Nausea, Melancholy and the Internal Negation of the Past

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: In this paper, I argue that temporality, as described in Being and Nothingness, is a central theme in Nausea. In the first section I make the point that one of Sartre's guiding concerns at the time of publishing Nausea is temporality and the temporal nature of freedom. In the second section, the theme of melancholy and its relationship to temporality is explored. The third section explores Sartre's use of this image of being taken 'from behind'. I use this temporal imagery as a guide for interpreting Roquentin's reaction to the rape and murder of Lucienne. By interpreting this scene by way of the temporality of Being and Nothingness, we can duly recognize the early Sartre's concern with temporality, understand the melancholia that arises because of the 'internal' negation of the past, and give a more satisfying account of a scene which is often ignored in the secondary literature.

KEYWORDS: melancholy, Nausea, Sartre, temporality

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At the time of publication of Nausea, Sartre wrote a short back cover gloss or "blurb"--a "priere d'inserer"--that does not appear in the English translation. In it, Sartre refers to the phenomenon of nausea:

"It is Nausea; it grabs you from behind and then one floats in a lukewarm pool of time." (1)

What are we to make of this description of nausea? Nausea, as we know, is Roquentin's reaction to the contingent absurdity of an overabundant existence. It signals a direct experience of this existence unmediated by project or purpose. But what could it mean that this unmediated experience "grabs you from behind"? The imagery of being taken "from behind" foreshadows Roquentin's vision of rape in which the little girl named Lucienne is taken from behind. Roquentin, too, feels himself caught from behind by existence and by desire. (2) But Sartre's reference to a "pool of time" suggests that we consider this imagery in terms of temporality. Indeed, in Being and Nothingness, Sartre uses this same imagery of being taken "from behind" to describe the relationship of the for-itself to its past. I hope to show that the temporality implicit in Nausea can only be made sense of by way of the analysis of temporality found in Being and Nothingness.

This paper has three sections. The first section is a discussion of Sartre's early literary critiques and the temporality that he espouses therein. These literary criticisms are all meant to expose the fallacy of characterizing man as if he has no future and as if he could disconnect himself from his past. I will argue that Nausea should be read in terms of this ongoing concern.

The original and Sartre's preferred title for Nausea was Melancholia and in the second section, the theme of melancholy and its relationship to temporality is explored. I argue that Roquentin's feeling of melancholy reveals that his relation to existence and to his past is an internal negation. This means that, using the language of Being and Nothingness, although the for-itself flees, and thereby negates, the facticity of its embodied past, this negation does not radically isolate the for-itself from its past. Roquentin is obliged to exist by way of his past and his melancholy signals the nature of this relationship.

The third section uses Sartre's temporal imagery as a guide for interpreting one scene in Nausea in particular-Roquentin's reaction to the news of Lucienne's rape and murder. By interpreting this scene by way of Sartre's later analysis of temporality, we can duly recognize the early Sartre's concern with the temporality of freedom and give a more satisfying account of a scene that may otherwise seem awkward or gratuitous.

The decision to interpret Nausea by way of the later Being and Nothingness needs some justification. Although Nausea pre-dates Being and Nothingness, Sartre was developing many of the themes found in both works at about the same time. In the first section, I will be emphasizing this point by showing that the specific analyses which I rely on from Being and Nothingness are already present in Sartre's writings published in the late 1930's around the time of the publication of Nausea. …