Among the earliest of Sartre’s extant writings, begun and tentatively completed as early as 1936, Nausea first took shape in Sartre’s mind under the working title “Melancholia,” inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I, which depicts a disrupted and disturbed “thinker.” Art, either as product or as process, looms large throughout the work, casting into the foreground Antoine Roquentin’s growing sense of superfluity in a hostile, or at least indifferent, universe.
Invited on an archaeological expedition to Cambodia, the trained historian Roquentin, a former archaeology teacher, undergoes a kind of reverse “conversion” upon viewing a Khmer statuette displayed to him as enticement to make the trip. Suddenly confronted with the immortality or “solidity” of art, Roquentin instantly feels himself “fluid” and “viscous” by contrast. Refusing his colleague’s offer, Roquentin decides to seek immortality of his own through completion of a scholarly project begun some years earlier. His subject is the life and career of the Marquis de Rollebon, a minor figure in the French Revolution, whose papers his descendants have willed to the public library at Bouville, a port city closely modeled upon Le Havre. Spending much of his time in the public library of Bouville, the remainder in cafés and restaurants, Roquentin becomes increasingly, disgustingly aware of his own weight upon the earth’s surface, of his “existence” as object in a world threateningly filled with other “existing” objects both living and inanimate. (Significantly, the term “existence” had not yet assumed for Sartre the exact meaning to be applied in his later works.) In one early scene, Roquentin feels that a public park is “smiling” at him, and not in a friendly manner; similarly, a glass half-filled with beer appears to be “watching” him, and his own hand will loom before him as a sudden, monstrous presence, a beached crustacean with hair.
Roquentin’s disorientation, deriving at first from his awareness of nature (including his own) and art, soon extends to include his fellow mortals, living and dead, whose “existence” seems quite as unjustifiable as his own: If he, Roquentin, is superfluous, “in the way,” so, too, are those who have accepted without question their right to “exist.” Particularly odious to Roquentin’s developing consciousness are the capitalist founding fathers of Bouville, immortalized by commissioned portraits hanging in the town museum, and an acquaintance from the library known only as the Autodidact or Self-Taught Man. A minor bureaucrat, the Self-Taught Man claims to have been converted to “humanism” (in Roquentin’s view, a kind of fuzzy-minded socialism) while serving in World War I; spending most of his free time in the library, he attempts to fill the gaps in his formal education by reading all the books in alphabetical order, as listed by author’s name. Near the end of Roquentin’s journal, the Self-Taught Man will stand cruelly revealed as a barely repressed pederast, banished from the library for life by the Corsican security guard, who has never really liked him anyway.
Thanks to the “alienation effect” of Roquentin’s increasing maladjustment, Nausea quickly moves beyond psychological “case history” to scathing—and enduring—social satire , extending outward to embrace politics and art. Also singled out for satire, besides the Self-Taught Man and the bourgeois founding fathers, is Roquentin’s former mistress Anny, a second-rate performing artist whose “real-life poses” he has until now found rather entertaining. In his current lucid state, however, Roquentin quickly sees through Anny’s life of artifice, finding himself quite unable to participate, as before, in her perpetual game playing. Continually haunted by the contingency of human life as opposed to the permanence and “immortality” of certain works of art—including a ragtime tune...
(The entire section is 2,828 words.)