Thursday, September 18, 2008

Camp Concentration 004 - The Nausea

Camp Concentration is written in journal form, which produces a more immediate impression of reality, of facts being experienced and commented upon along the way. (A novel in the past tense sounds like a bundle of recollections put together long after the fact. Journals are better to chronicle the near-imperceptible changes the protagonist goes through, as he jots down his feelings and his thoughts in a day-by-day basis.)

A story in the past tense, told in the first person, is the product of a single mind who tells it at some moment in the future, when everything has already happened. A journal is written by several minds, so to speak, and the reader can trace the successive changes from one to the other.

The journal structure is one more thing in common between Camp Concentration and "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (1959), the other classic SF tale about super-inteligence scientifically produced.

Novels in journal form, SF or not, are many, but one that comes insistently to my mind when I think of Disch’s book is The Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938).

In The Nausea, Antoine Roquentin goes to the city of Bouville (a thinly disguised Le Havre, as I recall) to work on his biography of the Marquis of Rollebon. There, his love affair with a woman comes to an end; there, he encounters a man, whom he calls The Autodidact, who is reading all the books in the library in alphabetical order.

Roquentin is prone to accesses of what he calls “the nausea”, a mental state in which he sees all things devoided of names, concepts and labels. He sees the things existing by themselves, without the slightest link to his own conceptual world. Sartre’s language excels in the descriptions of those moments, and it is generally accepted that this novel is an after effect of his own experiences with mescalin, which he did in 1935 (long before Woodstock, long before Huxley’s own experience which resulted in the book The Doors of Perception).

In Sartre’s novel, there’s no mention of drugs – the Nausea arrives at random, unannounced and unexpected. Roquentin, eventually, gets used to it, accepts it, and with it accepts the fact – which is at the core of Sartre’s Existentialism – that there isn’t a Plan, there isn’t a Meaning, there isn’t an Essence in the Universe. It is pure existence, and Man is an accidental consciousness that becomes aware of it.

The connection between Camp Concentration and The Nausea is not without a reason. The first title Sartre suggested for his novel was Melancolia, in a reference to Albert Durer’s famous engraving, a print of which is seen by Louis Sacchetti on Mordecai’s desk. (CC, p. 74, June 16 entry). Disch is alluding to alchemy (Durer’s theme), but may also be alluding to Sartre.

I found here a comment of the novel with mention to the print:

Ce livre paru en 1938 n'a cessé d'être pour plusieurs générations un évènement dans la conscience d'exister. En cela, il est une espèce de "mythologie". A l'origine, Sartre l'avait intitulé Melancholia, en référence à une gravure de Dürer qui évoquait le doute existentiel, le doute devant la science mais qui était aussi une réflexion métaphysique sur le besoin d'engendrer, Dürer qui n'avait pas eu d'enfant et qui a construit cette oeuvre justement à la mort de sa mère. On pourrait à partir de ce roman, retracer à la fois la période de l'année 1935 où Sartre avait traversé une grave crise dépressive en arrivant au Havre, où il avait également pris de la mescaline, et tendre le livre comme un miroir à des lecteurs ou créateurs de tous âges (écrivains, cinéastes, poètes).

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