To continue living and get used to the absurd world

albert-camus-5-desktop-wallpaperAlbert Camus is a French writer, most notable for his three novels “The Stranger”, “The Plague” and “The Fall”; and two book-length philosophical essays “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “The Rebel”. Aside from introducing Camus and his contribution in wide range of issues in moral philosophy in his novels (by summarizing the original article, taken from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [1]), this note shall focus on his first novel “The Stranger”.

Albert Camus’s life and writing themes

Born in 1913, in Mondovi – a small village near the seaport city of Bone, French Algeria; Albert Camus spent his time throughout the two world wars. When he was less than a year, his father died in the battle field shortly after being recalled to military service for WWI. Camus’s family remained him, his mother and an older brother. Three of them struggled to live, with the sole support of the mother who was illiterate, partially deaf and had speaking problem. This period of Camus life was a combination of pain, due to harsh poverty and some rare joyful moments of a loving family.

Very early in life, Camus developed a lifelong interest in philosophy, literature, art, theatre and film. His lively intelligence and active imagination were quickly recognized and by engrossing in study he awarded a scholarship to attend high school at Grand Lycee, a school located near the area of native Muslim community, which shaped his idea of the “outsider” that would be a constant theme in his later writings.

In 1930s, he established himself as multi-talented person: actor, director, scrip writer of the Theatre du Travail – a professional action company specializing in drama with left-wing political themes; he shortly joined Communist Party in 1936 but soon became disillusioned by it, he solely developed his journalism and writing career until 1940s when he became an internationally recognized novelist, dramatist, journalist, philosophical essayist and champion of freedom. “The Stranger” was published in 1942 and received favorable critical response.

­­Camus’s themes and ideas are notably the Absurd, the Revolt, alienation, suicide and rebellion, which is almost automatically come to mind whenever his name is mentioned. The concept of absurdity has become a part of not only world literature and 20th century philosophy, but also of modern popular culture. By his own words, the Absurd expresses a “fundamental disharmony, a tragic incompatibility, in our existence.” He argues that the Absurd is the product of a collision, or confrontation between our human desire for order, meaning, and purpose in life and the bank, indifferent “silence of the universe”: “The absurd is not in man, nor in the world, but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them.” In more clarifying words, we are, as humans, are poor creatures desperately seeking hope and meaning in a hopeless and meaningless world. It arises from the human demand for clarity, and transcendence on the one hand, and a cosmos that offers nothing of the kind on the other. Such is our fate: we inhabit a world that is indifferent to our sufferings and deaf to our protests.

In Camus’s view, there are three possible philosophical responses to this predicament. The first choice is blunt: physical suicide. If we decide that a life without essential purpose, or higher meaning is not worth living, we can simple choose to kill ourselves. However, it is nothing but an evasion. Camus rejects this choice, as it is cowardice, a repudiation or renunciation of life, not a true revolt. The second choice is the religious solution, finding a world and meaning beyond the Absurd, which is called “philosophical suicide”, Camus also rejects it as another type of life evasion and fraudulent, since religious believers simply removes the offending world, and replaces it with a more agreeable alternative.

The third choice, in Camus’s view the only authentic and valid solution – is simple to accept the absurdity, or better yet embrace it, and to continue living. The Absurd is something an unavoidable, moreover a defining, characteristic of the human condition, the only proper response to it is full, unflinching, courageous acceptance.

An indifferent, psychologically-detached viewpoint of “The Stranger”

Now that I’m done with the summary, from here on my words will flow. I wouldn’t say “The Stranger” is an easy read, even though the novel is very short, only 77 pages in pdf file, divided into two parts, before the murder, and after the murder. I had to stop multiple times, trying to get a hold of author’s idea, but one thing I understand for sure is the emotional detachment and indifference to almost everything of the narrator, a kind of anti-hero, Meursault. From the first few sentences: “Maman died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” You tell me if you’re not shocked by his indifference to his own mother’s death. That unemotional remark can only come from a psychopath with a critical pathological issue. But the funny thing is, I do find it fascinating, when a person can detach his emotions from all aspects, leave only the facts related to the issue in question. Because, too many times we have seen people get provoked and misled by their own feelings that somehow misguide them, and prevent them from their better judgment.

Camus’s first and most well-known novel is a first-person narrative by its main character Meursault, a painfully ordinary man of insignificant habits that possesses an surprising unemotional approach to all aspects of his surrounding, from death, love, murder. He shows some uncertainty and confusion after his unintentional murder of an Arab, but never once he shows remorse, nor care to that particular event. After days in prison, waiting to be executed, he has come to terms with the “benign indifference of the universe”, of which he feels that he had been happy, and he is happy still. “All that remained to hope, was that on the day of [his] execution, there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet [him] with howls of execration.”[2] Indeed a strange man.

The novel’s original title in French is L’Etranger, some have translated it into “The Outsider” first (in 1946 by Stuart Gilbert; in 1982 by Joseph Laredo), and then later the book had an alternative title “The Stranger”, translated by Matthew Ward in 1989. Even though the theme of alienation – being an outsider is one of favorite themes in Camus’s works, in this particular novel, Camus doesn’t want to depict Meursault as “the stranger who lives outside of his society”, but as a man who is “the stranger within his society”. Had Meursault been a foreigner, a truly outsider in this sense living among the French society, his acts then can be understood and considered as difference in cultures, in living standards and in accepted social principles. Yet Meursault wasn’t an outsider in such sense, on the contrary, he was one of those white men, a member of the same society that demands meaning behind action [3]. And for what Meursault has done and hasn’t done, there are neither hidden reasons nor deeper meaning to justify his actions; he wasn’t that passionate in anything to actually act up on it. But when a case like Meursault appears, there is no way people let it slide so easily – it goes against the morality of all.

The common trait I share most with Meursault is his indifference to the core. He has this calm, emotionally-detached from all the events that come his ways. Upon the death of his Maman, from the first look it seems that he feels nothing, he isn’t disturbed by the fact that his mother is no longer exist; but from that moment the news hits him, he could not shake off the notion of not having a mother in this life. Repeatedly, he keeps mentioning Maman more often, in an unconscious way, the image of his mother has always been there, but he never expresses in any passionate way like crawling and crying at her funeral or asking unnecessary questions like “why people die”. He accepts all, as facts, whether it’s love or hatred, or death, or disgust, it makes no difference in his mind; as he himself comes to terms with “For the first time in a long time, I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life, she had taken a “fiancé”, why she had played at beginning again. Even there, in that home where lives were fading out, evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her”.  

Speaking of personal choices – or how one lives his life that impact no large community, nobody has the right to pity others, or feel sorry for others, because people don’t know what’s really going on in others’ lives to pass on a conclusion. No human being has the right to pass final moral judgment on another. How others live their lives, whichever they choose to endure. Unless they make the point of not being able to suffer on any longer, we are of no place to judge. Despite our so-called righteousness, we are all guilty in one way or another – nobody is free from mistakes, or wrongdoings, we all do something wrong in the span of our lives, intentionally and accidentally those acts affect others that we know or may not know – that is our deliberate oblivion, of choosing not to look closely at our acts and acknowledge them as truthful and to-the-point as possible. I made such mistakes more often than I should, but gradually I’ve learnt, if others don’t ask for your viewpoints or your meddlesomeness into their business, don’t create problems for yourself. That will save you a lot of troubles, and leave you with better sleep at night.

You would say that is unhealthy not to show any strong emotion or voice out your concerns, but if you think about it a little bit more, you would agree that sometimes being too emotional or sensitive about what happens that doesn’t direct affect you, might not help you understand the whole picture. You only see parts of it, and your judgment might be clouded by prejudice. You are prevented to look at other aspects that belong to the same occurrence, because you haven’t yet obtained all the facts required to grasp the essence of the story.

After a while, you could get used to anything. Things and people that hurt you or bring you joy, it all shall pass

Meursault, in a totally crazy choice of act, kills an Arab. “I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness”.

(Off the topic a bit, I prefer this Ward’s translation of “Alors, j’ai tiré encore quatre fois sur un corps inerte où les balles s’enfonçaient sans qu’il y parût. Et c’était comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.” to Gilbert “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.”  I do not understand French to know which one is more accurate in terms of word transferring, but comparing the two English translations, “knocking on the door of unhappiness” fondly reminds me of “Knocking on heaven’s door”, written and originally performed by Bob Dylan [4], before Guns ‘n’ Roses turning the song into one of most successful rock ballads of the 90s.)

Back to the topic, this killing of a man puts Meursault immediately into jail, starting a new but short enlightening part of his life. His Maman appears again in this prisoned time: “Maman used to say that however miserable one is, there’s always something to be thankful for. And each morning, when the sky brightened and light began to flood my cell, I agreed with her.” Meursault hardly cares about how others think of him or his killing an innocent man. In this sense, the readers cannot say more about him but the impression of a seriously “defective human being”, “a kind of hollow man”, or “a monster of self-centeredness”. The Prosecutor speaks the readers’ minds, when portraits Meursault as “This man has no place in a community whose basic principles he flouts without compunction. Nor, heartless as he is, has he any claim to mercy.”
By the end of the trial, Meursault was decided that, “in the name of the French people, he was to be decapitated in public place”. Here begins the most interesting chapter, when such an emotionally-detached man has to face his ordeal of an early death bestowing on him.

Meursault might not be the only character that comes to terms with “life isn’t worth living anyhow” as common knowledge. I’m sure many protagonists, upon struggles with the injustice, unfairness, the absurdity of privileged people get all the best while others have to suffer from miserable situations would endlessly question the meaning of living. But most of the time, heroes would strive on living after enduring the hardship, work their ways up to the top, or at least, walk away from the battlefield bearing the title winner. Unlike our anti-hero Meursault, he is content with his ordinary, unexciting, and completely meaningless life. To him, it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten. To him, whether he dies now or forty year hence, life still goes on, other men and women will continue living and this business of dying had to be got through. To him, death is a certainty that bears no significant threat. It comes, sooner or later. He quickly gets accustomed to his mistress not writing to him anymore, understanding that people would soon forget a dead person. Even when confronted by the chaplain who is so passionate to help Meursault confessing before God. But that, again to Meursault, believes in God or not is a question of so little importance. Meursault wants to explain, from his core, that he has never been able to truly feel remorse for anything.

Meursault can be a heartless and a monster in your view, but to me, he is by far the most honest, most unpretentious, most straightforward man I have ever encountered in a book. I respect his unpretending demeanor, because he doesn’t lie to himself, or try to justify his actions to win others’ sympathy. A psychopath/sociopath would do that easily, saying they were just trying to defend themselves, saying the Arab man was threatening him first, saying the death of mother was a big shock that he could not cry, saying all sorts of other things that the society wants to hear, so that they would be happy with one reason behind the action. But Meursault is indifferent to all of that; it literally means nothing to him. When the chaplain tries to convince him that Meursault only pretends not to care, that inside his heart is hardened but with the love from God, he shall be cured, be healed, and be freed. But Meursault knows too well that he cannot be free from anything. This puts Meursault into a “blind rage” – since he already accepts the idea that it’s the universe is indifferent to human affairs. It’s life that lacks rational order and meaning. That “blind rage” has washed him clean, rid him of hope, and for the first time, he opens himself to the benign indifference of the world and resonates with it in harmony. And for the first time, from negatively content with how the world goes round, he is fully happy with that fact, and embraces his execution with the cries of hate from the angry mob as companionship, seeing him off to the other side.

Are your hands clean?

I admire Meursault unapologetic lifestyle and his indifference towards humans in particular and the world in general, and from the last paragraph before his execution, Meursault seems happy with his position in the world, he is contented with being a loathed criminal, and feels totally at peace. He is twisted; majority of us doesn’t have this kind of acceptance and contentment from being a stranger within the society. But look at Meursault; do you think that his happiness is not real? Do you think that he does not deserve to be happy? Do you think that because you haven’t killed anyone, it would be OK for you to point your fingers? Do you think that you should be happier and live better that the others, because you are more worthy?

Nobody is sinless, except for the new-born. You and I, we have all done something, said something that harms and hurts the feeling of someone else – deliberately, accidentally – doesn’t matter. It’s human trait, that we will eventually hurt others. We are not flawless. We are not saints. We are not free of judgment from others and from our own consciences. The things that happened, have not yet happened, and will happen – there is no way we could have known until it actually does. The world is vast, our surroundings are also too vague, and we hardly see the whole picture – instead we choose the things we want to see, the things we want to believe. And we all love to think we are the victims, we never want to admit we are also the culprits that lead to the inevitability.

Bottom line, the sooner you accept life and the world will always be absurd as it is – no matter how you condemn its unfairness, it’s gonna come down to nothing in the end – you will get through it in a less serious way, more cheerful, more gentle and generous. And take a look at yourself: before pointing fingers, make sure your hands are clean.

References and Further reading

[1] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Alber Camus: http://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/

[2] File pdf of “The Stranger”, translated by Stuart Gilbert (majority of the quotes I took in above note is from this translation, aside from one quote is translated by Matthew Ward)

http://www.macobo.com/essays/epdf/CAMUS,%20Albert%20-%20The%20Stranger.pdf

[3] Analysis of “The Stranger”, from camus-society:

http://www.camus-society.com/the-stranger-albert-camus.html

[4] Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Bod Dylan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJpB_AEZf6U

Lost in Translation: What the first line of “The Stranger” should be, by Ryan Bloom

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be

A New “L’Etranger”, by Claire Messud

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/06/05/camus-new-letranger/

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