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Nausea

Jean-Paul Sartre

Section 2

Section 1

Section 3

Summary

Roquentin begins the next section in the grips of what he calls the "Nausea." He previously thought that his odd feelings around objects and people only occurred when he was alone or walking in the street, but now they also occur in his favorite cafe. Overcome with anxiety, he exclaims in his diary: "Things are bad! Things are very bad." He finds that he no longer recognizes people but only sees hands, eyelids, hair, cheeks, dirty skin, and "enormous nostrils." His head begins to spin and he tries to steady his feet on the ground to keep from vomiting. Roquentin is especially disgusted at a bartender's purple suspenders, which he thinks keep changing color.

In an attempt to calm his nerves, Roquentin asks a barmaid to play one of his favorite songs, a ragtime record called "Some of these days." Before the music begins, he worries that the music will not help him pass the time. He thinks that time is "too large" and can't be filled up without it disintegrating between one's fingers. Indeed, each note of the music is born at the same time that it dies. He decides that he must not only accept their deaths, but that he must "will it." Everything seems inevitable to him. He knows the song by heart and anticipates the lyrics: nothing is a surprise. But when the lyrics actually begin, the Nausea vanishes. Roquentin writes that the melody "crushes" the time of the real world, making him feel in in the music.

When the music ends, Roquentin doesn't know what to do with himself. He wants to go see a movie but ends up wandering the streets. He shies away from the light, following dark avenues towards what he calls a "black hole." Something about the black nothingness of the Bouville streets at night catches his attention but he is not sure exactly why or how. He just knows that he feels more comfortable in the dark--the Nausea only occurs in the light.

The next day, he tries to divert his attention from the Nausea by intermittently reading Balzac's Eugenie Grandet and researching Rollebon. At the library, he runs into the Self-Taught Man, who thinks that he can learn all there is to know by reading the entire contents of the Bouville library in alphabetical order. The sheer predictability of the Self-Taught Man's behavior reminds Roquentin that traditional definitions of time have become meaningless to him under the influence of the Nausea: "I can no longer distinguish the present from the future." He finds the Self-Taught man very boring but they end up spending a lot of time together out of sheer loneliness. The Self-Taught Man admires Roquentin's sense of adventure, but Roquentin realizes that man's obsession with adventure is nothing but an attempt to "catch time by the tail." Roquentin cannot recapture his past adventures in the Far East and as a result, feels "forsaken in the present."

Commentary

Although Roquentin is not sure what is causing his Nausea, this section suggests that it has something to do with the essences of objects and people. An essence is a physical characteristic, such as weight, color, smoothness, and shape. For example, the bartender's purple suspenders almost push Roquentin over the edge. What he believes should be an unchanging quality is not fixed: he thinks that the suspenders appear blue in places along the bartender's shirt. Roquentin cannot yet grasp what has changed for him, but he thinks that he can see through objects. Not that they are invisible, but he no longer perceives their essences to be static. As a result, he no longer sees an entire person but the individual parts of their bodies as independent objects; he does not detect any essence to them, they are just there. It is important to remember that Roquentin's Nausea actually goes away in the dark "black hole" of the nighttime Bouville streets: he cannot see any object's essence, only a pervasive "nothingness."

This section primarily addresses the question of time and free will. Roquentin realizes that he has been studying the past to give meaning to his present. But when he discovers that his research about Rollebon is meaningless and nothing more than educated guessing, he tries to find a purpose to his life in the present. Yet the present is just as fleeting as the past. Each moment that Roquentin attempts to call his present is suddenly over and in the past. He does not see time as an interconnected stream, but rather, a serious of discordant ragtime notes that are over just as soon as they have begun. The record is an exception, however, since Roquentin can play it over and over again, continually recapturing the same melody and provoking the same emotions. As soon as the song stops, he returns to "normal time."

Roquentin's discussion about adventure with the Self-Taught Man also juxtaposes time and free will. Roquentin realizes that what people call "adventure," is nothing but an attempt to order time. He thinks that people attempt to live their lives as if they were telling a story, ironically demonstrating the futility of their free will. In effect, Roquentin says that the way that many people preface their stories already suggests what the end is going to be: "the story goes in reverse... we forget that the future was not yet there... he did not make his choice." Consequently, Roquentin sees that there is no beginning or end to any action, experience, or account. This is why he begins reading books in random sections--it does not matter where he starts, since the beginning and end are already implicit.

Roquentin's sudden realization that humans are unable to tame the flow of time leads him to understand that he has been a victim of self-deception. He believed that his "adventures" in the Far East were examples of his ability to see time pass before his eyes with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. He now thinks that this is impossible since the past does not exist. For example, he claims that an actual adventure would involve the "irreversibility of time." To actually see a woman grow old before one's eyes would suggest an ordered passing of time. However, in reality, everyone is trying to fool themselves into thinking that they control the passage of time, trying to catch it "by the tail."

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