Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Stranger - Albert Camus

1946; American translation by Matthew Ward - 1989. 123 pages. Awards : Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. Genre : Classic Lit. Overall Rating : B..

    There is a plot, but really The Stranger (better translated as "The Outsider") is a philosophy/character study, where the events serve merely as background. The spotlight here is on Absurdism, and you're welcome to read the Wikipedia article on that here.

   .The central character is Meursault (his first name is never given) and his approach to life can be seen in a couple of quotations :

" nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings..." (pg. 65)

"My mind was always on what's coming next, today or tomorrow." (pg. 100)
    .In a way, Meursault reminded me of Homer Simpson, albeit without any comedy. "To be or not to.... oooh, look! Doughnuts!" He must have been a handsome devil, because he certainly didn't have a romantic bone in his body. When his GF Maria asks him if he loves her, he says :
"I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so. She looked sad." (pg. 35).
     Well d'uh!, Meursault. Shortly thereafter, Maria asks if he wants to marry her (she's a slow learner), and he replies, "I said it didn't make any difference and that we could if she wanted to." (pg. 41). Yeah, we have a real Romeo here.

What is Absurdism?
    The central theme of this philosophy is that the world is absurd. Not as in Three Stooges absurdity, but in the sense that it is an indifferent, uncaring universe. There is no such thing as karma; good things happen to bad people, and vice versa.
    If this is so, Camus offers three reactions; two of which he regards as unsatisfactory. First, you can commit suicide ("life isn't worth living if there isn't any meaning to it"). Second you can embrace a theological rationalization ("if there is no God, I guess I'll have to invent one to bring meaning to life").

   .The third alternative, adapted by Meursault and the only one advocated by Camus, is to be indifferent to the events in life. Thus, Meursault has little or no reaction to his mother dying, and likewise little or no reaction to his boss's proposal of a key promotion involving the desirable perk of moving to Paris. These are no more important than the sun beating down on his head, or him eating something because he's hungry. Alas for Meursault, this means he is equally indifferent to killing a man, which results in his trial, conviction (he is an absurdly incompetent defendant), and sentence to death via guillotine.

   .At the end, Meursault becomes aware of his impending demise, and in the last couple pages, breaks out of his indifference. Personally, I would've liked the narrative to continue right up to the point where the blade is about to fall, but I suppose Camus knows better than I when to end a story. This is a very interesting book, but only when you're in the mood for philosophical musing, not an event-packed storyline.
What is Existentialism?
    Absurdism is an offshoot of Existentialism, and The Stranger is frequently said to (also) be an existential story. Everything I know about Existentialism comes from reading Waiting For Godot and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, and the philosophical outlook in those two plays is markedly different. Beyond that, Existentialism is a vaguely-defined entity that no two people seem to agree on ("Progressive Music" is like that, too), so we'll have to wait until I re-read (or someone else reads) WFG or R&GAD for a lively discussion of that.

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