Discussion Note: Sartre’s Nausea vs. Future Nausea

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

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.”
  4. This was not a good thing, because….
  5. Sartre was also short.
  6. Sartre was wall-eyed.
  7. Sartre was (by his own account) ugly.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Hmm, seems Sartre’s problem is that he wants to put ‘reality’ as separate and underlying (as opposed to emergent and defined by) the things within it. After all, are not ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ (real) human contributions to reality? I.e. rather than “we can give meaning”, it is “only we do give meaning”. What sense does it make to investigate a gnarled root’s rationale independently of rationality?

    • christina waters says

      Yes, for Sartre reality (the nauseatingly material stuff) has seeped through the chinks in purposeful action in this moment of the book.
      Very much as an alternative possible organizing principle for everyday life can momentarily “appear” during psychedelic experiences.
      Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin isn’t investigated the root. In this case the root suddenly appears as it is (he IS a Cartesian, remember) without all of the neat, tidy orderly categorial façade provided by our purposeful consciousness.
      Yes, meaning IS the contribution of human consciousness. But the sheer, disgusting existence of things is always there, whether we like it or not.
      – CW

  2. Aaron Davies says

    Was making the record jazz supposed to be ironic?

  3. christina waters says

    Aaron – you raise an interesting point. And one that never came up when I studied the text in grad school. If the jazz had been strictly improvisational, then there would have to have been the existential equivalent of an insider joke embedded in his remark – or perhaps some irony (not a Sartrean specialty).
    But the jazz record in question is a Sophie Tucker song – with set lyrics and melody – and in that sense it has the sort of “written in stone” structure that Roquentin longs for in everyday life.
    In the book Sartre has his protagonist ponder – why can’t life be like a melody that has an inherent structure, a structure of notes, intervals, time signature, etc. – a melody in this sense is not arbitrary. It has a beginning, middle and an end.
    Whereas life is just one damn thing after the other.
    In his autobiography “les Mots” – and another slender tome on the Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre reiteratess this thought by noting that only upon reflection (in retrospect) does one’s life appear to have a meaningful structure.
    “When I was young and clueless I married the wrong man, and that’s why I ended up living in a trailer park near Stockton.” That sort of thing. The causal connections that “make sense” of our choices, decisions, actions only appear later, AFTER they have been lived.
    So in those important ways life is not like a melody. But your insight is apt.
    Life is a whole lot more like riffing on a basic theme – or better, all variation with no theme.

  4. Aaron Davies says

    Interesting. (I haven’t read the book myself.) I was basically just going with “jazz is an odd metaphor for order”, and secondarily “recorded jazz seems like a metaphor for some kind of externally-imposed order or stasis”. I guess that doesn’t really apply here tho. Thanks for clarifying!

  5. christina waters says

    A – exactly. The recording (of a lived performative event) would be a way of insuring that its order and structure would be eternally fixed, much as writing the “story of one’s life” provides a narrative shape that is lacking in the day-to-dayness of experience.
    But I always read that line about the melody in the jazz record as about the melody itself, not the recording of the melody. Either way, Roquentin/Sartre’s insight is that the experience of existing is random and purposeless, “de trop,” rather than necessary and structured.

  6. 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.

    But who is “we”? In the gap between the manufactured normalcy field we are living in and pioneers, adventurers, research scientists and madmen with a vision at the outposts, we find early adopters, innovators and entrepreneurs who attempt to pull novelty into the normalcy field out of idealism, prestige, cash or all of it. The normalcy field can be perceived from two angles, that of the Eloi and that of the Morlock. It is not important to be either an Eloi or a Morlock but being able to see double.

    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 he returned to liberté, egalité and fraternité and thus rounded the life of a French intellectual post 1789. The folk hero gives the people what they already have, but he gives it differently and this makes him an innovator of the moral and ideological normalcy field which needs occasional actualizations through “consciousness”. The worry point today seems to be that we don’t believe anymore that this is enough or that it could even work for us.

  7. christina waters says

    Kay – two things, and you’re right about both of them.
    1) Sartre would love your comment about being both Morlock and Eloi—he was confirmed (as are all Cartesians) in his metaphysical adherence to bi-polar, split-vision existence. We are always already engaged in doubly reflexive points of view, growing the straw we then spin into gold.
    2) My phrasing – that Sartre “handed each individual the powerful gift of radical freedom” takes literary license to be sure. Sartre was attempting to undercut what he saw as the “bad faith” of the bourgeoisie, those who live propped up by excuses as to why they couldn’t become, or do, or succeed to fulfill their own prime directives.
    Yes he probably would agree with you about moral innovation – and he certainly would acknowledge that we don’t believe anymore that can work for us.
    We, or at least my students, are all thoroughly programmed to see ourselves as social constructions – again, no individual responsibility, the culture made me what I am.
    Too bad we can’t believe that individual free choices are at least halfway toward robust moral action.

    • Ah, now I understand the group-thinking lament in your article.

      Too bad we can’t believe that individual free choices are at least halfway toward robust moral action.

      It’s just too easy to deconstruct free choices and reduce them to their subconscious and ideological underground and how they are turned into commodities and simulations.

      A genuine philosophical response lies in dispensing the whole free will / free choice idea or defer it and openly admit the desire of wanting to be forced by the truth. It is the “Socratic ideal” once again. Of course one doesn’t know the truth and one doesn’t even know how it is shaped. If we end up seeing double, get ambiguities, unknown unknowns and hydra which eats them for lunch, paradoxes, trade offs, data clouds, knotted problems and multiple perspectives, then that’s it.

      Those gruesome results are still accessible through a thought process in the medium of language which goes step-by-step and it works better when all the effects of environmental and random causes which make up my personal dispositions, such as heritage, socialization, education, religion, cultural prejudices, neurotic traits etc. are damped; otherwise we deal with case studies and symptoms. Reducing authors to their causes is a polemic strategy which attempts to make them irrelevant. Just tell your students that they shouldn’t apply it to themselves. Others will do it to them once their own thoughts are relevant for some people – something which might never happen! There is no need to be in hurry.

      A final remark. There is nothing bad about ones identity being “socially constructed” when a conscious construction leads to the same result. When Sartre returned to the colors of the tricolore this also reflected his ambient culture but couldn’t he bother less about it?

  8. Thanks, Christina. This actually somewhat confirms the “mindfulness” take I originally had, except that my reaction to something like the chestnut root is more like R.W. Emerson’s (“all mean egotism vanishes; I become a transparent eye-ball”) than like Sartre’s.

    My take on all this is almost entirely opposite to Sartre’s. The idea that Descartes was right and I might just be a brain in a vat is what makes me sick and dizzy; the idea that there’s a physical world providing the foundation for our perceptions is immensely comforting to me in contrast.

    • Christina Waters says

      Well actually Dan, your vanishing ego remark is very Sartrean, in that he pined for utter clarity, transparency of consciousness. A consciousness devoid of psychological clotting- devoid of Ego.
      Descartes’ vision of a disembodied spirit isn’t quite as nauseating as “a brain in a vat,” but we are so many lightyears removed from a spiritual substance filled only with innate ideas endowed by God, that it is dizzying to try to imagine the metaphysical problems for which “the cogito” was the solution.
      If only there were a physical world grounding our perceptions! Thinking of Husserl and even poststructural language brokers, it seems more likely that our perceptions “found” whatever physical world we are capable of confronting.
      Comfort, for Sartre, was the refuge for those living in bad faith. And if he’s right, that means most of us!

      • 1. “Vanishing ego” is not the point of distinction. Emerson’s exhilaration vs. Sartre’s revulsion is the point of distinction. I side with Emerson.
        2. Descartes’ vision of a disembodied spirit is, to me, MORE nauseating than being a brain in a vat. At least in the latter scenario there’s a brain and a vat.
        3. I don’t understand the distinction you’re trying to make critiquing my bit on perception vs. reality. Yes, our apprehension of the physical world is limited by our capacities for perception. That’s nearly tautological. This is why I used the word “grounding” — because it doesn’t imply direct access. That there is a physical world is in pretty good evidence unless you perversely think that radical skepticism is a useful approach to life.
        4. “Refuge for those living in bad faith.” Just one more thing I disagree with Sartre about. You almost seem to imply that Sartre’s views are somehow “correct”, that there are no value judgments wrapped up in them. But reading your post all I saw was value judgments. My values are different from Sartre’s, so it’s no surprise I disagree with him about nearly everything under discussion.

        • christina waters says

          Thanks for the bracing pushback. Yes, I’ll admit to having carried a torch for Sartre’s (and in many similar ways Heidegger’s) critique of humanity’s modus operandi being one of fleeing responsibility, ie.bad faith.
          A hopeless romantic I’m afraid, happier when the road is narrow and the struggle is daunting. It’s a place in which I’ve taken up residence, perhaps uncritically, perhaps simply because it has served.

          I too side with Emerson. Yet mindfulness requires continual, well, mindfulness.
          And Dan, I’m happy to have my thinly-veiled value judgments busted.

  9. Re: jazz

    Was more formulaic in the 30’s. Improvisation was a part of it, but it wasn’t really until the 50’s that free jazz and really open improvisation typified the genre. The genre would have had very different associations for Sartre writing in the 30’s than it does for us now.

    • Christina Waters says

      Dan – I defer to your greater expertise in the rarified world of jazz history.
      And thanks for this nugget of musicological context.


      • “Expertise” is giving me far too much credit. I took a college elective on the history of jazz. Just enough to misinform, probably. :P

        It’s very interesting to think of what Sartre might have meant by that statement though. The origins of jazz are not entirely clear, but from what I understand the leading theory is that it began in New Orleans when French-speaking blacks, many of them trained as musicians in the western style, lost the social status they enjoyed over the former slaves. The latter group already had a music tradition carried on through work songs which ultimately became blues. The two groups supposedly started playing music together after the difference in social status disappeared (during Jim Crow) and jazz was supposedly the fusion of the earthy, spontaneous blues of the former slaves and the technically precise marching and popular music of the French-speaking blacks.

        So even the beginning of jazz, or at least the myth of it, is dualistic. I can’t help but wonder whether Sartre realized this in writing that line.

  10. Freedoms just another word for a self-referential strange-loop of representational mapping with nothing left to loose in the way of mutually-adaptive evolutionary-substrate restraints or guidance.

    mapping the physical world onto a controllable recombinant abstract process space


    destabilizing the homeostasis that intertwines physical and abstract process


    • EDIT:

      (existentialist)Freedom is just another word for a self-referential strange-loop of representational remapping with nothing left to loose in the way of mutually-adaptive evolutionary-substrate restraints or guidance.

      mapping the physical world onto a controllable recombinant abstract process space


      destabilizing the homeostasis that intertwines physical and abstract process


  11. christina waters says

    well absolutely sweet marie – and while we’re at it,
    when you got nothing
    you got nothing to lose
    Sartre knew that.
    [For a parallel universe Cf. Simon Crithley’s current series on Philip K Dick, and his post in today’s NYTimes re: the Gnostic goal of direct contact with the divine, hence destablizing the evil Empire of faux homeostasis.]

    • Interesting article!

      I tend to find any form of polemics based metaphor, including gnostic secret insight, a somewhat counterproductive use of imagination.

      I prefer to invest what little imaginative currency I posses into the worlds of Hegel’s organically-emergent sublation, Whitehead and his “Living Systems” protégé James G. Miller or people like Andy Clark who are attempting to elucidate the nested-distributive-fabric or conspiratorial-fabric of cognition. These metaphors feel much more subjectively productive to me.

      The degree to which the article somewhat dismissively transcodes secret gnostic good-versus-evil into a modern story of topdown transnational corporate conspiratorial double dog secret control, seems to miss the point that volitional self-interest is at the very core of conspiracy. I don’t know about you but everyday, the moment my eyes open, I am off-and-running using ever bit of my cognitive power to conspire to have things work out my way. Conspiracies, whether conscious or unspoken, are the biological prime directive of cognition, of consciousness. The power, especially the power of unspoken/unconscious conspiratorial networks should not be dismissed or belittled. They are easily co-ordinated via shared needs, goals, beliefs or memes.

      That said , it seems to me that most large scale conspiratorial secrets in the world of contemporary political economy, banking, investment, election-finance and public-perception-management-control are by and large the kind of secrets that are HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT.

      Using H.G Wells framing of history those open secrets are simply historical instances of “A RACE BETWEEN EDUCATION AND CATASTROPHE”.

      In my deluded world of hope-of-hopes our contemporary historical zeitgeist challenge, our particular “race between education and catastrophe” is to construct a free and open network-based-society that can effect a crowd sourced, , collaborative, organically-triangulated “MANUFACTURE OF CONSENT”

      Organic complexity along with its high-flux-density of social interdependence is now transcending up from the substrate cellular level to invade, to colonize, the very fabric of human affairs.

      Focusing on how to best assimilate the power of the network-organizing-principle, to mine, to retrieve, to distill, to mimic nature’s biological successes at complex organic synchronization dynamics in order to generate 3D webs of synchronized best fit social compromise/contract seems like a great place to start drilling a metaphoric relief valve for all that collective existential nausea.

  12. christina waters says

    Raycote – little I can add to that magnificent riff, except to thank you for the mere mention of Hegel, whose organic-emergent vision seems to have been left on the side of the road by postmodern philistines.

    Would that I could find the “power” button for “hope-of-hopes” in my own daily weaving of successful networks.
    BTW: In my quick and dirty overview of Critchley’s oeuvre, I find that he skates rather brilliantly along the edges of insight, but doesn’t quite land on his feet. Too bad.

  13. Are you using two dissonant versions of Borgian in that last phrase? That suggests a very close battle with what to me is pretty innocuous!

    It’s interesting you’d call Satre cartesian, I never picked up that element of him, the main tensions I always picked up in him were “the facts” vs the surprising freedom of consciousness, and the nietchzean element of a fight between meaninglessness and norms.

    I wasn’t aware that embodiment (as distinct from conscious life) played much of a roll in his work, until way near the end when he’s talking about praxis(personal projects) vs the inert (decaying cruft of old projects and pre-human matter), and most of the nausea I came across was social or conceptually driven; the nausea of vertigo rather than stomach ache, maybe he hid his references too well for me!

  14. christina waters says

    Josh Josh Josh you’re way too clever for me. I was using Borgian in the Jean-Luc Picard/Locutis sense of “we are Borg” – the group mind; the multiple self.
    Sartre was nothing if not Cartesian – hence all that push-pull of praxis vs inert, being vs nothingness, subject vs object, consciousness vs. material substance.
    And yes, the nausea was a vertigo, but the kind that produces a stomach ache.

    • Ah cool, I was like Borges? But he’s a lovely guy! Where does she live where people are turning that kind of inventiveness into stultifying conformity?

      Anyway, there’s a way to look at Satre’s work that doesn’t talk about body-imprisonment/overcoming as a source of discomfort, where the problem is the lightness when that body has been overcome. It’s a pretty posthuman situation, where we have access to the infrastructure of our being and can muck about with it, but so basically have to ask ourselves what we want to be, is any project of self creation cool enough that we can stick with it?

      I mean for a wall eyed short guy, Satre does a lot of complaining about how powerful he is! And how powerful we all are, without admitting it to ourselves, and my usual objection to his angsty stuff is that he underestimates the extent to which embodiment limits our possibilities, and the attention we should pay to the actual potentials for change within existing structures.

      But again, maybe that dualism you talk about is there at the start, buggers off for a few years in the middle, and then comes back with a vengeance in the critique of dialectical reason.