Saturday, April 30, 2016
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Turning toward the dock, he pointed a finger at me, and went on in the same strain. I really couldn’t understand why he harped on this point so much. Of course, I had to own that he was right; I didn’t feel much regret for what I’d done. Still, to my mind he overdid it, and I’d have liked to have a chance of explaining to him, in a quite friendly, almost affectionate way, that I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.
We are. Or more precisely, it is our past selves who are the strangers to our present selves, absorbed as they are, like Camus’s protagonist, in their present moments and immediate futures.
There are clues to this interpretation scattered throughout the text. Early on, we see it in the behavior of others observed by the protagonist.
Twice a day, at eleven and six, the old fellow takes his dog for a walk, and for eight years that walk has never varied. You can see them in the rue de Lyon, the dog pulling his master along as hard as he can, till finally the old chap misses a step and nearly falls. Then he beats his dog and calls it names. The dog cowers and lags behind, and it’s his master’s turn to drag him along. Presently the dog forgets, starts tugging at the leash again, gets another hiding and more abuse. Then they halt on the pavement, the pair of them, and glare at each other; the dog with terror and the man with hatred in his eyes. Every time they’re out, this happens. When the dog wants to stop at a lamppost, the old boy won’t let him, and drags him on, and the wretched spaniel leaves behind him a trail of little drops. But, if he does it in the room, it means another hiding.
Our absorption in the present prevents us, like the old fellow and his dog, from seeing the repeated patterns of behavior that make up the bulk of our existence. When pulled too quickly forward, when stressed, we react the same way, every time, almost as if programmed, oblivious to the recklessness shown by our past selves, by the strangers whose behavior we might otherwise find farcical and objectionable.
Like characters in a novel, any novel, we are archetypes.
“I’m not one who looks for trouble,” he explained, “only I’m a bit short-tempered. That fellow said to me, challenging-like, ‘Come down off that streetcar, if you’re a man.’ I says, ‘You keep quiet, I ain’t done nothing to you.’ Then he said I hadn’t any guts. Well, that settled it. I got down off the streetcar and I said to him, ‘You better keep your mouth shut, or I’ll shut it for you.’ ‘I’d like to see you try!’ says he. Then I gave him one across the face, and laid him out good and proper. After a bit I started to help him get up, but all he did was to kick at me from where I lay. So I gave him one with my knee and a couple more swipes. He was bleeding like a pig when I’d done with him. I asked him if he’d had enough, and he said, ‘Yes.’
We act and react in predictable ways, ways that are destructive to ourselves and to our well-being, but ways we are unable to change no matter how often we repeat them.
And when the more sensitive among this realize this, as Camus’s protagonist does, we draw the wrong conclusion, thinking that this slavery to the strangers within our past means not only that our paths forward are unalterable, but that our own conscious choices have no power to affect the trajectory of our lives.
The sun glinted on Raymond’s revolver as he handed it to me. But nobody made a move yet; it was just as if everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill on this little strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea, the twofold silence of the reed and stream. And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire--and it would come to absolutely the same thing.
Except, of course, that our actions do matter, just as the protagonist’s decision to fire matters, obviously, even to him in the waning echoes of the gunshots.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. 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.
Moments of clarity like this punctuate our lives, so profound that they seem to change the world around us, removing, as Camus called it, our clinging veils of light. But whether they happen to us in the real world, or to fictional characters in a novel’s climactic scene, they are always short-lived, and we inevitably find ourselves separated from them, from the dramatic actions and the strangers that performed them. Like the protagonist, we become imprisoned, he in an actual jail, and us in the complacency of our commonness.
I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. I’d have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds, as I had come to watch for my lawyer’s odd neckties, or, in another world, to wait patiently till Sunday for a spell of love-making with Marie. Well, here, anyhow, I wasn’t penned in a hollow tree trunk. There were others in the world worse off than I. I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas--she was always voicing it--that in the long run one gets used to anything.
Indeed we do. Camus makes the other characters in his short novel view our protagonist as an inhuman monster, someone “wholly without a moral sense.” And this, I know from Wikipedia is reportedly the initial idea from which the novel was spawned.
But I think Camus is doing something more complicated here. The protagonist is not an Other, a Grendel, a monster that lives outside our human family. The novel certainly can be read that way, but it has much more revelatory power if it is read another way. The protagonist is, in fact, an Everyman, a Walter Mitty, a sympathetic doppleganger who resembles us perhaps far more than we would care to admit.
And when that doppleganger is pushed to the breaking point, when his death is brought close to the centrality of his awareness (in the novel it is the arrival of a priest offering absolution before the protagonist’s execution), he reacts in the way any of us would react. In anger, in frustration, and in terror of the seeming fatalism of it all.
Then, I don’t know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain.
Hark, now. Here comes the seething truth Camus is saying lies beneath everything we think we understand about our lives.
He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into--just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x, whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another’s day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance, and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.
This may sound like the fatalism I described earlier, the despair that comes with consciousness that nothing one choose to do matters, that the path has already been determined and that the entirety of one’s task is described by the practice of walking it. But it isn’t. There is something deeper and more primal going on here. For note, the protagonist is not depressed over his seeming lack of choices. Quite the reverse. He is positively manic.
And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foise on me in the equally unreal years I then was living through. What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers. Surely, surely he must see that?
No, he doesn’t. The protagonist sees it, and now the reader, and no one else. That’s where the mania comes from. The present and painful reality of it all, and how oblivious, how much of a stranger, the rest of the world seems to be to it.
Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end? The same thing for Salamano’s wife and for Salamano’s dog. That little robot woman was as “guilty” as the girl from Paris who had married Masson, or as Marie, who wanted me to marry her. What did it matter if Raymond was as much my pal as Celeste, who was a far worthier man? What did it matter if at this very moment Marie was kissing a new boy friend? As a condemned man himself, couldn’t he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future?
I have avoided discussing the novel’s characters or its plot with careful intent. The Stranger is not a novel that turns on characters or plot. It turns, rather, on ideas, indeed, the one powerful idea of our own death that we must all come to terms with if we ever hope to transcend it, to act in opposition to the patterns of thought and behavior that keeps us a stranger to ourselves. Even though that realization only makes us a stranger to the rest of humankind. As the protagonist muses in the novel’s closing lines…
It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, 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 that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel 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.
+ + +
This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.