L’étranger by Albert Camus, édition Gallimard, Collection Folio.
Revisiting this book at Art Breath on Book Talk.
L’étranger could be translated as the stranger, the foreigner or the outsider.
Absurdism and existentialism are philosophies that feature heavily in this book.
A critically acclaimed book which was the first novel for Camus, yet it also drew some criticism. The depictions in the book of the Arab men are for some unfortunately a depiction that could be deemed as 'othering', however it is the concepts and ideas of the book and Camus' style of writing that place it in high regard.
'L’étranger/The stranger’ tells the story of Mersault, a young French man in Algeria, who is put on trial for killing a man, yet the trial weighs less on his crime and more on the character’s supposedly lack of 'morality', such as being judged for not crying at his mother’s funeral, not wanting to see her body, meeting his girlfriend Marie after his mother’s funeral, and entering into a heartless plot to help his neighbour Raymond Sintes seduce back Sintes' girlfriend.
Little reason is given for why Mersault shoots a man (the brother of his neighbour's girlfriend), but a description of how it unrolled is wrtiiten out. Armed with Raymond Sintes' revolver which he had taken off from him to prevent Sintes from acting out a crime against the girlfirend's brother and the brother's friend (who had initially attacked them both), blinded by the sun, and being first attacked by the man, leads to the crime. Yet Mersault shoots more than once. With no explanation to why he does.
Camus untangles his absurd theory through the trial and through the idea that whatever happens in our lives, we are all condemned, so why do things matter? When placed in prison and challenged by a Priest, Mersault rejects faith and we are then confronted with some emotion as well as his thoughts. Albert Camus unfolds them, where to feel indifferent or not, does not ultimately matter for the character of Mersault, as we all are headed on the same path towards death. Just as Mersault's mother dies, as will he.
This particular philosophy is difficult to think about. The book was written during WW2, so definitely our understanding on the meaning of life and death during war time changes, as it may reflect on the absurdity of humanity not to realise that life is somewhat short and we should be empathetic to each other instead of harming one another. And yet, this is to assume that everyone can grasp the absurdity to not think as so, as sadly other human characteristics may creep in, such as greed and power.
The idea of indifference is an uncomfortable one and messes with our thoughts. It feels empty, and perpetuating individualism. But as we see in the book, even within indifference, emotion is brought out, which makes us think that no matter what, humanity cannot help but care, everyone has something they care about, even if it is caring about absurd ideas, within caring about nothing, hides that very notion of caring.
The question we have is, can we care for each other?
The other aspect of the book to think about, are the notions of coincidence or fate. Had Mersault not taken the revolver from his neighbour, he would not be in this position. (or would he?) Are things inevitable? Do things matter? These questions each of us can think of and hold onto. Just because our lives will one day supposedly end, does not mean they do not matter. They matter because we each have a heart and a capability or a wish to like, to feel liked, loved and so forth. Perhaps we cannot explain these emotions and sentiments and why they matter, but that feeling of love, feeling of empathy, of being and wanting to be understood, as well as other human senses like hunger, pain and so forth, are elements that connect us, bringing us in the realm of purpose. The question might not be do things matter, but more what does matter? Perhaps we should focus on emotions and connecting with each other when we speak of that. Stoicism might be a way to survive in a harsh world, but ultimately, it is feelings that move things forward. Notably the arts. Had Camus not felt much, would he be able to write such a complex and mind provoking book? Yet again, we go back to the fact that this was written in times of war, and in those times, questioning and thoughst may surface.
The other notions to look towards is those of power and class, that many of the french intellectuals where concerned with, the idea of convincing others to do things, such as kill, like someone/something and so forth, and when an act is done, death, love or whatever the case may be, little is often changed, or opponents in love or war after sacrifice, may befriend each other, leaving the concept of absurdism open to study.
Is the world absent of purpose or meaning?
If it is, then why are we even asking the question.
Albert Camus was according to his bio a moralist and absurdist philosopher, and that can be seen throughout his analyses and writings in his novels, where these notions often seem to transcend politics into the realm of existentialism.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?
BookTalk on Art Breath