Study Guide

Nausea Memory and the Past

By Jean-Paul Sartre

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Memory and the Past

Not a memory: an implacable, torrid love, without shadow, without escape, without shelter. (16.44).

For someone who doesn't think that memories "exist," Antoine sure has a lot of 'em. He especially seems to get nostalgic when he remembers times in the past when he was with his ex lover Anny. The problem is that this is just a trap of nostalgia and Antoine knows it. Getting back together with Anny isn't going to solve his sickness. It's only going to distract him for a while. At the end of the day, he'll just end up pulling a second person into his misery. Antoine needs to get himself figured out before he can go asking someone else to spend their life with him.

[M. Achille] must know that we can do nothing for one another. The families are in their houses, in the midst of their memories. And here we are, two wanderers, without memory. (16.61)

When a crazy man named M. Achille stares at Antoine across a bar, Antoine can only hope that the man won't try to strike up a conversation. After all, there's nothing they can do to relieve one another's loneliness or boredom. They are both doomed to be alone and without memories. In other words, families have memories that bind them together, but Antoine and M. Achille are loners who don't share their memories with anyone. They have lived their lives alone and they'll die alone.

Having made love is better than still making it: looking back, [the doctor] compares, ponders. And the terrible corpse's face! (16.95)

Even though he believes that memories don't "exist" in a technical sense, Antoine thinks that memories of doing stuff are often better than doing stuff in the present moment. In other words, he understands why people get nostalgic sometimes. When you remember something from the past, it's easy to remember only the parts of it that were good. But when you deal with something in the here and now, it's harder to appreciate it because there are usually so many thoughts going through your head.

But that didn't seem true, and I had no real memory of a theft I had committed myself. (22.20)

Antoine has a strange relationship to some of his memories. When he thinks about stealing manuscripts out of a Russian archive, for example, he doesn't feel as though he's the same person who stole those manuscripts. And the truth is he's right. That's because the person we are in the here-and-now is never the same as the person we were a year, a month, or even a minute ago. We're becoming a different person from one minute to the next.

I give them a good look at my face so they can engrave it in their memory. (24.288)

When Antoine gets up to leave a restaurant, he notices that everyone is staring at him. He wants so badly to tell them the harsh truth about existence, but feels like he doesn't even need to speak to let them know it. Instead, he just gives them a good look at his face to make sure they remember it. He believes that the memory of his face alone will be enough to show them the terrible truth that he has figured out—that human life is completely absurd and meaningless in the eyes of the universe.

Suddenly they existed, then suddenly they existed no longer: existence is without memory; of the vanished it retains nothing—not even a memory. (25.12)

This line is where Antoine really lays out what he thinks of memory and the past. For him, there is no such thing as a person "living on" after they die. As far as existence is concerned, things either exist or they don't. Once you're gone, you're gone.

At 5:38 our conversation of yesterday will become a memory, the opulent woman whose lips brushed against my mouth will rejoin, in the past, the slim little girl of Meknes, of London. (30.1)

After kissing goodbye to his ex lover Anny, Antoine knows that he may never see the woman again. Worse yet, his memory of kissing her won't give him any comfort. The past is the past, and while it's nice to think that it can live on in memory, the truth for Antoine is that memories aren't real. Only things in the here and now are real.

My past is dead. The Marquis de Rollebon is dead, Anny came back only to take all hope away. (31.2)

There have been times in Nausea when Antoine Roquentin has felt like his good memories have given him a little happiness. But at the end of the novel, he realizes that there's no comfort to be had in good memories. He needs to create meaning in the here and now. The only problem is that he has no clue how to do this.

A year from now I'd find myself as empty as I am today, without even a memory, and a coward facing death. (33.36)

Antoine thinks for a moment about spending his entire fortune in a single year for the sake of giving himself a thrill and breaking out of his boredom. But he knows that when all is said and done, he'll wind up right back where he started. Worse yet, he won't even have good memories of this year because they'll be swallowed up by his boredom and loneliness.

But a time would come when the book would be written, when it would be behind me, and I think that a little of its clarity might fall over my past. Then, perhaps, because of it, I could remember my life without repugnance. (33.58)

Toward the end of Nausea, Antoine decides to give up writing his diary and to write a novel instead. He thinks that doing this will help him learn to accept himself in the long run since a novel might give him an accurate idea of the person he was when he wrote it. He's saying that writing a novel would work better as a personal time capsule than writing a diary would.

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