In “Nausea” (“La Nausée”), a novel in the form of a fictional diary, Sartre makes the main character, the diarist, Roquentin, realize how baseless our assumptions about what is possible, what can happen in our world, or what gives the world its regularity, really are. For example:

I got up. I could no longer keep my place in the midst of these unnatural objects. I went to the window and glanced out at the skull of Impetraz. I murmured: Anything can happen, anything. But evidently, it would be nothing horrible, such as humans might invent. Impetraz was not going to start dancing on his pedestal: it would be something else entirely.

Frightened, I looked at these unstable beings which, in an hour, in a minute, were perhaps going to crumble: yes, I was there, living in the midst of these books full of knowledge describing the immutable forms of the animal species, explaining that the right quantity of energy is kept integral in the universe; I was there, standing in front of a window whose panes had a definite refraction index. But what feeble barriers! I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen.

But if everything is metaphysically contingent, why should we think that “anything can happen”? Between

  1. simple “not existing but contingently so”, like a full size replica of the Eiffel tower made of plastic


  1. “metaphysically necessarily impossible” (like tiling an – Euclidean 2D – bathroom floor with regular pentagons),

there is still

  1. “impossible by the laws of nature”, like a combustion engine made of paper with origami.

It obviously seems 2. and 3. are not real for Sartre. But does he justify the connection of 2. and 3. anywhere?

  • 2
    Neither option has to do with Sartre. "Anything can happen" is a (panic feeling of) meaningless world. Sartre always makes opposition between facticity and freedom. The former is what is "given" - be it a natural determinism or a happening, doesn't matter - this is contingent for us. Contingent things may be probable. The latter is activity of consciousness, the realm of spontaneous possibilities (or opportunities). Necessity (= need) and hence meaning could be found only in it (due to it). – ttnphns Sep 17 '17 at 0:05
  • @ttnphns so, is there anything that could support your interpretation? Maybe quote a well-known Sartre scholar? – wolf-revo-cats Sep 17 '17 at 5:33
  • How please should we interpret the following (later in the novel) in the light of your remarks: “It can happen any time, perhaps right now: the omens are present. For example, the father of a family might go out for a walk, and, across the street, he'll see something like a red rag, blown towards him by the wind. And when the rag has gotten close to him he'll see that it is a side of rotten meat, grimy with dust, dragging itself along by crawling, skipping, a piece of writhing flesh rolling in the gutter, spasmodically shooting out spurts of blood. …” – wolf-revo-cats Sep 17 '17 at 5:35
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    The passage is interpretable as just Sartre's exercise in surrealism. Note one important thing: when he was writing Nausea in mid 30s he hadn't yet developed in full his existential theory (which he began to work out by 1939 upon studying Heidegger), but was preoccupied with the idea of contingency (and hence absurd). The more that he himself felt meaningless and melancholic from time to time at that period. My first comment was an interpretation from the point of view of a bit more ripe Sartre, his Being and Nothingless. – ttnphns Sep 17 '17 at 7:09

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