluded, was being realised in his own time by the CPSU, the PCF, and the international communist movement. Consequently, he committed himself “to accept the point of view of the USSR in its totality”, declaring any neutral or intermediate political position impossible. This included that proposed by his one-time most valued friend, Albert Camus, in L’Homme révolté (The Rebel; 1951), who he now vilified, declaring, “Any anti-communist is a rat!”
Thinking always in absolute terms, Sartre insisted a definitive choice was required and he chose Moscow. International communism was “the absolute standard of reference by which any political undertaking must be judged. Communism is the movement of humanity in the process of realising its destiny”, and Sartre identified himself fully with it, “however grotesque it might be and even if it became a bloody monster which tears itself to pieces”.
For the rest of his life, Sartre was desperately afraid of “being on the wrong side of History”, from where all ultimate meaning is derived, committing his energies to global revolution and the most radical fantasies of the far Left. Notoriously, he provided an incendiary preface to Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonialist manifesto, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), promoting the most extreme violence, and declaring that “killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, in one go oppressor and oppressed [are transformed] leaving one man dead and the other man free”. In this manner, Sartre acquired an honoured place on the Left as an engagé intellectual, committed to the one supreme philosophy of the age, as he declared Marxism to be. Ironically, he did so as revelations about the horrendous truth about Stalinism, with its purges, famines and the Gulag, had begun to seep out, culminating in Khrushchev’s shocking speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956.
Unperturbed, Sartre set about revising Marxism to accommodate some existentialist themes in a suitably subordinate position. Fuelled by amphetamines, he spent most of a decade producing his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), a gigantic (1200-page) and famously unreadable tome that confirmed his intellectual decline. Nevertheless, for decades during the height of the Cold War, he and Simone were feted by the Soviet Union, Cuba, Communist China, North Vietnam and most of the Western intelligentsia, as they toured the world preaching global revolution, and eagerly providing vast amounts of pro-communist propaganda. In 1968, he threw himself into the student revolt and took to handing out Maoist pamphlets to bemused Parisians.
But Sartre’s currency was running out: when he came to take his place amongst the speakers at a major demonstration in 1968 he found a note on his chair: “Sartre: be brief!” Humanist existentialism was now passé, and it was the anti-humanist structuralists, led by Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, that were now in the ascendancy. For them, humanity had been dethroned from its unjustly “privileged” position and human agency and freedom were denounced as delusionary. Ontological primacy in the social realm now belonged instead to impersonal economic, social and linguistic structures. And within these vast determinant forms, human beings and their petty concerns, including any fretting about the meaning of their existence, had only the status of transient epiphenomena, to be erased from history, much as a human face drawn in sand at the seashore is washed away by the waves, as Foucault decreed in The Order of Things (1966), the new “master-text” of the times.
And so, in terms of identifying an intellectual or ideological rationale for his life, Sartre had swung from one extreme to the other, from humanism to anti-humanism, and from radical individualism to revolutionary collectivism. But it was all for nought, and towards the end there was a confession, or what de Beauvoir saw as a betrayal of everything she and Sartre had believed in throughout their lives together. As she herself recalled in Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1984), he came to reject any notion of contingency and told her:
I don’t see myself as just so much dust that has appeared in the world, but as a being that was expected, prefigured, and called forth. In short as a being that could, it seems, come only from a creator; and this idea of a creating hand that created me refers me back to God.
And so, for Sartre, the meaning of his life had a transcendent source after all. Later, when he called out to a priest just prior to his death, his distraught friends asked what this meant. Sartre replied, “Just in case …”
The first article in this series, “A.J. Ayer and the Meaning of Life”, appeared in the July-August issue, and the second, “Albert Camus and the Meaning of Life”, appeared in September.