In Search of Lost Time
The Stranger is a perplexing book: on the surface, the story and writing are simple and straightforward; yet what exactly lies underneath this surface is difficult to decipher. We can all agree that it is a philosophical novel; yet many readers, I suspect, are left unsure what the philosophical lesson was. This isn’t one of Aesop’s fables. Yes, Camus hits you over the head with something; but the hard impact makes it difficult to remember quite what.
After a long and embarrassingly difficult reread (I’d decided to struggle through the original French this time), my original guess as to the deeper meaning of this book was confirmed: this is a book about time. It is, I think, an allegorical exploration of how our experience of time shapes who we are, what we think, and how we live.
Time is highlighted in the very first sentence: Meursault isn’t quite sure what day his mother passed. Then, he makes another blunder in requesting two days off for the funeral, instead of one—for he forgot that the weekend was coming. How old was his mother when she died? Meursault isn’t sure. Clearly, time is a problem for this fellow. What sort of a man is this, who doesn’t keep track of the days of the week or his mother’s age? What does he think about, then?
For the first half of the book, Meursault is entirely absorbed in the present moment: sensations, desires, fleeting thoughts. He thinks neither of the past nor of the future, but only of what’s right in front of him. This is the root of his apathy. When you are absolutely absorbed in the present, the only things that can occupy your attention are bodily desires and passing fancies. Genuine care or concern, real interest of any kind, is dependent on a past and a future: in our past, we undergo experiences, develop affections, and emotionally invest; and these investments, in turn, shape our actions—we tailor our behavior to bring us closer to the things we care about. Without ever thinking of the past or the future, therefore, our life is a passing dream, a causeless chaos that dances in front of our eyes.
This is reflected in the language Camus uses. As Sartre noted, “The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We tumble from sentence to sentence, from nothingness to nothingness.” By this, Sartre merely wishes to highlight one aspect of Meursault’s thought-process, as mirrored in Camus’s prose: it avoids all causal connection. One thing happens, another thing happens, and then a third thing. This is why Camus so often sounds like Hemingway in this book: the clipped sentences reflect the discontinuous instants of time that pass like disjointed photographs before the eyes of Meursault. There is no making sense of your environment when you are residing in the immediate, for making sense of anything requires abstraction, and abstraction requires memory (how can you abstract a quality from two separate instances if you cannot hold the two instances in your mind at once?).
Now, the really disturbing thing, for me, is how easily Meursault gets along in this condition. He makes friends, he has a job, he even gets a girlfriend; and for quite a long time, at least, he didn’t get into trouble. Yet the reader is aware that Meursault is, if not a sociopath, at least quite close to being one. So how is he getting along so well? This, I think, is the social critique hidden in this book.
Meursault lives a perfectly conventional life; for a Frenchman living in Algeria during this time, his life could hardly be more ordinary. This is no coincidence; because he’s not interested in or capable of making decisions, Meusault has simply fallen into the path provided for him by his society. In fact, Meursault’s society had pre-fabricated everything a person might need, pre-determining his options to such an extent that he could go through life without ever making a decision. Meursault got along so well without having to make decisions because he was never asked to make one. Every decision was made by convention, every option conscribed by custom. If Meursault had not been locked up, chances are he would have simply married Marie. Why? Because that’s what one does.
So Camus lays out a problem: custom prevents us from thinking by circumscribing our decisions. But Camus does not only offer a diagnoses; he prescribes a solution. For this, we must return to the subject of time. When Meursault gets imprisoned, he is at first unhappy because he is no longer able to satisfy his immediate desires. He has been removed from society and from its resources. This produces a fascinating change in him: instead of being totally absorbed in the present moment, Meursault begins to cultivate a sense of the past. He explores his memories. For the first time, he is able, by pure force of will, to redirect his attention from what is right in front of him to something that is distant and gone. He now has a present and a past; and his psychology develops a concomitant depth. The language gets less jerky towards the end, and more like a proper narrative.
This real breakthrough, however, doesn’t happen until Meursault is forced to contemplate the future; and this, of course, happens when he is sentenced to death. His thoughts are suddenly flung towards some future event—the vanishing of his existence. Thus, the circle opened at the beginning is closed at the end, with a perfect loop: the novel ends with a hope for what will come, just as it began with ignorance and apathy for what has passed. Meursault’s final breakthrough is a complete sense of time—past, present, and future—giving him a fascinating depth and profundity wholly lacking at the beginning of the book.
In order to regain this sense of time, Meursault had to do two things: first, remove himself from the tyranny of custom; second, contemplate his own death. And these two are, you see, related: for custom discourages us from thinking about our mortality. Here we have another opened and closed circle. In the beginning of the book, Meusault goes through the rituals associated with the death of a family member. These rituals are pre-determined and conventional; death is covered with a patina of familiarity—it is made into a routine matter, to be dealt with like paying taxes or organizing a trip to the beach. Meusault has to do nothing except show up. The ceremony he witnesses is more or less the same ceremony given to everyone. (Also note that the ceremony is so scripted that he is later chastised for not properly playing the part.)
At the end of the book, society attempts once again to cover up death—this time, in the form of the chaplain. The chaplain is doing just what the funeral ceremony did: conceal death, this time with a belief about God and repentance and the afterlife. You see, even on death row, society has its conventions for death; death is intentionally obscured with rituals and ceremonies and beliefs.
Meursault’s repentance comes by penetrating this illusion, by throwing off the veil of convention and staring directly at his own end. In this one act, he transcends the tyranny of custom and, for the first time in his life, becomes free. This is the closest I can come to an Aesopian moral: Without directly facing our own mortality, we have no impetus to break out of the hamster-wheel of conventional choices. Our lives are pre-arranged and organized, even before we are born; but when death is understood for what it is—a complete and irreversible end—then it spurs us to reject the idle-talk and comforting beliefs presented to us, and to live freely.
This is what Camus would have all of us do: project our thoughts towards our own inescapable end, free of all illusions, so as to regain our ability to make real choices, rather than to chose from a pre-determined menu. Only this way will we cease to be strangers to ourselves.
(At least, that is the Heideggerian fable I think he was going for.)