This is a guest post by Christina Waters, who writes about art, wine, and food for the greater Bay Area community at christinawaters.com and teaches Critical Theory and wordplay at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In last week’s post I idly wondered about whether the notion of ‘future nausea’ that I talked about had any relationship to the term in the sense of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous 1938 novel, Nausea. Reader Dan L. suggested a connection between Sartre-nausea and the idea of mindfulness, which further intrigued me. Christina, who did her PhD work on Sartre’s theory of the imagination, posted a comment confirming my suspicion that there was indeed a relationship. So I asked her to do a guest post highlighting some possible connections worth exploring.
So here you go. You may want to read the Wikipedia entry about the book, linked above, for context first.
Venkat muses about Sartre’s Nausea seen as a perspective on mindfulness. Perhaps, perhaps not—and we’ll return to that idea a bit later. But nausea is a perspective which makes him (or rather his literary avatar, Roquentin) sick.
Just why is this? Couldn’t Sartre simply face the ugly underbelly of meaningless reality (life, self, others, etc.) with a sense of humor? In a word—no. There are a few insights the young Jean-Paul Sartre stumbled upon back in the late 1930s when he wrote the slender novel that would one day win him a Nobel Prize he chose to reject. And they are riding on a few powerful ur-rails:
Nausea: the Prequel
- Sartre’s unshakeable (pathological, actually) Cartesianism, broke up his metaphysical romance with Merleau-Ponty. Dualism as a premise would guarantee that whatever ontological starting point he chose, he would inevitably paint himself into a contradictory corner. Trapped in a world that could contain only mutually exclusive opposites, Sartre put all his money on Consciousness, which in true Cartesian fashion was continuously hounded by Being (Descartes’ material substance).
- Being was not Sartre’s friend (even though it became the main squeeze of one of his heroes, Heidegger). Being was thick, murky, too too solid stuff that threatened the purity, the squeaky-clean lightness of consciousness (Sartre’s riff on Descartes’ spiritual substance – anima).
- Sartre lost his father when he was young, and forever felt “ungrounded.” i.e. spoiled, free from super-egoesque rules and restrictions. He was, in his own words, “radically free.”
- This was not a good thing, because….
- Sartre was also short.
- Sartre was wall-eyed.
- Sartre was (by his own account) ugly.
- Given all of the above, Sartre had issues with his physical being. The body was not his friend. Being— as the source and matrix of Corporality, was an enemy to be struggled with.
- Most importantly, for our purposes, Being (the bodily, the material, the fleshy, the viscous) was the source of la nausée.
Back to the book
Sartre wrote a verbose guidebook to the basic insights of La Nausée a few years later. It was a very big book called Being and Nothingness, the title basically saying it all. In this modernist bellum omnium, embodiment and consciousness are locked in the sort of struggle that begins at the meta level, (cf. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason) and continues to unfurl into the fetid, fleshy folds of every carbon-based entity on the planet.
In Being and Nothingness, the nausea we can occasionally glimpse (here’s a possible bridge to that “mindfulness” analogy) breaks through only when we are not focused on any particular perception. It seeps through the semi-permeable membrane of our attention. It catches us when we literally aren’t looking. And in Sartre’s later, larger philosophical blockbuster, Nausea is what reveals our disgusting “isness” to our consciousness. It is the bad taste in the mouth left by the odd consciousness-altering experience in which the sheer arbitrariness of the human situation is revealed. And it is literally unbearable. It can’t be stomached. (NB: Sartre wrote La Nausée after a negative reaction to mescaline. His bad trip involved being pursued by giant crayfish and lobsters and ruined his culinary appreciation for Coquilles St. Jacques for the rest of his life. It is entirely possible that the shellfish, a creature who wears his “interior” on his outside, became the metaphor for this overpowering and sudden onslaught of existence.)
Existential Bulimia and the entire collected lyrics of Bob Dylan
Nausea, Sartre-style, is nothing if not multi-layered. Yes, it is the disgusting realization of our disgusting bodily being (or at least that of a 5 foot 4 inch wall-eyed Frenchman). But it’s got other shape-shifting aspects as well.
Let’s zero in on the episode, buried in the heart of La Nausée, which first announced this seamy side of the human condition. The episode of the gnarled chestnut root. This first contact, if you will, with nausea occurs just as Roquentin—bored, restless, weary of cheap, meaningless sexual encounters—is heading home from a local bôite. He takes a shortcut through a small park. His glance falls upon the gnarled trunk of a chestnut tree. Pretty soon the tree starts looking at him. (For phenomenological description, Sartre has no equal.) It’s unmistakable. The tree is in control. Roquentin cannot look away. (Think messy roadkill.) And that’s when it happens. The nausea. The sickly-sweet sensation that the root is just what existence is—a thing without any purpose, without any meaning or rationale. It simply exists. Trapped inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.
If this doesn’t shake you to your very DNA, then you are not the mother-loving Cartesian that Sartre is. In the Meditations, Descartes lays the groundwork for rationalism, the “let’s make sense of things” philosophy that would make the world safe for scientific method. It is a template in which 2 and 2 really do equal 4, for all time and on every planet. It is a clean, sleek, tidy world that Descartes is founding—one in which simply by reasoning, we can discover why things are as they are. And believe me, not one hair is out of place in this Cartesian universe. Reassuring—sort of like your high school physics teacher in a postmodern educational context. Reassuring, soothing, and—as Roquentin is finding out—deceitful.
See that’s the deal here. That damned chestnut root flies in the face of all that clean Cartesian consciousness. It doesn’t have to exist. It didn’t ask to exist. It simply does exist. For no reason whatsoever.
Can you say “up-chuck” in French? Or, as Bob Dylan observed, “deep inside my heart I know I can’t escape—oh Mama can this really be the end?” Within nano-seconds, Roquentin realizes that he too is just one more chestnut root, existentially-speaking.
His own existence is also without reason, without inherent purpose, without innate properties. He too simply is—randomly, messily, unnecessarily.
Rooting Out the Origins of Deception
And that, mes amis, is why Roquentin/Sartre ends his pivotal book with a scene in which we hear a jazz record playing in the dingy bar. Why can’t my life be like that melody, Roquentin whines rhetorically? Why can’t my life have that sort of orderly purpose, like the notes in the melody, played in a particular order that gives meaning and structure to the whole? (In fact the concept of “manufactured normalcy” is tautologous by Sartrean standards. We manufacture the “normalcy” of whatever—March madness, online shopping, dating etiquette—in order to prevent random meaninglessness from seeping through.)
Addressing that rueful desire for order and purpose occupied Jean-Paul Sartre for the rest of his life.
So, in the end, the rush of Nausea actually propelled Sartre’s writings. It propelled his quest to seek, or at least create, some meaning for human existence—and as a passionate modernist, he would hand each individual the powerful gift of radical freedom to create the meaning of our own lives. So the nauseating freedom (from meaning) of human existence was not completely negative. Au contraire. It also liberated us from innate ideas, from an inborn essence that would define us in advance of our own free choices. But that’s a whole other issue. One that had become endangered during the rise of Borgian* Postmodernism.
[* Consult Star Trek: the Next Generation for examples of the Borg groupmind.]
Incidentally, anyone else who wants to do a discussion-note type guest post here on a book/source you think is related to a theme I explore frequently, the floor is yours.