Friday, October 11, 2013

The Stranger--a paradox, and perhaps a dissenting opinion

I am determined to get up this post about my last book group meeting before I attend my next book group meeting, even though that is only a few days away, because I was very struck by this odd effect that Camus's famous novel about "the stranger", or "the outsider" had. Perhaps the best translation from the French  L'√Čtranger  is really "the estranged one". So it is very interesting that this tale of a person who is in some ways estranged from society should have been the catalyst of one our most enthusiastic, connected and communal discussions. Not only did everyone show up, but even a member who no longer lives in town showed up, and unlike many meetings where we talk a little about the book and a lot about everything else, the story of Meursault in the aftermath of his mother's death brought forth discussion right away and the conversation didn't let up for a long time. I found myself wondering what it was about this isolated figure that brought about such, well, solidarity? 


I didn't ever read The Stranger in school, so this was a fresh run for me. I am glad I didn't have to tie the book into Existentialism or hear prevailing theories as I tried to come up with some new theory for a paper or exam. My take on the story seems to be a bit different from what others have said it is supposed to be about. I found it not at all odd that a son would walk around in a state of numbness after his mother's death, and though his having put her away in a home with other people because of financial exigencies might have shocked French-Algerian culture of the time, it certainly would raise no eyebrows in American society today. It would seem, on the contrary, he did the best he could for her.

My own experience of the death of people close to me has several times been like that of Meursault in the sense that there is a slightly unreal, out of body experience in the face of the actuality of death, and also a kind of taking stock of one's own physical reality. There is a glimpse of our own eventual dismemberment and so we look at ourselves to see if we are in fact all there. I found that after Meursault went home, he was doing much the same thing, testing the "reality" of reality--the job, a sexual encounter, and so on. I didn't actually take it to be his ordinary state and thought that if Camus had wanted to describe a very disassociated young man who just goes on about life like that normally, he wouldn't have thrown in the death of the mother at the very beginning. Significantly, we don't really know Meursault's relation with this woman, as, by the time we meet him, she is already dead. The things I have read about the book suggest that Meursault is just very honest and he is reacting against conventional response, but in fact, his response to his mother's illness is very conventional--he doesn't abandon her, he finds the best place can for her in the circumstance, and one which apparently gives her some late life happiness.

One of my group members responded to my associating to my own mother's death with the statement that she hadn't really been grief-stricken at her mother's passing. We didn't get to continue with this, but much later, I remember thinking that part of the whole point of The Stranger is that it doesn't actually matter what you feel. The death of a mother is a stage in the human journey, and it isn't so much about what you do with it as the fact that, unless you die first, you must undergo it.

I had the temerity, perhaps under the influence of wine, to read the final passages of the first part of the book aloud to the group. The plus side of this was that one member, who is a nurse and a Buddhist, said, "oh--it's a birth experience." We all came around to this perspective, more or less.

Though other reviews have praised for his impeccable honesty, to my mind,  he is crucially lacking in the quality of empathy. Intellectual honesty actually means little in relation to this. Meursault does wake up from the daze of being into questions of life and death, but I'm not sure he ever awakens  to what it means to be a human being--that is, someone conscious of the fact that they co-inhabit the world with other living creatures, and have a responsibility to others as well as to themselves.

The moment that continues to stick with me is that of the shooting that lands Meursault in prison. When reviews talk about Meursault as 'an ordinary man', I tend to agree that most of us can imagine getting caught up in a moment when he or she could shoot or at least harm someone else, especially if there is some provocation. But for me there is a crucial difference between that first, reactionary shot, and then the four more that, after a pause, followed.

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