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On first reading Sartre's Nausea

by Colin Amery

I remember exactly when I first read Sartre's Nausea. I was thirty. It was l968. A revolution was beginning to erupt in Paris with Sartre active on the barricades in support of the workers and students. I then worked as a night watchman in Sydney at the opposite end of the world. On 25th April, just five days before the students began rioting on May day, I leapt without knowing of the revolution, into the heady world of existentialism. I quit the law where I made a modest living as a criminal advocate with the idea of devoting myself exclusively to the craft of writing philosophical novels. Vague reports of street fighting where Sartre had addressed the masses were reaching the antipodes. After the first month and no pay-checks I was feeling distinctly hungry. I had no mentor to speak of, except for Colin Wilson whose 'Outsider' I had hungrily devoured in one session with a real sense of identification. Reading through his checklist I made the acquaintance of Jean Paul Sartre and his Nausea.

It was like moving into a new and much imagined world. I had always wanted to be a writer. Now I had discovered a man who was both a writer and a philosopher. Nausea occupied the quiet hours close to dawn when I returned from a cleaning job that involved flushing out toilets in hotel latrines that were often clogged with vomit. The book was a wonderful antithesis to what my daily work routine involved. I started to inhabit two parallel worlds, which slowly became intertwined. The characters portrayed in Sartre's fiction I began to look for on the street. Sydney's George Street had one coffee bar run by a Greek with a slightly affected waiter who still imagined he was serving ouzo in Athens' Constitution Square. I put his habits down in my yellow-covered notebook so that one day he could creep into my fiction rather in the manner of Sartre's famous garcon.

At this time I had a girl friend I visited at the end of our mutual night shifts. She also might have stepped from the pages of literature. Her name was Juliet. I wrote poems about her — she was very beautiful — and we spent weekends at Bondi beach, communing about the mysteries of life as the surf beat its way to our door. She liked the novels of Dostoievski and for a while I played the part of her Raskolnikov. I guess this was my first existential relationship. The imagined world of the axe murderer was a dangerous one to stray into. Eventually, there would be a climax that teetered on the edge of our respective realities. I thought about Sartre's woman who wouldn't let on about her sexuality. I wish I could have shown the same restraint towards my Juliet, but we became embroiled in an affair of passionate intensity that made me decide to leave the law and seek solace in the twin beds of love and literature.

I saw my Juliet on our days off and we sat in cafes overlooking the beach at Watson's Bay talking about existentialism. She was a kind of guide and mentor, for she had arrived there first. I went to my job each night rather like the robotic waiter in Sartre's left bank cafe and went through the motions of my work. The pile of yellow pages got higher and higher, as l scrawled my strange signature across a phase in my life that was probably memorable. I walked across new boundaries and found that man was condemned to be free. I had left my wife, the profession of law and I loved my Juliet. I was bold enough to celebrate that freedom and say hang to the consequences.

Unfortunately, I was still married and my wife followed us one night to an apartment in Double Bay that overlooked the harbour's twinkling lights. The sound of broken glass presaged a femme fatalistic fight that I had to umpire and ended with me taking my wife to hospital with some glass embedded just below her left eye. This life of dangerous liasons was not for her. She had married a lawyer and expected bourgeois rectitude not existential angst. Meanwhile, I lived on the edge and loved it. Juliet and my torrid affair lasted exactly one year. By then I had read the major works of existentialism, including Kierkegaard whose Seducer's Diary held me in thrall and no doubt had some influence over the young Sartre in his formative years. Nausea I now saw as his way of creating ideal worlds to contrast with the perceived actual world through the use of imagination.

"Keep a diary", the reader was advised in the first sentence of his book. In my den under the railway overpass across Sydney's harbour bridge, I scribbled away deep into the night's darkest shadows the strange miscellany of thoughts that came unbidden to my mind. I wrote on a yellow pad, which I kept for a long time, with the idea that some day I might organise into a mere coherent form. The opportunity never occurred, for I eventually moved back to Europe and became focused on a different topic — that of Atlantis.

I can still see myself, pen poised over paper, a little like Dostoievski's underground man or Kafka's pseudonymous "K", steering a strange passage through a life that held little meaning for me then. But these books of philosophy had come my way at the right time. They were treasures to take me through the labyrinth of my own unconscious dreads. I had poured over the words in Nausea and found a passage with this guidebook through my strange subterranean life. I stepped on to the thin ice of existential angst. I was living upside down at the bottom of the world where I had dared at last to be free.

© Colin Amery 2001


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