Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Now here is a story about a really pathetic character, Antoine Roquentin, absolutely paralyzed and nauseated by his intellectual power and gravitas. My diagnosis: he played too much, then thought too much, then was too tired to take courageous steps in the best direction he knew. It was the epitome of the tension between thought and action illuminated by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s famous line, “Thought expands, but paralyzes; action animates, but narrows.” I think it’s interesting that in Antoine’s attempt to squeeze out of the narrow confines of a simplistic worldview, he finds himself feeling suffocated and even violated by the close proximity of all existence, and even his own existence. The interconnectedness of all things, like “dough that gets longer and longer…everything looks so much alike that you wonder how people go the idea of inventing names, to make distinctions,” became to him an inescapable realization of his coextension with the universe by interpenetration with all adjacent objects, and therefore his own infinity. He wanted nothing more than to be a discrete, understandable, limited object that keeps fresh and accessible the meaning that his life may have had in the past, and that other people were still enjoying all around him. He is lost, has become immured in the entanglements and knots of his serpentine logic that is coiling in and constricting the life out of him. Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s great exhortation against too much of an emphasis on reason, “The madman is not the person who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
It’s actually sad, and a bit unnerving, to witness Antoine’s decline into delirium, and I won’t say I can’t relate to some of the symptoms. It’s a genius thang. This book begins with Antoine journaling his thoughts to try and lend resiliency and consistency to a growing abstraction in his ideas and sensations. He wants to hold on to his leaking life, crystallize his moments and finalize their meaning. He is very uncomfortable with his growing realization that the world isn’t just itself, but partly his own fluid invention. While listening to music, he compares his slippery attempts of holding onto, and defining, the moment as akin to trying to catch jazz notes in his hand, “I would like to hold them back, but I know if I succeeded in stopping one, it would remain between my fingers only as a raffish languishing sound. I must accept their death; I must even will it.” This, then, mirrors his resignation not to stymie the flow of his seconds and minutes, or wish everything into a petrified past with no organic, infinitely extending present, "I cling to each instant with all my heart: I know that it is unique, irreplaceable, and yet I would not raise a finger to stop it from being annihilated.” But he, just having turned 30, is morbidly transfixed by the intractable, ‘unsluicable’, nature of the flow of life and time, to the point of being unable to get his bearings and…do something about it! He’s basically experiencing the cliché of a mid-life crisis and responding with rag-doll physics. He loathes his life, and loathes other people’s lives, and starts blaming life itself for his failures. His exciting travels are over; his love-interest is no longer in love with him; his only friend is a clingy, insecure, child-molester; he hates his job (writing history); he hates philosophies that are contrary to his own; he hates stupid, frivolous people; and apparently he can’t play jazz. But mostly, as I see it, he’s just lonely. There is one chance in the story where he saw a spark of hope to rekindle an old romance, and he actually became excited about it, but he loses the girl again, and falls back on his bitter-sweet companion, nausea.
To himself, he seems to want to frame his misery as the ultimate penalty for knowing secrets about life, society, and self that all the other poor schmucks can’t see, “They only see the thin film…I see beneath it! The veneer melts, the shining velvety scales…explode everywhere at my look, they split and gape.” But the real problem here is that Mr. Roquentin sees no purpose for his insight, except to lament that he is alone in his supreme intelligence looking down on the silly dummies all around him. But, those silly dummies are happy, sooo…. ? He is “alone and free”, in “exile” from others who do not think as he does, “…they are watching my back with surprise and disgust; they thought I was like them, that I was a man, and I deceived them. I suddenly lost the appearance of a man and they saw a crab running backwards out of this human room. Now the unmasked intruder has fled: the show goes on.” Not unlike the ugly bug in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Antoine’s feeling of alienation and rejection might just be a more significant factor in his self-loathing than merely an albatross of his genius. Which came first, societal rejection or self-loathing? Hard to tell.
This story, however disgusting an impression the character makes upon the reader, is not a meaningless story. It is about a void that is left in the place of the failure of logic and modern ideals to string personal meaning together out of impersonal data, which data, this story clearly illustrates, is not so easily culled and defined from the boiling porridge of reality that is essentially irreducible and ‘absurd’ apart from our distorted and deeply human categories. It is meant as a warning against modernist idealism, and as a call to action to think about what our response will be to this postmodern quagmire of antiquated values, traditions, and explanations of the meaning of life. Sartre, I don’t believe, was simply wallowing like his protagonist in the sulfuric atmosphere of self-pity and melancholy despair. I don’t believe this is what Sartre believed and felt in his finest hours, though he may have (and I would assume probably had) experienced these thoughts and feelings to some degree to have been able to so brilliantly capture that life-sick mindset. Sartre was sounding the alarm by painting a clear picture of the orphans of modernism, leaving nothing to the imagination as to the type of sticky mess of confusion and despondency that one’s existence becomes when one tries to live in the past, instead of moving bravely into the future with a better understanding who one is, and what one’s supposed to be doing in the universe. Does Sartre offer any answers here? No. But he poses a pretty damn good question that might inspire people to start the search. He makes attempts in other books to answer the question (try Existentialism Is a Humanism), but that’s not the point here. He’s nauseating us to prevent us from turning into the monster he wrote about.
It also is a warning to all erudites who think knowledge can ever bring happiness. Knowing is not living, and action must be taken so that love and happiness, which according to some psychologists “cannot be pursued, but must ensue”, will be a constant in a person’s life. And it is, again, so important to note that the overwhelming sense of one’s bloated and overly-magnified self in the center of an absurd universe will only grow more absorbing and involuted as a person withdraws from society and begins to brood upon their inadequacies. In other words, I wonder if a little bit of medicine and healthy friendships could have fixed a large part of Antoine’s problems. The other part, to be sure, may have been ideological malaise (which I assume is the primary motive for Sartre to write this story) but it’s hard for me to view that as the whole problem. I believe existential angst cannot be blamed squarely on one’s ideas, but this new brand of melancholia may be rather a hybrid of inefficacies in philosophy, relationships, biology, environment…maybe more. Who knows, it could just be a bad thyroid. Or an ‘underdone turnip’. I don’t know. What do you think I am? An ‘existential-angst-factor-calculator’ or something? Geeeesh.
Parallel first-person narratives of people who over-thought their life to the point of existential paralysis are Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground” and Camus “The Stranger.” Similar affliction, similar attitudes. To all the panty-wastes of these novels I say (with the authors’ concurrence I’m sure), “Well, my boy, it seems you have thought yourself into a really fine pickle. And don’t you love it, you wretch, you.” But really, I’m not sure the problem has been offered an absolutely satisfying solution, even in my time; so I hope to do everything I can not to end up comparably prostrate before my own sense of meaninglessness in the end. Sartre, your warning is duly noted, my friend. Duly noted.