(Author’s note: I have gotten more hits on this article for years now, more than almost anything I’ve written. Couldn’t be more delighted. Thanks for the visit. Comments welcome. And I know you’ll like My excellent collection of short stories, The Gandy Dancer, by BD Sparhawk, illustrated by the author, available at all book sellers.)
Me and Existentialism parted company some time ago, so I mystify myself as I pull my old insect chewed pages of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea from my bookcase, walk it home and start to read him again some 40 years hence. Cool in my hand but serving up hot memories as my thumb traces the cover. Why had I gone from disciple to loathing everything about him. Oh Lordy this was potent stuff in my youth.
I travel a short distance with it, slapping it against my thigh with the front cover revealed and laugh at myself. Do today’s hipsters stuff monumental writers in their back pockets, just enough title peeking out for bragging rights? We did in the 60’s.
I am trying to recall what it was that drew me so powerfully to this group’s writing. (I also note the change in the craft of writing itself. Currently, no more standards for book writing exist than for art work.)
So, I opened here and found this darling bit plunging me back, seeing with the eyes of my youth the time it was pure excitement.
“Something has happened to me, I can’t doubt it any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything evident. It came cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little put out, that’s all. Once established it never moved, it stayed quiet, and I was able to persuade myself that nothing was the matter with me, that it was a false alarm. And now it’s blossoming.”
Isn’t that delish? He’s writing all the creepy secrets about going nuts and we all were and here some Frenchman puts it in a book. Sartre and his buddies, after all, wrote to a rare new age of better educated, demanding, insatiable readers; in an era of facile translating, simplified publishing. They wrote with their own reputations in mind. They had Balzac, Proust and Moliere, Wilde and Hugo and Pound to challenge. At least challenge, at most dethrone. It served to make them thoughtful. That re-impressed me.
So I’m remembering these words that in reality were being played out in every dorm and suburban living room and city apartment and street corner. I was living in this! Writers sure didn’t earn much, this was being compelled by some high moral purpose, setting us all free…
“For instance, there is something new about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or fork. Or else it’s the fork which now has a certain way of having itself picked up, I don’t know. A little while ago, just as I was coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which held my attention through a sort of personality. I opened my hand, looked: I was simply holding the door-knob.”
Sartre writes about commonly felt uncommonly described alienation. These thoughts existed in the hearts of millions.
“I saw an unknown face, barely a face. Then there was his hand like a fat white worm in my own hand. I dropped it almost immediately and the arm fell back flabbily.
There are a great number of suspicious noises in the streets, too.
So a change has taken place during these last few weeks. But where? It is an abstract change without object. Am I the one who has changed? If not, then it is this room this city and this nature; I must choose.”
And I’m remembering that this was daring stuff. As wildly different as jazz, as Guernica, as Fellini. How did they dare.
Sartre, the Impressionists and Expressionists, his fellows, came under the same raised satchel-foot of cultural regulators as all who came before and after them, which still universally carries the weight of scorn, burdens of disbelief and vows of poverty. An established culture does not like surprise incursion of what seeks to uproot it and mar the manicured landscape.
The Existentialists rode in on some new climate that swept planet Earth and it was simply this: A goddamn hard won lessening danger for The Rebel. But the Existentialists recommended backing off and a lot of people, in the midst, the future, and memory of astounding human heroics of two world wars, loathed them for it.
Preserve the image, the image, the image perfect. Here goes Jean-Paul Sartre into a portrait gallery of great men.
“They had been painted very minutely, yet under the brush their countenances had been stripped of the mysterious weakness of men’s faces. Their faces, even the least powerful, were clear as porcelain: in vain I looked for some relation they could bear to trees and animals, to thoughts of earth or water.”
Let’s allow that humans are tarnished. So why did these guys resonate so very much with me. What exactly were they doing. And now looking at this from my own changed philosophy and having grown up I think I figured them out and understand my own eventual rejection of what they had to say.
They didn’t like the way the world was turning out but didn’t tackle the changes to be made. Instead, the Existentialists numbed themselves to common human pleasures, in order to neutralize the cultural lions. What a price to pay! I don’t care about anything, I can’t tell if a doorknob is a doorknob or something to have a conversation with. I’m no threat to you. They would make themselves appear, for all intents and purposes, as if they did not actually exist.
“The truth is that I can’t put down my pen: I think I’m going to have the Nausea and I feel as though I’m delaying it while writing. So I write whatever comes into my mind.”
This is man as formless pulp, though we feel undercurrent of the coiled serpent, for he does not intend to be harmless. He has abandoned what is most basic to life, responsibility for himself. That means everyone else is going to have to provide. He is out of control and it’s not his fault. My generation cheered.
I have been in the process of forming a philosophy without really knowing it, by doing, by discovering what’s important to me and making choices to actively engage. I no longer admire bystanders, nor think primitives the most sage among us, nor that ineptitude is equal to achievement. I believe in robust impulse against more prudent planning because it’s landed me an interesting life.
I’ll probably finish reading Nausea. It’s still propelling me to think, isn’t it. But I don’t believe backing away from total engagement with life is worth much. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Several years back I lived by a very pretty slow moving river that despite fabulous overhanging trees and a good cliff at it’s deepest point, got a lot of neighborhood mistrust as a likely bearer of dangerous disease. I got challenged at it’s shore one day by a concerned citizen as I was about to leap in.
Now, I’ve been observing water over and through land for a long time. This had a thriving duck population, local kids, turtles, fish, and a fine lot of surface bugs. Without having to dig too deep I responded to the caution at once by saying, Lookie here. I am a follower of the Huckleberry Finn School of Immunization. You dive into the Mississippi, gulp it down, take your chances, and swim across to the island to play Nelson at the stern or Captain Blood swinging the sword.
And I did. It’s all I really have to offer in the way of advice in contradiction to the Existentialists. Jump in.
Quotes from Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, Translated from the French by Lloyd Alexander. 1959; Third Printing. A New Directions Paperback, 333 Sixth Avenue, New York; James Laughlin, Publisher
“THE GANDY DANCER & OTHER SHORT STORIES” illustrated by author