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February 21, 2012

L’Étranger —An indictment


Albert Camus, a French literature Nobel Prize winner, wrote L’Étranger (1943) or as it was called in English, “The Outsider.” It is a small, no-nonsense and certainly a compelling novel. I had read another work by Camus but I wasn’t sure which one. So I picked up this book, opened it and … right on the very first paragraph I was hooked. I laughed and was blown away at the same time. But just so that you see what I’m talking about, here it goes:

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY, FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

By “Home” he refers to a nursing home. And for those of you who are too young to know what a telegram is, it was an extremely expensive form of printed communications over the wire which was used sparingly. You see, they charged by the word; therefore, telegrams used to be terse, a.k.a. straight to the point. Only important news that needed to be delivered ASAP was conveyed in this manner. And they usually brought it to your place of residence, which made it even more ominous.

The book is a first person narrative. Meursault, its protagonist, is a young Algerian born Frenchman, a Piet-Noir or Black-foot as they were called, just like Camus himself. To say that he is aloof is an understatement. Basically, as he himself put it, he lives in the present, in the here and now. Not the past and certainly not the distant future. He took life as it came and pretty much didn’t care one way or another.

You could divide the book into two parts. In the first part we get to know Meursault as he relates, nonchalantly to other characters. At his mother’s funeral he acts like a son that really doesn’t much care for his mother and wants the burial ceremonies to be over with as soon as possible. When his girlfriend says that they should get married he agrees without hesitation. Not because he loves her; he simply doesn’t care one way or another, but because it seems to him that Marie would be happier.

He befriends and follows Raymond, a neighbor who happens to be a pimp and this is the trigger cause for his undoing. You see, Raymond gets into a bloody fight with some Arabs at the beach. He hands a loaded gun to Meursault who decides to go on a walk, on the extremely hot and light blinding beach, and he ends up shooting and killing the Arab man who had previously knifed Raymond.

The second part of the book deals with Meursault’s arraignment and subsequent trial and conviction. The way in which Camus portrays the whole proceeding makes us, at times take sides with Meursault’s position; even though, he is a confessed murderer, who pretty much shot the Arab man in cold blood: five times, no less. During the months prior to the trial one of the magistrates questions him often and makes up his mind in that Meursault is pretty much the antichrist because he shows no remorse, he doesn’t seem to care about the outcome and pretty much doesn’t care.

The prosecutor develops a compelling emotional case and basically the whole court, as well to the jury are totally attune to his pleas. By the way, I think that in modern day jurisprudence a lot of the arguments presented by the prosecutor would be thrown out of court and he could even be called in contempt to court, but who knows. Meursault’s assigned defense attorney is not quite as good and it shows.

Blinding Sunlight

During the second part of the book we see the main character growing and developing a sense of consciousness which puts him way outside of the so called normal folk. Of course, it is this behavior which is out right rejected by all, in unison. The defense was trying to get a charge of murder with mitigating circumstances so that he would not get the maximum penalty, i.e. the guillotine. Of course I am not going to tell you what happens. You need to read the book.

In some ways, Meursault’s position is similar to that of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the controversial main character in Henrik Ibsen’s play called An Enemy of the People, who opposes his whole coastal town in Norway, based on moral grounds and this too becomes his undoing.

To some extent, it seems that Camus is indicting society at large. And I for one would have to agree with his proposal. As I was reading the book I became more unnerved at the kangaroo court proceedings. I saw humans whose emotional reptilian brain is not much more evolved than other primates and yet they call or think of themselves as the pinnacle of creation. What a load of crap!

However, the more I thought about it, the more I realize that Camus was setting us up in a non-solvable paradox. On the one hand we have a cold blooded murderer and on the other a contemptible court and jury. This goes at the heart of what Camus was well know for, i.e. the philosophy of absurdism, and if we are keen enough we shouldn’t fall into that rabbit hole. Perhaps, this is exactly one of the points that Camus wanted us to realize. According to Wikipedia absurdism is:

“The efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information, including the vast unknown, makes certainty impossible.”

I venture to say that L’Étranger probably influenced the film Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. If I recall correctly, there is a scene in which a detective is frustrated, because he can’t understand the senseless violence from these kids. Such nihilistic, random, spontaneous and misguided violent behavior expressed in modern-day group dynamics, doesn’t agree with accepted societal dogma. And the worse part of it all, is that we cannot look at cause-and-effect for an answer.

Camus makes extensive use of geographical weather conditions in his novel. Weather is not some passive occurrence but instead it plays a critical role; and this is true too of the other work that I read, for which I still cannot remember the name. Heat and blinding light seem to be a common setting. It is as if you were living under some bright white floodlights. Perhaps such phenomena whereby you either have striking shadows or blinding light does something to your psyche so that your perception of the world is manicheistic, that is, black or white.

Lastly, there is a 1967 movie adaptation called Lo straniero directed by Luchino Visconti with the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni playing the lead role of Meursault. Somebody uploaded the whole movie to YouTube so you can watch it there too.

All in all, L’Étranger is a master piece for which I recommend an open mind, when reading it.

Movie Trailer (1967)


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