The Stranger

I have a theory about Albert Camus "The Stranger". Like all half-arsed, uninformed theories, it's clearly bullshit, but it's on my mind.

I re-read it recently, and coming back to something I read as a younger, inexperienced and immature human, it was shocking how differently it hit me this time round. I read with relief that it's an example of "absurdism". Given that I'm 100% uneducated in refined topics such as philosophy, I can only bounce off the superficial meaning of "absurd". It's a struggle to read as anything but absurd, not the least because of the way we only glimpse the characters in deep profile. And yet, there seems to be a positive message in there somewhere, albeit deeply, deeply buried.

The protagonist is unrelentingly inhuman. Whatever humanity we see is through the side characters, and their own humanity is somehow amplified by the sheer, brutal refusal of Meursalt to engage with their actions in a way that we expect. Marie's adoration, his neighbours desire to engage in conversation, even Raymond's egotism, jealousy and rage.

There's an important exception, in the portrayal of the murdered arab and his compatriots. I lack the concepts to express their role in the novel. I'd like to think that this portrayal is a sideways glance at humanity's ability to be inhuman to each other.

As the novel was written in the early 1940s, some of the industrial, genocidal horrors that were around the corner and already happening had yet to come to light. The centuries up to that point contain more than their share of brutal inhumanity, however. It's telling that Camus apparently grew up in colonial Algiera. As a pampered, 21st century european, I have absolutely no frame of reference to imagine what that must have been like, let alone what it must have been like as a member of an oppressed majority under colonial rule.

As it's tricky to unwrap how many layers that works on, I'll back up, and focus on the protagonist. Making a mental note to talk about that with friends, if we ever get out of this endless lockdown.

Back to the theory. Meursalt's behaviour makes it hard to place him on a scale of our own morality - how can we judge something that is clearly inhuman? In this, he's something like a force of nature, and the theory I can't shake is that he is a representation of something like the universe, a volcano, an earthquake - something beyond our control and comprehension. His intelligence perhaps a natural resource, exploited by Raymond for his own purposes. I'm reaching, but if we follow the nature analogy, it's not a stretch to imagine Raymond as a lumberjack, chopping down trees for his own ends. Does the forest care that it burns both in our fireplaces or in a storm? It has no opinion on the topic.

The odd thing here, and perhaps the only redeeming interpretation of the novel I can come up with, is that the turnwise fractious, stinking, prejudiced, passionate and loyal mass of side characters do eventually prevail, without supernatural intervention, and through flawed mechanisms of our own invention.

It's a complex novel, and that's just one photon of the supernova of ideas it contains, but there it is.


Tags: books

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