Sartre does not regard water as a friendly, natural element but as another foreign body, imposed on his senses and carrying negative connotations of sliminess and viscosity. He had, in fact, a particular aversion to all sea-food and when he suffered from the prolonged side-effects of a bad mescaline experience, he was haunted by images of giant lobsters pursuing him in his waking hours. The location of his novel Nausea is Bouville, literally, ‘Mud-city’, an hostile sea-side resort, closer to the Los Angeles of Blade Runner than the quiet port of Le Havre where Sartre taught philosophy in the local Lycee. His existentialist hero, Roquentin prefers the frequentations of the town library and local cafes to the prospect of a bracing walk along the sea-shore.
It is, therefore, all the more surprising to discover a completely different Sartre in one of his posthumous works entitled Queen Albemarle or the last tourist, in which the philosopher describes his 1951 tour of Italy and more specifically his impressions of Venice. Sartre was a great lover of Italian culture and his left-winged political views were very much supported by a whole generation of young Italians. However, little was known about his strange attraction to the city of Venice, an architectural jewel, magically reflected in the waters of his many canals. Typically, though, Sartre does not admire the magic of the most Serene Republic like any ordinary visitor.
He is ‘the phenomenological tourist’ who interprets his experience according to his own idiosyncratic criteria. Venice is seen as the intersection between Being and Nothingness as, for Sartre, ‘its water is the mind upside down. It is mad’ in its perpetual oscillation between Being and Non-Being, constantly losing itself in perpetual reflections of the past glory of silent palazzi. Far from being a source of poetic inspiration or endless musings, water remains, for Sartre, the intellectual tourist, nothing but ’thought of water’. Just like the bark of the chestnut-tree in Bouville park, the water in Venice keeps its secrets to itself, inaccessible and at the same time, self-justified, unlike Roquentin’s very existence. Sartre finds Venice ‘sinister’ because of ‘its lack of reality’. It looks, he writes, ‘like a mirage born out of the pale shimmering of the sky into the water. And I, myself, feel very much like a mirage. Everything will disappear: only water will subsist.’