Camus, My Take: PART I
Recently, I was introduced to an Albert Camus I could not recognize, and the presentation shocked and dismayed me. Consequently, as much in self-defense as to defend the Camus I remembered, I began to re-reading some of his work. I began with his famous novel, that most frequently encountered by readers coming to him for the first time, The Stranger, and went from there to political essays on rebellion, revolution, and art in The Rebel. I am concerned that some readers of The Stranger have been led to mistake Mersault for Camus himself. The mistake troubles me deeply.
Fictional Characters in General
There have always been novelists who draw their characters pretty directly from life, changing little more than the names (“to protect the innocent”), and it has long been recognized that the protagonist of many a first novel is but a thinly veiled, somewhat exaggerated version of the author. Since writers of fiction are creating their own versions of reality, why would they not use themselves as a first model and present themselves according to their daydreams?
But not all fictional characters can be clearly traced back to the author’s life and personality. More often, every character in a novel has something in common with the author and also similarities to other people the author, intimately known or distantly encountered, perhaps in a history book, a psychology text, or a newspaper article. Wherever the features and habits originally appeared, specific original personalities are born in the writing of fiction.
The Character of Mersault and the Style of The Stranger
The Stranger is a “study in alienation.” ‘Stranger’ in French is also the word for ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ or ‘alien.’ The narrator and main character, Mersault, is alienated from himself and his society. He is without self-awareness (a stranger to himself) and thus without emotions.
Mersault’s response to the world in which he finds himself can be summed up in an exclamation current in the U.S. today: “Whatever!” Marie wants to get married? Whatever! Raymond wants to think they are friends? Whatever! The French phrase is Ca m’est egal. That is, Mersault does not care one way or the other. If Marie had no interest in marriage or Raymond disinclined to be friends, Mersault would think nothing lost. Either way, it’s the same to him. Makes him no never mind.
The style of the narration reflects the character’s detached presentation of events. Sentences are short statements of fact, devoid of affective content. Mersault is telling his own story to us, as it transpires.
Is too much is made of the opening sentences? “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” After all, Mersault is giving us a day-to-day report, and the telegram notifying him of his mother’s passing did not give the day, telling him only when the funeral was to take place. Very soon, however, our suspicions aroused by the opening lines are confirmed, the bare-facts statements having foreshadowed what we encounter in what follows: Mersault feels nothing in response to his mother’s death. The weeping of a woman at the wake, his mother’s close friend, annoys him. When an old man from the home joins the funeral procession the next day, a man he is told used to go out walking with his mother, who was then teased about having a “fiancé,” he makes no attempt to speak to the old man. He has no questions about his mother’s last days and no sympathy for the friends she has left behind, those who – unlike him -- grieve her loss.
Along with a lack of emotions, then, Mersault has an almost complete lack of curiosity. And as he says much later of himself, “I never had a real imagination.” No imagination, no curiosity, no feelings – no empathy. That is the character of Mersault before his conviction for murder.
Mersault is an outsider when first we meet him, but he is not yet a rebel. The rebel is one who says both no and yes – no when he feels his rights have been infringed and yes to the value of life in himself – and then, necessarily, logically, to that value in other human beings. The first step is awareness of absurdity, the second awareness of the value of life in oneself.
Only in prison, when he begins at last to feel unfairly treated, harassed about God by the priest who will not accept his unbelief, does Mersault begin to come to an awareness of himself, to an understanding of his mother’s late-life attachments, and to his own attachment to life. At the beginning of the novel, he is imprisoned, held in solitary, completely alienated; by the last page, he has begun to recognize himself as a member of the human race. But the first, dawning awareness of the rebel – in this case, the Meursault who says no to the priest and yes to the value of his own life – partakes of much remaining confusion. It is a long way from that beginning to a full existential awareness of solidarity with all other human beings.
In logical terms,
Mersault ≠ Camus
To identify one with the other is to miss both the writer and the character.
The Character and Style of Camus
Although Camus, like Mersault, was an atheist and believed strongly that meaning was not given, ready-made, with life, in most other ways the author could not have been more unlike his character. Anyone who has read of his boyhood in Algeria knows him to have been a joyous, active, and inquisitive boy, and anyone reading his later essays recognizes his passion and concern for humanity.
Camus engaged not only with literature but, often painfully, with the divisive politics of postwar France and the searing questions of his time. One cannot imagine Camus the man shrugging and saying, “Nothing matters.” Had he been as alienated from himself and from life as Mersault, he would never have taken the public positions he did against France’s treatment of Algeria, the land of his birth and youth, and the Algerian people.
In his essays, moreover, where he wrote in his own voice rather than the voice of a fictional character, there is nothing half-hearted, no verbal shrugging, no choppy, robot-like reportage. Instead we find crystalline thought, logically developed, and convictions – for him, conclusions -- that ring with passion.
Absurdism and Existentialism
Awareness of the absurd, when we first claim to deduce a rule of behavior from it, makes murder seem a matter of indifference, to say the least, and hence possible. If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is no pro or con: the murderer is neither right or wrong. We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.
Yes, these are words written by Camus. They occur in his introduction to the essays comprised in The Rebel, and it is something like the statement in the paragraph quoted that I encountered in the strange, faux Camus recently introduced to me. Attention, mes amis! Note that ‘seem’ in the first sentence! Remember that we are reading an introduction! And then keep reading, carefully, because awareness of life’s absurdity is the first step, not the conclusion of Camus’s argument!
To illuminate the question of murder, he harks back to the question of suicide that troubled earlier generations of nonbelievers. “To say that life is absurd, the conscience must be alive.” Only a living human being can recognize life as absurd. The act of suicide, then, would undercut the very basis necessary for the act. Thus, affirmation of suicide is contradictory, logically impossible. As to murder --
How is it possible, without making remarkable concessions to one’s desire for comfort, to preserve exclusively for oneself the benefits of such a process of reasoning? From the moment that life is recognized as good, it becomes good for all men. Murder cannot be made coherent when suicide is not considered coherent. A mind imbued with the idea of the absurd will undoubtedly accept fatalistic murder; but it would never accept calculated murder. In terms of the encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe, murder and suicide are one and the same thing, and must be accepted or rejected together.
To accept murder and suicide, to be indifferent to life, is the mark of nihilism, absolute negation. Mass murder and mass suicide illustrate absolute negation. “There are no half-measures about nihilism.” On the other hand,
Absurdist reasoning cannot defend the continued existence of its spokesman and, simultaneously, accept the sacrifice of others’ lives. [Rejection of suicide must entail rejection of murder.] The moment that we recognize the impossibility of absolute negation—and merely to be alive is to recognize this—the very first thing that cannot be denied is the right of others to live.
Conclusion: Life matters. All life matters. To live is to breathe is to choose is to choose life. For Camus, beginning with an awareness of life’s absurdity did not permit one to abandon logic, and logic led right back to life as a value, an inalienable right. It is by choosing that each of us must create our own life’s meaning.
The rebel is one who says both no and yes. The character of Meursault, by the end of the book, has taken the second step, the step away from nihilism, by recognizing the value of his own life. Whether or not, given enough time, he would pursue the logic of “absurdist reasoning” to Camus’s conclusion of a right to live held by all human beings, we cannot know.
Are we taken aback by the phrase “absurdist reasoning”? Does it strike us as a contradiction in terms? It is not, please note, absurd reasoning, not reasoning to absurdity but from one’s awareness of life’s absurdity to recognition of our own freedom and responsibility.