When I first picked up a copy of Sartre’s La Nausée (in a Danish translation), it was nothing more to me than an odd book by this recognisable-name author. The first few pages, setting up the premise: a collection of diary notes put together by an editor, almost had me putting the book away, thinking that it seemed overly concerned with itself. But I read on, while putting on Tame Impala’s InnerSpeaker, and found myself getting slowly immersed in the fragmentary narrative. The story of this French man trying to understand what went on in his mind, after one day being hit by a sudden feeling of nausea (nausée) while sitting in the park, got to me, and the short chapters/diary notes kept me moving forward at a time where I was yet to become the avid reader that I am now. The book opened up for me, and in return I was opened up by it.
Looking back, I can make all sorts of stories about how my life has unfolded. The choices I’ve made, the chances I’ve taken or missed. But few things are as clear to me as the influence this book has had on me. This book not just opened itself up to me, but it opened a new world: Philosophy.
This was the first time I had tried tackling one of the great minds of philosophy. Mind you, before this I hadn’t even given philosophy a thought. It wasn’t on my radar. I’ve never been a fan of larger theoretical frameworks, of drawn out thinking, of the complex. I like to think that I’m able to grasp the complex, but mostly I’m a person who likes things to come about quickly. I write poems, not novels. Even if I attempt a new novel each month, I can never get past the initial chapters. I lose interest with the stories I’m trying to tell, because I’m not going deep enough in it. I’ve yet to crack the code on the complex narrative, the multiple storylines, the character gallery.
And like the missing novel, I never thought of myself as someone who’d be into serious academia like philosophy and psychology and sociology. I always envisioned myself as a journalist, churning out articles and features, never staying in one topic too long. But reading La Nausée, I found myself immersed in the world of philosophy as this whole new thing that I’d never experienced before. Philosophy as a novel. Deep thinking disguised between common words and everyday observations.
It’s in all manners a strange book. It’s slow, it’s jumping from here to there. It’s dealing with subjects still largely unknown to me. But more than anything, it’s an interesting read, and one that I keep coming back to, either as a reading experience, picking up the book at the library whenever I come across it, or just as a fleeting thought in my mind, about this book that once started all of this for me.
Because it truly is on the legs of La Nausée that I ended up applying for the philosophy major at university, and it was my only truly serious point I could make in my application: I’ve read Sartre — let me in.
They heard my banging on the door, and they opened up. Allowing me to apply despite a highly failed high school career where I’d ended up getting grades too bad to post here. But university was a new deal, a fresh deal. This was all subjects I cared about. Human understanding in epistemology. Views of life and being in metaphysics. The power structures of political philosophy, and the question of moral right in ethics.
The only tragicomic thing, of course, was that my university almost didn’t touch upon Sartre or others who had used the novel as a vehicle for philosophy, and so, even though I’ve been taken by my studies through all five years until now having graduated as an MA, I’ve always been left wishing more. Wishing philosophy would get back to what I originally experienced it as.
My hope now, post-academics, is that I can get back to enjoying philosophy as I did back when I first picked La Nausée from the shelf. And I recently got a sign telling me that that’s exactly what will happen. The book is criminally hard to find in Denmark, and even more criminally overpriced at second-hand book stores. But then, a week ago, walking my dog, I come by a tiny little private book auction outside of a house, and lo and behold, just a month after my graduation, I find in all its wonder La Nausée being sold there for a mere 10 DKK.
I felt a rush of joy, adrenaline, longing, all at once, and I grabbed it and immediately transferred the money to the seller, and off I was with the book that started these last five years of my life.
It seems a perfect ending to a chapter gone by, that it’s bookended by the same book. During my time in philosophy, especially the first years, I’ve most definitely experienced the nausea of the book in myself, and I’ve been reminded continuously of Sartre’s words, almost working as a comforter for me, when I’ve felt philosophy might not be for me.
When the discussions have run deep or broad, and I’ve felt myself unable to follow the topic, or when some have questioned a professor, and I’ve felt my mind drift back to the original thought of the topic, I’ve reminded myself that philosophy, as life in general, is different for all. And I’m still not a great large-scale theorist. I don’t think I ever will be. But I’m as sharp as they come when dealing with communicative efforts, weeding out the waste of political communication, getting right to the heart of an argument and not letting someone get away with an attack on decent morals for a personal gain.
Philosophy for me has evolved, and I’ve evolved with it.
And I don’t know what the true subject of this post is. It has evolved as well. But I know these last five years have been good to me in many ways. And I appreciate them.
And I’m ready now to take the next step into the open, out of the book.