Futility and Freedom
In the text Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, the main character, Antoine Roquentin, experiences both struggles and triumphs when it comes to understanding existential philosophy. The author has been famously quoted regarding his own existential views, and his novel serves as evidence for his claims. Unlike Camus, Sartre does not express support for life being a great adventure as much as he expresses that life has no final meaning. He uses Roq’s experience to prove this truth as well as demonstrate the difficulty Roq has when only understanding some existential principles rather than all of them. Since existentialism is a complicated philosophy, the struggle of not fully understanding it can be detrimental. Sisyphus is regarded as an existential hero because he is led to freedom by understanding futility and hopelessness. Roq struggles to embrace freedom amongst his hopelessness. He also is faced with the difference between essence and existence which leaves him in a state of absurdity. Rationalizing the irrational is just one existential principle among a myriad of paradoxes that challenges Roq. Sartre stated a truth that “Man is condemned to be free” which is necessary to understand because the burdening awareness of the impact of Roq’s choices has led him to acknowledge the consequences of all of his actions and inactions. Roq’s character also shows the truth and necessity in Sartre’s statement “Man is a futile passion” by demonstrating that the attempt to rationalize the meaninglessness of life and existence is pointless and damaging. Sartre’s quote that “Man is condemned to be free” has within itself its own paradox that suggests that freedom is burdening.
Sartre’s quote that “Man is condemned to be free” has within itself its own paradox that suggests that freedom is burdening. Roq is used to exemplify that when one is completely aware of their endless freedom, the pressure that comes with that awareness is the condemning burden. This concept is beyond just the simple recognition of existence since it includes the facets of choice and freedom that can potentially add meaning to the bareness of existence itself. Salah Bakewell writes: “I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment… I am free — an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself’ (Bakewell 34). Bakewell is suggesting that the freedom that causes so much anxiety is the freedom of not just choice, but the freedom to define oneself with every single decision one makes. Every choice will have a consequence, that no matter how small or large will a play a part in defining the essence attached to an individual’s existence. Sartre uses this truth to show its crippling effects on Roq: “I am free: there is absolutely no more reason for living… Alone and free. But this freedom is rather like death” (Sartre 156,157). While his total freedom makes his life meaningless since there is nothing larger than him to make the world have meaning, he also realizes that he must no longer rely on the past to define his life. Since he cannot use the past as a distraction from his absurd existence, he must learn how to live in the freedom of the present. Previously in the novel, he did not understand that all of his choices in the present have consequences. The truth that freedom is a burdening constant in life is necessary to understand for individuals to make choices in good faith. Prior to Roq’s realization, he saw a strange man flash a young girl. He reflected: “I wanted to stop it. It would have been good enough to cough or open the gate” (Sartre 79). Although he claims that he wanted to stop the flasher, he did not. His inaction resulted in the sexaul harrassment of a young girl. If he had truly understood that what happened was a consequence of his choice, he could have prevented something awful. Although his anxiety that comes with the awareness of freedom is a crippling burden, it is also necessary in his ability to make impactful decision that he can take responsibility for. Allowing his intention to justify his inaction is living in bad faith when put into an existentialist context since action is incredibly important. This event in the book exemplifies the challenge Roq faces of trying to be fully present when there really is no present. Life is just happening, so Roq has no choice but to live confronting the absurdity of life. Instead, he lives inside his own mind making justifications in bad faith and not realizing the impact of his actions. Part of his struggle to care about the consequences of his choices comes from the truth that everything he impacts has no greater meaning. Sartre’s claim that “Man is a futile passion” is a truth since just as man is condemned by freedom, man is condemned by his futile passion to find meaning in a meaningless world. Sartre’s observation carries the two truths that one day everything
Sartre’s claim that “Man is a futile passion” is a truth since just as man is condemned by freedom, man is condemned by his futile passion to find meaning in a meaningless world. Sartre’s observation carries the two truths that one day everything Roq does quite literally will not matter and that trying to understand the meaninglessness of existence is a damaging and trivial pursuit. When Roq is considering cities, he reflects: “Vegetation has crawled for miles towards cities. It is waiting. Once the city is dead, the vegetation will cover it…” (Sartre 156). This reflection shows that Roq is questioning how there can be any meaning if one day everything humans build will be gone. Sartre is suggesting that it is futile to make meaning when there is an inevitability of destruction. Man’s attempt to make an impact does not matter at all given the perspective of the vastness of the universe. With Roq’s awareness of this truth and his eventual knowledge of the consequences of every single one of his actions, he is broken by the paradoxical nature of existentialism.
If only one of Sartre’s statements were true or necessary, then existentialism would be missing the paradox that holds it in place. The metaphor of the city demonstrates Roq’s understanding of time; since eventually the future becomes the present, the present is the future. Consequently, since in the future everything man built has been covered with vegetation and destroyed, Roq will join the city in its erosion into a forgotten meaningless landmark. As existence overcomes Roq, Sartre uses him to show the futility of trying to make meaning out of existence: “I would so like to let myself go, forget myself, sleep. But I can’t, I’m suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere… (Sartre 126). His suffocation by existence is the summation of his understanding of his nausea. Once he is burdened by his awareness of the necessity and responsibility give life meaning, he begins to acknowledge the impossibleness of making meaning. As he is driven mad by meaninglessness as a concept, he struggles to separate and realize the difference between essence and existence. It panics him that things without their essence have no meaning, and if essence is just a fabrication by man to give irrational things meaning, then all meaning is fabricated. This supports that it is futile to give existence meaning since essence is meaningless because things could have been given any meaning or essence. Sartre is showing through Roq that attempting to live by the truth of this paradox may be a passion, but it will never amount to anything. This is because whether Roq decides there is or is not authentic meaning in life, he is still burdened by the awareness that every single decision he makes has an impact.
Sartre brings up awareness as ever-present which suggests that trying to escape the paradoxical burdens of existentialism would be a futile effort. Out of the two truths Sartre presented, the futility of humans’ passion to make meaning and rationalize things is a more important existential mantra to understand. It is the reason Sisyphus is considered such a hero. While it is his actions that show he is accepting responsibility, he also rejects the prospect of a successful ending to his burden. He is not looking for any final meaning. By understanding the futility of making meaning out of life, he has found a freedom that is not burdening to his being. Roq unfortunately struggles with the ability to find freedom in accepting meaninglessness because he is dangerously aware of both his potential for impact and overall insignificance. If Roq could embrace existence in the way Sisyphus does, Sartre likely would have portrayed his character in a different light.
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