Stomaching the Truth: Getting to the Roots of Nausea in the Work of Jean Paul Sartre and Flannery O'Connor

By Kerr, Carolyn Michaels | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Stomaching the Truth: Getting to the Roots of Nausea in the Work of Jean Paul Sartre and Flannery O'Connor


Kerr, Carolyn Michaels, Christianity and Literature


Abstract: A comparison of Flannery O'Connor's stories to Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea reveals a surprising number of intertextual parallels and shared themes. Upon close examination, correlations emerge within the overarching incarnational framework of each writer, manifested in similar physical responses of characters in a world that assumes God is dead. Looking at O'Connor through the descriptive lens of Nausea serves to augment a reading of O'Connor as a Christian writer attuned to the nihilism of the modern age, and contributes to an appreciation of the complexity of her vision. Despite the existential angst permeating the work of each writer, the "lines of spiritual motion" found in O'Connor's work reveal redemption in the suffering of Jesus Christ, while Sartre, at best, finds a sort of consolation in "good" faith and art.

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About much of the fiction of her time, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Alienation was once a diagnosis, but ... it has become an ideal. "The modern hero is the outsider. His experience is rootless. He can go anywhere. He belongs nowhere.... The borders of his country are the sides of his skull" (Mystery and Manners 199-200). Indeed, you could say such are the heroes and antiheros of O'Connor's own work: alienated, rootless, drifting. For many readers, O'Connor's fictional worlds are full of senseless violence and devoid of meaning. While this speaks to the accuracy of her depiction of what she saw as "our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by" (168), when examined from the vantage point of her own commentary, O'Connor's stories become more than reflections of a fallen world; they can also be read as parables, pointing to "the image at the heart of things" (168). What differentiates the Catholic writer's work from the fiction being written in her time is a larger something, what she deemed "lines of spiritual motion" (113), actions of a character that carry the story beyond its obvious meaning. In discussions of her work, O'Connor stressed the primacy of the divine movement most often revealed through a character's "gesture which somehow made contact with mystery" (111). Such moments of transcendence are triggered by a character's sudden intimation of something beyond the self; although the character may not necessarily be saved, his or her existence is redefined.

Even though O'Connor herself directed her readers to the anagogical level in her stories (about one of her more famous stories she observed, "[one] should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies" [Mystery 113]), she was above all a writer with a "distrust of the abstract" (168), who believed that fiction was "an incarnational art" (68). Those dead bodies are first of all dead bodies. Calling herself a Christian Realist (Habit 92). O'Connor revealed what she called "the reality of the added dimension" (Mystery 150) in provocative portrayals of modern man in the "concrete world" (157). That said, the "lines of spiritual motion" found throughout O'Connor's fiction may be thrown into greater relief when her characters are examined in light of one of the all-time great alienated modern heroes of the twentieth century.

Antoine Roquentin, nauseated protagonist of Jean Paul Sartre's famous novel, is a man unmoored, paradoxically submerged in and separated from a reality he is trying to understand; Nausea, the title and the ailment, refers to the nausea of existence. (William Barrett warns: "and to those who are ready to use this as an excuse for tossing out the whole of Sartrian philosophy, we may point out that it is better to encounter one's existence in disgust than never to encounter it at all ..." [241]). Roquentin experiences the absurdity of existence through the bodily sensation of nausea. The nausea begins as a peculiar revulsion for physical objects and other people, leading to feelings of disgust and isolation, and culminates in the realization that all things, himself included, are de trop (superfluous or "too much"). …

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