Volume 1, Issue 1, 2006  
  Sartre and Camus: Nausea and Existentialist Humor  
  Richard E. Baker
Adams State College, Colorado
This essay examines Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of the absurd, first in his philosophy and then in his novel Nausea, in relation to Albert Camus’s seminal work The Myth of Sisyphus. After basic links are made to three layers of the absurd—the in-itself and for-itself; the past, present, and future; and facticity and transcendence—a historical perspective is given in terms of Sartre and Camus’s personal history. This history centers on their famous quarrel in 1952, and connections will be made to show that Sartre will take on certain characteristics apropos of the character Anny in Nausea whereas Camus will do the same in regard to the character of Roquentin. This comic analogy will circumscribe a basic tenet of existentialist humor—historical irony—which links to Sartre’s discussion in Nausea of the absurd, bad faith, vaudeville (an historical form of absurd humor), nausea, adventures, and creativity. The powerful and distinctive shape of these two men’s literature and their lives certainly exemplifies and reinforces this basic tenet.
In Albert Camus’s seminal work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus makes direct reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea and the experience of the absurd
[1] when he states: “This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea,’ as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd.”[2] In retrospect, Sartre and Camus wanted to put the person as subject into the center of their philosophical discussion, which is to say they both sought to understand and interpret human behavior and experience. In this assertive context, both men make reference to the insistent experience of nausea as an absurd awareness of existence: We exist in the world, we are present to others, and nausea is an access to our existence. My intent in this essay is to explore Sartre’s use of the absurd, first in his philosophy and then in his fiction, specifically his novel Nausea. [3]  Next, I want to move into the realm of existentialist humor, which is virtually non-existent in literary criticism, to develop a basic tenet of humor and the absurd in terms of Camus and Sartre’s personal history.
Sartre says that the one defining feature of existentialism that all existentialists would agree upon is the idea that “existence precedes essence.” In Sartre’s essay “The Humanism of Existentialism,” he states his philosophical position on existentialism:
  Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that being is man or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.[4]  

The question of being, for Sartre, is studied from a subjective vantage point, and there is a change from the primacy of knowledge to the primacy of existence. Hence Sartre wanted a shift from epistemology to ontology. Sartre’s existentialist ontology studies the structures of being and describes the “what” and the “how” (rather than the “why”) of human reality as it manifests itself in the world. Moreover, Sartre was critical of traditional philosophy; for instance, he rejected the Kantian separation of noumena and phenomena, which designated our world as the appearance of a reality which was—in itself—inaccessible to us. According to Kant, the noumenal world (things in themselves) was beyond our reach because the phenomenal world is the only world we can know. Sartre took exception to this and adopted Hegel’s terms of being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi) and being-for-itself (l’être-pour-soi) to position and distinguish non-conscious from conscious entities. Sartre described inanimate objects as in-itself, that is, objects which are self-identical; such objects do not question themselves. However, we can determine the essence of an in-itself object, but its being is transphenomenal; its being overflows its essence. On the other hand, there is being-for-itself, which is what Sartre calls the individual consciousness. Since consciousness is for-itself (does not have the self-identity of the in-itself), it is described by Sartre as a lack, an emptiness, or an ability to found its own “nothingness” of being.[5]

The for-it­self contrasts with the in-itself (which simply “is”) because the for-itself is always in a constant process of becoming.
All of Sartre’s ontology, therefore, revolves around the in-itself and the for-itself. Sartre’s analysis of these two antithetical properties indicates that being in-itself is given to the for-itself through the experience of nausea and the absurd. Furthermore, the in-itself is transphenomenal because it overflows our knowledge of things, and we know it through emotional apprehension. Camus concurs with this view of the split between ourselves and objects and also relates this experience to the absurd when he states in The Myth of Sisyphus:

  A step lower and strangeness creeps in: perceiving that the world is “dense,” sensing to what a degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. [...] Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.[6]  

Being just “is”—there is no reason for it—that is the sense of the absurd; incidentally, this relates to the feeling of nausea and to two other antithetical properties which characterize human beings in the world: facticity and transcendence. Our existence is given to us through the pre-reflective cogito. It is also transphenomenal (a transcendence): it goes beyond what we can know, but we can have conscious awareness of it: “Just as my nihilating freedom is apprehended in anguish, so the for-it­self is conscious of its facticity. It has the feeling of its complete gratuity; it apprehends itself as being there for nothing, as being de trop.[7]  In the chapter on “The Body” in Being and Nothingness, Sartre also states:

  What for the Other is his taste of himself becomes for me the Other’s flesh. The flesh is the pure contingency of presence. It is ordinarily hidden by clothes, make-up, the cut of the hair or beard, the expression, etc. But in the course of long acquaintance with a person there always comes an instant when all these disguises are thrown off and when I find myself in the presence of the pure contingency of his presence. In this case I achieve in the face or the other parts of a body the pure intuition of flesh. This intuition is not only knowledge; it is the affective apprehension of an absolute contingency, and this apprehension is a particular type of nausea.[8]  

The absolute contingency (our lack of necessity because of our facticity) that Sartre describes here is another expression of the absurd and is thus highly pertinent to my discussion. In short, this gap of nothingness between a person (the for-itself) and the world (the in-itself) is part of the absurd. Locked in opposition, it is this distinct rift between ourselves and the objects in the world, and the rift between ourselves and our bodies, which is manifest in the experience of the absurd. It is these two experiences of the absurd which brings Sartre and Camus together, but the question of method now arises. In What is Literature? Sartre states:

  The “engaged” writer knows that words are action. He knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change. He has given up the impossible dream of giving an impartial picture of Society and the human condition. [...] [W]e may conclude that the writer has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the object which has been thus laid bare.[9]  

In view of these statements, one might ask: what methods will the engaged writer use to reveal a person and the world? A safe assertion to make which concerns Sartre as one of the best representatives of the existentialists is to say that he experimented with different literary methods to make his point. Although philosophical essays and drama were part of his repertoire, it was his fictional work that cogently demonstrated his philosophical position in a human setting and made his work more appealing and accessible to the world: “One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world.[10]

This diversity in the arts, which Sartre explored by writing fiction, proves viable for him because he did not want to isolate himself in a particular genre in order to describe our being-in-the-world. The novel for Sartre provides an object/subject setting: objective because everyone has the ability to experience what he presents, and subjective because each individual chooses that which is appropriate to his or her needs. By using the novel as an art form, Sartre was reacting against the traditional philosophical belief that any emphasis on individual, creative experience was for artists, not philosophers. To counteract this and become a mediating figure, Sartre documented his changes from traditional philosophy through fiction, so as not to lose touch with human experience. Sartre especially wanted to write what he called “the literature of great circum­stance.” The most profound idea concerning this literature is what he termed the “literature of praxis”—praxis meaning action. Given the above, Sartre’s novel Nausea may be studied from the point of view of the absurd since he focuses upon this experience in that work. In words that could very well describe Nausea and Sartre’s attempt at creating fiction, Camus says in relation to novelists and the absurd:

  The essential is that the novelists should triumph in the concrete and that this constitute their nobility. This wholly carnal triumph has been prepared for them by a thought in which abstract powers have been humiliated. When they are completely so, at the same time the flesh makes creation shine forth in all its absurd luster.[11]  

Of Sartre’s novels, Nausea (1938) is the one that is critically acclaimed as his best, in part because it stresses the absurdity of contingency. Briefly stated, the novel purports to be an intimate diary kept by a certain Antoine Roquentin; he is a world traveler, leading an itinerant existence, who settles down in Bouville (Mudtown) in order to write about the Marquis de Rollebon, an historical figure who was prominent in France’s history. The main theme of the novel, as the title indicates, is that Roquentin keeps experiencing nausea as he picks up or perceives objects in the world:

  Now I see: I recall better what I felt the other day at the seashore when I held the pebble. It was a sort of sweetish sickness. How unpleasant it was! It came from the stone, I’m sure of it, it passed from the stone to my hand. Yes that’s it, that’s just it—a sort of nausea in the hands.[12]  

To cure his nausea, Roquentin immerses himself in the past and tries to have vicarious adventures by reading books and writing an historical biography, and this seems to provide a partial respite to his nausea. The ontological contingency of Roquentin’s being-in-the-world can be understood in successive layers and as each layer is pulled back, the absurd becomes increasingly manifest. The first layer is the clash between a knowing consciousness and the opaque (objects known in the world). This outer layer of the absurd is described in Roquentin’s diary: the rift between himself (knowledge) and objects (reality). Searching his memory and examining his past, Roquentin attempts to record what is happening to him:

  The best thing would be to write down events from day to day. Keep a diary to see clearly—let none of the nuances or small happenings escape even though they might seem to mean nothing. And above all, classify them. I must tell how I see this table, this street, the people, my packet of tobacco, since those are the things which have changed. I must determine the exact extent and nature of this change. (1)  

Of course, it is not the objects which have changed, but it is Roquentin’s perception of them. In this outer layer of the absurd, the mere fact of writing (of labeling things) indicates that the label he gives an object describes only its essence (certain characteristics which distinguish the object from other objects). Nevertheless, there is a rift between labels, descriptions, and explanations, on the one hand, and the brute existence of things on the other:

  Everywhere, now, there are objects like this glass of beer on the table there. When I see it, I feel like saying: “Enough.” I realize quite well that I have gone too far. [...] I have been avoiding looking at this glass of beer for half an hour. [...] It’s just like all the others. It’s bevelled on the edges, has a handle, a little coat of arms with a spade on it and on the coat of arms is written “Spartenbrau,” I know all that, but I know there is something else. Almost nothing. But I can’t explain what I see. (8)  

Early in the story, it becomes evident that the nausea he experiences comes from the revelation of the sheer existence of things:

  His blue cotton shirt stands out joyfully against a chocolate-coloured wall. That too brings on the Nau­sea. The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the café, I am the one who is within it. (19-20)  

As stated earlier, the in-itself (brute existence) cannot be fully explained by the for-itself (human consciousness), and we can see Roquentin’s frustration in attempting to articulate what is “absurd,” without any given meaning. He knows objects exist, but it makes no sense to ask what they are or what they mean: “For instance, here is a cardboard box holding my bottle of ink. I should try to tell how I saw it before and now how I [see it]. Well, it’s a parallelopiped rectangle, it opens—that’s stupid, there’s nothing I can say about it” (1).

As the story unfolds, there are various instances in which Roquentin sees familiar objects differently, and it loosens his tentative hold on existence. The work of memory, which gives objects meaning and coherence, breaks down for Roquentin, and he must simply rely on what he can see or touch because he is radically incomplete. Through Roquentin’s unsettling, surrealistic experience of riding on the tramway, we see the absurd manifest in the clash between existence and essence. The nauseous description of the tram seat as a bloated, dead donkey is an ironic attempt to describe existence; but it is at the same time a refutation that any such description is fully possible, since existence is a plenitude, an overflowing. Sartre is attempting to intensify the rift between the word (a description of the for-it­self/a human construct) and the object (the opaque in-itself). Human perception in its absurd confrontation with brute existence, stripped of its human meaning, reveals that the world is indifferent to our labels and has a density and existence of its own, exclusive of how we label it or use it. The in-itself simply is.

In the experience of nausea, objects lose their labels; labels no longer attach themselves to their objects. Divorced from one another, both word and object take on a peculiar denseness and foreignness. The experience of nausea is an experience of the absurd, a realization that labels, descriptions, and the like are human constructs and have nothing to do with existence, but merely serve our practical purposes. Inevitably, Roquentin begins to understand that the past, which he has tried to recapture through his reading, has blinded him as to the lack of meaning or purpose in his life. Roquentin has become a prodigal heir:

  M. de Rollebon was my partner; he needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence. I furnished the raw material, the material I had to re-sell, which I didn’t know what to do with: existence, my existence. His part was to have an imposing appearance. He stood in front of me, took up my life to lay bare his own to me. I did not notice that I existed any more, I no longer existed in myself, but in him [...]. I was only a means of making him live, he was my reason for living, he had delivered me from myself. What shall I do now? (98)  

Roquentin’s existence can now be understood from the next layer of the absurd: the rift between the for-itself (our present intent) and the in-itself (the past and our future possibilities). We are beings in the world who make our own rules, yet we can only realize ourselves by finding our values outside of ourselves. In other words, we make our choices (values) by ourselves, and this is our responsibility; also we are responsible for our actions in the future because our values come from our future projects, which are present projections. Second, we are also outside of ourselves in that we are the sum total of the choices we have made in life (our past); therefore, we impress our being on the external world and find outside of ourselves particular transcendent goals. Subsequently, it seems that we are our past and future selves, and this is our responsibility; yet we are not identical with our past and future selves. As temporal process, we are always becoming who we are—hence we are condemned to freedom. “We have to deal with human reality as a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is.[13]

If we try to forget about our contingency (our gratuitousness or our lack of necessity), we are in bad faith, a subversive aim to say the least. This may take the form of an escape, which must end in failure. This is where the experience of nausea, trying to experience the past, and the consequence of freedom overlap. For example, Roquentin is constantly trying to recapture the past (escape into it) through his historical reading because he feels abandoned in the present. Although the past is no longer real, he thinks that the recollection of it will help him relive it, and it will give some type of meaning to his life: he seeks events which he may call “adventures.” He seeks some adventures, so he can forget about his contingency; but the adventures he has experienced have only been in literature: “It seems as though I have learned all I know of life in books” (64). As all of Roquentin’s past meanings break down, he becomes limited to the present. This is the nausea that characterizes the present for Roquentin because the feeling of adventure and the feeling of nausea are opposites, and he sought adventure in order to escape the nausea. He is ultimately discovering that the past, since he is trying to recapture it in the present, can never exist again exactly as it was; he must determine the past’s meaning in view of the present. Like the nausea that comes and goes, so do the adventures:

  Perhaps there is nothing in the world I cling to as much as this feeling of adventure; but it comes when it pleases; it is gone so quickly and how empty I am once it has left. Does it, ironically, pay me these short visits in order to show me that I have wasted my life? (56)  

Once Roquentin learns he is nausea, then he understands that there are no real adventures since the two are opposites and yet related: nausea is not something he can learn to stay away from, and, inversely, adventures are not something he can go out and find. Roquentin is free—ontologically contingent—and any attempt to escape from his present contingency must end in failure. The well-known critic Nicholas Hewitt explains: The belief in “aventures,” therefore, testifies to the same “mauvaise foi,”. . . in which all the components may be conveniently categorised, labelled, and thus neutralized.[14] Camus also explains this absurd freedom in these words: “This hell of the present is his Kingdom at last.[15] Roquentin's relationship with his former mistress, Anny, can also be viewed in these terms. After a long separation, the two finally meet again; he finds that she has given up her oblique search for “perfect moments”; she contents herself with being kept by another man, so she can merely exist in the past: “I live in the past. I take everything that has happened to me and arrange it. From a distance like that, it doesn’t do any harm, you’d almost let yourself be caught in it” (152). Anny also wants to fix Roquentin’s present existence in the past, so she can treat him as an object: “I need you to exist and not to change. You’re like that platinum wire they keep in Paris or somewhere in the neighborhood. I don’t think anyone’s ever needed to see it” (137). He also finds out that any adventures he did have with Anny were dubious fantasies created by her in her attempt to experience “perfect moments.” Deborah Evans reinforces this point when she asserts: “For Roquentin the inhumanity of the ideal is represented through the character of Anny and her search for certain ‘moments parfaits.’[16] Both have been traveling a similar route, though separately, these last years; she too has been reading books, Michelet’s History of France, in order to give her life a vicarious purpose in the past: “That’s it. There are no adventures—there are no perfect moments...we have lost the same illusions, we have followed the same paths. I can guess the rest—I can even speak for her and tell myself all that she has left to tell” (150).

The futility of trying to find some sort of meaning in his adventures is a cogent reminder that the past is dead. Roquentin presently knows that there are no adventures in life other than what you make of them. Adventures are something he has made up in his mind, a linking up of events, in order to give him a sense of drama or some type of utopian quality. The events themselves have no link to one another, but he has attempted to give them some sort of connection. How has Roquentin realized that adventures do not come from events? It is another one of Camus’s experiences of the absurd: time passing, relating to the experience of nausea: “He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy [...]. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.”[17]

At first Roquentin notices the citizens of Bouville and how they experience the fleetingness of the present moment as they stroll on the beach on a Sunday afternoon: “They felt the minutes flowing between their fingers; would they have enough time to store up enough youth to start anew on Monday morning” (52)? Finally, they return home and “Sunday has left them with a taste of ashes and their thoughts are already turning towards Monday” (54). Later he relates this to his past relationship with Anny, growing old with her, and his revelation that there are no perfect moments or adventures. In Roquentin’s notion of adventure, there remains the irreversibility of time. Once again the nausea sets in to confirm this: “I have plunged into her strange universe, beyond ridicule, affectation, subtlety. I have even recovered the little fever that always stirred in me when I was with her, and this bitter taste in the back of my mouth” (144).

However, to counteract this contingency of being-in-the-world, Roquentin likes to listen to the song “Some of These Days” at one of the bars he frequents, the Railwaymen’s Rendezvous, to describe how he can be at ease in the world—remember the past in terms of the present—and overcome his nausea: “What has just happened is that the Nausea has disappeared. When the voice was heard in the silence, I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish” (22). As his nausea disappears, objects resume their customary shape for him: in its liquid complexity his glass of beer apparently reduces to normal size. André Benhaïm explains: “During the choral intercourse, Roquentin has us hestiate vis-à-vis the ‘nature’ of the music: a liquid that hardens you, a sharp, metallic, unforgiving humidity that changes your very gestures, to look at even your most familiar enemies, the things.”[18] Not only does the music help him to overcome his nausea, but it helps him to annihilate the passage of time: “At the same time the music was drawn out, dilated, swelled like a waterspout. It filled the room with its metallic transparency, crushing our miserable time against the walls” (22). Roquentin is now content: “I grow warm, I begin to feel happy. There is nothing extraordinary in this, it is a small happiness of Nausea” (21). The conclusion here is illuminated for us in a human setting: the past can only exist insofar as he chooses to determine the present meaning of past events.[19] In this instance possibilities arise for him when he projects his being into the future. Roquentin can only realize who he is by finding outside of himself the paths and moral challenges which lead to his freedom.[20]

In retrospect, Roquentin has been using his past relationship with Anny and his historical reading as an escape from the world and the absurd, rather than confronting it: “You don’t put your past in your pocket; you have to have a house. I have only my body: a man entirely alone, with his lonely body, cannot indulge in memories; they pass through him. I shouldn’t complain: all I wanted was to be free” (65). Ultimately, the nausea he experiences brings him back to reality and he starts to realize his contingency. Contingency in this instance means absurdity. This idea of recognizing the absurd, leading to the knowledge of contingency, is the final layer that must be peeled back to reveal the inner layer: the absurd rift between facticity and transcendence.

At the end of the novel in the park scene, the nausea he continually experiences enables him to understand his existence: he is nausea. Nausea is the physical feeling which tells his consciousness that he is his body; therefore, Roquentin comes to the revelation in the park that life is essentially absurd, and he is de trop (unnecessary) unless he seizes control of his life and moves forward. This means the world offers no higher meaning, and he must create his own. Coincidentally, he concludes he will move out of Bouville and write a novel. This is actually a method Sartre uses to convey his ideas about our brutal contingency (lack of necessity) and our fiery passion for life in relation to two antithetical human properties: facticity (our being-in-the-world which includes our bodies, birth, class, education, and past) and transcendence (our projection of ourselves into the future), which also gives us our meaning and values. Our passion for life consists in transcending our facticity towards goals we have personally chosen—our essence is our past and we are what we have made ourselves.

In light of these summary remarks, the key to Nausea, as most critics observe, is Roquentin’s epiphany in the park. However, most critics overlook the humor that is present here. If I scrutinize this episode, concerning Roquentin’s reflections about the comic and vaudeville, I can try to formulate a different hypothesis of how Roquentin comes to his revelation in the park apropos of his existential encounter with the absurd. Briefly stated, Roquentin goes to the park, sits on a bench, and looks at the roots of a chestnut tree. He has a vision both titillating and troubling, which haunts him: existence unveils itself. The root of the tree is the very “paste of things” or it is “kneaded into existence”; then everything he observes melts away (objects in the world be­come a veneer) leaving “soft monstrous masses.” In the same way that Roquentin feels his own existence as nauseating and inescapable, he also makes a similar discovery concerning objects: they are simply there “in the way” like him with no reason for being. Directly afterwards Roquentin hears a fountain bubbling and thinks to himself that all things let themselves drift into existence like “those relaxed women who burst out laughing and say: ‘It’s good to laugh’” (128). Here Roquentin begins to understand the distinction between facticity and transcendence and thinks that there is no half-way point between non-existence and abundance: if you existed, you must exist completely; but “existence is a deflection.”

Next, he thinks of the fountain as bubbling “happily” and thinks of himself digesting a meal on a park bench; he reflects that all these meals digested together have their comic side. However, he thinks that it doesn’t go as far as this, and he qualifies himself by stating that existence is like a floating analogy, with certain aspects of vaudeville. Obviously, he concludes that no object in the world is comic in itself, for it is the subjective attitude that one takes toward the object which makes it comic. Directly after this explanation of existence and the comic, Roquentin thinks that the world is absurd, and this makes him feel contingent and “in the way” (de trop).

Finally, Roquentin understands his existence because it is absurd: “I understand that I had found the key to Existence, the key to my Nauseas, to my own life. In fact, all that I could grasp beyond that returns to this fundamental absurdity” (129). Later he reflects about the trees again, and since trees are an abundance, “great clumsy bodies,” he begins to laugh. He thinks of those “idiots who come to tell you about “will-power” and the “struggle for life,” and he wonders if they have ever seen a tree. He then leaves the park and glances back at the garden and the trees smile at him. He knows that the smile of the trees meant something, and that was the “real secret of existence.”

What does the smile of the trees signify? Could it possibly be the curling of one’s lips before laughter? From a humorous standpoint Roquentin’s discussion of existence as a “floating analogy” to vaudeville becomes apparent because an analogy is an extended metaphor or simile to persuade the reader that because two things are alike, a conclusion from one suggests a conclusion from the other.[21] Specifically, vaudeville is a “light” often “comic” theatrical performance by people in which they combine dancing, song, dialogue, or pantomime. Here is the analogy: The comic is to vaudeville as Roquentin’s absurdity is to his existence; therefore, the comic and the absurd are aspects of something transcendent, the burning passion of people for more life.

Roquentin’s revelation is the realization that human existence is absurd, because the absurd, by any common definition of the word, means incongruity or irony, which is also the key to most of the modern definitions of humor. It is also analogous to Camus’s definition of the absurd. Claudia Clausius makes this especially evident in one of her essays by saying that the “absurd” is comic and is also one of the best names we can choose for “laughter” when playing a joke on someone.[22] However, the best evidence that this is true comes from Sartre himself in one of his later works The Family Idiot. In the section on the practical joke, Sartre says that when familiar objects become suspect, then the world takes on a strange dimension (much like Roquentin and his revelation while in the park). Sartre goes on to explain that the practical joke evokes this type of “estrangement” as one relates to the world because the world is allergic to people. Sartre uses the fake sugar cube as an example, which is in reality a piece of marble or a celluloid cube. As the unknowing person weighs the sugar cube in his or her hand and it seems heavy or it floats on top in the coffee cup, the world becomes dense and foreign: one cannot rely on anything. In words similar to those Camus used in The Myth of Sisyphus to describe the incommensurability between nature and humans, Sartre says: “I don’t believe my eyes, I seem a stranger to myself, my habits are disqualified, my past abolished; I am naked in a new present that is lost in an unknown future.”[23] The practical joker who offered the sugar cube is aware of the feelings of the one who is duped precisely “for the perfectly good reason that he has often felt it himself” and “the joke is a demonstration by absurdity of [...] the permanence of the laws of nature.”[24] If the joke is successful and the one who is duped laughs with the joker, the practical joke becomes a kind of inoculation against the world. This ridiculous laughter makes us aware of our existence through the self-realization of our contingency.  In volume two of The Family Idiot Sartre also says that “laughter, though born of fear, is accompanied by intense pleasure[...]. [B]oth contagious and willed, it comes to me through the other and has taken hold of my body, meaning that it has chosen me; I have not produced it, I have submitted to it and adhered to it—it is proof that I have all the qualities of a man.[25]

In other words, people laugh when they radically perceive incongruous ideas, situations, events, or people; and one possible indication of this absurd perception is laughter, which demonstrates passion. Once Roquentin realizes this, his heart is moved and things begin to float because he now realizes he is free: “All is free, this park, this city, and myself. When you realized that, it turns your heart upside down and every­thing beings to float” (131). This comic awareness of his ardent passion enables Roquentin to float on the waves of things, and this draws him out of his nausea. Humorous laughter, the kind that Roquentin and the women in the park are displaying, is a unique quality of feeling because it is part of what we do in life; it is a passionate action, which has a certain significance: it is evident that Roquentin has formerly lived only through a rational awareness of life, denying his passion. According to Sartre, we are composed of certain antithetical properties that create a dynamic tension in us, or, once again, “We have to deal with human reality as a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is.” What separates the nausea from laughter is the nothingness, which, according to Sartre, “lies coiled in the heart of being—like a worm.”[26]

This nothingness is our consciousness which affects itself with passion; Roquentin intuits “the essence of the tree,”
[27] laughs, and the trees smile at him in return. The smile of the trees is an existential metaphor, indicating Roquentin’s comic self-realization that he is not simply a thinking, nauseous body, but a free-feeling, playful, and passionate individual. This is implicit in the statement “when you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float,” which also implies the comical lightness of theatrical performances in vaudeville and successful practical jokes (floating sugar cube or not).
Next, Roquentin leaves the park and decides not to write his book on Rollebon any more. In fact, he decides to leave Bouville and “live in Paris.” However, before packing and settling his affairs, he decides to visit Anny. Now the aforementioned themes of analogy, the absurd, and humor also come in to play. Upon seeing Roquentin, Anny bursts out laughing because he has this “wide smile” on his face, which is a continuation of the self-realization of his contingency that Anny doesn’t understand because she continues to live in bad faith. Roquentin observes that she continues to read Michelet’s History of France, but she claims: “I have changed in every way. I’m not the same person any more (141). They obviously quarrel over their individuality and personal change, and this is where, by extension, we must push our investigation of existentialist humor apropos of Camus and Sartre and their famous quarrel in 1952. Specifically, Sartre will take on many attributes of Anny, and Camus will do the same with Roquentin: this comic analogy will circumscribe a basic tenet of existentialist humor—historical irony—which links to Sartre’s discussion in Nausea of the absurd, bad faith, vaudeville (an historical form of absurd humor), nausea, adventures, and creativity.

In brief, the fight between Sartre and Camus was largely political, then moved to a personal level.[28] After WWII, Sartre wanted to follow a Communistic ideology set up by Russia whereas previously he had disavowed Communism all the way back to 1944; ultimately, he considered that the ends justifies the means in terms of violent acts because he wanted to empower the French proletariat.”[29]  Ronald Aronson explains:

  Merleau Ponty’s article about the Soviet Camps, endorsed by Sartre, mentioned the absurdity of talking about socialism in a country where one in ten people was in a forced labor camp. If many intellectuals in the 1930s and even the 1940s regarded Communism as an idea or moral force, Sartre knew about its ugly reality.”[30]  

Aronson further explains that “to flow with the current of history, anathema to Camus, became essential to Sartre.”[31] Sartre sums up his historically absurd position in these words (after Camus’s death) in this eulogy to Merleau-Ponty: “There is a morality in politics—a difficult subject, and never clearly treated—and when politics must betray its morality, to choose morality is to betray politics. Now find your way out of that one![32] Obviously, this dubious posture links Sartre to Anny and her history book. Sartre, by placing history above the individual, will continue in bad faith because history “prescribes responsibilities that the individual must meet”;[33] although Sartre began with contingency in Nausea, he forsakes this for history and Communism: Sartre was “providing a justification for Stalinism in philosophical terms by enforcing what Merleau-Ponty describes as his earlier pour-soi/en-soi distinction between the party (as pure action) and workers (as inert and isolated).”[34] This is highly ironic and part of the first layer of the absurd because Sartre, like Anny living in bad faith, will renounce Communism by 1956. Germane to the absurd, Camus will historically and ironically become Roquentin, the artist at the end of Nausea, because Camus will embrace art, agreeing that “Sartre was the more intelligent, but Camus the greater artist.”[35] Moreover, unlike Sartre, Camus did not embrace history to form a political agenda.[36] Catherine Camus, his daughter, reiterates:

  Camus, for his part, condemned the Gulag, Stalin’s trials, and totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, in the belief that ideology must serve humanity, not the contrary, and that the end did not justify the means. . . . At the time of his death he was very much isolated and subject to attacks from all sides designed to destroy the man and the artist so that his ideas would have no impact.[37]  

The comical irony of the two men abounds in their historical presence and relates to the second layer of the absurd. The most poignant will be in the war years when Sartre wanted to take an active part in the French Resistance. Accordingly, one story states that Sartre, during the German occupation, was engaged by Camus to walk around Paris and to write articles for the underground newspaper Combat:

  Sartre was assigned with members of the Resistance theater group, the Comité National du Théâtre (CNT), to protect the Comédie-Française from German sabotage. Exhausted from his walk across the city, Sartre had fallen asleep in one of the seats. Camus woke him with the words, “You have turned your theater seat in the direction of history!” Sartre had probably confided to his friend his desire to take part in real-world events, and Camus was poking fun at his dozing at such a time. This remark, uttered with Camus’s affectionate irony, would be central in their later falling-out.[38]  

This place, the Comédie-Française where Sartre was sleeping, and the words “in the direction of history” make further links to the discussion of existentialist humor: Sartre, ironically, was supposed to be awake and observing German activities, but he fell asleep, which literally produced a French comedy (comédie française) for Camus when he caught Sartre napping in a theatre that didn’t allow vaudeville at this time.[39] The Comédie-Française sets up the historical humor: Camus was an actor, director, and playwright; the two men initially met in June of 1943 at the opening of Sartre’s play The Flies, an allegorical play of the German occupation in France.[40] This nap will later connect with their personal history when the quarrel breaks out between the two men over The Rebel, which is panned by the critic Francis Jeanson in Les Temps modernes (the journal that Sartre started and named after Charlie Chaplin’s hilarious movie Modern Times). In recalling this article, Jeanson states:

  “Camus’ book L’Homme révolté came out in October 1951 and for the next six months we had meetings, I forget if it was every two weeks, and every time the question came up: ‘Who’s going to review Camus’ book?’ For a while it was sort of a joke, but it was a serious question. . . .” [41]  

In his scathing reply to the journal, Camus says that Jeanson missed the point of The Rebel; yet in the article Camus antagonizes Sartre for falling asleep “in the direction of history,” and Sartre will repay Camus with twenty pages of unabashed personal criticism.[42] This will constantly unnerve Camus and end their friendship.

Hazel Barnes, the matriarch of existentialism in America because she was one of the philosophers to bring existentialism to the English-speaking world with her translation of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, says in her autobiography that when she was young and sick with nausea, she intuitively knew there was something wrong, but it was not life threatening:

  The easily diagnosed physical symptoms, which really did, I am inclined to think, derive from some external, hostile invasion of the organism, acted as catalytic signals to induce a different psychic orientation, marking the beginning and the end of a fugue-like retreat. Body language expressed, more clearly than any words could have done, my profound distaste for my existence and the feeling that I did not know how to cope with it.[43]  

She then relates this feeling of nausea to Roquentin and the contingency of his life. Once again, by extension, we can see that Camus (after the quarrel) is like Roquentin, and is very likely feeling nauseous because “[u]nlike the lighthearted and self-confidant Sartre, Camus was plagued by painful regrets”; after the fight, “he once arrived at her [Maria Casarés] apartment . . . stifling from an attack of claustrophobia and almost in tears.”[44] Roquentin, too, often feels “de trop,” nauseous, and claustrophobic around objects: “Objects are not made to be touched. It is better to slip between them, avoiding them as much as possible” (122). This is also reminiscent of Anny as Sartre, because she “smiles” while studying Roquentin’s face with “hostile curiosity” (136); and he feels a “false smile” on his mouth,” very uncomfortable” (137), while Anny continues to “laugh” at him during their brief visit. Of course, the classic line that links Anny to Sartre and history are her words, “I live in the past. I take everything that has happened to me and arrange it” (152). These are Anny’s “perfect moments” where she transforms privileged situations into these special moments. This suggests Sartre’s relationship with the Parti Communiste Française (PCF)In general terms, Sartre’s attitude towards the PCF can be divided into three main periods which progress from ambivalence and antagonism in the 1940s, to uncritical and enthusiastic support in the early 1950s, and finally growing hostility and repudiation after 1956.[45] This again relates to Camus and Sartre’s quarrel over politics because Anny and Roquentin, once former lovers, part on bad terms: “Robert Gallimard, one of the few people to know and appreciate both Sartre and Camus, called the breakup of their friendship the end of a love story.”[46]

At the end of Nausea, Roquentin has determined that the world is engulfing him, and he makes three important decisions: to move out of Bouville, to stop writing his historical book of Rollebon, to write a novel instead. These decisions sum up the three layers of the absurd I have described in the first part of this essay and point towards the final layer of the absurd and historical irony. In Camus’s Carnets III, he once stated that “Paris is a jungle, and the beasts there look seedy.”[47] If so, then Sartre’s Bouville can ironically be seen as Paris for Camus. Here is the place where he received his public humiliation from his former friend by means of the twenty pages of abuse published in Les Temps modernes: “The break with Sartre was never far from Camus’s thoughts and activities. In his notebooks he continued to castigate Paris, existentialists, revolutionary intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals, nihilists, and intellectuals in general.”[48] Similarly, Sartre’s spiteful arrogance infuriated Camus because everything that transpired in the quarrel happened in Paris, the opposite of Camus’s Mediterranean temperament that he so lauded in The Stranger. The Parisian press loved the quarrel because they sold a lot of newspapers and magazines by publicizing the two men’s lives, right down to the women they loved. In fact, Sartre ironically commented on his relationship with Camus many years after their split by saying that “there was a side of him that smacked of the little Algerian tough guy, very much a hooligan, very funny. . . . [W]e had good times together.”[49]

Camus’s silence after their quarrel smacks of his disagreement with Sartre about history. This connects to Roquentin’s line about adventure (referred to previously) when he says: “Does it, ironically, pay me these short visits in order to show me that I have wasted my life?” Sartre most certainly wanted to silence Camus because Sartre felt Camus was not engaged in political freedom and the Communist party. It is at this point that Camus will delve into his artistic work, much like Roquentin forsaking his history book on Rollebon--a French revolutionary--and deciding to write a novel instead. Once Roquentin learns that Anny is no longer loyal to him as a friend and lover, he will move on with his life and leave Bouville. Camus, too, “prized personal loyalty above all. He was shattered by Sartre’s brutal treatment of him and bore this for the rest of his life.”[50] Coincidentally, Camus wrote his “Defense of Man in Revolt,” but it was not published until after his death. Actuelles II appeared in 1953, and Camus, like Roquentin, extolled the need for the artist to look beyond politics and create.[51] Camus then gave a comic-coded reference in this work to Sartre and the incident at the Comédie-Française by saying “the time of artists who remain seated is over.”[52] Camus went on to write The Fall, published in 1956, and it became an immediate sensation. In 1957, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature, the highest honor for a creative artist. This will be the final layer of the absurd where Camus will transcend his facticity. Incidentally, The Fall is a veiled reference to the quarrel of Camus and Sartre: it is largely bitter and violent, yet ironically funny with all the illusions to their past fight: “[T]he creative artist Camus found his way back with a character’s confessing his sins for which the author had been attacked.”[53] Camus has the last laugh through historical irony because he creates a novel about the fight to justify his side—it also helps him to win the Nobel Prize. In retrospect, it’s too bad that both men died before the early 1990s: the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union would have been tantamount to Camus experiencing the ultimate in existentialist humor because Camus was right to say that democracy and capitalism were evils, but the lesser of the evils when compared to Soviet Communism.[54]

After WWII, Camus was classified and associated with the existentialists; but he disclaimed any such label in an interview he gave to Jeanine Delpech, part of which appeared in Les Nouvelles Littéraires in 1945.[55] According to the basic tenet of existentialist humor, Camus was an existentialist because of his philosophy of the absurd in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, not to mention his constructive moral humanism and his emphasis upon existence over essence in his other works—he is linked to Sartre and the existentialists once again. Camus praised Sartre’s novel Nausea,[56] yet condemned Sartre’s politics. Sartre and Camus were close friends in WWII, but Camus later regretted their friendship. Conversely, Sartre thought Camus to be one of his best friends in life.[57] The powerful and distinctive shape of these two men’s literature and their relationship certainly exemplifies existentialist humor. This is evident in this hypothetical joke between Camus and Sartre. They are having a few drinks and discussing literature and philosophy at the Deux Magots, their frequent bar of choice:


Sartre: While condemned by the Gods to Hades to roll his rock up a hill, do you think Sisyphus was allowed to listen to any music? Camus: Yes! Rock and Roll, of course.



[1]  On this point see Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004) 14.

[2]  Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1975) 15.

[3]  On this basis, I agree with Jesus Cruz, “Sartre’s Nausea: A French Classic Revisited” Far Eastern Journal 3.2 (1993): 77-84 and Rhiannon Goldthorpe, “The Presentation of Consciousness in Sartre’s La Nausée and Its Theoretical Basis: Reflection and Facticity,” French Studies 22 (1968): 114-31 (see especially footnote number 3): Both critics say that Nausea and Sartre’s theoretical work are inextricably connected.

[4]  Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Humanism of Existentialism,” Essays in Existentialism, ed. Wade Baskin (Secaucus, N. J.: Citadel Press, 1965) 35-36.

[5]  Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956) 88-89.

[6]  Camus 14.

[7]  Sartre, Being 84.

[8]  Sartre, Being 343-44.

[9] Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949) 23-24.

[10]  Sartre, What 39.

[11]  Camus 116.

[12] Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1964) 10-11. In further references to this work, I will use page numbers only.

[13]  Sartre, Essays 165.

[14]  Hewitt, Nicholas, “‘Looking for Annie’: Sartre’s La Nausée and the Inter-War Years,” Critical Essays on Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. Robert Lecker (Boston: G.K. Hall and Co.,1988) 213-14.

[15] Camus 52.

[16]  Evans, Deborah, “Some of These Days”: Roquentin’s ‘Amercian Adventure,” Sartre Studies International: An International Journal of Existentialism and Contemporary Culture 8.1 (2002): 63. See also Hewitt 214.

[17]  Camus 14.

[18]  André Benhaïm, “A Liquid Air of Apocalypse: The End(s) of Music in Sartre and Proust,” Cincinnati Romance Review 18 (1999): 25.

[19] Evans 59, 61-62.

[20]  Lawrence D. Kritzman, “To Be or Not to Be: Sexual Ambivalence in Sartre’s La Nausée,” L’Esprit Créateur 43.3 (2003): 85.

[21]  In terms of metaphor, it is interesting to note that Evans (64) argues that Nausea is a “musical metaphor” in that it is composed of “an amalgamation of fragments of others literary texts.”

[22]  Claudia Clausius, “Waiting for Godot and the Chaplinesque Comic Film Gag.” Approaches to Teaching Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Eds. June Schlueter and Enoch Brater (New York: Modern Language Association, 1991) 71-72.

[23]  Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, trans. Carol Cosman, 4 vols. (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1981-1991) 3: 205.

[24]  Sartre, Idiot 205-06.

[25]  Sartre, Idiot 165-66

[26]  Sartre, Being 21.

[27]  Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) 368.

[28]  Aronson 146.

[29]  Aronson 170-72, 202.

[30]  Aronson 171.

[31]  Aronson 107

[32]  Quoted in Aronson 172.

[33]  Aronson 58.

[34]  Nik F. Fox, The New Sartre, (New York: Continuum, 2003) 115-16.

[35]  Tony Judt, The Burden of Responsibility (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 92. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, trans. Andrew Brown (Cambridge UK: Polity, 2003) 46-47. Aronson 163.

[36] Ron Aronson and Francis Jeanson, “The Third Man in the Story,” Sartre Studies International 8.2 (2002): 22.

[37]  Catherine Camus, preface to The First Man. By Albert Camus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) vi.

[38]  Aronson 25.

[39]  It is interesting to note that vaudeville evolved in the 1800s to combat the dramatic stranglehold that the Comédie-Française exercised over professional actors: Since these actors were forbidden to perform in standard dramatic fashion, because the government theatres were operated by managers (of which the Comédie-Française was one), and only hired actors on contract, vaudeville was developed to present dramatic action through pantomime, along with dance, lyrics, choruses, and popular music, which circumvented governmental regulations. Coincidentally, if you visit the Comédie-Française website, you will find that Le Dindon (a vaudeville play), by Feydeau, was performed in 1951 (the year before Camus and Sartre’s famous quarrel), and it set off a heated argument between critics as to whether the actors should perform this particular style of acting.

[40]  Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) 172.

[41]  Aronson and Jeanson 22.

[42]  Aronson 147, 159.

[43]  Hazel Barnes, The Story I Tell Myself (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997) 41.

[44]  Todd 312.

[45]  Fox 114.

[46]  Todd 312.

[47]  Quoted in Aronson 160.

[48]  Aronson 173-74.

[49]  Jean-Paul Sartre, Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken, trans. Paul Auster and Lydia Davis (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977) 63-64.

[50]  Aronson 159.

[51]  Todd 315.

[52]  Quoted in Aronson 174.

[53]  Aronson 193.

[54]  Lévy 313-16.

[55]  Albert Camus, “Non, je ne suis pas existentialist,” Les Nouvelles Litteraires 15 Nov. 1945: 1+.

[56]  Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre, trans. Anna Cancogni (New York: Pantheon, 1987) 189.

[57] Todd 416.

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