Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre Essay - Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 18)

Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 18)

Laurence Gill Lyon

Both Malte Laurids Brigge and Antoine Roquentin are young writers living with dubious purpose in the shabby, if not squalid milieu of a large French city. Alienated from the past as well as from the environs, each begins a diary in response to a sudden intensification of perception. Both diaries stress Angst, angoisse, and the disintegration of personal identity, and each also documents attempts to reconstitute the integrity of self and world. These and other parallels in image, motif, and theme between Rainer Maria Rilke's Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel La Nausée (1938) have already been recorded, but no one has investigated their relationship in detail. Admittedly, some of the parallels are trivial, while others represent concerns held in common by numerous twentieth-century authors. Yet close reading of several compact passages will demonstrate more than a casual similarity in setting or problematic. In at least nine major instances, La Nausée recapitulates neatly discrete metaphoric configurations and extended images prefigured in Malte.

It is not a new observation that Sartre derived important motifs in his first novel from his omnivorous reading. Can the identification of Malte as one more source for La Nausée have more than marginal interest? It can, I submit, if Sartre's creative response to Malte exhibits a consistent pattern of reinterpretation. The resonance between the two works then constitutes a kind of dialogue which illuminates the characteristic themes of both. What name shall we give this resonance? Cautious readers will prefer to explore it in terms of motivic and metaphoric analogy, especially in the absence of any evidence for a more specific intention on Sartre's part…. Perhaps,… the resonance is merely an unconscious persistence of poetic vision. For this reader, however, some of the parallels are too extended, too detailed to admit this explanation. They imply a more deliberate artistic intent. The pattern of reinterpretation they reveal suggests an intriguing hypothesis: that Sartre sought to parody the tone and value system of Rilke's novel. If the parallel passages do exhibit parodic intent, it is only in the formal sense of that word. Sartre's parody is not principally satiric, though satiric content is not foreign to it. In general, he appropriates the structure of Rilke's motifs and images while negating the thematic significance they bore in Malte. (pp. 53-4)

Malte and La Nausée are participants in the tradition of the diaristic novel. One convention of that form is the encapsulation of the diary proper in a fictitious editorial commentary. The differing manner in which Rilke and Sartre treat this convention illustrates an important distinction between their respective narrative stances…. [In Malte, the] intrusion of the editor is always succinct and betrays no editorial personality…. Sartre's treatment of the editorial convention, on the other hand, is distinctly ironic and concentrated within the first few pages of his work. His point once made, he abandons the device…. This barrage of scholarly impedimenta establishes Sartre as an ironic manipulator of the diaristic-novel convention which Rilke had simply accepted as a tool in the orchestration of his novel. Roquentin-Sartre's ironic ambivalence toward forms and values accepted by Malte-Rilke can be observed repeatedly in the parallel passages to be discussed. Here, of course, no specific dependence on Rilke need be inferred.

Another obvious but superficial point of contact between Malte and La Nausée is the employment of eyes and hands as symbols of perceptive understanding and effective interaction with the world, respectively. (pp. 54-5)

Both Malte and Roquentin have suddenly experienced an inexplicable and threatening alteration in their perception of everyday existence. Malte immediately recognizes that this change is actually a penetration into uncharted regions of the self…. [He] launches the continuing motif of "learning to see."

A more tentative voice speaks in the first pages of La Nausée, but the basic elements of Malte's situation are repeated in Roquentin's words…. (p. 56)

The parallelisms of literary form, setting, personal problematic, and even symbolic vocabulary mentioned until now provide some material for a general comparison of Malte and La Nausée, but they are only preliminary to our discussion of related imagery. The instances of extended correspondence between the two works will be presented in three somewhat arbitrary sections: first, images and motifs expressing alienation from society; second, those relating to the dissolution of personal identity; and finally, those concerning the potential solutions which might permit the narrator to reintegrate himself into the social and the very physical world.

The primary symbol of the social integration and security which both narrators lack is the house. Rilke's use of this symbol takes the most varied forms…. Sartre's usage is more limited. (pp. 56-7)

A strain of unresolved nostalgia does emerge from Roquentin's reverie, but his images, unlike Malte's, ultimately stress the pettiness of an existence he does not aspire to. (p. 58)

If we accept, for the moment, the hypothesis that La Nausée stands in a direct relationship to Malte, Roquentin's reflections on the [homelessness] theme can be read as a response to Malte's self-pity…. The parallels here might, of course, be fortuitous. The house is, after all, almost a natural symbol for security and none of the specific points of similarity is truly distinctive…. Yet it is only one of several such passages; closer reading shows that it broaches many of the characteristic themes of Sartre's hypothetical dialogue with Rilke.

It is relevant, for example, that Malte does indeed possess a past, one which is unhappily inaccessible to him at present. Roquentin, on the other hand, lacks any facility for storing his past…. Roquentin recognizes that it is necessary to abjure the comfort of a self-definition imposed by the past. Malte, for his part, is ambivalent toward the past. In spite of his fear of an externally imposed self-definition, he is unable to renounce his longing for the security of a stable tradition. Although Sartre in La Nausée had not yet clearly formulated his concept of free human life as a projet continually redefined by the future, his rejection of the stable order of the past is already apparent. It constitutes a recurrent element of contrast between the value systems of the two works.

A second repository of traditional values in both works is the portrait gallery. The hallowed aura which suffuses Malte's candlelight expedition to the gallery at Urnekloster well suits the mystique surrounding his ancestral past in the novel. Just as the mansion is disjunct in Malte's memory, so too, only some of the figures in his heritage are known to him....

(The entire section is 2940 words.)

William V. Spanos

La Nausée (1938) is one of the most problematic works of contemporary literature. This is not only because of the uncertainties of its meaning, but also—and more important—because of the uncertainties of its place in the chronology of "modernism." The discussion of these matters is so tangled that it is impossible to categorize it without grossly oversimplifying the issues at stake. It can be said …—and this may be one of the fundamental sources of the uncertainty—that for a long time after the publication of La Nausée, the focus of critical interest fell rather heavily on its "existential" meaning. That is, early "criticism," assuming that the novel was radically autobiographical (i.e. that Sartre and Roquentin are virtually identical), disregarded the formal dimension, more specifically the temporal process of the text—to "explain" its philosophical significance and import. And since the primary thematic emphasis is on Roquentin's agonizing discovery of the viscous realm of existence, it was invariably concluded that Sartre's existentialism at the time of writing La Nausée was limited to a phenomenological description of the contingent realm of existence which is prior to essence, or, more fully, of the alienated, virtually solipsistic, consciousness of the terrible viscosity of the absurd world…. In … failing to develop the hermeneutic lead insisted on by the contrast between the inclusive "Symboliste" novel Roquentin intends to write in the "end"—the novel which will allow him to transcend "the sin of existence"—… most early commentators concealed … the fact that La Nausée, despite Sartre's vestigial metaphysical rhetoric, is ultimately a text about the art of fiction that calls previous modes of composition into question in behalf of a new, a post-Modern, novel. (pp. 223-24)

Unfortunately, these critics have approached Sartre's art from a broadly Modernist hermeneutic perspective. They assume … the ontological priority of Form (Being) over process (temporality) and thus … are blinded by their insight to the post-Modern impulse behind Sartre's refusal of closure, or, more accurately, behind his transformation of closure (the circular narrative) into openness (what Heidegger, after Kierkegaard, calls repetition). Conditioned by the traditional expectation of formal unity, these critics pick up Roquentin's "aesthetic solution" … and develop its implications to conclude with unwarranted finality that La Nausée is a novel whose form is determined by a metaphysics which is prior to Sartre's "radical conversion" and his analogous theory of littérature engagée. They conclude, more specifically, that the novel belongs to the early Modernist tradition. (pp. 224-25)

[The] retrieval of the "art" of La Nausée from the purely philosophical speculation which has had a strange hold on the novel constitutes a genuine, if all too belated, break-through in the study of Sartre as literary artist. But it is, I think, partial. For the momentum generated by the philosophical autobiographical readings of La Nausée—and enforced by the Modernist aesthetic expectations of formal unity—has been so great, it seems, that Sartre's philosophy continues to determine largely the aesthetic interpretation; that is, these critics still tend to assume all too easily that Roquentin and Sartre are ultimately identical, that the kind of novel Roquentin promises to write is—in one way or another—the kind which Sartre has written as La Nausée. (p. 227)

I want to make the claim that the novel is not … "influenced" by or "indebted" to the antipositivist Symbolist novel. Whatever its original intention, or, more accurately, whatever Sartre's recollection of his original intention, La Nausée, unlike the novel Roquentin visualizes, can now be understood as a demystification of both formal poles of the binary Western literary tradition…. La Nausée does not ultimately look back, from the vantage point of the late 1930's, to an already triumphant—and rigidifying—early species of "Modernism," but forward, by way of repetition, to that thrust of post-Modern "anti-art" which, under the influence, above all, of the existential phenomenology of Husserl, of Merleau-Ponty, and especially of Heidegger, attempts to destroy received forms to return zu den Sachen selbst, "to the things themselves," to dis-cover (on the ontological, if not overtly on the political level) the authentic temporal experience, the historicity (not history), of modern man that the metaphysics of both the Symboliste art object and the pièce bien faite has covered over and forgotten. (pp. 231-32)

[The] emphasis of the fictional process of Sartre's novel is on Roquentin's ontological crisis. If, however, the parallel between his "visions" in the garden and on the hill overlooking the "solid, bourgeois city" is acknowledged, we realize that the personal ontological theme is not, as Murdoch and others imply, antithetical and separate from the "political" theme, but rather, that they are different manifestations of the same thing, that, in Heidegger's term, the latter is the "ontic" extension of the former. More specifically, we realize that Roquentin's discovery of the ultimate inauthenticity of "naming," i.e., of justifying existence from the end, is also a political discovery of the fraudulence of the ontotheological polis, the modern allotrope of which is the capitalistic City, which the privileged logocentric consciousness creates by self-righteously coercing existence into a stable, well-made—totalitarian—structure. Our awareness of Roquentin's discovery of the ontological/political continuum, in turn, establishes the grounds for understanding Sartre's ultimate attitude towards his protagonist's "aesthetic solution," which Murdoch quite rightly, if for the wrong reasons, feels uneasy about taking seriously. The political theme, in short, is not articulated explicitly; it is enacted by the formal process of La Nausée.

What happens to Roquentin on the ontological level is reflected analogously in the changes wrought on his imagination and on his literary ambitions by his "revelatory" experience in the park-garden. He discovers … that the form of a work of literature mirrors the author's understanding of being, thus adding the category of literary art to the categories of language (naming) and the human City as a third member of the emergent analogy of un-naming. Despite Sartre's unequivocal assertion that "a fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics," this category constitutes the most overlooked and, ironically, the most important, dimension of La Nausée—at least from the hermeneutic vantage point of the postmodern context—if, that is, our concern is with La Nausée as a kind of fiction. (pp. 244-45)

Roquentin has experienced (and understood) the de-centering, the unnaming, in all three of its manifestations—ontological, social, and literary—that the question of Sartre's relationship to his protagonist becomes a crucial one…. [Most] interpreters simply take for granted that Roquentin is a strictly autobiographical portrait of the early Sartre and, therefore, that he is little more than a mouthpiece for the author's philosophy at the time of writing La Nausée. What I want to suggest is that, however at one with his protagonist in the destructive phase. Sartre, in fact, dissociates himself from his "constructive" efforts that, more specifically, the "form" of Sartre's novel constitutes a de-struction, an ironic revelation of at least the ambiguity, if not the bad faith, of Roquentin's aesthetic resolution of his ontological crisis.

Despite Roquentin's "vision," he cannot completely acknowledge the unnamed world he has borne witness to in the garden—nor accept the "burden of freedom" (as Sartre, borrowing from Dostoevsky and Heidegger, was to put it later) that he understands to be the essential condition of the anti-Adam in the de-centered world. As we have seen, he despises the bourgeois merchants of Bouville for trying to "arrest" the movement of this superfluous temporal realm by imposing fraudulent names—a providential rhetoric—upon it. He is especially contemptuous of their arrogant devotion, on the grounds of divine justification, to technological process, which is, he knows, a self-deceptive effort to build dikes against the primordial slime (Bouville) or, to use Heidegger's metaphor again, to chart and domesticate die unheimliche Welt, the uncanny not-at-home. But Roquentin, too, finds this same existence not only dreadful but obscenely repellent, indeed, too terrible to be endured. As entry after entry throughout his journals suggest, his disgust for the things of the external world, including human beings is (and has been) virtually total…. Thus Roquentin will work out a mode of evasion that is more subtle—so much more that most critics have failed or refused to understand it as an evasion…. (pp. 250-51)

The first moment of transcendent illumination [when a song neutralizes the Nausea] is described at the beginning of the journal when Roquentin, prepared by the preceding suggestion of "the inflexible order," the "necessity of this music," experiences the whole song at once in the silence between the dying out of the last chord and the emergence of the negress's voice. And the final and definitive moment of illumination comes in the last entry of the journal, when Roquentin discovers in the moment of epiphanic "liberation" that just as the song "is," so too, he wants to "be," a substantial essence, free from the ravages of historical time. Like all metaphysicians from Plato through Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, Roquentin is compelled by a nostalgia for lost origins. He wants … to...

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Alfred Schwarz

Neither for Sartre nor Camus is unbelief the cause of despair …; it is rather the starting point toward the only meaningful response to the wretched condition of man and the denial of human values—namely, revolt…. [This is the premise of] Sartre's dramatic explorations of the estate of man. "Existentialism," says Sartre, "is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position."… Both writers in their contexts mean to be optimistic in that they reject passive suffering and resignation to a higher will. But at the same time, giving to man the power to scorn, to appropriate, and even to shape his fate, they set the stage for their tragic parables adapted from myth,...

(The entire section is 3377 words.)

Hugh J. Silverman

Jean-Paul Sartre continues to add to the file which he opened with the 1964 publication of his autobiography, The Words. At the time, those who expected that the philosopher-writer would reveal secrets of his adult life were doubtless disappointed by the self-portrait of his childhood. For the philosopher whose task is to "situate" the individual, The Words could at most be the first gesture. Yet in this account of the early years, much of his mature thought is presemt—albeit in an oblique and barely explicit form. By 1964, Sartre's thought had already undergone a significant revision from his early theory of consciousness. The young boy's "fundamental project" of becoming a writer is revealed in...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

FrançOis Sauzey


Born in this century of "specialized knowledge," when the human sciences have divided themselves into ever smaller sub-disciplines, Sartre's thought was complete: In the end, its subject was always the totality of human experience. Though perhaps primarily a moralist, Sartre also provided an epistemology and a psychology, a theory of emotions and a theory of history, even a full esthetics. And, like all "philosophies" in the classical sense, his was unified by an ontological vision…. Juding from Nausea, and from the pace of Being and Nothingness, the discovery of what was to form the bedrock underlying the multiple levels of Sartre's later work had the quality of...

(The entire section is 755 words.)