It left me breathless. Never, until these last days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like all the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must [have] believe[d] that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that that green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things I was miles from dreaming that they existed; they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface.Omitting the novelistic turn of phrase ('breathless', 'obscene nakedness'), what is left?
If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. (p. 127 tr. Lloyd Alexander, ellipsis in original.)
1. Roquentin says that never before had he understood the meaning of 'existence.' It seems clear he is talking about some non-standard meaning of the word, which cannot be grasped by the normal process of learning a language, such as in childhood or in school. For Roquentin is an educated adult. By implication, the standard meaning of the word 'existence', as in 'black swans exist', which can be easily learned, cannot be what he is talking about here.
2. He says he once felt that "'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself." This is baffling. He says that the ocean is green, but doesn't 'feel' that it existed? Again, he cannot be talking about the standard meaning, where 'the ocean is green' implies 'the ocean exists'. He then says that usually existence 'hides itself'. More evidence that he is using the word 'exist' in some specific, novelistic sense, rather than the ordinary, standard one. Maverick comments here that analytic types will guffaw at this, and that they are 'existence-blind' - "to the blind, that which is luminous must appear dark." Of course, but this confirms the point I made in yesterday's post, about philosophy eschewing revelation and all knowledge whose acquisition requires a special state of awareness of some kind. Such knowledge may be important and interesting, but it is not the subject matter of philosophy, properly understood.
3. He says that existence is all around us, but that we cannot touch it. Is he making some scientific claim, then? Is existence like the air or like electricity or gravity, that we cannot touch, but whose existence we infer? Do we infer the existence of existence? If so, do we also infer the existence of the existence of existence? It seems entirely circular.
4. I'm not sure is meant by the next part – Roquentin seems to be contrasting his old way of thinking about existence, such as being asserted by the verb 'to be', or being an assertion of class-membership ("I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects") with this new revelation. He would have once said that existence "was nothing, simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature". Now he sees that "existence had suddenly unveiled itself. " OK, existence is now something that reveals itself to his senses or experience. "It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. " Which may be all be true, but it is so mystical as to be meaningless. As for "the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness", it is sheer poetry. But is it philosophy? Can everyone share the revelation given to Roquentin? Or is it mere euphony, sound and language that is impressive in a novel, but has no real place in a work of true philosophy?