This was something I wrote nearly four years ago. I had put it on my old blog, Hyperborea, but took it down later because I probably did not like the content. I wrote it after I had broken up with a girlfriend during Winter Break of 2006. I was house-sitting alone for a friend and started thinking really deeply about what it meant to be in love. I was convinced that love was not possible. In lieu of Valentine’s Day I thought I would post it again, just the way it was written four years ago….
My philosophical question can be expressed this way. “Is the philosopher capable of love?” But I am not talking about the philosopher in general or in the abstract. I am talking about Albert Camus, and in particular his novel “The Stranger.” First I want to tell you what this novel is about, and then I want to tell you about how I despaired over its conclusions, and then, finally, about my own reflections upon reading this book.
The novel itself, “The Stranger,” has to do with the fate of a dull young man, who is, like Albert Camus, a French-Algerian. It is written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness of the young man, Mersault, as he goes through his daily routines, which unfortunately culminates in his commitment of a very senseless murder. He is arrested, sent to prison, and finally condemned to execution. The novel ends as he is sitting in his cell, thinking about his impending death and, at last, reflecting on the apparent “absurdity” of his life. Mersault himself is like a blank screen.
When writers give us a first-person narrative, it is usually chalk-full of reflections, moralizations and interpretations. What we get from Mersault is just a very flat, matter-of-fact description of what his world looks like. He isn’t involved with anything, never gets upset about anything really, and isn’t deeply engaged in his life. He has no ambition. He doesn’t want to do anything with his life. And because he is such a blank slate, it sucks you into his character. The nature of “The Stranger” is such that, when you read it, what you come away with probably has as much to do with yourself as it does with the character that Camus gives us.
Why is he so strange? What makes him an outsider?
He is deficient in some very basic human ways. For example, he doesn’t think. In fact, there are very few thoughts that appear throughout the book—not, of course, until the very end when he is about to die. When a thought does occur to Mersault, it’s something very banal like, “a piece of onion grass that pops up through the crack in a sidewalk.” It’s very out of place, very particular, and completely unoriginal.
The novel begins with Mersault reading about the death of his mother. He gets a telegram which says, “Mother died today.” And he thinks to himself, “from the telegram I can’t tell whether it was today or yesterday.” This bit of chill foreshadows what will happen for the next few chapters. Thinking about his mother, he finds that he doesn’t even miss her anyway. His explanation is, “Well, I haven’t seen her in a while,” and, “we don’t really have much to say to each other any more.” And at the funeral itself, he is more affected by the flies and the heat than he is by the idea that his mother just died.
Mersault shows no indication of moral repulsion at anything, like when, for example, his neighbor beats his dog, or when his other neighbor, Raymond the pimp, beats young Arab women. Mersault does nothing about it. When his girlfriend asks him to call the police, Mersault responds simply, “I don’t like cops.” Mersault’s outlook appears to be, “You live one way, you live another way, what difference does it make who I am?”
“Do you love me?” she asks.
His girlfriend’s name is Marie. She is not described in anyway, but we get the impression that she is very lovely French-Algerian woman, and that she is quite fond of Mersault. They watch French comedies together, they go swimming together, and the impression is that this is a very delightful period.
At some point in the relationship, Marie turns to Mersault and asks, “Do you love me?” I think that for anyone with blood in their veins, this would raise a certain kind of excitement. Perhaps you would be thinking “Oh no, what am I going to say now?” or maybe, “Oh, I’ve been waiting to hear that for so long.” But Mersault: no response. He expresses a certain kind of confusion: what a silly question, he thinks. And, “I guess not,” is how he eventually responds to Marie.
When asked about love, an important question for all of us, there are a huge variety of answers on the table. A simple-minded answer would be that love is a kind of feeling, a certain kind of affection. But I think that a more detailed and perceptive answer is that love involves decisions, commitments, and a keen sense of yourself. I’m not quite sure exactly what love is myself, but I think that what love comes down to is learning to conceive of yourself in terms of another person. And though I am no authority, I believe it is possible to experience true and very real romantic love. But Mersault doesn’t believe in love, and he understands nothing about what Marie is asking him. To the question, “Do you love me?” all he can think to say is, “I don’t know what you mean, so probably not…”
And if that isn’t enough, some pages later, Marie raises the M-Question. And if you don’t get nervous or excited with the L-Question, I think all of us would get nervous or excited with the M-Question. “Do you want to get married?” But Mersault’s response is, again, rather blasé. He doesn’t have any conception of what marriage entails, or of marriage as a commitment, or most importantly of marriage as the culmination of love. Then we get the impression that Marie is suddenly quiet and sulking, and Mersault doesn’t quite understand this.
He isn’t empathetic; he has no idea of what other people are thinking. In the first part of the novel, there’s this general sense that other people are simply ‘there for him.’ In fact, one of the curious things about his personality is that he always takes the path of least resistance. So when Marie asks if he wants to get married, he says, “Sure, if you want to.” Or when Raymond the pimp asks if he wants to be pals—and one can imagine this sleazy character Raymond asking him this—Mersault says, “Sure, if you want to.” Mersault is a very empty character, rather like vacuum.
Is he just irrational? In the murder scene itself, think about the way in which most authors would describe the scene immediately leading up to the murder. But there’s no tension with Mersault, no fear, no anxiety, and afterwards, no regrets. However, Mersault very richly feels another kind of sensation—physical sensations. He appreciates the warmth of the sun, he appreciates the cool of the ocean, and the smell of brine that Marie leaves behind on the pillow. He likes the taste of coffee. But nevertheless, he doesn’t have any emotions. The link between emotions and reflection is very important. Perhaps Camus wants to suggest that people without reflections are often without feelings too. After all, if you don’t have emotions or passions, what is there to reflect upon?
Mersault could be described as irrational, and subsequently, not fully human in the classical sense. “Rationality” is the ability to anticipate consequences. It is often defined by ethicists as “appreciating means and ends” i.e. understanding what the consequences of your actions are. So to what extent do emotions and passions depend on rationality? Emotions involve concepts. They are conceptual and involve recognition. They are “about the world,” and “intentional” in a very specific, philosophically important way. They contain rationality. Nietzsche says at one point, “As if every emotion did not contain its own quantum of reason.” I would actually argue a stronger thesis. I would say that what we call “rationality” is bound by our emotions and passions. To act rationally is ultimately to act in line with what we care about and what we are passionate about.
Emotions, as a general rule, tend to be unreflective. In other words, we have them, but we don’t necessarily think about the fact that we have them. But when we do actually reflect on our emotions, we find that there is a very dynamic exchange. And sometimes you can talk yourself out of an emotion, or into an emotion. Upon reflection, you can show yourself that the reasons you have for an emotion are not very valid reasons. Love, in particular, requires a very thoughtful kind of reflection. “Am I really in love?” “What is our relationship?” These are very important questions. Mersault does not reflect upon anything like this until nearly the end of the novel, and consequently, does not show any emotion until nearly the very end of the novel either. And this is why does not know how to respond to Marie.
“Who are you?”
In Camus, the play of experience and reflection in opposition is really what “The Stranger” is all about. In the first part of the novel Mersault is experiencing his life without reflection. But the second part of the novel is really about his reflection through “other people.” It’s about what Jean-Paul Sartre would call “being for others.” The idea is that we don’t exist by ourselves, and that the opinions of others, at least in part, make us a person. They allow us to have a “self.” As “other people” judge Mersault during his trial, Mersault is forced to consider himself as a certain kind of person. For instance, when someone calls him a criminal, he says, “I had never come to think of myself in that way.” But the truth is he had never come to think of himself in any way. He did not characterize himself as Marie’s lover. He did not characterize himself as his mother’s son. He did not characterize himself as a French-Algerian. There’s a sense in which “self-concept,” and consequently, “self” are things that he had not yet obtained.
In the trial, Camus gives Mersault a town’s full of other people looking at Mersault, judging him and, ultimately, giving him a “self.” The Philosopher Hegel argued that you can only know who you are through other people. Hegel thought that only from the socially derived sense of selfhood can you get an idea of an independent self and a sense of yourself as an “individual.” And I think Camus agrees with this. Mersault comes to self-hood only through the recognition of other people in his trial. It’s not just Mersault’s act of murder on trial, but it’s really Mersault’s entire life on trial. The fact that Mersault did not show any sadness at his mother’s funeral is brought up quite frequently. This is, in fact, what appears to condemn Mersault in the trial. The verdict is that he is not fully human. The prosecutor says of Mersault at one point, “I have looked into the eyes of this man and I have found not one redeeming human trait.” He even goes so far as to say, “The next trial on the docket is someone who has killed their parents.” The prosecutor adds that, as far as he is concerned, “Mersault is guilty of that crime too—for not weeping at his mother’s funeral.”
If we are concerned with justice in this novel—which is very much beside the point—Mersault is somewhat wrongly tried. (In fact, I find it fascinating that his defense council never once raises the point of self-defense.) But nevertheless, the result is that Mersault looks around the courtroom, he sees people essentially condemning him and suddenly he realizes he wants to burst into tears. He is coming to the conclusion that he is a “self,” and there’s an awful sense in which he is guilty.
The sense of guilt.
In the first part of the novel, Mersault is innocent in a very biblical sense. He has not eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He does not have any moral judgments. When he kills the Arab man, I am hesitant at that point to say that he is even guilty of it. Throughout the trial he is unaware of the moral significance of what he has done. It is confusing to him because he never thought of himself “in that way.” (Or in any way!) In the same sense that Adam and Eve were chased out of the garden because they disobeyed God, Mersault is sent out of his innocent existence into what we would call the hell-hole of prison, where he gains the knowledge of good and evil and discovers that he is morally guilty.
There is a doctrine of original sin lurking in the background of the novel. Camus is aware of the fact that people are suffering all around him, and there is this nagging sense that we ought to be doing something about it, but that we can never do enough. That sense of guilt plagued Camus, and I think he wanted to instill this guilt into Mersault, to make him fully human.
But Mersault resists. At one point, the Chaplain visits Mersault in his cell and tries to tell him the importance of believing in Christ. For the first time in the novel, Mersault looses his temper, and it is the first true emotion he experiences. Mersault argues, very articulately, that if there is an afterlife at all, the only one that he can imagine or desire is one in which he would once again live just this very same life. This hearkens back to the Nietzschean notion of an “eternal recurrence.” Mersault muses that if he had just one day to live, he would spend all eternity just savoring the memories of each of those precious moments. Apparently, it’s experience—it’s this life—which counts, and nothing else! This is something that everyone in Nietzsche’s vein argued. But it isn’t enough to justify living a meaningless existence. Is Mersault satisfied enough with his life that he would live his same dull and meaningless life over and over ad infinitum?
It’s a very perverse conclusion. And when he is about to die, he considers the way he has lived, and he says that it doesn’t even matter. He says that the quality of life doesn’t matter, but that ‘having actually lived’ is what matters. And so he opens his heart to the “benign indifference of the universe.” And we realize that, just as his life was without meaning, his death too, was without meaning.