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A Leveling Wind:
Reading Camus’ The Stranger

camus1,711 words

Albert Camus’ The Stranger had a powerful effect on me when I first read it at the age of 18. Recently I had cause to pick it up again when I re-read Bill Hopkins’ The Leap! (a.k.a. The Divine and the Decay) with the aim of writing an essay on it. Hopkins’ manner of constructing a plot out of seemingly trivial, tedious, and disconnected events that suddenly come together in an emotionally shattering climax — a climax that seems utterly surprising yet in hindsight utterly inevitable — brought to mind The Stranger

The Stranger is a literary presentation of atheistic existentialism as incarnated by Camus’ anti-hero Patrice Meursault, a Frenchman in Algiers who, through a chain of absurd contingencies, impulsively kills an Arab, yet is successfully portrayed as a depraved, cold-blooded killer who must be sentenced to death for the protection of society.

Yet the real danger Meursault poses is not to the lives of his fellow citizens, but to their worldview. He is an outsider (another translation of the French title L’Etranger). Meursault does not think and feel as other people do. He is an intelligent man denied higher education by poverty. He bases his beliefs on his own experiences, not on what other people believe. He does not believe in God or Providence or Progress.

Meursault sees life as a series of contingencies without an overall meaning or purpose, whereas his fellow men insist on seeing patterns of significance that simply do not exist, whether they be divine Providence, premeditated criminality, or the expressions of a depraved character. Thus, after a darkly comic trial, he is sentenced to die for what is essentially an act of manslaughter simply because he does not believe in God and did not cry at his mother’s funeral, which signify depravity to judge and jury alike.

There really is something unsettling about Meursault. Is he a sociopath, as the prosecutor claims? The answer is no. He does not lack feeling for his mother, for his elderly neighbor and his mangy dog, or for his mistress Marie. But he is emotionally distant and undemonstrative. I imagine him as a taciturn Nordic — a strong, silent type — who does not easily show or speak about his feelings. Indeed, he is not sure what certain words like “love” even mean. This does not mean he is incapable of love, but merely that he is loath to use words loosely.

Meursault’s characteristic idleness, benign indifference, and lack of ambition strike one as depressive. He turns down a promotion and a transfer to Paris because he is content where he is. On weekends, he lounges around smoking until noon, then whiles away the afternoon and evening watching the street. When he is in jail, he sleeps 16 hours a day.

But Meursault is not an unhappy man. He is never bored. The secret to his happiness lies in his ability to live in the present. Since he does not employ concepts he does not understand, he experiences the world directly, with a minimum of social mediation. He is intelligent, but not over-burdened with reflectiveness. When in jail, he occupies himself by recalling vivid, fine-grained experiences of ordinary things. He is complacent simply because he is easily contented. He is a particular kind of outsider: a naïf, a savage — and to all appearances, not a particularly noble one.

Meursault’s naïve immersion in the present may be his happiness, but it is also his undoing. He is rendered almost senseless by the oppressive Algerian sun — another reason to picture him as a Nordic rather than a Mediterranean type — particularly on the day of his mother’s funeral and on the day he shot the Arab. In both cases, he reflexively reacts to his environment, because his sun-baked brain is simply not capable of reflective action, of premeditated agency, of raising him out of sensuous immersion in the present. But others interpret his acts as springing from a lack of feeling rather than an excess — from premeditation rather than blind reflex.

Meursault is a kind of existentialist Christ who is martyred because of the threat that his naïve authenticity poses to those who live second-hand, conventional lives. But Camus thinks that Meursault’s life is not exemplary until the very end of the book, when he overcomes his naïveté and comes to reflectively understand and affirm the life he had previously lived only thoughtlessly.

After Meursault is condemned to die, he files an appeal then awaits either reprieve or execution. In his cell, he falls into a kind of hell built on the hope and desire to escape or master his fate. He lies awake all night because he knows that the executioner comes at dawn, and he does not want to be caught sleeping. Only when he knows that he has another 24 hours, does he allow himself to rest. During his waking hours, he runs through all the possible outcomes, trying to construct consoling arguments even in the face of the worst case scenario.

It is only when Meursault has to endure an exacerbating visit from a priest offering supernatural solace that he comes to his senses. In a burst of anger, he rejects the false hopes offered by the priest — and his own apparatus of false hopes as well. He realizes that all mankind erect such rationalizations as barriers to evade the certitude of death. We picture death as out there in the future somewhere, at a safe distance. Or we picture ourselves as somehow surviving it.

But Meursault realizes that “From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent wind had been blowing toward me, my whole life long, from the years that were to come. And in its path, that wind have leveled our all the ideas that people tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years that I was living through.” This wind, of course, is death, and it comes to us all. Or, to be more precisely, it is a possibility that we carry around inside ourselves at all times. It is a possibility that we must face up to.

Part of Pascal’s wager is that if we believe in Christianity and turn out to be wrong, we will have lost nothing. Camus disagrees: if we believe in any system of false consolation in the face of death, we will still die, but we will have lost everything — everything real — for we will never have truly lived in the world around us. Hope for an unreal world deprives us of the real one. So perhaps we should at least try to live without supernatural consolation.

But to do that, we must embrace the leveling wind, allowing it to carry away false hopes. We must squarely confront the terrifying contingency and finitude of life. We must let go of our fear of death in order to truly live. For if we cease to fear death, we should be free of all lesser fears as well, which will give us the freedom to make the most of life. But this does not merely allow us to accept our mortality, but perhaps also to love it for adding poignancy to life.

This realization brings Meursault peace. He understand why his mother, as she neared her death in an old folks’ home, took on a fiancé: “With death so near, mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no more in the world, had any right to weep for her.” And Meursault did not weep, although at the time he did not know the reason why.

Now that Meursault had faced his mortality, he too “felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope . . .” It is the the absence of false hope that allows him to face death and to experience freedom. The priest mentions that he is certain that Meursault’s appeal will be granted, but at this point, it does not matter, because whether his death comes sooner or later, Meursault has embraced his death as a potentiality he carries at all times.

He continues: “. . . gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.” Meursault had always lived his life as if the universe were benignly indifferent, i.e., there is no cosmic plan, divine or secular, but merely a play of contingencies. To “lay his heart open” to such a universe means that Meursault is for the first time coming to reflective awareness of the previously unstated presuppositions of his life. And he realizes that his life is good. That he was happy, and that he is happy still.

The Stranger ends with defiant, enigmatic words: “For all to be accomplished, for me to be less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.” Why would Meursault be more lonely if his fellow men did not hate him? Because he has embraced his mortality and recognized his kinship with a Godless, aimless universe. He is no longer a stranger to the real world. Thus his estrangement from the unfree, inauthentic human world that condemned him is complete.

The Stranger is not really a political novel, but it belongs on the “Red Pill” curriculum. When I first read The Stranger, it harmonized nicely with my adolescent individualism and alienation. Today, I have outgrown the individualism, but the alienation is still with me, backed up with a slew of sound reasons. You cannot overthrow a society you are invested in. You can’t be a citizen of a better world until you are a stranger to this one. So Meursault’s proud pariahdom should be an example to us all.

Note: There are several translations of The Stranger. On purely literary grounds, I prefer Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 Knopf translation (which I have quoted above with some modifications) over more recent efforts.

 

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9 Comments

  1. Shaun
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I totally understand the outsider point of view. I think I am an outsider — well, I’m not an insider (who would want to be) so I must be an outsider by default.

    I’m jealous of the guy described in this novel. If you’re a free thinker in a culture filled with lies you have to engage in a constant battle against everything you’ve ever been tool, have been told and will be told. Most people are full of shit, so it must be nice to have a high-IQ and arrive at your own conclusions without outside influences — how wonderful.

    Great analysis of the novel.

    Thanks….

  2. rhondda
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Another way I saw this book was that the protagonist was totally alienated from the games of society. They meant nothing to him. It is like Patty Hearst was convicted because she did not display the correct remorse and was judged because of that and not that she had been totally traumatized by the situation and overwhelming propaganda by her captors. ( Stockholm syndrome) People are so stupid. Cry at the right time and you are loved, don’t cry and you are condemned. Now it is cry and be remorseful, you still are condemned, especially if you are white: witness Paula Deen, and Donald Sterling. Or take McCain. Was not that man brainwashed in the war? Why is he now regarded as some kind of leader, when men on the left (was it McGovern?) who admitted to depression and was totally vilified? What is up with that? How do you know that McCain is not deeply disturbed? How do you know that Hilary is not also with her love of Alinsky? ( should we count whom she married and is not a stand by your man sort of woman, but actually did that)

    • The_Brahmin
      Posted June 4, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      ”How do you know that McCain is not deeply disturbed?”

      That question need not be asked. McCain is absolutely and totally and deeply disturbed.

  3. Anon
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Fred Turner’s sci-fi novel The Double Shadow starts with a kabuki performance of The Stranger on Mars in the 28th century. The New Right connection to that is that his epic poem, The New World, takes place in the former Uess of the 24th century, when this country has dissolved into riots, burbs, and independent warring counties, where civilization, new religions, and eugenics flourish.

  4. Posted June 3, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    A $2.99 kindle version just appeared on Amazon; it seems to be the old Knopf translation, which may be out of copyright; the newer one is 8 bucks. Grab it while you can!

    http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Albert-Camus-ebook/dp/B00JPKW5Y0/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1401813768&sr=1-2&keywords=camus+stranger

  5. rhondda
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Camus is my favourite philosopher. That he is put with the existentialists is only because he knew Sartre. He is a lover of life. My first take on The Outsider was that he was condemned for not performing the bourgeois rituals of society. You know those little gestures that the church ladies crave all the time to prove to themselves they exist. I used to carry his Myth of Sisyphus with me just to read his refutation of Kierkegaard and his mutilated soul. Camus called it the sacrifice of the intellect. He was my refuge in a sea of idiots.

  6. Raedwald
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Is there any message here for the New Right or…?

  7. The_Brahmin
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    ”The secret to his happiness lies in his ability to live in the present.”

    The above is not an option we humans have in reality, do we? We are burdened (or blessed) with memories of the past. We remember things about ourselves, our families and indeed our histories. Where is the freedom from such memories? We also cannot be free of our future. We constantly think about it, plan for it, try to predict it and impact it. But never free from it. Our historical memories and our forebodings of the future shape our consciousness and our identities. Where is the freedom from that?

    Like you, I too read this book in my late teens along with some other works by the so called French existentialists – Sartre, Ionesco. I never re-read these guys. (Didn’t Sartre later subscribe to Maoism?) I am not sure their gloomowed to a higher consciousness. It’s probably a chapter in the Western cultural decline / decay?

    The Indo-Europeans visualised Death differently, none of the middle-east desert confusion at the philosophical level at least. Says the Lord in Bhagavad Gita:

    ”The end of birth is death; the end of death is birth: this is ordained! and mournest thou, Chief of the stalwart arm! for what befalls which could not otherwise befall?”

    ”Never the spirit was born; never the spirit shall cease to be; never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams! birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever; Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems”

    • Harry Savannah
      Posted June 4, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      The above is not an option we humans have in reality, do we? We are burdened (or blessed) with memories of the past. We remember things about ourselves, our families and indeed our histories. Where is the freedom from such memories? We also cannot be free of our future. We constantly think about it, plan for it, try to predict it and impact it. But never free from it. Our historical memories and our forebodings of the future shape our consciousness and our identities. Where is the freedom from that?

      Just so. The protagonist here is a miserable example of a human life. He is not a typical person but as Greg has concluded – a depressing study. So the point seems to be that there is no point. This reminds me of something Doug Wilson said in debating Christophr Hitchens that was amusing and utterly to the point – it is all thus in Hitchen’s schema: All we (it) are (is) are two open bottles of soda on a counter fizzing away. There was no purpose in their debating one another – just utter futility. Men have always agonizingly reached for the Devine and purpose that is implied in the same.

      Of course, in the US (in the year 2014), he may do this after the football game and a half-dozen beers.

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