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For the moment I simply want to use the example as an illustration of a more general paradox, for it is around this paradox that most of the interesting questions of La Nausee revolve.

Jean-Paul Sartre I (4/5) : La nausée

La Nausee is a book which affirms the valuelessness of books, on the grounds that they furnish the stereotyped formulae of inauthentic living; they give the forms and alibis of ways of living that, in the terms of Sartre's existentialist morality, are manifestations of 'bad faith'. Yet we, as readers, know about this claim only because Roquentin has noted it in his diary, or, more pertinently, because it appears in a book by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Moreover, it is perhaps one of the nicer ironies of the subsequent destiny of La Nausee that this book, which loudly proclaims that we should not live our lives through books, was to become both myth and model for a whole post-war generation; the frequency with which intellectuals, and not only on the boulevards and in the cafes of Paris, were seized with bouts of contingency-sickness must certainly be ascribed in part to their having read La Nausee. This aspect of the matter is, incidentally, parodied in Boris.

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Vian's very funny novel, L'Ecume des jours, where one of the characters displays a morbid enthusiasm for the writer Jean-Sol Partre, author of the influential novel, Le Vomi, and philosophical essay, Paradoxe sur le Degeulis. The paradoxes thus proliferate in a variety of directions, and I shall come back at a later juncture to a few more. Their general form should, however, be clear, and indeed already familiar as one of the sign-posts in the landscape of the modern novel as a whole: they point to that paradoxical disposition of modern narrative to query or repudiate the genre of which it is itself a member.

In this respect it is worth recalling the date of La Nausee's publication: The significance of that date can be construed in a number of different ways. Perhaps the most familiar - although in many respects unsatisfactory - is the line of enquiry which seeks to relate La Nausee to the philosophical themes largely of the phenomenological and existentialist sort engaging Sartre's attention at the time, and which were to issue in what for many is Sartre's magnum opus, L'Etre et le neant.


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There is here in fact a set of potentially interesting questions. They have to do with whether or not the central emphases of the philosophical endeavour are of a kind that actively command, or conversely militate against, a literary mode of expression: for example, what we might call the drive towards 'narrative' in L'Etre et le neant arising from the detailed phenomenological descriptions of behaviour which Sartre explicitly posits as methodologically crucial to the enterprise of philosophy as such.

On the other hand, there is the argument that there is a fundamental tension, or 'dissonance', between the claims of existentialist doctrine and the basic generic requirements of narrative: broadly, the incompatibility of, on the one hand, the existentialist proposition that the world is wholly contingent and the individual wholly free, and, on the other, the anticipatory and foreclosing operations vital to anything we might plausibly recognise as a narrative structure. These again are matters to which I shall return.

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The point I want to make here is a far more limited one: that it does not seem a particularly profitable exercise to discuss La Nausee, as it is so often discussed, as a fictionalized version of a series of philosophical themes; the terms of such discussion effectively reduce the text of La Nausee to purely instrumental status - to being, as it were, the handmaiden of another order of discourse - and hence give no framework for addressing the far more important question: its status as a work of fiction.

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H. Puszko, La Nausée-roman à thèse ou paradoxe du menteur - PhilPapers

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