After reading ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett, I became interested in existentialism, specifically trying to understand whether one could find hope in a philosophy known for saying things are meaningless. As part of my English prep for university I’ve decided to be more open minded with books, and really try to find my answers from the source, rather than googling, so the book I picked up was Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.
As far as books go, I’ll be the first to admit that this was not a light read, despite its misleading size (my copy was around 250 pages) the prose style was intense. To begin with, it’s translated from French, combine this with prose that jumps from idea to idea, deliberately forcing the reader to focus, and a man questioning the meaning of life and you have the ingredients for quite the text.
The novel is about a historian called Antoine Roquentin, who desperately tries to work out the meaning of existence, by recording in his journal everything he encounters as objectively as possible. Whilst doing this, he experiences something which he refers to as ‘nausea’ a sick feeling, which he tries to overcome.
“To exist is simply to be there”
This line summarises what Roquentin discovers, and essentially means that what one can know about objects is the most basic form of what one encounters. In the novel, this is demonstrated through Roquentin’s analysis of a chestnut tree’s root. He determines that it is a root, one can say this, however any other details such as colour, smell, even feel, are superfluous additions. He explains that calling the bark black is superfluous because he does not know what black really is, it is a concept, one which changes person to person. “Was it more than black or almost black?” Thus, objects exist in their simplest form, their essence. The rest is embellishment.
Is this a pessimistic philosophy?
One the one hand yes, in claiming that the world is just objects, description is unnecessary, we are left with a rather bleak existence. I think, however, that one can interpret this as a rather liberating idea. Rather than dictating what something is, each individual is completely free to add their own embellishment, description, meaning, the world becomes exactly what you make of it. To me, it is a philosophy of individualism, not of meaningless despair.
Therefore, if one views freedom of thought and ideas as hopeful, existentialism can provide a pathway to mental freedom, and with that, hope.