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…


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