Sartre: Jazz Cures Existential Angst

From Ted Gioia’s article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel, Nausea
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

In general, Sartre is more committed to philosophy than to fiction, even here in the pages of his greatest novel. But when the story lags, the intensity of the intellectual debate flares up to compensate—so much so, that Nausea is essential reading not just for students of literature, but also for anyone interested in the evolution of Sartre’s views on a range of philosophical issues.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is Sartre’s decision to supply a happy ending. His horror story ends with a way out of the nausea. I am less than convinced by this turnabout in our suffering Mr. Roquentin, but as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea. A jazz record featuring a singer and saxophonist does the trick—to be specific an old recording of “Some of These Days.” I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date (he doesn’t identify any of them). I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst.

(Some have suggested that Sartre is referring to the famous Sophie Tucker recording of “Some of These Days,” but the context of the novel suggests a different version. Sartre specifically mentions that the vocalist is African- American, and it is unlikely that he would make that assumption when listening to the Ukrainian-born Jewish singer Tucker. The Tucker track also features a shrill clarinet that could hardly be mistaken for a sax. But hundreds of other recordings of this song have been made by jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway.)

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre called jazz “the music of the future” and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and listen to John Coltrane.

When jazz writers decide to adopt a philosophical tone, they often cite Sartre’s contemporary Theodor Adorno. This is a strange choice, not only because of Adorno’s longstanding hostility toward jazz, but even more due to the close-minded elitism of his screeds. If any American music critic had written with such clumsy generalizations about jazz, posterity would have soon forgotten these opinions—or held them up to ridicule—but somehow the attachment of the name of a progressive European thinker assigned on college campuses has given these views a half-life they don’t deserve on their own merits. So let me suggest that jazz writers who want to cite a fashionable philosopher switch over to Sartre, who frequented jazz clubs and listened to the music with a sensitivity to its inner emotional meaning.

Bebop musician Charlie Parker

Sartre called jazz “the music of the future” and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and listen to John Coltrane. His writings on the subject are more atmospheric than analytical, but it is likely that Sartre saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the existential freedom he described in his philosophical texts. Jazz musicians, he once explained, are “speaking to the best part of you, the toughest, the freest.”

And who knows, perhaps jazz does cure existential angst. Maybe it delivers more value for money than a trip to the psychiatrist’s couch or the latest advertised chemical cure for your woes. In our current age, when people are increasingly looking for alternative treatments, here’s one that can be had for a song. [Read more]

Ted Gioia’s essay on Sartre’s Nausea forms part of My Year of Horrible Reading, where Gioia reviews works by Stephen King, Clarice Lispector, Shirley Jackson, William Peter Blatty, Bram Stoker, Susan Hill, H. P. Lovecraft and more.


    • I haven’t read it for awhile myself, and must say that I’ve been tempted, too! Quite a few of the books on Gioia’s list of Horrible Reading have caught my eye 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        • Same here! Although there are a few that I have been meaning to read but have not yet found the time. I’m very curious about reading The Exorcist, for example, since I’m a big fan of Friedkin’s film. Maybe I’ll start with Gioia’s essay 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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