Albert Camus and the Existential Dilemma, in Two Texts

I recently decided to re-read Albert Camus’s The Stranger, which I first read years ago for a philosophy course, and which made little sense to me then because I had such difficulty identifying with the main character, Meursault.  It’s a classic of existential fiction, however, so this time I persisted in my efforts to understand.  I read the excellent 1988 translation of Matthew Ward, who translated the book following American standards of speech and writing, which was better not because of any political chauvinism, but because Camus himself suggested at the time he wrote it that he was intent upon following the American or Hemingwayesque model of fiction writing.

I started out, as I usually do, by reading the book blurb, to see if I could recall highlights from my previous reading.  I nearly always do this even when I know what the books are about.  In this case, though, I felt the blurb was a bit incorrect.  In order to emphasize the sense of an existential experience which could happen to anyone, the blurb writer speaks of the story “of an ordinary man who unwittingly get drawn into a senseless murder….”  In this same paragraph, there’s also a quote from Camus about “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

The fact is, however, Meursault is not exactly an ordinary man.  First of all, when the prosecutor at his trial accuses him of feeling no remorse for the murder he committed, he says of himself, “I would have liked to have tried explaining to him cordially, almost affectionately, that I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything.”  This is chilling.  This is surely more of a sociopathic reaction than an “ordinary” one.  Also, he feels no regret for being party to a casual acquaintance’s abuse of the other’s girlfriend.  Yet by ordinary standards, he is implicated in this too.  So he’s not really ordinary in the accepted sense.  As well, unusual atmospheric conditions pertain to his case:  though we are aware from statistics that more violent crimes are committed during excruciatingly hot weather, in Meursault this reaches an extreme–as he thinks just before he commits the murder, the heat of the day and “the sun [were] just the same as [they] had been the day I’d buried Maman….”  This may be the one way in which Meursault is ordinary, i.e., that a death of a near relative is the first (and perhaps not just correlative but also causative) event in the sequence which ends with his execution.  Even in the plain, unvarnished prose of the book, we perhaps can see it as a key precipitating event to his reaching out to other people around him, one of whom, Raymond, is not a good friend for him to have.  Rather, because he is full of “gentle indifference,” as he later says, he suddenly is accessible when Raymond randomly reaches out to him.  Expressions or states of being or mind occurring over and over begin to carry the emotive force of the book; we read of “no way out” (an expression much like Sartre’s “huit clos,” often translated as “no exit”).  Also, there are matters of “chance,” and the “dizziness” in Meursault’s head which causes him to be so bothered by the heat.  He even ends up saying in court that it was “because of the sun” that he committed the murder.  One might propose to oneself to ask what the mother’s death in cooler weather would have produced:  the same “gentle indifference” and submission to “chance,” or ordinary mourning behavior, which others see as lacking in him and which lack they say indicated ahead of time his clearly criminal nature.

It is also not “inadvertently” exactly that he is drawn into the excessiveness of Raymond’s life, but unresistingly, as if he has no limits within him which could be recognized as moral waystations.  He says of himself at the trial at one point, “for the first time I realized that I was guilty.”  Therefore, though the terms of existential and absurdist fiction have been applied to The Stranger, there are also clear signs that these terms don’t mean the same thing as they come to mean rather more directly in Camus’s short story “The Guest,” from his 1957 book “Exile and the Kingdom.”

In “The Guest,” a teacher, clearly not sociopathic but intensely kind in his regard for other people, treats a soldier and the soldier’s Arab prisoner alike with humanity and brotherhood, only to be “absurdly” put in the position to be judged at fault both by the soldier’s regime and by the prisoner’s society.  This story has another “surprise” ending, so for the benefit of those who haven’t read it, I won’t say more of the plot.  Again, however, the physical setting is very evocative of locale and weather conditions, though in this story it is winter which prevails.  To get my point, i.e., how much more truly absurd the fate of the teacher may turn out to be than Meursault’s, one has only to compare the two of them.

The juncture where the two tales meet, however, is at the fulcrum of choice.  For the true existentialist position is that one has an amount of choice (more or less limited by pre-existing circumstances), and one is responsible for that choice.   And this is an observation which holds true in both stories, whether as in the first we see a near sociopath–whose main excuse is the heat of the day–or as in the second we witness a person practicing human kindness, tolerance, and understanding.  As I once was told by an excellent teacher, “You are free, so make your choice.”  We all have a few pre-existing conditions to cope with; what matters is what we do with what we’ve got.

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

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