La Nauseé was Sartre's first novel, and it contains all his main interests except the political ones. It is his most densely philosophical novel. It concerns itself with freedom and bad faith, the character of the bourgeoisie, the phenomenology of perception, the nature of thought, of memory, of art. These topics are all raised as consequent upon a certain discovery, of metaphysical interest, which is made by the hero, Antoine Roquentin. This discovery, put in philosophical jargon, is the discovery that the
world is contingent, and that we are related to it discursively and not intuitively.
Roquentin is standing on the sea shore. He has picked up a pebble which he is about to throw into the sea. He looks at the pebble - and a curious sickly horror overcomes him.. He drops it and goes away. There follow other experiences of the same sort. A fear of objects invades him-but he cannot decide whether it is he or they that have changed. Looking at a glass of beer, at the braces of the café patron, he is filled with a 'sweetish sort of disgust' (une espece d'ecourement douceatre).
He looks at his own face in a mirror, and suddenly it seems to him inhuman, fishlike. He subsequently makes the discovery: there are no adventures. Adventures are stories, and one does not live a story. One tells it later, one can only see it from the outside. The meaning of an adventure comes from its conclusion; future passions give colour to the events. But when one is inside an event,
one is not thinking of it. One can live or tell; not both at once. When one is living, nothing happens. There are no real beginnings. The future is not already there. Things happen, but not in the way that Roquentin had liked to imagine when he believed in adventures. What he had wanted was the impossible: that the moments of his life should follow each other like those of a remembered life, or with the inevitability of the notes of a familiar tune. He thinks, too, of his own work: he is
writing the life of the Marquis de Rollebon. Yet this story which Roquentin is unravelling from letters and documents is not the real life which Rollebon lived. If he cannot even retain his own past, thinks Roquentin, how can he save that of another? He sees it all in a flash: the past does not really exist at all. There are the traces, the appearances-and behind them nothing. Or rather, what there is is the present, his own present-and what is this? The 'I' that goes on existing is merely the ever-lengthening stuff of gluey sensations and vague fragmentary thoughts.
Roquentin visits the picture gallery, and looks at the self-satisfied faces of the bourgeoisie. These people never felt that their existences were stale and unjustified. They lived surrounded by institutions of state and family, and borne up by a consciousness of their own claims and virtues. Their faces are eclatant de droit - blazing with right. Their lives had a real given meaning, or so they
imagined; and here they are, with all that added sense of necessity with which the painter's thought can endow them. Roquentin's own recent experience has given him a special sense of the bad faith of these attempts to clothe the nakedness of existence with such trimmings of meaning. Salauds! he thinks, as he returns to his own nauseé.
This malaise now moves towards a climax, and its metaphysical character is made more clear. Roquentin is staring at a seat in a tramcar .. 'I murmur: it's a seat, as a sort of exorcism. But the word remains on my lips : it refuses to go and rest upon the thing ... ' 'Things are delivered from their names. They are there, grotesque, stubborn, huge, and it seems crazy to call them seats or
to say anything whatever about them.' He continues his reflections in the public park: though he has often said, for instance, 'seagull " he has never before felt that that which he named existed. Before he had thought in terms of classes and kinds; now what is before him is a particular existing thing. 'Existence had lost the inoffensive air of an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things.' He fixes his eyes upon the root of a chestnut tree. Then comes the final and fullest revelation. ' I understood that there was no middle way between nonexistence and this swooning abundance. What exists at
all must exist to this point: to the point of mouldering, of bulging, of obscenity. In another world, circles and melodies· retain their pure and rigid contours. But existence is a degeneration.'
Roquentin, who has abandoned his book on Rollebon, decides to leave. He sits in the cafe and listens for the last time to his favourite gramophone record: a Negress singing Some of these days. Often before, while listening to this melody, he has been struck by its pure, untouched, rigorous necessity. The notes follow one another, inevitably, away in another world. Like the circle, they do
not exist. They are. The melody says: you must be like me. You must suffer in rhythm. I too, I wanted to be, thinks Roquentin. He thinks of the Jew who wrote the song, the Negress who sings it. Then he has another revelation. These two are sawed, washed of the sin of existing. Why should he not be saved too? He will create something, a novel perhaps, which shall be beautiful and hard as steel, and will make people ashamed of their superfluity. Writing it, that will be a stale day to