Camus: The Stranger
New York: Knopf, 1946 (British translation by Stuart
1988 ( American translation by Matthew Ward).
The solitude that permeates The Stranger (L'Etranger) of Albert Camus (1913-1960) is neither the traditional solitude of eremitism nor the ambient solitude of wilderness but the modern psychological solitude of social and cultural alienation.
How can Meursault, the protagonist of the novel, so thoroughly lack consciousness of self or environment? The novel is not contrived: Meursault is the product of modern culture: aimless, purposeless, buffeted by material and social conditions, absent of any capacity for reflectiveness or desire. His indifference is not stoicism, for he appeals to no larger sense of nature or natural law. Nor is he a defiant Diogenes scoffing at convention with crafted disdain. Nor, finally, is Mersault's indifference that of a philosophical Ubermensch (though Camus is clearly influenced by Nietzsche), transcending time and circumstance. The novel is strikingly convincing because it echoes the world of Camus and his contemporary Western environment. It announces the end of possibilities in a clarion of sentiment and thought rooted in what Camus called the Absurd.
In a later essay (The Rebel), Camus described the absurd as "an experience that must be lived through, a point of departure, the equivalent, in existence, of Decartes' methodical doubt." By the Absurd, Camus means only one thing: the gentle or benign indifference of the universe, an indifference towards human strivings, conflicts, beliefs, aspirations, biology, or dreams. Nietzsche's premise that God is dead, and the Dostoyevskyan protagonist Ivan Karamazov's conclusion that therefore everything is permitted, culminates in Camus's argument, demonstrated by the novel's plot, that alienation makes no counterpoint to pursuing that which may be permitted, for all ends the same way.
Meursault is neither cynical nor hopeful. He expects nothing from life or people, and cultivates nothing. One act is the same as another in the long run, and morality will have to be based on liberty or autonomy, not order and control. He is the modern anti-hero, reducing quests and aspirations to ashes, like his literary counterparts, disaffecedt office clerks: Melville's Bartleby, Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, Kafka's Joseph K., Pessoa's Bernardo Soares, buffeted like flotsam in the indifferent waves of the sea and piercing sun (hence Camus' play on Meursault's name "mer-sol"). The urban disintegration, the colonial experience, the status of landless rentier, humiliating routinized work, eking out a bare life with a few acquaintances -- this is the protagonist of existentialist drama.
When the sun blinds Meursault in a fateful moment,
conditions overcome his autonomy, and he is found guilty of everything
in his life: his personality, his habits, his tolerance, his
indifference, his daily
life, as well as his crime. Camus extrapolates: nothing guides us, we
are on our own, we can trust nothing and no one, we are guilty of
everything because we persist in refusing the evidence of the Absurb
and contrive hierarchies and revere circles of power, ruthlessness,
and indifference. As Camus has put it in The Myth of Sisyphus:
"What is absurd is the confrontation between the sense of the irrational and the overwhelming desire for clarity which resounds in the depths of men."
This strangeness, this feeling of alienation, this uneasiness with the way the world works so inexorably, is prompted by the banality of our circumscribed and irrational world, the personal solitude we experience, the dependence we have on the hypocrisy around us.
Critic Robert Zaretsky (A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning; 2013) draws parallels between Meursault/Camus and Rousseau:
Meursault's imprisonment and trial -- the fatal events hurling him into self-consciousness -- resemble Jean-Jacques Rousseau's depiction of l'homme sauvage, or natural man, tumbling fatefully into the state of society. Like Camus, a French speaker who never felt at home in France and a man torn his entire life between the opposing pulls of solitude and solidarity, the Genevan-born Rousseau affirmed that man in his natural state was the happiest of beings because he was, quite simply, the dumbest of beings. He is a being whose "soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the sole sentiment of its present existence without any idea of the future, however near it may be, and his projects, as limited as his views, barely extend to the end of the day.
The natural man is living in the present by default, not consciously. The eruption of past and future into present creates consciousness, creates suffering and reflection. As Zaretsky puts it: "Absurdity enters our life only when the prison door clangs shut -- or when, from the heights of society we measure how far we have fallen."
Camus does not mean for us to want to consciously mimic the coldness of Meursault, his insensitivity, his perplexing lack of consciousness, but rather to perceive his final recognition of the necessity to craft life given the indifference around us, to refuse to be overwhelmed not by one's self and shortcomings but by everything else around us. Meursault comes to this realization forced by circum- stances and very late in life, on the eve of his death. But he refuses to be victimized, and fully embraces his utter solitude, for it is the only thing left, the only thing which he controls. Meursault, in his jail cell nearing the day of execution, reflects to himself:
I woke up with the stars in my face. Sounds of he countryside were drifting in. Smells of night, earth, and sale air were cooling my temples. The wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide. Then, in the dark hourbefore dawn, sirens blasted. There were announcing departures for a world that now and forever meanth nothing to me. ...
For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself -- so like a brother, really -- I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. (Ward trans.)
Why such a sentiment, especially from a condemned man? Meursault has put his finger to the pulse of society, and perceived its true face, how much it hates the solitude of any one person. Society has demanded a mask and a merry performance of its norms, and Meursault has failed by every social standard. Meursault goes so far as to imagine "a crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate" to confirm his alienation and solitude.
But sometimes, too, the deeply-rooted sentiment of alienation inhabits anyone embracing solitude; for them, too, the world is indifferent at most, hateful at best. And above, in the heavens, silence, and indifference. Camus was to find increasingly absurd the nature of his times, but to break, too, from those who refused the next step, away from the self-indulgent existentialism of his fellows and towrds a philosophy of life that was conscious. In The Stranger, Camus show how we must reconcile the realization of solitude with a life lived consciously and deliberately, realistically, and with our own quiet intuition.