Posted: July 8, 2014
A review of The Stranger, by Albert Camus
he problem with understanding Albert Camus' books has always been Albert Camus. As an almost larger than life figure, his stormy career seems to overshadow his work. Very few authors' private lives have come under the scrutiny that Camus' did; indeed, very few authors have so completely flung themselves before the public's gaze. Thus most critics and biographers have attempted to interpret the work through the man.
The recent Camus revival taking place in this country-evidenced by not fewer than two biographies and a myriad of scholarly studies, journal articles and reviews-is no exception. For example H.J. Kaplan, in his article Brother Camus (Commentary, February 1983), admits "it's not the writer I've been looking for, but the man." Judging the man to be incomplete, Kaplan concludes the same for his work. He states that Camus "as an artist, quite visibly, . . . became a sleepwalker." Therefore Camus' life and work were "frauds." Were Kaplan and the other critics and biographers less concerned with dredging up sordid details from Camus' life, they might well have seen his work as something more than "illogical" and "incoherent."
It is fitting, with the recent passing of the 40th anniversary of Camus' first and most famous novel, The Stranger, that the work rather than the man be commemorated. This means that we shall refrain from psychoanalysis of the author. Undignified immersion into Camus' private life can tell us little else than that he underwent great spiritual turmoil; it tells us nothing about The Stranger. For this method attempts to understand an author better than he understood himself. Instead we shall treat The Stranger on its merits alone. In this manner, Camus can, perhaps, be rescued from the oblivion of second-rate existentialism where his critics have cast him.
The Stranger contains the elements of a modern tragedy. The main character, Meursault, lives a quiet, commonplace life in Algiers. The novel opens with Meursault making preparations for the funeral of his mother, whom he had placed in a home for the aged. After an account of the funeral and the events of the subsequent days, our protagonist meets and befriends a certain Raymond Sintes. This chance relationship, which includes collaboration with Sintes to avenge himself on an unfaithful Arab girlfriend, eventually builds to a beach excursion. On the beach, in the aftermath of wine-drinking and a brawl with the brother of Sintes' girlfriend, Meursault murders him. The core of the book is Meursault's reflection on the meaning of life and death during his trial and imprisonment. To all appearances, we see a rather ordinary man swept up and destroyed by a necessitous chain of events over which he has no control.
As the title of the novel suggests, Meursault is a man estranged. It is no small part of Camus' art that the main character, who narrates the whole book, remains something of a stranger throughout. But "stranger" does not exhaust the meaning of "l'etranger." For it may also be defined as "foreigner" or even "alien." Thus it is no accident that we never find Meursault immersed in life. He remains a mysterious, detached observer oddly unaffected by everything around him. That Camus originally intended the novel to be entitled L'indifferent reveals much about Meursault.
A clinical coldness and a quizzical wonder characterize Meursault's view of his mother's funeral. Though he claims that "never had I seen anyone so dearly as I saw those people" during the nightlong vigil over the casket, nevertheless "it was hard to believe that they really existed." This outlook carries over to all aspects of his life. The account of the time spent with Marie (the day after the funeral), far from being routine, is something more akin to the dispassionate description of a scientific experiment. Meursault's detached indifference is made most clear by the way he spends "a typical Sunday afternoon." He studies "the movement . . . in the streets" while perched on his balcony. He observes: "What few people were about were in an absurd hurry." In the wake of his mother's death and after a day with Marie (whom he later agrees to marry), Meursault concludes: "Really, nothing in my life had changed."
Meursault has been described by one commentator as "an ordinary man . . . helpless in life's grip." Through the art of the author the unsuspecting reader comes to have some sympathy for Meursault. But the sympathetic presentation is merely a device employed by Camus. (He uses this device to even greater effect in The Fall. The main character, Jean-Baptiste Qamence, occupies his life with showing people (in a bar called Mexico City on the Amsterdam waterfront) that "they are vile." The action of the novel is the conversation Jean-Baptiste has with an unnamed interlocutor. In it he reveals the most private details of a sordid life. Yet one finds at the end of the book that the account is nothing but a lie designed to gain the complicity of the reader. "I adapt my words to my listener and lead him to go me one better. . . . I construct a portrait which is the image of all and no one.") By spinning out a very "ordinary" series of events-and by recreating such a vivid picture of life in Algiers-Camus quietly lulls us into indifference. For example, Camus' ability to illustrate the desert heat in the funeral scene overpowers the reader's sensibilities.
Wherever I looked I saw the same sun-drenched countryside, and the sky was so dazzling I dared not raise my eyes. Presently we struck a patch of freshly tarred road. A shimmer of heat played over it and one's feet squelched at every step, leaving bright black gashes. In front, the coachman's glossy black hat looked like a lump of the same sticky substance, poised above the hearse. It gave one a queer, dream-like impression, that blue-white glare overhead and all this blackness around one: the sleek black of the hearse, the dull black of the man's clothes, and the silvery black gashes in the road. And then there were the smells, smells of hot leather and horse dung from the hearse, veined with whiffs of incense smoke. What with these and the hangover from the poor night's sleep, I found my eyes and my thoughts growing blurred.
Meursault's own assessment of the drama accurately describes Camus' art in the scene: "After that everything went with a rush; and also with such precision and matter-of-factness that I hardly remember any details." We are so dazed by the clarity and minuteness of the account that we almost forget this is his mother's funeral. We begin to commiserate with him. Camus subtly compels the reader to see something of Meursault in himself.
Yet we should not be deceived by Meursault. We must see that Camus' intention is to deflect the reader's gaze away from Meursault. For he desires in the first part of The Stranger to engage the reader in the drama. Camus, by means of Meursault's narration of the novel, gains our secret consent to Meursault's thoughts and actions. But we must take note also that the drama is wholly narrated by Meursault; indeed, we see the world only through his eyes. Thus it is of crucial importance that we not mistake Meursault's indifference for an objective presentation of things-least of all himself. The device of the powerful, detailed description of the physical circumstances is repeated in the murder scene. Again Camus immerses the reader in sensuality. We feel the dreamy torpor of a morning on the beach, the effect of wine-drinking, and heat.
There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. . . . It pressed on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve end to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me.
Camus attempts to gain the reader's complicity in the act of murder-to demonstrate again that there is something in us which is sympathetic to Meursault. Camus compels the reader to participate in the deed in order that judgment be reserved. For he wishes that we not judge Meursault according to an abstract standard of justice. This is possible insofar as the author's craft is able to engage the unconscious participation of the reader; to judge Meursault is to judge oneself. Thus Camus is able to place the reader in Meursault's dilemma: "And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire or not fire-and it would come to the same thing." The drama of the scene raises the following question: Is Meursault responsible for his crime? Or is he simply at the mercy of his "physical condition"? Put differently the question reads: Is there a connection between Meursault's indifference and his crime?
In the second half of The Stranger Camus reexamines these questions regarding crime and responsibility from another perspective. Meursault is brought before the law-the chief magistrate. After asserting that "the Code is all that could be desired," the chief magistrate concerns himself with the suspect's soul. He is confused and horrified that Meursault neither repents his sin nor believes in God. The chief magistrate is as much dominated by a concern with Meursault's sins as with his crime. The nexus of law and religion in the chief magistrate illustrates the problem with which Camus dealt throughout his life-ideology. Indeed, Camus' teaching may be most clearly seen in his assault on ideology, or, as he puts it in The Rebel, "historical absolutes."
To indicate Camus' teaching we should first attempt to understand his notion of the "absurd." According to The Myth of Sysiphus, the absurd is "the confrontation of the wild and irrational longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart" with a world that "in itself is not reasonable." Simply put, the absurd is the desire for meaning in a world that has been systematically drained of meaning by modern thought. As Camus put it in The Rebel, the creation of metaphysical systems was an attempt "to construct a purely terrestrial kingdom" where men became "rivals of the Creator." Through this reconstructing of "creation according to their own concepts" men effectively kill God: hence, the absurdity of the world. Far from a theoretical postulate Camus thought that this "concrete reality" was the fundamental fact of the modern world: "The absurd . . . is all I can discern clearly in the measureless universe."
The crisis of modernity, according to Camus, is the desire of modern man to create metaphysical "systems." As he puts it in The Rebel, this passion is "a blind impulse" that demands "order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral." The very worst examples are nihilism and existentialism. (It is interesting to note that, contrary to unlearned opinion, Camus was not an existentialist. In fact he vehemently denied being either an existentialist or a nihilist throughout his life. All of his work, particularly The Myth of Sysiphus and The Rebel, must be read as an attack on both of these positions to be understood properly.) The political form that this abstract and theoretical edification took, totalitarian ideology, Camus thought, had so transformed consciousness as to make immersion in human life almost impossible. The only recourse for modern man is continuous "rebellion" by the "absurd hero" against historical absolutes. The consciousness of the absurd character of modern life-that is, the consciousness of the irrational expectations that ideology had imposed on human life-would reconcile man to the limits of human things. This, Camus believed, would provide the means whereby an authentic existence might at some point be possible again.
We may, then, restate the problem of crime and responsibility in the context of ideology. Ideology is that all-encompassing account of the universe, both physical and spiritual, that provides no room for disagreement or deviation. The ideologist-in the case of The Stranger the chief magistrate-is the antithesis of the absurd hero. For the ideologist lacks the intellectual honesty to confront the disproportion between the desire for clarity and the mind's limits. He attributes a finality to his position at all costs. The ideologist is l'indifferent par excellence; he refuses to find the reason for his existence in human life itself.
Camus makes it clear that all of the characters in the novel (with the possible exception of Marie) suffer the modern malady of indifference. All seek to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions. The reasoning that underlies the guilty verdict in Meursault's trial also implicates the chief prosecutor. It is not for the murder alone that Meursault is convicted; he is also "morally guilty of his mother's death." This is arrived at "psychologically."
After immersing the reader in the action of the first half of the novel, Camus intends that one see the disproportion between the deed itself and the meaning imposed on it by the prosecutor. But this is not to absolve Meursault of responsibility. For even he finally becomes aware of his guilt; he remarks in amazement: "For the first time I understood that I was guilty." Camus understands that Meursault is guilty for his indifference-for the nihilistic rationalization of his murder. In the same manner the chief prosecutor can judge the suspect only according to an unseen intention, an intention that must be imposed by the scientific method. We find that there is a cause and effect relationship attributed to Meursault's behavior at the funeral and the murder that does not actually exist. For Camus this is ultimately a rationalization of the murder-and such reasoning, he thought, might absolve as well as condemn.
Both the chief prosecutor and Meursault are guilty of the loss of a sense of limits in human things. On the most profound level, Meursault's indifference made the murder a necessity. For it is but a very short leap to conclude from the premise "one life was as good as another" that life and death are a matter of indifference. (It is certainly no accident that Camus chose to name his main character Meursault, which may be loosely translated "death-leap.") Moreover, when the prosecutor asserts that "it was never in his [Meursault's] power to acquire . . . decent instincts," he frees Meursault of guilt at the same time that he finds him to be "a menace to society." In the last analysis, the prosecutor and the suspect are in agreement-Meursault is not responsible for the crime.
The teaching of The Stranger reduces itself to the proposition that human beings must be responsible for their actions. We come to learn this when Meursault finds that there are limits to a human existence. Initially he believes that human beings are adaptable to everything. "I've often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I'd have got used to it by degrees." But even he "couldn't stomach this brutal certitude" of what remained of life after the sentence. Meursault reveals the stark character of modern life:
For really, when one came to think of it, there was a disproportion on which it (the determination of his guilt) was based and the unalterable sequence of events starting from the moment when that judgement was delivered.
The finitude of his life and the irreversible certainty of his death-over which he has no control-cause Meursault to rebel. Life and death are no longer matters of indifference. The inevitability of death with "no hope" makes clear the fundamental difference between subsistence in a tree trunk and a human existence. Meursault is struck by the cold "certainty" and "efficiency" of the system. "I came to the conclusion that what was wrong about the guillotine was that the condemned man had no chance at all, absolutely none." In the face of death it is human freedom, the limited control of one's destiny, that constitutes a human life.
Camus teaches that an absolute freedom of the sort that Meursault demands for himself is the obverse of the absolute justice of his sentence. The two are inseparable. For the radically "free" man, Meursault, all questions are closed-just as they are for the ideologist. Final understanding of the universe accompanies his absolute freedom-even though this understanding takes the form of an assertion of the meaninglessness of the universe. For nihilism understands itself to be the final and irrefutable truth. All questions regarding a standard according to which human life orders itself are answered; the only guide for action is historical expediency. The absolute indifference of Meursault is merely one more form of a "historical absolute,"; in Camus' mind one finality replaces another.
Thus Meursault concludes that the circumstance in which he finds himself must lead to acquiescence.
Death had been ordained irrevocably. . . . So it came to this-against the grain, no doubt-the condemned man had to hope that the apparatus is in good working order. . . . It came to this; the man under sentence was obliged to collaborate mentally, it was in his interest that all should go off without a hitch.
Yet even though "this business of dying must be got through inevitably," Meursault cannot quite reconcile himself to it, but he is unable also to reconcile himself to an immersion in life. While he does rebel, he never does become the absurd hero. This, the highest and noblest of Camus' characters, does not appear in The Stranger. Meursault is a fundamentally flawed figure.
We see this clearly in the decisive confrontation between Meursault and the chaplain that terminates the work. The chaplain recognizes that Meursault's case is the human condition writ small-that "every man on earth is under the sentence of death." It is only at this point-when he is "sure of [himself], sure . . . of the death that was coming"-that Meursault is able to understand the joy of life and consider the possibility of an afterlife. But he desires an afterlife in which he "remembers this life on earth." At the precise instant that Meursault turns toward life, he is forever denied it.
In The Stranger the young Camus does no more than indicate the problem of human life in the modern world. Meursault's rebellion requires him to recognize the absurdity of modern existence; it requires him to see the disproportion between historical absolutes and the meaninglessness of the universe upon which they rest. But while his rebellion leads him toward an affirmation of participation in life, which fills him with a "sudden rush of joy," it does at the same time prevent that participation. For the realization of the joy of life takes place in the most inhuman of environments-in a dark and cramped prison cell under an irreversible sentence of death. Meursault understands the necessity of participating in life from a standpoint that is radically outside life. While he "felt ready to start life all over again," he also lays his "heart open to the benign indifference of the universe." From this standpoint an affirmation of life can only be a neutrality toward life.
The problem of absurdity-the problem of a longing for meaning in the human soul in a world drained of meaning by modern science and ideology-consumed Camus for the rest of his life, clearly he never solved the problem; but only a rash man would say that anyone has solved the problem or, more properly, answered the questions that he raised. Camus understood himself to be posing problems and raising questions that could only be solved and answered in the future. He despaired of a political solution in his lifetime, because he felt that any recovery of meaningful politics-even from the ancient world that he loved and admired so much-would be achieved from a detached and indifferent position outside of political life itself. Totalitarian ideology and its twin, nihilism, displayed to him the almost insurmountable difficulty of such an undertaking.
We may, perhaps, prefer to blink at the circumstance of modern man made clear by Camus. But this would not in any way refute his assessment of the historical situation. Anyone who is a friend of mankind should be thankful for the clarity with which Camus saw the modern predicament. Though he did despair of an easy solution, political or otherwise, Camus displayed his great strength of character and courage by never losing his faith in mankind. Until history brought about more amenable circumstances for man, Camus' hope for humankind, which he himself realized was as unrealistic as it was unreasonable, was the "absurd hero": a man who, while recognizing the true character of the modern world, does not acquiesce to it. The words Camus places in the mouth of Dr. Rieux in The Plague, the very noblest of his literary characters, describes this modern hero well:
You know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with the saints. Heroism and sanctity don't appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.