‘Nausea’ And Psychedelia: Was Antoine Roquentin Tripping?

My re-reading of Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist classic, for this semester’s independent study on existentialism has now prompted me to blog on it two days in a row.

Today, I find myself returning to a question which I had first considered a couple of decades ago during my first reading of Nausea: Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

This psychedelic aspect of Roquentin’s visions is most manifest in his famous “vision” in the park, the most philosophically rich section of Nausea. (I do not think it is a coincidence that Sartre uses “vision” here to describe Roquentin’s experiences here.) Here the “individuality” of things melts away, leaving them “naked.” Objects begin to exist so “strongly” that their very existence is almost painful to experience–just as in psychedelic visions, trippers report the almost painfully sharp clarity they now suddenly possess of the world around them. The black roots of the chestnut tree present themselves to Roquentin in all their sensuality, an overwhelming and overpowering one.

Like those who trip, Roquentin comes to realize the world is simultaneously absurd and yet potentially filling to the brim with meaning. Like them, he realizes the interplay of word and world, even as he realizes “the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions.” The tripper comes to realize his sight is not innocent, providing unmediated access to reality; instead, it itself is conditioned by a particular state of consciousness so that “sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas.” He realizes that he cannot stop thinking, that “my thought is me; that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking.” Those who have tripped are very often amenable to the idea that through meditative experiences, through flirtations with the no-thought experience that might be possible therein, they will experience the no-self the Buddha spoke about.

Huxley spoke of the psychedelic vision providing access to Heaven and Hell. Roquentin speaks of the “horrible ecstasy” he experiences in the park; it is frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. It leaves him “breathless” and makes him realize that up until that moment, he had not “understood the meaning of ‘existence.'” (Unlike trippers, of course, Roquentin does not feel the urge to have the entire mass of humanity share the experience with him.)

The thoughts I offer here, and the parallels I note, are merely suggestive, but I find them intriguing enough to make them explicit. A much closer read of Nausea accompanied by a comparison with classics of psychedelic literature–like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception–should be very rewarding. More on that anon.

Jean-Paul Sartre On ‘An Odd Moment In The Afternoon’

In Jean-Paul Sartre‘s Nausea, Antoine Roquentin offers us a characteristically morose reflection about a very particular hour of the day:

Three o’clock. Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. An odd moment in the afternoon. Today it is intolerable. [New Directions edition, 2007; pp. 14]

Monsieur Roquentin is right. Three o’clock is a pretty terrible time of day.

Growing up in New Delhi, three o’clock very quickly became associated with the hottest part of the summer afternoon. (New Delhi’s summers boast of temperatures regularly rising to 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (434-46 Celsius).) Four o’clock, because of its proximity to five o’clock, which signaled the start of the evening (that’s when folks rising from their afternoon siesta drank their restorative teas) conveyed a slightly benign air; two o’clock, because of its proximity to one o’clock, inherited some of its life-giving and nourishing aspects. But three o’clock was equidistant from these temporal locations; it seemed remote, inaccessible, forbidding; it was the time by which the roads were sure to have emptied. The sun beat down; the hot winds blew; exposure was foolhardy. Best to hunker down at home and ride out the storm.

When I moved to the East Coast of the United States in 1987, I experienced the sharply diminished daylight of this northern latitude in my first fall, when the clocks were set back from the Daylight Savings Time I had been enjoying on my arrival in August. Now, three o’clock was again a zenith of sorts, but a rather depressing one. I could sense the weak, angular rays of the sun were doing little good against the encroaching cold, and I knew that by four o’clock, the dimness would be sharply pronounced. Night would follow all too soon. The fall and winter evenings where when the winds sharpened; three o’clock now became the last brief station of respite before the misery began. And because I was never much of a night owl, given to working late into the night, three o’clock also signaled to me that time was running out on opportunities to be productive. I do not think it is a coincidence incidentally, that Roquentin offers us these thoughts on Friday, 2nd February–a winter afternoon. All too often, like Roquentin, “I would know in advance the day was lost.” Though, unlike him, I did not ever think that “I shall do nothing good, except, perhaps, after nightfall.”

As may be evident from my notes above, I associate moods–almost personalities, if you will–with times of the day. Three o’clock has always had a bit of a hostile air to it. In my childhood summers, it evoked fear; in my adult winters, it signals a particular kind of despondency and melancholia. There is, however, a silver lining in all of this. Now that I’m a father, three o’clock has come to signal to me that time when, on the days that I work at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Library in Manhattan, I must put away my books, sit down for my afternoon meditation session, and on completing it, head to the subways to take a train back to Brooklyn and pick up my daughter from daycare.

Sometimes, I suppose, there still some things you can get done after that dreaded afternoon hour.

Reviewing Doug Henwood’s ‘My Turn’ In Jacobin Magazine

My review of Doug Henwood‘s book My Turn: Hillary Clinton Takes Aim At The Presidency has just been published by Jacobin Magazine. Here is a pull-quote:

[Henwood’s] insistence on grounding his many rhetorical and analytical fusillades in the material conditions of US life ensures that his detailed, unflinching look at the Clintons’ long public history cannot be written off as a sexist attack. Instead, Henwood’s brief is directed squarely at Hillary Clinton’s political opportunism, her reflexive secrecy, her frequent patronage of friends and cronies, her belligerent approach to foreign policy, her scant legislative record in the Senate, and her unimpressive tenure as secretary of state.

To the extent that Clinton’s identity serves as a basis for Henwood’s critique, it is not her gender, but her identification with, and championing of the interests of, the powerful and wealthy American elite that makes her an unworthy candidate.

Comments welcome; if you like the review essay, please do share it.

From Austerlitz To Auschwitz

I’ve only recently read Elie Wiesel‘s Night (last week, in fact), and as is my habit, I skipped the preface (by Robert McAfee Brown) and the foreword (by François Mauriac) and went straight to the text. Once I was done, I returned to these preliminary sections. In the foreword, I read Mauriac describe his encounter with a young Wiesel, and how it led him to memories of the Occupation (of France):

I confided to my young visitor that nothing I had seen during those somber years had left so deep a mark upon me as those trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. Yet I did not even see them myself! My wife described them to me, her voice still filled with horror.

I read these lines with some puzzlement. Austerlitz?  I knew of only two Austerlitzes: the first, the scene of Napoleon’s greatest military triumph; the second, W.G. Sebald‘s novel (which I have not read yet.) Didn’t Mauriac mean ‘Auschwitz’ instead? Had his wife–whom I knew nothing about–been to Auschwitz, survived, and brought back these visions of deported Jewish children? If Mauriac did mean ‘Auschwitz’ then surely this was the most bizarre typo I had seen in a very long time. For it would have run together a place which has now passed into our collective memory as a zone of unimaginable atrocity, and a venue of military conflict, whose name has come to represent the zenith of one of the most remarkable lives of all time. Had Mauriac, somehow, unthinkingly, as he sat down at his typewriter, run together the typographic similarity of these two words in his mind, and pressed the wrong keys? But even if that was the case, how had such a howler made it through the editing gauntlet?

As might be expected, I went online to assuage my confusion. There I found that Mauriac had not made a mistake. He was indeed speaking of ‘Austerlitz station.’ To be precise, he was referring to Gare d’Austerlitz “one of the six large terminus railway stations in Paris…situated on the left bank of the Seine in the southeastern part of the city, in the 13th arrondissement.” It was built in 1840, the year Napoleon’s remains were returned from Helena to be buried at Hôtel des Invalides. During the Second World War,  the Vichy Regime set up internment camps to hold Jews being deported to concentration and death camps. Among them was Drancy internment camp, which included five subcamps; three of these were the Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano camps. When these Jews were finally sent to their final destinations, they departed from one of Paris’ stations. One of them, of course, was Austerlitz station, where Mauriac’s wife would have seen the sights she reported to her husband. Perhaps some of the children she saw went to Auschwitz too. (This photograph shows deportees at Austerlitz station in 1941.)

So no typo, but even then, what terrible irony. A symbol of French military ingenuity and brilliance and valor, where Napoleon took on the Old Empires and beat them to establish a new European order, sullied by these associations with the greatest European atrocity of all.

Donald Trump And Organized Labor’s Death Wish

Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi makes note of a distinctive and troubling feature of modern American political life, the seeming death wish of American organized labor:

Every four years, some Democrat who’s been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.

It’s called “transactional politics,” and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.

This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders….Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by “transactional politics.” He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches….

Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That’s true even when it comes from Donald Trump….You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump’s speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump….

Indeed. Never mind that the candidates unions would consider endorsing would then want to distance themselves as much as possible from organized labor. (As Taibbi also notes, Trump thinks Michigan autoworkers are paid too much and that in general, “wages are too high.”)

I have written before on this blog about the self-destructive, seemingly self-hating antipathy that American workers have to organized labor. The phenomenon Taibbi points to is another matter altogether. Here, unions themselves are engaged in behavior which is willfully, inexplicably self-destructive.  Perhaps this behavior reveals a particularly virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome (it is very hard, after all, to leave abusive relationships and seek help); perhaps it’s a manifestation of the thing Freud called a ‘todestrieb.’

Consider for instance, the news that Jeff Johnson, the head of the Washington State Labor Council–affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has not yet endorsed anyone for president–was allegedly pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to not speak at a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event. The AFSCME, one of the largest public-sector unions in the U.S. and a member of the AFL-CIO, endorsed Clinton for president in October. As the article linked to above notes, the AFSCME is perfectly within its rights to slap down on a state labor federation pending approval from national AFL-CIO. Still, it might be asked, why endorse candidates who send union jobs overseas to non-unionized workplaces?

Desperate political times call for desperate actions. Unions are under assault everywhere; membership is shrinking nation-wide. One might ask though, of all the actions available to organized labor, why would it endorse candidates so damaging to its members’ short-term and long-term interests, both economic and political? Especially when the decline of unionization in the American workplace has so extensively been identified as a primary cause of falling wages and rising economic inequality?

My Daughter And The Hillary Clinton Candidacy

In the first draft of my review–forthcoming in Jacobin–of Doug Henwood‘s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets The Presidency, I had included some lines that did not survive the first editorial take on my submission (I await, with some trepidation, the next editorial lowering of the boom.) Here is how it read:

Hilary is no…Eleanor Roosevelt…she is no feminist hero and should not be….I will not ask my three-year old daughter to look up to Hillary; she will find better feminist heroes elsewhere. Like her mother, who fights for the rights of unionized workers, something which Hillary, in her attacks on teachers unions in Arkansas, has shown herself incapable of in the past.

In my assessment, on this blog (here and here), of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I had often wondered whether the symbolic value of her presidency would be great enough to outweigh her political faults. In these ruminations, I could not but help think of my daughter (and others like her.) A mere toddler, sure, but by the time a Clinton presidency’s first term will terminate, she will be seven years old. (If Clinton serves two terms, my daughter will almost be a pre-teen by the time of the second term’s conclusion.) What would it mean to her to see a woman as president? Just for her, and for her sense of what is possible in this world, would it not be better that a woman become president–in preference to yet another old white man, even if he is a kindly Jewish socialist from Vermont?

I don’t think so. My daughter encounters many women who can serve as positive role models. I introduce her, on a regular basis, to my woman friends in my various social groups: professors, journalists, doctors, writers, lawyers, teachers, students, labor organizers, mathematicians, and so on. She sees women–at my gym–perform amazing feats of strength. (She sees her own mother perform some of these.) She is not lacking for inspiration, for the right kinds of images; she hears, as often as I can manage, stories of women’s power and achievement. She will still encounter sexism and patriarchy; that much, I cannot protect her from. But I try, on an ongoing basis, to prepare her for those inevitable encounters.  I try to expand her sense of what this world holds for her, and of the kind of room she can make for herself.

Women politicians and  leaders are an important component of her world-image but they, like any of the other women I introduce my daughter to, must show, by their commitment to ethical and political ideals that I think my daughter should live by, that they can serve as worthy exemplars for my daughter.  This same constraint applies to any of the other women my daughter meets. I doubt a woman who busts unions for a living, or a journalist who serves corporate interests, would evoke approving commentary from me. “Keep your distance from this kind of achievement” is what I think I would say.

I desperately want my daughter want to grow up in a kinder and more just world. I want her to grow up in a world without war, racism, and soul-and-life-crushing economic inequality. I do not think a candidate who has supported mass incarceration, helped throw helpless families off welfare, voted for an illegal war, and payed obeisance to–and aspires to membership in–the most powerful economic class in this nation, will make that kind of world.

A political post is but one station among many that a woman can occupy to serve as a role model for my daughter. And even that one must be occupied by a woman animated by the right kinds of principles. My daughter has many other heroes to look up to; she will be just fine without a Hillary Clinton presidency. And if Hillary Clinton does become president, I will make sure to point out to my daughter that were she to aspire to be president herself, she would hopefully seek out an alternate set of animating political and moral principles.

Democracy, The ‘Anti-National,’ And The Seditionist

In my essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, currently serving a fifty-five year jail term in Federal prison for seditious conspiracy, I had written:

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 remain a blot on American democracy; John Adams deeply regretted — till the day of his death — being their prime mover. The crimes they charge citizens with — and the notion of a political dissident imprisoned for holding political beliefs supposedly dangerous — are an embarrassment for democracies. The very idea of sedition induces puzzlement in a student of politics: how can a liberal democracy punish the entertainment of beliefs?

Recent events in India–the crackdown on student protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in particular–suggest that this lesson has not yet been learned by democracies everywhere. (A pair of articles by Ruchir JoshiA Rash of Fascisms” and Mukul KesavanRepublic vs. Nation” makes this point in the Indian context quite eloquently.)

What is it that those who seek to crack down on the slogans, claims, and activities of the alleged seditionist fear? Because a nation is an idea, an abstract entity, and not a piece of land or a group of people, this question becomes a little more puzzling.

The nationalist has, of course, conflated himself with the nation; he perceives the attack on the nation as an attack on himself. The arch-nationalist thus reveals himself as a deeply paranoid, insecure type. Rather than seeing the fulminations of the political radical as an opening salvo in a debate, he perceives it as a material attack upon himself and his life’s projects; he has dedicated himself to the unblinking service of something whose provenance, dimensions, and nature he does not fully understand and now finds himself all at sea, unable to coherently defend, without descending into inarticulate rage, this mysterious notion. He is, as I noted in another context, “all unsatisfied Id, no Ego.”

I went on to note:

The accusation of seditious conspiracy is political: nothing enrages the patriot like the seditionist. He is a fifth columnist, a cancer on the body politic. The seditionist assaults the idea of the nation and offends our sensibilities by proclaiming that our idols have feet of clay. Sedition incites rebellions by encouraging citizens to rise up against their state; the existence of the seditionist is a threat to the public and psychic order underwritten by nationalist sentiment. In the old days, those who spoke against dominant paradigms, who placed the earth at the center of the universe and the like, were tortured, torn apart by mobs, burnt at the stake.

Unsurprisingly, we find religious fervor in the prosecution of this variant of political heresy. Nietzsche described the punishment felt suitable for this kind of citizen as:

A declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, law, order, authority, who is fought as dangerous to the life of the community, in breach of the contract on which the community is founded, as a rebel, a traitor and breaker of the peace, with all the means war can provide.

As might be expected, this rhetoric has shown up in the discourse surrounding the arrest and physical abuse of the students arrested in India.

Democracy is a young thing, a mere fledgling; it places a fairly onerous responsibility upon those charged with its care. Many, it seems, are simply not up to the task.