December 2008


And no, I didn’t read it in French…

the-stranger

I just finished reading “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. I read this book in high school and often cite it (along with Hesse’s “Damian”) as two of the books that I read in high school that made me want to study literature. 

I still find it strange that not once was existentialism or the absurd mentioned in high school when reading these books. It might be that the teacher didn’t want to make the readings anymore difficult than they were, so, she concentrated on the symbolism of the sun and the oppressive heat in “The Stranger.” Though, again, I can’t see why (at a private prep school) she wouldn’t at least have mentioned the philosophy… 

I haven’t read “The Stranger” in about five or six years, and this time around the protagonist, Meursault, annoyed me. He is much too passive in his life for my taste (I know some friends who might find me saying that shocking), but it is true. I guess if I were to analyze myself, I find the protagonist annoying because he reminds me too much of myself. And I constatnly worry about not living life properly, but that is a discussion for another post– in short, I sometimes feel like I am too passive, so seeing Meursault act the way he does throughout the novel worries me on a metaphysical/psychological level.  

In the first half of the novel, Meursault is completely at the will of his senses. He is a hedonist following the demands of his body and looking only to make his body comfortable. But I think this is not, like some critics have mentioned, due to Meursault’s stupidity or a lack of awareness. In this I agree with Arthur Scherr whose thesis in his article Camus’s The Stranger in The Explicator (59  no.3 spring 2001) is that Meursault is not, as Colin Wilson puts it, a “brainless idiot.” He goes on to quote other examples of critics readings of Meursault: 

 

            Nor is there much justification for depicting Meursault as an impotent personality without opinions of his own. Alice Strange has recently expounded this view of Meursault, arguing that he “permits others to define his reactions and to create a social identity for him.” Ostensibly perceiving him as a vegetative tabula rasa, she finds that he is “emotionally distant” from his closest friends, lacks “definite preferences of his own,” and “avoids any attempt to make sense of his experience” (38).

         In an influential interpretation of The Stranger as an implausible, surrealist escapade, Rene Girard labels Meursault an irrational, unintelligent child. a “juvenile delinquent” (531) who kills a man because he wants attention from society. Girard finds that Meursault’s “egotistical martyrdom” (527) and “ultra-romantic conception of the self’ (531) bear many similarities to this modern psychopathology. Until he commits the improbable murder, “for all practical purposes, Meursault is a little bureaucrat devoid of ambition” (523).

 Scherr does a great job of pointing out how the protagonist’s intelligence is mentioned throughout the book. Meursault is offered a promotion at work, the pimp Raymond asks Meursault to write a letter, and at the trial, the prosecuting attorney mentions Meursault’s intelligence. But I don’t know if I agree with Scherrs conclusion. Scherr states that the murder is a result of an intelligent man’s thwarted ambition. Having to drop out of school and work, Meursault is never able to fulfill any of his passions, which leaves him angry and fustrated and leads to the shooting of the Arab. And, yes, I can see the basis for Sherr’s argument, and he makes a good case for it, but I think the novel is about the absurd more than it is about frustrated ambition.

Furthermore, Scherr goes on to supply Meursault with excuses for his life:

…it may be that rage at his boring job and the failure, because of factors beyond his control, to complete his education and fulfill his ambitions precipitate Meursault’s act of violence. Disgust with himself for getting involved with a disreputable person such as Raymond may have forced his hand, causing him to pull the trigger—a last desperate means of wrenching himself free of a degrading entanglement.

 But this interpretation goes against the little I know of existentialism. This interpretation hands Meursault over to bad faith and excuses Mearsualt of his actions.

 I think it is hard to argue for Meursault as a loving and caring person. He is, after all, indifferent. He is indifferent about getting married, about his promotion, about helping a pimp, but he is indifferent because of this feeling of the absurd. The absurd feeling is that feeling that maybe there is no meaning in life.  

And I believe the point of “The Stranger” is to point out the basic premise that “A sub-clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them. All experiences are indifferent in this regard. There are some that do either a service or a disservice to man. They do him a service if he is conscious.” Meursault is not conscious of his (moral) life until the very end of the novel because it is at the very end of the novel that Meursalt finally becomes conscious of his absurd situation. The novel shows how there seems to be no meaning to life, in the end. That being executed now for this “crime” that he has done is no different than dying in a car crash three years later. 

Nonetheless, if the world is without meaning then it is all the more reason to feel passionately about the time you have here on earth. But saying that makes me feel like I am missing the point– it is up to each individual to decide how to live life. It just seems to me that if Meaursault really feels that life isn’t really worth living, that he is going against what Camus outline in The Myth of Sisyphus. 

If the most importatn philosophical question is that of suicide, then Meursualt is like one of the people who says yes to life but lives it as if he had said no. But, maybe I am putting to much of my moral judgment on the matter. Mearsualt does embrace his hedonistic pleasures fully. It is what he spends most of the novel describing: the way he smokes, how he want Marie, how he likes to swim, the tasty food he eats. But aren’t these reasons enough to live then? Or maybe Mearsualt just breaks down a little at the end when he realizes that he is going to be executed because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. Absurdism aside, this is a great work of literature. 

 

P.S.

So I get that Mearsualt is an amoral character– that he is there to defy natural societal standards of what it means to be “moral” (a “moral” person cries at his mother’s funeral). But he also seems too cold and even mean; for example, when he tells Marie that he doesn’t think he loves her, and that it doesn’t matter if he does or doesn’t. This assertion is almost hurtful. Imagine hearing that from someone you loved? Even if he doesn’t love her, he could put it in gentler terms for her sake. 

All of this culminates at the end of the novel when Mearsualt accepts the world as his “brother”– indifferent the way he is. It is at the end that Mearsualt is able to finally analyze his life somewhat, and here, he accepts being an outcast hated by society. It is at this moment, also, that he finds a happiness and freedom in realizing that the world is indifferent to him, and that he is without hope (a hope such as God, or a chance of escape)– and without false hope or illusions, he feels freer to live a simpler life. 

There is something here that still bothers me, but I can’t quite figure it out. And I mean more than Mearsualt’s indifference. One thing is to be indifferent in a world that is without meaning, but I believe it is another thing to be indifferent in the attitude you take towards that indifferent world…


I was at a party this weekend talking to some friends and a discussion about crushes and love came up somehow. I was trying to explain to them some ideas I have been kicking around in my head ever sine I completed my thesis. These are thoughts I have had since watching two documentaries. 

The first question when it comes to “love” is: what is love? How do we define it? Love is one of those things, I think, that can’t be described in language. Anything you have to say about love is only about love, not love itself. This idea comes from Derrida:

The who or the what of love, like the who or the what of being: We cannot place our finger on the “thing” that it is. And I was unable to explain this to my friends (but that might have had something to do with the alcohol they were drinking). 

After thinking about it for a while, I thought of our ideas about love, and how these ideas (and this idea of the “que” or the “qua”) can be seen in Cinderella. Here we have a “love” story, but what is it that the prince falls in love with? Essentially a foot. What is going on in that story that the prince can’t recognize his love by sight, sound, touch, smell, but by the show she wears? Thank goodness that her foot didn’t bloat after a night of dancing, or that none of the other women in the land has the same size foot as Cindy. But it is this essentialism that defines our Western conception of love. 

Looking at Romeo and Juliet, we have Juliet saying that “a rose by any other name still smells as sweet”– and it is this rose that we equate with love. This essential something– this self-same identical person that we fall in love with. This is what Derrida points out so aptly. How many times do you hear about a relationship that falls apart because someone in the relationship “changed.” :

For some reason we equate change with something bad (at least in a relationship). Isn’t this what ruins the relationship in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall? Alvie meets Annie, falls in love with her, encourages her to take classes and “better” herslef, and then when she changes, she outgrows him and they break up. So what was it that Alvie fell in love with? Was it Annie? But what about Annie did he fall in love with? And what did Annie see in Alvie? What about Alvie was any different? He is a comletely static character, which is why the audience can see why Annie leaves him, but where does that leave love?

I finally understood this opening scene when taking a Woody Allen class:

This idea of not wanting to belong to a club that would have you as its member is what I understand Lacan is talking about when he talks about desire. Whenever I’ve been in a decent relationship (and this is, more and more, applying to friendships even) I always wonder why the other person likes me. What do I posses that the other person likes and wants to be around.  Being at this party as a non-drinker, non-smoker, I have realized that I am getting a little boring in my middle-age, so why do people hang out with me? (I am exaggerating here for the purpose of discusion– because as I say these things, I can also say that whenever a girl turns me down I always wonder what is wrong with her: I am smart, and funny, and handsome– but it all goes back to the idea of what is “love”)– Rather, I should probably emphasize “what is love?”

I think, ultimately, that we shouldn’t put any kind of label on love and try to define it in words. That is the job of the poet: to write about love in a mysterious way. And here I wish I knew more about Hiedeggar and poetic language. 

It is through Hiedegger, afterall, that I get this idea of love as not something concrete. As Derrida says, the question of love is the same as the question of “being.” Is being a who or a what? If we take being as being this constantly thrown forward then there is no “thing” that we can call love (or being). If being is being-in-the-world-with-others-towards-death, then it is not a static self-sameness identity that we can grasp. There is no rose or foot to put our shoe on, in this case. 

In Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, this is clearly seen. Here there is a novel where the “who” and the “what” are constantly changing. The main characters are constantly changing their identity and even there psychical bodies, so there is no static who or what to love. But the story is one about love regardless of not having a static thing to love. This is true love– an unconditional one that stays no matter what the object of love “is.” 

Love is like being then– always thrown forward ahead of itself and never static. Love is not a foot (that is a fetish– that is lust). Maybe there are so many divorces because people don’t realize that if their partner changes, that is a good thing, and that maybe they should change too. If you don’t move a muscle, that muscle atrophies and dies. Love and being are the same way, no?

And just for fun: Where does love come from? I think Zizek answers that question in an interesting manner:

 

front_hunger

 

I just finished reading Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The first thing that caught my attention was the overall tone of the book. Being indoctrinated into literature that takes as its subject matter the starving artist creating it through Bukowski, it is obvious just how much this book influenced Buk.

The novel follows a nameless starving writer. The translation I have plays with the tenses of verbs, which give the novel the feeling of being inside the writers mind as he tells his story from present to past tenses, and this translation also shows how the narrator starts to lose his mind the longer he goes without food. The narrator’s tone changes with his hunger, and there is a level of absurdity reached as the narrator, although dirt poor and starving, feels he still needs to defend his dignity and honor; for instance, after a mix up at a store, the narrator receives change for a bill he never gave the shop keeper and keeps it. After a couple of beers that a friend buys him, the narrator feels:

…the coins still…heavy in [his] pocket and gave [him] no peace of mind (125).

He then goes into a store and hands the money over to a lady and leaves without saying a word. He tells the reader:

How wonderful to be an honest person again! My empty pockets no longer felt heavy, it was a pleasure to be broke once more…. My honest nature had revolted from the base deed, oh yes. Thank God. I had raised myself in my own estimation! I defy you to do as much! I said looking out over the crowded marketplace, just you try!

And he is right, if I were starving to the point of madness, I would have taken the money and gone to buy myself some food and a place to stay for a couple of nights. And the reader feels sorry for the narrator, and you really want to believe that at least the narrator has his [foolish] pride. 

The only problem is: at the end of the novel when he is starving again after a scene in which he is kicked out of his lodgings for not paying (and he gets mad at the landlady for kicking him out– and then he feels bad for getting mad at the landlady when he realizes that she should kick him out because he hasn’t paid his rent), he finds the lady he had given the money to and bullies her into giving him some cakes. 

There is a certain comedy in the seriousness the narrator takes himself. He is completely self-righteous, but he is also a crazy man, and the novel does a nice job of showing the narrator slip more and more into madness as his writing (the writing the narrator is doing within the novel– not Hamsun’s writing) makes less and less sense. 

It is these ramblings that the narrator has when he is starving,  the way he belittles the crowd, and how no one understands the genius of the artist that are the moments that one can see how Bukowski was influenced by Hamsun.

The narrator’s situation is summed up when he is in a room with a girl he fancies, and she tells him:

The last time you had a sore finger, now you have a sore foot. You certainly have lots of troubles” (145).

He responds, “I was run over a bit the other day” (Ibid.). And he has been run over a little bit, which would make him likable if he weren’t so self-righteous about his situation. In the end, I enjoyed the book for its prose more than I did for the character. 

The above scene with the girl brings up something else I would like to explore. The girl is one the narrator harassed in an earlier scene, and now the girl has asked him to walk her home. The narrator is embarrassed by the way he looks but decides to escort the girl home regardless. He is very self-consciously aware of the way he is dressed and the way he must look, and this reminds me of the Lacan I have been reading through Zizek. 

[I must make a note here that I just started reading Lacan and Zizek, so this is a way for me to work these ideas out in my head– so if anyone knows more, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who know more– please let me know if I got something wrong]

Zizek describes Lacan’s idea of desire by explaining:

The original question of desire is not directly “What do I want?” but “What do others want from me? What am I for those others? (49.)

Therefore in this scene, we see how the narrator is worried about what the girl wants from him as well as worried about the big Other looking at them. He says:

I couldn’t understand this person who was able to take pleasure in letting herself be escorted up the whole length of Karl Johan Street by a half-naked tramp. What in God’s name was she thinking of? And why was I putting on an act like this, smiling at nothing like an idiot? (119).

Here the narrator is caught in what the “other”/ this woman wants from him. He is also caught in the gaze of the big other judging him for what he is wearing. He is worried about the big Other looking at him, and about what the big Other might think of this woman who is walking with him. 

This also speaks to the violence of love. When someone “loves” me, what is it they love? Is it me (but there is no inherent, static me to grasp and say “that is it– that is the thing, right here, that I love.” Is it a quality in me that the other loves? Is it my intelligence or humor (all the ladies say they love a guy with a sense of humor). This is what is going on here in this scene. The narrator is worried about his clothes (will she not love me if I have ratty clothes?). He worries about what it is he is saying/ his conversation (will she not love me if I do not entertain her?). etc…

These are just some thoughts on the novel…