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At the beginning of the novel Roquentin is confused, he is beginning to feel peculiar sensations. At first he is not too alarmed and expects it to pass, but it continues and becomes worse. These feelings of disgust and nausea he describes as a "sweetish sickness" and they start to impinge on everything he does, and he becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself and his intellectual and spiritual freedom. Initially he seeks understanding and then he seeks meaning. La Nausee is the journey by which he does this, it is not a simple/pleasant/easy journey, and success is not quick. It seems that he does find meaning; however this active reader is unsatisfied by the ending, which leads one to believe that it is not to a great extent that Roquentin succeeds in finding meaning.
To begin with, it is necessary to clarify the notion of the question. What is meaning? This novel is often referred to as one of the canonical works of existential literature, and in existentialism meaning is understood of the worth of life. This is what Roquentin is so desperately searching for. But it is accepted that meaning is subjective, it only has home in one person and is tailored to and differs dependant on the individual. Therefore, it is also to a certain extent subjective as to what extent the reader perceives Roquentin to have found meaning. This essay will explore the ways in which Roquentin tries to find meaning, identifying that there are a number of variables which need to be discussed, and how the differing opinions, can lead to alternative conclusions. The preferred conclusion of this author is that Roquentin may succeed in finding 'meaning' but he does not succeed in finding what he deems this meaning to be. Additionally, there appears to be a certain degree of irony in what Roquentin concludes himself- he decides to write a book, and states that the book only in the future will be respected and provide him with meaning, refusing to accept and live in the present, which is exactly what he identified as the "meaning."
An exploration of Roquentin's diary can be very useful. Roquentin began the diary in an attempt to understand the causes of his new feeling. He wanted to see, classify and determine the extent and nature of the change within him. He attempts to be as true to reality as possible when recording in his journal. However, throughout the book Roquentin questions whether he should indeed continue writing seeing it to have no meaning. What was initially a valuable aid to Roquentin in his search for meaning when that search was the meaning of his sickness, rapidly became yet another questionable thing for Roquentin. He questioned whether to continue writing the diary, seeing it as a pointless task. However, in the end he sees it as a very useful and valuable activity, noting his fear of what would happen if he were to stop. It is also significant to note the diary form of the novel. This establishes the novel's focus on one singular individual through the lens of his most personal documents, meaning they are an accurate reflexion of one person and nothing else. This stresses/reflect the subjective style/nature and thought processes of the protagonist. The reader is taken on the journey with Roquentin.
The diary form/narrative mode also enables the reader to see and Roquentin to express and number of feelings that the protagonist has about and towards himself. Roquentin is lost in the world in which he lives. He stresses his desire to be "free." He becomes confused even with his own appearance; his own physical existence has no meaning. He is a loner, and this is both a cause of his nausea, but then also seen as an advantage. He lives a solitary lifestyle and this impacts upon his capabilities of communicating with others. He does not find satisfaction or pleasure being with others- even sexually as the novel progresses, and without these things can seem even more meaningless. Throughout the book, the reader can see how Roquentin's interaction with others on occasion aids him in the search for meaning, whilst on other occasions hinders his. The second principal character in the book is Marquais de Rollebon, but this is not a real person living in the present with Roquentin, however, their relationship is central to the themes of the novel and Roquentin's search for meaning. Rollebon represents the past and Roquentin looks to the past in an attempt to find a reason for his existence in the present. Furthermore, Roquentin becomes confused and doubtful of his own existence, questioning whether what he is writing vis-a-vis Rollebon is in fact more about him. He also is confused by his physical appearance questioning whether the image he sees in the mirror in him, or in fact Rollebon. Their relationship is symbolic of the theme of "duality" which is commonly existent in existentialist literature. This dualistic personality contributes heavily to Roquentin's Nausea, but by letting go of his writing he begins to free himself of the feelings of "nothingness" that his relationship with Rollebon inspires within himself. However, this is not him finding meaning, it is simply the first step to discovery of meaning. His relationship with Anny is also extremely central to his search for meaning. Anny to represents the past, she is his former love, initially he is excited at the prospect of seeing her and then realises the symbolism of the situation. It is for him to decide whether to see her or not, it is his choice, but with this choice there is responsibility. This is the revelation from receiving the letter. This is key to his search for meaning, as it allows him to realise the relationship between choice, freedom and meaning. On meeting Anny he sees her differently. She wants to get back together but he will not. He addresses his search for meaning through drawing comparisons between his behaviour and Anny's. He accepts the responsibilities of the present, whilst she wants to continue to live in the past. Roquentin decides/concludes that Anny, by wanting to define herself in relation to the man that Roquentin used to be, she is rejecting her freedom to choose her own essence because the responsibility is too great. He leaves Paris further along on his journey of discovery of meaning. Another character in the novel is the self taught man, an acquaintance of Roquentin, but someone who Roquentin did not find pleasure in his company. This is exemplified by Roquentin's diary entry following eating lunch with the self taught man. He writes "quote". If we are to accept the definition of meaning presented by the book, the self taught man has found his meaning, however, it is ironic that he is shooed from town as a result of his immoral behaviour. Roquentin sees the self taught man as ... He explains to the self taught man that humans are accidental offsprings of a meaningless reality, and rather than surrender to Nausea, he confronts his existential anguish in the face of nothingness. He feels that this nothingness is a force that makes up a purposeless reality, but also inspires action. Artistic creation emerges as a means of survival, and Roquentin asserts his freedom to define his own essence by writing a novel. By contrast, the self taught man, as Roquentin sees it is refusing to accept his responsibility, refusing to define his own existence, choosing to bur his head in books, in a methodical and meaningless existence. Roquentin discovers the "nothingness behind existence," he opposes the ideas of the self taught man. The self taught man represents humanism, love and human rationality. His actions at the end highlight humanisms own absurdities
As hinted at above, it is Roquentin's search for freedom which is a central element to his success in his search for meaning. In the beginning of the novel Roquentin expresses the nausea of the hands, and the strange feelings he had when wanting to hold a stone but feels unable to touch it. He expresses these feelings to be a lack of freedom. These feelings are explored through the novel. He firstly denies these feelings, claiming that "nothing new" has happened between entries. But this denial, this self deception is Roquentin's inability to cope with his absolute freedom. However, Roquentin feels that he understands existence, he repeats I exit to himself in order to reinforce the idea which he has found. He accepts his own existence, and in this he finds freedom, and thus meaning. He criticises others for not accepting the responsibilities of their existence and for continuing to play in the farce of self-denial. Existence is absurd
Roquentin's understanding of the concept of time is also contributive to his search for meaning. Roquentin stops writing his book about Rollebon, realising that he has been studying the past in an effort to give meaning to his present. He identifies that the past is meaningless, his assertions he makes about Rollebon are nothing more an educated guesses, and this leads he to seek purpose to his life in the present. But he does not succeed initially, he finds that the present is just as fleeting as the past. And the present so very quickly turns into the past. Roquentin sees that there is no beginning or end to any action, experience or account. Thus there is only nothingness, and f there is only nothingness how can there be meaning. These feelings are expressed though his reading of books, not from the first page to the last, but rather in random sections. His realisations about time, lead him to his realisation of how he is victim of/to self-deception. He argues that people try to control time, but they cannot.
Roquentin's search for meaning reaches a high point approximately three quarters into the book. He has an epiphany. He had previously realised that his feelings of nausea were linked to the essences of people and objects but his epiphany enlightens him to the idea of "existence before essence." His epiphany happens when looking at a root of a chestnut tree. In his diary entry he notes his inability to describe what he sees with words remarking the futility of the words. From henceforth he "sees things are divorced from their names." But Roquentin sees that not only words are insufficient but also the physical characteristics of the root hide the true existence of the root. Roquentin sees through a facade right into the "obscene nakedness" of existence. This epiphany is the realisation that existence proceeds essence. Existence is not an abstract quality or empty form but a vast and overwhelming presence, which Roquentin calls the "very paste of things." Existence is the pure form, essence is everything else, it is everything that creates the diversity and individual aspects of everything in this world. This epiphany led to meaning. But this meaning is still confused. His search for the cause of these feelings of Nausea he has had has led him to confront the existence of objects devoid of their comforting aspects. But although he had a revelation, this revelation is that existence is pointless. There is only nothingness. However, it is the paradoxical nature of this realisation is can result in many questioning the extent to which Roquentin did succeed in finding meaning.
The novel does not end at this point, for this is not the end of his journey in the search for meaning, it continues. At the end of the book we learn that Roquentin has resolved to go to Paris, but despite his apparent epiphany he continues to be confused and tormented by reality. On his journey across town to say goodbye in his local haunt of preference he writes "I know this is rue Bolibet.... he continues to write yet I know perfectly well that I exist, that I am here... but then seemingly contradicts this in the next sentence by saying "now when I say I it feels hollow to me. I am so forgotten." These are all indicative of the continuing confusion that Roquentin is feeling- even simply pages from the end. There is also repetition of references to the word "consciousness"- a highly subjective emotion and experience, bringing together the theme of subjectivity of the book, the subjective feelings of Roquentin towards the extent to which he has succeeded in finding meaning and the subjective feelings that this conjures in the reader. Roquentin returns to the cafe and listens to his favourite song once more. When listening to the song, the lyrics take over him, he decides to write a novel, this novel will bring him meaning, real meaning. He thinks that it might clarify who he was in the past and prevent him from remembering his life with disgust. Roquentin feels confident that he can survive his Nausea by ignoring anxiety, living a life of action, and embracing responsibility. Roquentin's meaning will be found through artistic creation, but the question of how art can provide a meaning to existence remains unanswered.