From the Archives
Another cringe-inducing college application essay found in my lazy day of doing nothing
2.) A truly chilling book is Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. No its not the popular sort of thrill that fuels Stephen King’s and Dean Koontz’s book sales; nor does it involve the vampires or any other mythic monsters that are the basis for books by Anne Rice and Mary Shelly. It is the most frightening type of horror that we all must face; it is the thought that after death we may no longer exist, that there might be no soul and no heaven and no hell; that fear of not knowing what’s going to happen to us when we die.
Antoine Roquentin is an early-20th century French historian who is horrified by these thoughts. Unlike most novels of its’ time, Nausea is written in diary format in a style that is practically stream-of-consciousness as Antoine describes his thoughts and experiences at cafes, at his apartment, and at the Bouville library where he is researching the Marquis de Rollebon for a biography he is writing. At the library, Antoine encounters the Self-Taught Man, a quiet man, who as his name implies, taught himself. The Self-Taught Man spends practically all of his time at the library reading every book that he possibly can. The two become acquaintances (not friends) and occasionally meet in cafes to debate humanism and existentialism. The Self-Taught Man is a humanist and his ideological adversary is Antoine, who is an existentialist.
Much of Antoine’s time and thoughts are consumed by thinking about existentialism, particularly when he is overcome by the “nausea,” (the feeling of vast emptiness that overcomes him when he realizes that after death, he will no longer exist). Antoine describes his nausea by saying, “I have never before had such a strong feeling that I was devoid of secret dimensions, confined within the limits of my body, from which airy thoughts float up like bubbles. I am cast out, forsaken in the present: I vainly try to rejoin the past: I cannot escape,” (p.33). Nausea is quite different from most of the other books around that time, instead of relying mostly on plot and action, very little action takes place in the book; this book relies on intense, raw thought. This is also one of the few novels that so thoroughly explores the fear of death that is innate to every human.
Nausea explores the feelings that one experiences when they think about death and dying. Antoine literally gets so sick sometimes, thinking about death, that he can not even leave his apartment. Antoine’s too smart for his own good; it is his constant thinking about questions that can not be answered on Earth that is the cause of his misery. The saying “Ignorance is Bliss,” truly applies here where Antoine desperately tries to revert back to the past when he was “ignorant”; when he still believed that there was a heaven he would go to when he died. Antoine vainly tries to rejoin the past by getting back together with his ex-girlfriend Anny; he believes this will make things the way they used to be.
Anny is the antithesis to Antoine. Antoine, an atheist, understands that his life is going to be lived here on earth, but instead of seizing the day, he devotes his time to studying some person that is already dead, unconsciously hoping he may figure out what’s going to happen to him when he dies. While Anny is portrayed as cold-hearted because she does seize the day, she lives for the moment and doesn’t care too much about peoples’ feelings, she moves on quickly, while Antoine is still struggling to pick up the pieces and hopefully patch things up with Anny. Anny is constantly in the presence of other people, while Antoine spends practically all of his time by alone thinking; tormenting himself by trying to answer the unanswerable. He has no real friends either; all he has is an acquaintance and an ex-girlfriend.
In this book there are so many tragic characters. Anny is almost as foolish as Antoine, but she’s foolish because she’s so naive and ignorantly happy. Another tragic character is the Self-Taught Man. He is a walking contradiction; while he claims he’s a humanist, he has practically no interaction with the human species and probably wouldn’t even know what to do if someone besides Antoine starting talking to him. The Self-Taught Man spends all of his time cloistered in the library trying to learn anything that he doesn’t already know. But one day his sanctuary from the human species is broken when he’s caught fondling a little boy. The Self-Taught Man resorted to pedophilia because he didn’t know how to approach someone his own age; he knew so much yet he was still so stupid. Sartre capitalizes on the Self-Taught Man to give a warning against the dangers of intellectualism just for the sake of it. Well anyways, he was forever banned from the library. He cried and begged to be allowed to stay, but ironically the humanist was thrown out on to the street and forced to fend for himself amongst humanity.
Then of course there’s Antoine, who is also a very lonely and sad character; in some respects much like the Grinch who stole Christmas. He believes humans are foolishly happy and blithe; their happiness brings Antoine down even more. So like the Grinch, he would like to see that happiness taken away from them; he hopes for change just in hopes of seeing people lose their tranquillity. In one instance, Antoine said, “One morning people will open up their blinds and be surprised by a sort of frightful sixth sense, brooding heavily over things and seeming to pause. Nothing more than that: but for the little time that it lasts, there will be hundreds of suicides. Yes! Let it change just a little, just to see, I don’t ask for anything better. Then I’ll burst out laughing even though my body may be covered with filthy, infected scabs which blossom into flowers of flesh, violets, buttercups,” (p.159). For someone that is mainly thought of as a philosopher, Sartre has decent style of writing. Though his writing is probably second-rate to the ideas presented.
This book is not wonderfully written. Sartre is not the most eloquent of writers, but the power of this book lies not in its literary value, but in its ability to make the reader think. To make a person laugh is simple, to make a person mad is easy, and to a make person cry is just as simple a thing to do, but the ability to make a reader examine their beliefs and think about the ones being presented is a noble achievement. If a mere sheet of paper and the ink printed upon it have the ability to actually make you think, or even better, if it can alter the way you think, it has a far greater power than that of those books which are deemed classics.