Intimations of the Real



Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

I am currently working on a longer piece of writing about the “see-through world” that is still in draft, but I wanted to share this exquisite passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 existentialist novel Nausea (La Nausee) along with a few disjointed thoughts. No matter how often I’ve read this passage over the years, it still astonishes me.

In the novel, the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, is a writer in the midst of a paralyzing existential crisis.  He finds the world void of meaning, and everything – people, places, his own thoughts – fill him with a “viscous puddle” of nausea.  The following passage appears near the end of the novel as Roquentin sits in the neighborhood bar trying to decide whether or not to catch the train and leave the city for good. Someone puts a jazz record on the record player.

Now there is this song on the saxophone. And I am ashamed.  A glorious little suffering has just been born . . . Four notes on the saxophone.  They come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm, without self-pity, with an arid purity.  But is it my fault if the beer at the bottom of my glass is warm, if there are brown stains on the mirror, if I am not wanted. . ? No, they certainly can’t tell me it’s compassionate – this little jewelled pain which spins around above the record and dazzles me. . . Like a scythe it has cut through the drab intimacy of the world and now it spins and all of us, Madeleine, the thick-set man, myself, the tables, benches, the stained mirror, all of us abandon ourselves to existence, because we are among ourselves, only among ourselves, it has taken us unawares, in the disorder, the day to day drift: I am ashamed for myself and for what exists in front of it.

It does not exist.  It is even an annoyance; if I were to get up and rip this record from the table which holds it, if I were to break it in two, I wouldn’t reach it. It is beyond – always beyond something, a voice, a violin note.  Through layers and layers of existence it veils itself, thin and firm, and when you want to seize it, you find only existants, you butt against existants devoid of sense.  It is behind them:  I don’t even hear it, I hear sounds, vibrations in the air which unveil it.  It does not exist because it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which in relation to it is superfluous.  It is.

And I, too, wanted to be. That is all I wanted; this is the last word. . .

Someone must have scratched the record at one spot because it makes an odd noise.  And there is something that clutches the heart: the melody is absolutely untouched by this tiny coughing of the needle on the record.  It is so far – so far behind.  I understand that too: the disc is scratched and is wearing out, perhaps the singer is dead; I’m going to leave, I’m going to take my train.  But behind the existence which falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future, behind these sounds which decompose from day to day, peel off and slip towards death, the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness. (1)

Sartre was an atheist, and his character’s experience of the “arid purity” of the melody behind the scratched recording does not indicate, for Sartre, any kind of religious experience.  In the context of the novel, just pages from the end, this incident is just another moment demonstrating the absurdity and grossness of everything that exists, from people to tables to warm beer. “I am ashamed,” Roquentin twice repeats. Compared to the non-existent melody, all that exists seems even more nauseating.

In the few remaining pages that follow this passage, Roquentin begins to imagine the artist who wrote the melody, and he begins to think that perhaps he himself could write a book that might make people guess at something above existence. A book that would be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.”  He feels something he barely recognizes at the thought of this – joy.

I’m going to part ways with Sartre now, because what I see in this passage is something that the author likely did not intend.  I see Presence.  I see a moment in ordinary time when Something More breaks through – and this man experiences the touch of that which transcends time and space.

Sometimes there’s God so quickly.

Thomas Merton has noted that the modern contemplative and the existentialist find themselves traveling in much the same territory.  “Both face the insecurity and darkness of spiritual risk.”  But, as he also points out, “there is infinite distance between the acceptance one’s own autonomy as the only reality in an “absurd” universe, and the acceptance of the transcendent and Divine Reality behind the apparent absurdity of everyday life.”

Through layers and layers of existence it veils itself.  It is so far – so far behind.

Roquentin has had an experience of das ganz Andere – The Wholly Other – in theologian Paul Tillich’s words.   God, as Tillich has written, cannot be a “being”- cannot, in fact, exist – in the way that humans and everything exists and has being.  No matter how much greatness, goodness, holiness we impute to God – God cannot be just a being among other beings.  God is beyond being, or “the ground of being.” There is no other behind God.

Roquentin’s feeling of shame in the presence of the wholly Other are not inappropriate  The sense of one’s nothingness and unworthiness has been a constant refrain of mystics over centuries.  Experiencing the presence of the Real in a sudden burst can drop a person to her knees. Feelings of fear and dread are expressed over and over by Old Testament prophets and heroes.

The secret of the Lord is with those who fear him (Psalm 25:14).

It is the Holy Otherness of God – not some imagined wrath – that causes fear or shame or dread to erupt in us. We understand ourselves in relation to this Other. To experience the Otherness of God is not the same as experiencing otherness in beings with whom we share the physical world. An experience of God can dissolve us as we acknowledge in dread and awe what it requires of us: surrender to a Love that is intimate and penetrating to the core of our soul – and that is also completely impersonal.  In one moment of Its sacred passing, it can destroy everything you thought you were, and leave you with only Itself. Which is everything.

For as long as we live in our exterior consciousness alone and identify ourselves completely with the superficial and transient side of our existence, then we are completely immersed in unreality.  And to cling with passion to a state of unreality is the root of all sin, technically known as pride. It is the affirmation of our non-being as the ultimate reality for which we live, as against the being and truth of God.  Hence we must become detached from the unreality that is in us in order to be united to the reality that lies deeper within and is our true self – our inmost self in God. (2)

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.  First to let go of life.  Finally to take a step without feet.  ~Rumi


1) Jean-Paul Sartre. Nausea. trans.Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions, 1964. pg 174

2) Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience. ed. William H. Shannon. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. pg. 91

Additional references:

Tillich, Paul. Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952


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