I shook off my sweat, and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.
The Stranger by Albert Camus is one of those books that made the rounds in high school, was a part of my 80s pop culture referencing (“Killing an Arab” by The Cure ring a bell?) and is only 100 pages long. Yet somehow I have only now come to read it – this brief and beautiful work. Though frequently classified as an existentialist work, Camus himself denied that label, preferring the philosophy of absurdism which maintains that efforts to find meaning in human life are absurd (and will fail) because certainty is impossible. Accordingly there are three possible actions to be taken in response to this lack of ability to know the meaning of life
As much as The Stranger (also translated at The Outsider) explores this third approach to the absurdity of life, the main character (Mersault) somehow misses this third option, instead opting for a form of suicide through the senseless murder of “the Arab” (which removes him from sensory pleasures and ultimately gives the state leave to execute him).
To some degree I am with Camus on this one, the ultimate meaning of life is unknowable – but in order to continue without descending into a kind of self-absorbed individualism, or nihilism we are responsible for finding meaning in interaction and experience. And in fact, recent studies show that individuals find their greatest happiness in relationships, in volunteering or caring for others, in spiritual engagement, in project-oriented goals, and in pursuing goals that are greater than the self. While we shouldn’t conflate the pursuit of happiness with the meaning of life, the field of positive psychology is establishing that a large part of the “good life” (particularly once core material needs are met) is found in the ability to find meaning in our day-to-day activities and relationships.
This is essentially the stuff that Mersault seems unable to do – while he recognizes the aburdity or “pointlessness” of it all – he is unable to find meaning in his relationships, in goals, in religion, and thus is utterly disconnected from his society (a stranger, an outsider – the prosecutor in the murder trial accuses him of having no place among the normal moral mentality of humanity).
Of his mother’s death he says: “It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.”
Of his lover: “A moment later she asked me if I really loved her. I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t.”
Of work ambition: “I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well….. As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile.”
Of the murder: “”And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire — and it would come to absolutely the same thing.”
In each of these statements is the recognition that there either is a grand design and thus Mersault is powerless to it, or there is no grand design and thus none of what he does has much consequence. He is candid with the court system and himself that he does not feel much emotion for anything, doesn’t have time for emotion – and at one point says of his trial “the prospect of witnessing a trial rather interested me, I’d never had occasion to attend one before” – in effect casting himself as an observer on his own life.
But as unaffected as he seems about these matters, he does not seem to recognize that he does place great meaning (and derive great pleasure from) his sensory experiences, particularly in nature. It is in these passages that we locate the emotional resonance of Mersault – that which is truly important to him:
“Only one incident stands out; toward the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind — memories of a life which was mine no longer and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep…. and sleep.”
In this passage, he is overwhelmed by the sensory memories to the degree that he must put a stop to them through sleep – something that he engages in with increasing frequency after his incarceration (sometimes sleeping 16-18 hours per day). As much as Mersault maintains that nothing matters, that nothing changes either way, that nothing has much impact in the long run – it is after his imprisonment that he is (to some degree) awakened to the fact that there are things that matter, at least in the sensory immediate:
“Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man. For instance, I would suddenly be seized with a desire to go down to the beach for a swim. And merely to have imagined the sound of ripples at my feet, the smooth feel of the water on my body as I struck out, and the wonderful sensation of relief it gave brought home still more cruelly the narrowness of my cell.”
We might interpret the act of killing the Arab on the beach is an act of nihilism, which Camus does not approve of. Ultimately this senseless act removes Mersault from his only meaning (sensory experience), plunging him into a state of sensory deprivation (a dark prison cell) – and thus removing the only location in which he finds meaning. And although he ultimately comes to accept his death as a meaningless but good death (particularly if crowds came out to watch it), one doesn’t believe that this is the right answer to the “absurdity” of the human condition. It is certainly *an* answer, but there are too many cracks in the facade of Mersault for us to see him as totally unaffected. His sensory reminiscences allow for the recognition that at least on some level he has experienced a glimmer of personal meeting in life, despite his protestations.
And in case you don’t know it – here is The Cure’s 1978 video for “Killing an Arab”:
How had I failed to recognize that nothing was more important than an execution; that, viewed from one angle it’s the only thing that can ever genuinely interest a man?