“Who is Antoine Roquentin?”
The first question will be easier for most people. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead continues to enjoy a massive worldwide following. The novel’s protagonist, Howard Roark, is discovered by thousands of new readers every day; old readers continue to be inspired by Roark and many keep returning to the book for new insights.
But there was a time when Antoine Roquentin was more popular than Howard Roark. In 1938, Roquentin made his debut as the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and he was quickly noticed by the intellectual elite. Almost every literary critic seemed to have an opinion, mostly positive, of Roquentin.
Nausea established Sartre’s reputation as the world’s foremost public intellectual and philosopher, and Antoine Roquentin was considered the fictional exponent of Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre and Roquentin were at the peak of their popularity. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Famously, he refused the honor of being a Nobel Laureate. But from the 1970s onward, his reputation began to wane, and this contributed to Roquentin’s rapid obsolescence. Today Sartre has lost almost all his glory, his philosophy of existentialism is no longer considered relevant, and Roquentin, who was once the cynosure of the bibliophiles, has been consigned to obscurity.
Howard Roark, who came into being with the publishing of The Fountainhead in 1942, was almost a contemporary of Roquentin. But Roark received a lukewarm reception from the intellectuals and literary critics. The initial reviews of The Fountainhead were mixed. Ayn Rand was not hailed in the media as a great writer and thinker. Yet the novel progressed through word-of-mouth publicity and became a publishing phenomenon — it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. It is frequently featured in lists of books that have changed people’s lives. In the public mind, Roark continues to evolve, making an ever greater impression as an icon of integrity and individualism.
The philosophical and political views of Rand and Sartre were poles apart. On the few occasions when Rand chose to speak about Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism, she expressed contempt. In her first work of non-fiction, For The New Intellectual (1961), Rand wrote: “The majority of those who posture as intellectuals today are frightened zombies, posturing in a vacuum of their own making, who admit their abdication from the realm of the intellect by embracing such doctrines as Existentialism …” There is no evidence of Sartre commenting on Rand or her ideas; it is not known whether he read her books, even though they were contemporaries — each born in 1905, and dying just two years apart (Sartre in 1980, Rand in 1982).
Both had the experience of living under a totalitarian regime: Ayn Rand in the Soviet Union and Sartre under the Nazis. Rand’s views against communism were certainly shaped by her experience of life in the Soviet Union. In the foreword to her first novel, We The Living, she wrote: “When, at the age of twelve, at the time of the Russian Revolution, I first heard the Communist principle that Man must exist for the sake of the State, I perceived that this was the essential issue, that this principle was evil, and that it could lead to nothing but evil, regardless of any methods, details, decrees, policies, promises and pious platitudes. This was the reason for my opposition to Communism then — and it is my reason now.”
Howard Roark is an outcome of Rand’s concept of man as a heroic being, while Antoine Roquentin is the outcome of Sartre’s concept of man as a confused and vacillating being. In view of the wide difference in the philosophies of Rand and Sartre, the few similarities that we find between Roark and Roquentin come as a matter of surprise. Both Roark and Roquentin are red-haired, slim and tall. Their names sound somewhat similar because the first two letters in their names are the same.
On an intellectual plane, the most prominent point of convergence between Roark and Roquentin is that each is an atheist. They don’t believe that there exists any divine entity on whom men can pin their hope of having guidance on how to live. Both believe in free will, or the idea that men, to a large extent, are responsible for their own actions. They believe that men must develop their own sense of values and bring meaning to life through the work that they do.
However, Roark and Roquentin have a completely different sense of life. Roark is an individualist, while Roquentin lacks a sense of identity and is filled with doubts about the nature of his own consciousness.
Roark recognizes that his individual mind is his only guide. He uses the faculty of reason to form his values and he adheres to his values with strict integrity. In contrast, Roquentin faces mental and psychological collapse. Roquentin’s sense of free will and atheism lead him to a nauseating, disorienting and disturbing conception of reality.
Roark believes that existence exists and consciousness is the faculty for perceiving that which exists. Roquentin regards consciousness as a kind of nothingness. He is mired in the skepticism of phenomenology, and becomes obsessed with how things seem from the first-person perspective.
Roark accepts the metaphysics of primacy of existence. He knows that rationality is a matter of choice and while man’s free will allows him to be irrational, man can achieve his life’s goals only if he chooses the rational path. His sense of morality guides him in acting in ways which can lead to the achievement of his ambitions.
Roquentin’s condition is one of confusion because his metaphysics is dominated by the phenomenological idea, “Essence precedes existence.” He is constantly mired in skepticism about the identity of existence. He thinks that he is free to create his own best path and that freedom means not having to constrain himself with the facts of reality. He does not have any sense of values and to him morality is an immense vacuum.
The novel’s title, Nausea, comes from the name that Roquentin ascribes to the series of confused ruminations that constantly harry him. As he does not have a permanent job — he works as an unemployed writer — he has ample time to ruminate. His days are mostly spent in idly perusing libraries and navel-gazing at terrace cafes, mulling over the bartender's purple suspenders, the passage of time, and the root of a chestnut tree.
Roquentin is a whim-worshipper. Nothing is "real" to him. The universe has no identity, there is no cause and effect, and he has no goal, no purpose. He ruminates on whatever his mind happens to fasten upon at any given time. He can’t think coherently and a state of somnambulistic confusion is the permanent state of his mind. He makes no effort to direct his consciousness because he thinks that his ideas should precede reality and his consciousness itself should be the driver.
A whim-worshipper will try to seek out others who, like him, yearn for a world where they do not have to deal with reality. The people with whom Roquentin has some kind of association are as confused and disoriented as he is. There is one rather disturbing character called Autodidact, who seems consumed by the idea of reading and comprehending the contents of an entire library. Anny, Roquentin’s former flame, lives in the past. Much of her time is consumed in rereading the same history books and reminiscing about the perfect moments of her life.
Toward the end of the book, Roquentin arrives at the conclusion that man’s aspirations have no connection with the physical world. Denying reality has become a permanent way of life for him. He thinks that if people deny reality, they will have more freedom to give some kind of meaning to their life. Finding himself incapable of understanding what he can and cannot change, he continues to make futile attempts to rewrite reality. He has abandoned reason. To Roquentin, only “nothingness,” which he cannot see, makes up the purposeless reality that can inspire action.
The Fountainhead expounds Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which begins by accepting the fact that existence exists as an objective absolute that is independent of our consciousness. Howard Roark, the true individualist, is an embodiment of Rand’s rational philosophy. In a world full of collectivists, populists and second handers, he is the prime mover. He never compromises on his principles. Life throws many challenges at him but he is never sidetracked. He continues to hold fast to his vision of designing buildings which make use of modern technology and design concepts. The novel ends triumphantly with Howard Roark winning the right to act according to his own principles.
Sartre’s existentialism holds that the universe is an irrational, meaningless place, existence is absurd, and life makes no sense and has no purpose or explanation. The confusion and disorientation that Roquentin suffers in Nausea is, according to existentialism, a necessary condition of life. Sartre himself used to feel “nauseated” by the vastness of the universe and the meaninglessness of life. He, like Roquentin, used to spend hours in vacuous rumination. So what we find in Nausea is an accurate description of the real impact that existentialism has on the mind of its acolytes. The confused and ruminative Roquentin is a typical practitioner of existentialism.
People generally don’t want to read the story of characters such as Roquentin, who are helpless and confused not because of any grave misfortune that has befallen them due to circumstances beyond their control, but because of the nihilistic ideology of existentialism that they have themselves accepted out of their own intellectual cowardice. A novel like Nausea can’t have any lasting value. People like to read about heroism. They want to read about men like Howard Roark, who succeed despite all odds. They want to read stories that portray a positive sense of life.
Aristotle formulated the rule for good fiction more than two millennia ago when he said that fiction represents things as they might be and ought to be. Nausea does not represent life as it ought to be. Its protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is not a hero. He is not even fit to be an anti-hero or a villain. His mind is full of nothing and he himself is nothing. The leitmotif of Nausea is “nothingness,” which is also the essence of Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism.
Nausea was never liked by normal readers. It does not have any literary merit to attract real readers. The book reigned for few decades because it was artificially propped up by the leftist intellectuals, most of whom are probably as disoriented and out of touch with reality as Antoine Roquentin is in the novel.