This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
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unconventional and experimental
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Philosophers can be incisive storytellers—and have been since the earliest
days of the discipline. The most memorable passages in Plato’s
deal with his allegory of the cave, which cleverly takes the most abstract part
of his philosophy—unavoidably abstract
because our philosopher is trying to
explain the specifics of the Platonic theory
of ideas—and brings it to life for his audience
as a kind of Kafkaesque fantasy tale. In later
years, philosophers didn't forget the power of
fiction to bring bold ideas to life. Sir Thomas
More presented his alternative to Plato, his
Utopia, in the form of story. And
philosophers presided over the birth of the
novel, even before the days of Fielding,
Richardson and Defoe.

Three of the greatest storytellers in France
during that same period—Voltaire, Rousseau
and Diderot—were also philosophers of the
highest rung.  In fact, Voltaire is probably
better remembered for
Candide than for his
‘straight’ philosophy, and his contemporaries
Rousseau and Diderot also made significant
contributions to narrative literature. Even
in the first half of the 20th century we find
Santayana taking the plunge into fiction with
The Last Puritan (published
three years before Sartre’s
Nausea) and Bertrand Russell (like Sartre)
actually winning a Nobel Prize in literature—although Russell’s non-fiction
writings probably did more to earn him this honor than his short stories.

The existentialist tradition is especially rich in narrative possibilities. The
key creators of existentialism each were skilled storytellers. For example,
Repetition is usually described as a philosophical treatise, but
it is actually an extraordinary short novel, and many of his other key
writings (especially
Either/Or) seem to straddle fiction and theory. The
same can be said of Nietzsche’s
Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Spanish
existentialist Miguel de Unamuno is almost as famous for his short
novels as he is for
The Tragic Sense of Life and his other philosophical
works. And Dostoyevsky, for his part, is a pure novelist, but with so much
philosophy crammed into his works that some sections of his books, such
as "The Grand Inquisitor" seem to follow in the footsteps of the great
Socratic dialogues and other theory-driven writings. Among the leading
existentialists, only Heidegger avoided fiction, although I suspect that
he would have flourished as a novelist.

Then we arrive at Sartre, the last writer to reach the highest levels of
success as both philosophy and literature. When asked by an interviewer
in 1975 what his lasting achievements were, Sartre mentioned
Nausea first
on his list, followed by his plays
No Exit and The Devil and the Good Lord.
Only then did he move on to his philosophical works. I suspect that
posterity will flip-flop this ranking—I consider
Being and Nothingness as
his most significant work, but immediately after I would place
his plays,
The Flies to the two works cited by Sartre, and Nausea. These
works, now more than three quarters of a century old, continue to
provoke readers with their disturbing incidents and controversial

Related Essays:
Three Existential Horror Novels
My Year of Horrible Reading
The Ten Best Novels on Music

Nausea can perhaps be best described as an existential horror novel. At
the time Sartre was writing this book, horror movies had entered their
golden age. Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy were frequent visitors
to the silver screen, and turning into what, nowadays, we would call brand
franchises. But Sartre’s horror required no monsters or gloomy European
castles. Even so, the terror of his story was all the more pernicious for its
lack of external referents—because of its very pervasiveness, it could offer
no escape.

For the narrator of
Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, a failed historian, the horror
is everywhere—so much so that everything surrounding him can produce
a queasy sense of nausea.  Physical objects leave him disgusted. “Every
existing thing is born without reason,” he laments, “prolongs itself out of
weakness and dies by chance.” Try putting that up on a dorm room poster,
and see how many copies you sell.

When Roquentin picks up a pebble on the seashore, it produces "a sort
of sweetish sickness." But the mineral world is the least bothersome aspect
of existence. Far worse is the vegetative world: a tree seems like a
loathsome excrescence. Even the processed products of trees fill him
with dismay—when he sees a piece of paper on the ground Roquentin
finds himself incapable of picking it up.

Our protagonist’s own face in a mirror
produces a disagreeable sensation—it
has no more meaning to him than a
"clod of earth." "The eyes especially are
horrible seen so close. They are glassy,
soft, blind, red-rimmed, they look like fish

Sartre understands that modern readers
will interpret this condition as a kind of
psychological malaise. Almost any other
20th century novelist, confronted with this situation, would send his hero
to the psychiatrist’s couch, or at lease serve up a kind of medical
diagnosis for Roquentin's neurosis. But Sartre was not a admirer of the
fashionable schools of psychology—indeed, his critique of Freud in
and Nothingness
stands out as one of his most important contributions
to modern thought. That dismantling of the concept of the unconscious is
still in our author’s future, but even at this stage of his career, he wants
to make clear that his story's narrator does not suffer from mental illness.  
"The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there…everywhere around me,"
Roquentin insists. "I am the one who is within it."

This is an extraordinary premise for a novel, and
Sartre deserves credit for embarking on a story
that no other novelist had ever attempted. All
of us are familiar, of course, with plots about
daunting obstacles, terrible consequences, and
frightening conditions—those are the very building-
blocks of fiction. But has any novelist ever tried to
write a tale in which everything and everybody
(including the narrator!) contributes to the

Nonetheless, Sartre seems aware that an entire
novel about the nauseous and disgusting might be
too much for even the most tolerant reader. So
he inserts a number of set pieces into his book,
some with very little connection to the larger story
—but invariably suitable for Sartre to address a favorite subject or embark
on a polemical attack.

He introduces an eccentric subsidiary character, referred to as the ‘self-
taught man’, an individual Roquentin encounters frequently at the
library where he is researching his book. The self-taught man is an
ardent humanist, and provides a convenient target for Sartre, who in
his later writings would mount a full-scale attack on humanism (never
quite convincing, unlike his assault on Freud).  Another lengthy interlude
involves Roquentin’s reactions to a series of portraits of historical figures
in a gallery. Here, too, the scene is poorly integrated into the larger plot,
but provides Sartre with a excellent platform for his views on the
falsifications of history and biography. Another sub-plot on Roquentin's
former lover, an actress, gives him a similar opportunity to comment on
the faux reality of the theater. The fact that Sartre, in later years, would
focus on biography, history, drama and other areas that he savagely attacks
in this early work, add a special frisson to the proceedings.

In general, Sartre is more committed to philosophy than to fiction, even
here in the pages of his greatest novel. But when the story lags, the
intensity of the intellectual debate flares up to compensate—so much so,
Nausea is essential reading not just for students of literature, but also
for anyone interested in the evolution of Sartre’s views on a range of
philosophical issues.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is Sartre’s decision to
supply a happy ending. His horror story ends with a way out of the nausea.
I am less than convinced by this turnabout in our suffering Mr. Roquentin,
but as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the
existential nausea. A jazz record featuring a singer and saxophonist does
the trick—to be specific an old recording of “Some of These Days.” I only
wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on
the date (he doesn't identify any of them). I would love to hear the jazz
record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst.

(Some have suggested that Sartre is referring to the famous Sophie Tucker
recording of "Some of These Days," but the context of the novel suggests
a different version. Sartre specifically mentions that the vocalist is African-
American, and it is unlikely that he would make that assumption when
listening to the Ukrainian-born Jewish singer Tucker. The Tucker track
also features a shrill clarinet that could hardly be mistaken for a sax. But
hundreds of other recordings of this song have been made by jazz artist
including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway.)

When jazz writers decide to adopt a philosophical tone, they often cite
Sartre's contemporary Theodor Adorno. This is a strange choice, not only
because of Adorno's longstanding hostility toward jazz, but even more
due to the close-minded elitism of his screeds. If any American music
critic had written with such clumsy generalizations about jazz, posterity
would have soon forgotten these opinions—or held them up to ridicule—
but somehow the attachment of the name of a progressive European
thinker assigned on college campuses has given these views a half-life
they don't deserve on their own merits. So let me suggest that jazz
writers who want to cite a fashionable philosopher switch over to Sartre,
who frequented jazz clubs and listened to the music with a sensitivity to
its inner emotional meaning.

Sartre called jazz "the music of the future" and made an effort to get to
know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and listen to John Coltrane.
His writings on the subject are more atmospheric than analytical, but
it is likely that Sartre saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the
existential freedom he described in his philosophical texts. Jazz musicians,
he once explained, are "speaking to the best part of you, the toughest, the

And who knows, perhaps jazz does cure existential angst. Maybe it delivers
more value for money than a trip to the psychiatrist's couch or the
latest advertised chemical cure for your woes. In our current age, when
people are increasingly looking for alternative treatments, here's one that
can be had for a song.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date: February 29, 2016
When Jean-Paul Sartre Cured
Existential Angst with a Jazz Record

A Look Back at Sartre's Nausea

Essay by Ted Gioia
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My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9
By Jean-Paul Sartre
As a longtime jazz lover,
I am secretly pleased
at the cure for the
protagonist's existential
nausea: an American jazz
record featuring a
singer and saxophonist.