Though it has been a long time coming, I have finally decided to address Albert Camus’ 1942 novella The Stranger — a small work of fiction likely familiar to anyone interested in philosophy or world literature. Perhaps it seems odd that I would cover a book approaching its 80th year in publication, but the work, in my view, holds more relevance today than any other work written of the 20th century.
(Quick note: You can also listen to my review of The Stranger at Spotify by clinking the link HERE!)
But first, a bit about Camus.
He was born in Mondovi, French Algeria, in 1913 — present day Dréan — and eventually moved to Paris in 1940 to take up the editor-in-chief position for Paris-Soir. The newspaper was eventually banned for being “collaborationist” in 1944 by Nazi forces which occupied France at the time.
As a result of Camus’ fiction and essays, he was awarded The Nobel Prize in 1957 for “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience.”
This quote echoes through the Western world even to this day.
What is The Stranger About?
Some have suggested The Stranger is about nothing — not nothing in the sense that it is vacuous or has nothing to say about the world, but nothing in the sense that it is a nihilistic piece of work, with no redemptive quality in its lines.
I could not disagree more.
There is not one specific topic or subject taken up in The Stranger, but rather several strands of thought that spiral and twirl out from the very first lines of the text: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
These are the first lines written (or thought) by The Stranger’s protagonist — a man known to us only as Meursault. These beginning lines, both tonally and stylistically, set the stage for the rest of the work.
I do not imagine many people forgetting the day or time someone close to them passed away. This small fact establishes Meursault as an odd character from the start. What is more is that Meursault returns home from seeing his deceased mother and resumes life as normal. He goes back to work, smokes a lot of cigarettes, watches people from the balcony of his home, and eventually meets a beautiful woman named Marie Cardona.
It is this seemingly disconnected disposition Meursault possesses that makes the concept of time so important in The Stranger. Meursault seems to live every moment as if he has been locked in a state of perpetual presence. To put in simply: Meursault does not appear to have a conception of the past or the future.
In other words, Meursault is living out a life without meaning. The idea of meaning-making is fundamentally contingent upon our relation to the past, and by using our reflective and experiential processes of the past, we are able to conceive, perceive, and set goals for the future. Therefore, if someone, such as Meursault, is trapped in the present, he is unable to establish any standard of meaning in his life.
I do not want to spoil too much of the book (for those of you who may have an interest in reading it), but Meursault perceives the beating of a dog, the proposition of marriage, and what takes place at the end of The Stranger as mere consequences of existing in the world, refusing to attach arbitrary labels such as “good,” “bad,” “ethical,” and “unethical” to any of them. What would ordinarily provoke strong emotion in someone is met with a shoulder-shrug.
A second-order issue which crops up when one lives every day without the past or future is that they must, by definition, shed the customs, norms, rituals, and traditions of society. Since there is nothing to base our action on independent of the present, the Absurd individual tends to engage and cross boundaries which are typically considered taboo or unacceptable. (Writers who inhabited the realm of taboo through their work include Georges Bataille, Marquis de Sade, and Thomas Pynchon [inter alia].)
This inability to escape the present is just one dimension of the Absurd.
What is the Absurd?
It is important to understand the Absurd if one is to fully conceptualize what Camus was attempting to convey in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus — the latter of which was a philosophical essay published the same year as the former.
Camus defined the Absurd quite succinctly: “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Another way of saying this is that the Absurd is the union of our (mankind’s) search for meaning and the gentle indifference of the world.
Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, proposed three modes of action for the individual who has countenanced the Absurd.
2.) Engagement of the Absurd (ie living in spite of the Absurd)
3.) The Great Leap (ie faith)
Camus believed suicide was a concession to the Absurd — a confession that life is too much. Therefore, though it was not morally wrong, suicide was an attempt to exempt oneself from the human condition.
He also believed that, like suicide, The Great Leap was also a form of escape or exemption. To believe in something greater than ourselves steals away the burden from the individual. It puts our existence in the hands of something we know nothing about. The modern-day verbiage people sometimes use who subscribe to faith is God’s plan, though there is no apparent evidence there is a grand plan of any sort.
Faith, like suicide, is a protective mechanism against the present — against reality.
Rather, Camus suggested we live in spite of the Absurd — to realize that we live a potentially meaningless existence, and choose to carry on all the same. Camus’ solution is much different than the one deduced by Kierkagaard: one of Camus’ greatest intellectual influences. Kierkagaard believed that the Great Leap was not only necessary, but essential, being a Christian. However, Kierkagaard was an admirable Christian in the sense that he struggled, much like Fyodor Dostoevsky, with his faith, and questioned his views again and again. He did not accept dogma merely because the church said so. It was a constant existential battle.
Again, I do not want to give away what Meursault chooses of the three options mentioned above, but I will say that it is worth reading The Stranger to find out. The lyricism and poetry laid out by Camus at the end of the book is one of the most beautiful images in all of literature, in my view.
Another plus is that the story is very short — coming in at around 125 pages.
I recommend The Stranger to anyone who has an interest in engaging with philosophical ideas but has been somewhat intimidated by the whole endeavor. Camus’ ideas are not nebulous or needlessly abstract, such as the ones found in the works of Kant and Hegel etc. Camus is the Everyman’s thinker — a man who attempted to identify what was fundamental to every individual navigating the modern world.
The Absurd — and the existential difficulty it presents to modernity — is just as alive today as it was when The Stranger was published amid the catastrophe of World War II.
Camus’ apparition lives on in the 21st century perhaps more prominently than any other figure of the last one hundred years, for the simple fact that he refined an idea common to us all, no matter where we come from or we are going.
In this way, it is possible Camus’ intellectual legacy will achieve immortality.
Please: Give this book a read. You will not regret it.