The Literature of Existentialism

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The Literature of Existentialism Free Essay


The paper represents the analysis of the existential approach to literature. The essential figure of existentialism is Jean Paul Sartre who introduced the notion of opposition between a person and a being as well as between nothing and existence. The paper argues that the role of literature, from the Sartre’s point of view, consists in creating a voluntary and imaginary world of dreams. In this situation, the writer is a person who provides the readers with the access to it. The readers, in their turn, are a party whose task is to be gripped with this world. In any case, the world of literature is absolutely free. The notion of freedom is discussed by Sartre in his novel Nausea. The main character, Antoine Roquentin, is a person who cannot accept the social order. As many investigators claim, Sartre undoubtedly mentions the political issues. The manifestation of freedom in the novel is expressed by the fact that Roquentin does not understand and does not follow the societal rules as he simply mocks them.

Keywords: existentialism, literature, freedom, Nausea, novel.


The Literature of Existentialism

Numerous problems associated with the study of human behavior in the world unite philosophy and literature. In fact, they have a common object of study, which is, for example, the psychological analysis that forms the basis of existentialism. However, it does not mean that it solves all the issues and questions but rather prepares the resolution of a large array of them.

Jean Paul Sartre was the first person who got involved in the existentialism in literature; hence, he is interesting both as a person and as an artist. His early works, including treatises and works of art of the Second World War, are closely associated with the existential concept. In general, existentialism takes humanistic side of the ancient myth, revealing only a part of life, without divining the future. In addition, Sartre could not accept the solution to the ethical problems. Therefore, the paper aims to discover how the literature is privileged, according to Sartre, and how it is depicted in his novel Nausea.

Freedom, Being, Existence, and Sartre’s Understanding of Literature

For Sartre (2012), a literary object is such an intricate whirligig which exists only in movement. The life of the literature lasts as long as the reading process lasts. It is a synthesis of perception and creativity. Only through the combined efforts of the author and the reader, there can be a concrete and imaginary object as a product of mental labor. Meaning, as Sartre (2012) stated, is not only the amount of words but rather their organic unity. The product of the literature (as an art) has no purpose; the work itself is the goal. The emergence of aesthetic pleasure is a sign that the work was effective (Natanson, 1962). The process of writing, which means to take advantage of the others’ minds, also implies that the readers have to plead for universal life in order to experience its importance.

The theory of literature is a biased attempt which specifies the same ‘call’ that Sartre (2012) has regarded as the basis of art from the very beginning. He sought to prove that the literary work, in which the author uses words like characters, is closely associated with the idea. Therefore, it is linked to the idea of freedom (or lack of such). Currently, the work of the writer seems to Sartre (2012) to be different from the one described by himself in the ontological call of Roquentin (the main protagonist in Sartre’s Nausea). With the help of the request, which refers to the target audience, in an attempt to appeal to the idea of freedom, the author (2012) tried to identify the contours of political freedom meaning democracy. Thus, it is understandable why it was so important to establish the type of communication, or the underlying literature, which would mean a dialogue based on freedom. According to Sartre (2012), the fact that the writer by profession is “involved” in the life and literature is directly connected with the fate of democracy.

When Sartre (2012) performed his literature activities, France was experiencing the rise of democratic sentiment. It has become noticeable with the advent of French aesthetics as well as with a concrete illustration of the free man who can choose the activity to undertake, which was only the possibility of freedom. In his Nausea, the model built by the writer (2012) had two poles. One of them is the reader, the other one is the writer. The movements between the two poles went in two directions. A signal call sent by the writer should return to him/her again from the reader. Aesthetic attitude, i.e., what means his work as a writer, and what a person experiences when reading that are termed as a voluntary and free feeling. The process of reading is a free dream (Sartre, 2012). Hence, all the feelings that arise in the background of these imaginary beliefs act as a special modulation of the writers’ dreams.

The approach of ‘voluntary reading’ is the coveted key, which, according to Sartre, the writer offers to the reader. This comprises the complexity of personality and accomplishes the main thing that is adaptation to the joyful feeling of freedom. The aesthetic experience (reading) helps transfer the feeling of a free relationship to the world that occurs when reading in the sphere of activity. Such an approach proves the existence of the two agents in literature: existence of the writer and existence of the reader. The existence of both agents ends when the process of reading of a particular literature piece is finished. On the contrary, it is possible to assume that the literature created by the writer, in fact, continues to exist even if it is not read. The same, however, cannot be attributed to the existence of the writer and reader, because humans are mortal.

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Hence, Sartre’s literature is able to transfer the reader from the imaginary world to the reality. Freedom as the ability of consciousness flows in political freedom, so in contrast to the division of spheres of aesthetic and moral in ‘imaginary’ in the literature, Sartre asserts the need to move from the aesthetic experience to moral action and act (Natanson, 1962). In all non-fiction arts, while trying to handle material that was not “humanized,” the law is the autonomy of art. Its focus lies not on the specialization, but on the training and development of imagination as the most important abilities of consciousness.

The reality pushed Sartre to accept the fact of being: an artwork of literature is read, but it does not have the public, the one at whom a writer had targeted. Thus, the aspect of being in literature is ambiguous. On the one hand, literature exists forever until it is printed. On the other hand, the being of literature is limited to the framework of the reader. However, he seemed to foresee such a possibility. Sartre says that at the very moment when we discover the importance of practice, when we dimly foresee what will be the total literature, our usual audience is away, we just do not know for whom to write.

Literature is approved to deny itself. That is why the writer’s task is so unclear. In the early 1960s, Sartre, revising his ideas (belief in literature as an absolute notion), was still confident that literature should speak of the imperative. Therefore, the involvement must be sought not in each individual product, but on the level of the individual writer in general, where it is possible to detect the position.

Such an approach can be directly related to the other aesthetic forms. Any piece of art can exist after it has been destroyed. However, it is possible to claim that it exists until it is presented in physical form. The category of being of any form of art is similar to the being of literature itself. If an artwork is not, for instance, viewed/listened to, its being is limited – hence, it is not free.

Roquentin and Sartre’s Nausea

The main protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, feeling the absurdity of life and its hypocrisy, decides that he will describe and examine the state of the world and life as they are in his personal consciousness. Therefore, Roquentin steps on the path of knowledge of the essence of being (Saleem 2014). He knows real world entities (sea pebbles, beer mug, calico shirt bartender, plush bench in the tram etc.), thus the world-in-itself, while experiencing disgust, despair, fear, loneliness, and other existential states (which he refers to as nausea). The state of nausea is ambiguously expressed in the Sartre’s novel. Roquentin says:

Nothing has changed and yet everything is different. I can't describe it; it’s like the Nausea and yet it's just the opposite: at last an adventure happens to me and when I question myself I see that it happens that I am myself and that I am here; I am the one who splits the night, I am as happy as the hero of a novel (Sartre, 2013, p. 31).

This passage provides the main philosophic confrontation the main character encounters. In other words, the problem of his own existence is perceived in two ways. On the one hand, Roquentin understands that the world around him, as well as he himself, is changing all the time, and it is difficult to follow these changes when evaluating the main character’s own existence. On the other hand, the protagonist is aware of the fact that regardless of the changes, he still exists. To understand the existence from the viewpoint of changes is difficult for Roquentin; however, he accepts such a situation. 

The attention of researchers is focused mainly on the figure of Roquentin, who is represented as an ‘absurd hero’ of the existential personality. This is the central image of the novel; since due to a diary form the events of the novel and their assessment is given in the light of the main character’s perception. The universal conflict of the individual and of being was transported into a space of his inner world, while the development of the conflict is seen as a history of the disease.

The genre and thematic specifics of the novel can be, in this case, defined as philosophical and psychological. The manifestations of social criticism, the tradition of the French anti-bourgeois novel, are further explored by Sartre (2013). They do not receive adequate coverage – and it is not a coincidence: these are not isolated aspects of Nausea, as they do not make it a modernist innovative and experimental novel.

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The conflict between the hero and being, struck his mind’s disease, the symptoms of which are violations of the simplest things of his consciousness – operations, which occur despite an acute conflict between Roquentin and the surrounding society. Among the novel images, the second largest (and the most important) is the image of Bouville – a large seaside town. The hero is constantly exploring and thinking about the city. For this reason, he recreates the history and a portrait of this place. One of the novel composite centers is a famous episode when Roquentin visits the Portrait Gallery of Bouville, after which he finally abandons plans to write a history of the Marquis de Rollebon.

Nausea stays in opposition to this world, thus denying it. The sickness is the rejection of things and it makes Roquentin an indictment of the world of things. The author believes that the things and concepts are freed from their names. They can be whimsical, stubborn, and huge and they surround people. Lonely, wordless, and defenseless, they are beneath each person, they are possessed by people. They do not require, do not impose themselves, but they simply exist. In these numerous charges against things, it is possible to notice epistemology and psychology in Sartre’s ontology: the human dependence on nature, wherein the world-in-itself is portrayed in the gloomy light. An ordinary man, in this case, the main character of Nausea – Roquentin is painfully aware of his fear and his loneliness: “I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices” (Sartre, 2013, p. 9). It additionally proves another Roquentin’s phrase: “I am all alone, but I march like a regiment descending on a city” (Sartre, 2013, p. 31). These two sentences pronounced by Roquentin show how convincing he is in his existential judgments.

Here, it is crucial to pay attention to the moral and philosophical problems that Roquentin faces. The problem of his own being is central in the novel. The main character cannot evaluate and determine his place in the society he lives in. Apart from this, he does not understand why the society established the rule that everybody should follow and why these rules are as they are. Such inner conflict in the Roquentin’s life led him to rather somber thoughts and ideas. The philosophy of his existentialism leads him to the number of moral problems. The character could not perceive the way the society lived and, as a consequence, multiple ‘moral’ things, according to society, are not ‘moral’ for Antoine Roquentin. For example, he does not understand how people can have sexual relations with different people in the same period of time yet he performed the same activity. Thus, the ‘literary’ solution of the problems mentioned is not clearly provided in the novel. The main character is disappointed till the very end of the book, and he still does not accept the societal norms and lifestyle. Moreover, the only response he produces is that he quitted writing his book, since it began to seem useless to him. This solution is very convincing, because the main character’s action is the manifestation of the most radical behavior: he is ready to get rid of the dream to write his book simply not to accept the norms of the society and show (at least to himself) that he is strong enough to be separated from the established moralities and social orders.   

The same we can assume is true to Roquentin – the heroic past is there in the text as there are many hints. Already in the epigraph to the novel, Sartre admits that his hero is withdrawn beyond the traditional social institutions. He does not have a specific profession, he never lives according to his interests, and has no wife or friends. From a political point of view, it is marginal. For this reason, it is not a sheer coincidence that the Marquis de Rollebon’s name resembles the name of the Marquis de Sade for the readers. Nevertheless, Marquis de Sade in the French tradition is a figure that opposed to the Enlightenment and at the same time mirrored it. It became the most prominent critique of the system of ideas, which will bring the leaders of the French Revolution that simultaneously ended with the political victory of the bourgeoisie.

In this context, Nausea is presented as a product that tends to put ‘existential hero,’ who experiences the disintegration of consciousness, in a certain historical context. It helps overcome the one-sided understanding of the ideological structure of the novel as the confrontation of the individual and of being, and gives this being a particular social profile and a specific historical content. However, one must admit that this peculiarity belongs to a very relative character: the historical content of the novel is too generalized and schematic (although some plays of Sartre will also bear resemblance to such sketchy features). Therefore, the story appears in the form of ‘protection’ where the hero and the environment are opposed to each other and do not interact.

In conclusion, the credo of Sartre as a theorist of literature had been described in his essays (experiments and studies). This is a genre, which is popular in Europe and is rejected in Asian countries (due to the apathy of the academic style in scientific publications). The philosophical approach to the literature realized by Sartre acquires several definitions. First, literature is the initial moment of reflection followed by a polarization of positions, versions, and opinions. Second, it represents an arbitrary stopping moment in the deployment of ideas. Third, the freedom of literature is in its connection with the reader. These statements are widely illustrated in the novel Nausea, where the main character is free from the society’s judgments and orders.

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