“Sixty years after the French Nobel laureate Albert Camus died in a car crash at the age of 46, a new book is arguing that he was assassinated by KGB spies in retaliation for his anti-Soviet rhetoric.”
~ The Guardian
“Aujourd’hui, mama est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.”
“Maman died today, or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
This is the chilling opening sentence of a novel that rattles you down to your very soul. You might expect a grief-stricken world to unravel, in which a parentless protagonist struggles to cope with his bereavement. Unlike most fiction, though, the Algerian-French writer Albert Camus’s The Stranger has no conventional plot and no tangible character transformations, so much so that the events which unfold – some momentous and others seemingly banal – appear to be more of a means for Camus to depict his protagonist’s philosophical outlook on life.
Camus introduced the idea of the philosophically “absurd” in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”. He hurled at us a frigid notion that in its simplest form would be this: We all build our lives on the hope for tomorrow, but it is that tomorrow which is our ultimate enemy, edging us closer to death – something we all wish to defer. In a cold and silent universe where true knowledge is impossible Camus believed that scientific, rational stories end in vague abstractions as we continue to struggle, in vain, to find an enduring truth.
It is then for us to choose whether we wish to embrace the absurd by rebelling against it – not by suicide, not by irrationally positing a god, but by courageously revelling in our futility, like the eternally damned Sisyphus, whom Camus imaged as “happy”.
The little that Meursault feels, says or does in The Stranger is much less poignant than what he doesn’t feel, doesn’t say or doesn’t do. He is passive yet explosive, indifferent yet anguished, and, most of all, he appears peculiar to those who have not yet encountered the absurd. We hear Mersault describing the breeze while sipping a coffee by his mother’s coffin. He is sleepy and tired.
The day after his mother’s burial, he watches a comedy with a former dalliance. When being interrogated in a court of law for the murder of an Arab, Meursault describes the pleasing sensation of the sun warming his feet. He explains to the jury several times how his crime was instigated by the punishing heat and the droplets of sweat blurring his vision on a scorching, blinding beach – and nothing more.
To Meursault, these actions and answers are truthful and fair, but to those living within the boundaries of a lawful, moral and rational universe he is a menacing outsider, capable of toppling their lives into chaos.
The genius of the narration makes it seem that what worries the courtroom jury is not the fact that Meursalt shot an Arab, but the fact that he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. In Camus’s words, he is a hero and villain of truth – a man who refuses to say more than that which is true, more than that which he feels. A man who refuses to play our games of half-truths and white lies, even in the face of death.
Meursault is a man absorbed by his immediate physical sensations. He does not ruminate about the future, nor does he reflect or regret the past. His recurring observations about the sun, the waves, the breeze, the sand in situations where they ought to be the last thing on his mind depict the absurdist outlook that has enveloped his inert soul.
What was it that led Albert Camus to this philosophical space?
The aftermath of the Second World War sowed the seeds for a stimulus that made artists all around the world reflect the reality of their times through their work. Composers like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern began to get rid of a five-hundred-year-old system of tonal harmony and embraced the jarring twelve-tone system to represent the sheer lack of moral, political and artistic order in the world around them.
The same momentum took over the visual arts, as deconstructivism and abstract expressionism emerged. In philosophy, the devastation of war stimulated absurdist and existentialist outlooks and facilitated their acceptance, particularly in France.
Camus – a European in Africa, an African in Europe, a blasphemous Muslim, a lapsed Catholic, raised by a widowed mother – occupied several miniature lifetimes. He lived in different communities while feeling like a stranger to each of them. The distanced narration of The Stranger, then, might be interpreted as somewhat autobiographical.
I read The Stranger at an age where one is usually involved, hopeful – even obsessed with obtaining specific outcomes that we deem desirable. We are so attached to these outcomes that any shortage in our wish fulfilment leads to sorrow and outrage. We find ourselves in a constant battle of sorts – outshining our co-workers, struggling to sustain relationships, getting a bigger house, being a better parent – while waging a constant struggle to satisfy our physical needs.
At that age, The Stranger is as therapeutic as it is shorn of hope, because it proposes an anaesthetic peace where one life is as good as another – where no matter how much we do, a sustained apathy lingers in the universe – and within us. Mersault’s infectious indifference offers a strange solace, but at the same time it threatens to toss us into a dark and horrific space, where nothing we do or ever will do will matter.
Living each moment for what it is, while sounding like a solution, does not save us from the constant flux of pleasure and pain. Along with a latent absorption in the physical present, for Meursault there exists a vulnerability borne of the belief that we are nothing more than our fragile physical bodies. This yanks us back to the nagging human need for a grand everlasting truth in a universe that is not indifferent towards us. Maybe Meursault yearns for it too.