I’ve decided to try an experiment: to narrate my book reviews as podcasts. Maybe it will be easier to listen to them on the go rather than reading them on the sceeen. For my first episode, I chose my long review of Being and Nothingness.
I first heard of this book from my dad. “I had to read this in college,” he told me. “We looked at every type of being. Being-in-myself, being-for-myself, being-of-myself, being-across-myself, being-by-myself. I went crazy trying to read that thing.” Ever since that memorable description, this book has held a special allure for me. It has everything to attract a self-styled intellectual: a reputation for difficulty, a hefty bulk, a pompous title, and the imprimatur of a famous name. Clearly I had to read it.
Jean-Paul Sartre was the defining intellectual of his time, at least on the European continent. He did everything: writing novels and plays, founding and editing a journal, engaging in political activism, and pioneering a philosophical school: existentialism. This book is the defining monument of that school. An eight-hundred-page treatise on ontology which, somehow, became widely read—or at least widely talked about. Nearly eighty years later, we are still talking about this book. In 2016 Sarah Bakewell released a best-selling book about Sartre’s movement; and a new translation of Being and Nothingness will be released next year. Interest in existentialism has not abated.
Yet what is existentialism? And how has it weathered the passing years? This is what I set out to determine, and this review will show whether my attempt bore fruit.
One should begin by examining the subtitle of this book: “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.” Already we have a contradiction. Phenomenology is a philosophical school founded by Edmund Husserl, which attempted to direct philosophers’ attention back “to the things themselves”—that is, to their own experience of the world. One of Husserl’s most insistent commandments was that the philosopher should “bracket,” or set aside, the old Cartesian question of the reality of these experiences (is the world truly as I perceive it?); rather, the philosopher should simply examine the qualities of the experience itself. Thus, Sartre’s promise of a phenomenological ontology (ontology being the investigation of the fundamental nature of reality) is a flagrant violation of Husserl’s principles.
Still, it does have a lot to tell us about Sartre’s method. This book is an attempt to deduce the fundamental categories of being from everyday experience. And this attempt leads Sartre to the two most basic categories of all: being and nothingness. Being is all around us; it is manifest in every object we experience. Sartre defines existing objects as those which are self-identical—that is, objects which simply are what they are—and he dubs this type of being the “in-itself.” Humans, by contrast, cannot be so defined; they are constantly shifting, projecting themselves into an uncertain future. Rather than simply existing, they observe their own existence. Sartre calls this type of human existence the “for-itself.”
Already we see the old Cartesian dualism reappearing in these categories. Are we not confronted, once again, with the paradoxes of matter and mind? Not exactly. For Sartre does not consider the in-itself and the for-itself to be two different types of substances. In fact, the for-itself has no existence at all: it is a nothingness. To use Sartre’s expressions, human consciousness can be compared to “little pools of non-being that we encounter in the heart of being,” or elsewhere he says that the for-itself “is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” The for-itself (a consciousness) is a particular privation of a specific in-itself (a human body), which functions as a nihilation that makes the world appear: for there would not be a “world” as we know it without perception, and perception is, for Sartre, a type of nihilation.
Putting aside all of the difficulties with this view, we can examine the consequences which Sartre draws from these two sorts of being. If the for-itself is a nothingness, then it is forever removed from the world around it. That is, it cannot be determined, either by its past or by its environment. In short, it is free—inescapably free. Human behavior can thus never be adequately explained or even excused, since all explanations or excuses presuppose that humans are not fundamentally self-determining. But of course we explain and excuse all the time. We point to economic class, occupation, culture, gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, genetic background, mood—to a thousand different factors in order to understand why people act the way they do.
This attempt to treat humans as things rather than free beings Sartre calls “bad faith.” This constitutes the fundamental sin of existentialism. He gives the example of a waiter who so embraces his role as a waiter that his motions become calculated and mechanical; the waiter tries to embody himself in his role to the extent that he gives up his individual freedom and becomes a kind of automaton whose every movement is predictable. But of course life is full of examples of bad faith. I excuse my mistake by saying I hadn’t had my coffee yet; my friend cheats on his girlfriend, but it was because his father cheated on his mother; and so on.
This is the basic situation of the for-itself. Yet there is another type of being which Sartre later introduces us to: the for-others. Sartre introduces this category with a characteristically vivid example: Imagine a peeping Tom is looking through a keyhole into a room. His attention is completely fixed on what he sees. Then, suddenly, he hears footsteps coming down the hall; and he immediately becomes aware of himself as a body, as a thing. Sartre considers experiences like this to prove that we cannot doubt the existence of others, since being perceived by others totally changes how we experience ourselves.
This allows Sartre to launch into an analysis of human interaction, and particularly into love and sexuality. This analysis bears the obvious influence of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic, and it centers on the same sorts of paradoxes: the contradictory urges to subjugate and be subjugated, to be embodied and desired, to be free and to be freely chosen, and so on. However, Sartre’s best writing in this vein is not to be found here, but in his great play No Exit, where each character exhibits a particular type of bad faith. All three of the characters wish to be looked at in a particular way, yet each of them is stuck with others whose own particular sort of bad faith renders them unable to look in the “right” way.
Sartre concludes from all this that our most fervent desire, and the reason we so often slip into bad faith, is that we wish to be an impossible combination of the in-itself and the for-itself. We want to be the foundation of our own being, a perfect self-identical creature, and yet absolutely free. We want to become gods. But, for Sartre, this is self-contradictory: the in-itself and the for-itself can never coexist. Thus, the idea of God arises as a sort of wish-fulfillment; but God is impossible by definition. As a result, human life “is a useless passion”—a relentless striving to be something which cannot exist.
All this may be clearer if we avoid Sartre’s terminology and, instead, compare his philosophy to that of Buddhism (at least, the type of Western Buddhism I’m acquainted with). The mind is constantly searching for a sense of permanent identity. Though the mind is, by nature, groundless, we are uncomfortable with this; we want put ground under our feet. So we seek to identify ourselves with our jobs, our families, our marriages, our hobbies, our success, our money—with any external good that lets us forget that our consciousness is constantly shifting and flowing, and that our identities can never be absolutely determined. So far, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism have similar diagnoses of our problems. But Buddhism prescribes detachment, while Sartre prescribes the embrace of absolute freedom and the adoption of complete responsibility of our actions.
No summary of the book would be complete without Sartre’s critique of Freud. Sartre was clearly intrigued by Freud’s theories and wanted to use them in some way. However, Freud’s unconscious motivations and superconscious censorship is clearly incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy of freedom. In particular, Sartre found it self-contradictory to say that there could be a part of the mind which “wants” without us knowing it, or a part that is able to hide information from our awareness. For Sartre, all consciousness is self-consciousness, and it therefore does not make sense to “want” or “know” something unconsciously.
In place of Freud’s psychoanalysis, then, Sartre proposes an existential psychoanalysis. For Sartre, every person is defined by a sort of fundamental choice that determines their stance towards the world (though, strangely, it seems that most people are not aware of having made this choice). It is the task of the existential psychoanalyst is to uncover this fundamental choice by a close examination of everyday actions. Indeed, Sartre believes that everything from one’s preference for onions to one’s aversion to cold water is a consequence of this fundamental choice. Sartre even goes so far as to insist that some things, by virtue of being so clearly suggestive of metaphor, have a universal meaning for the for-itself. As an example of this, he gives “slime”—viscous liquid which Sartre thinks inspires a universal horror of the weight of existence.
This fairly well rounds out a summary of the book. So what are we to make of this?
The comparison with Heidegger is unavoidable. Sartre himself seems to have encouraged the comparison by giving his metaphysical tome a title redolent of the German professor’s magnum opus. The influence is clear: Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness after reading Being and Time during his brief imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Heidegger is referenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Sartre as a follower of Heidegger, or his philosophy merely as an interpretation of Heidegger’s. Indeed, I think that the superficial similarities between the two thinkers (stylistic obscurity, disregard of religion and ethics, a focus on human experience, a concern with “being”) mask far more important differences.
Heidegger’s project, insofar as I understand it, is radically anti-Cartesian. He sought to replace the thinking and observing ego with the Dasein, a being thrown into the world, a being fundamentally ensconced in a community and surrounded by tools ready-to-hand. For Heidegger, the Cartesian perspective—of withdrawing from the world and deliberately reflecting and reasoning—is derivative of, and inferior to, this far more fundamental relationship to being. Sartre could not be further from this. Sartre’s perspective, to the contrary, is insistently Cartesian and subjectivist; it is the philosophy of a single mind urgently investigating its experience. Further, the concept of “freedom” plays almost no role in Heidegger’s philosophy; indeed, I believe he would criticize the very idea of free choice as enmeshed in the Cartesian framework he hoped to destroy.
In method, then, Sartre is far closer to Husserl—another professed Cartesian—than to Heidegger. However, as we observed above, Sartre breaks Husserl’s most fundamental tenet by using subjective experiences to investigate being; and this was done clearly under the influence of Heidegger. These two, along with Freud, and Hegel, constitute the major intellectual influences on Sartre.
It should be no surprise, then, that Sartre’s style often verges on the obscure. Many passages in this book are comparable in ugliness and density to those German masters of opacity (Freud excluded). Heidegger is the most obvious influence here: for Sartre, like Heidegger, enjoys using clunky hyphenated terms and repurposing quotidian words in order to give them a special meaning. There is an important difference, however. When I did decipher Sartre’s more difficult passages, I usually found that the inky murkiness was rather unnecessary.
Believe me when I say that I am no lover of Heidegger’s writing. Nevertheless, I think Heidegger’s tortured locutions are more justifiable than Sartre’s, for Heidegger was attempting to express something that is truly counter-intuitive, at least in the Western philosophical tradition; whereas Sartre’s philosophy, whatever novelties it possesses, is far more clearly in the mainline of Cartesian thinking. As a result, Sartre’s adventures in jargon come across as mere displays of pomp—a bejewelled robe he dons in order to appear more weighty—and, occasionally, as mere abuses of language, concealing simple points in false paradoxes.
This is a shame, for when Sartre wished he could be quite a powerful writer. And, indeed, the best sections of this book are when Sartre switches from his psuedo-Heideggerian tone to that of the French novelist. The most memorable passages in this book are Sartre’s illustrations of his theories: the aforementioned waiter, or the Peeping Tom, or the passage on skiing. Whatever merit Sartre had as a philosopher, he was undoubtedly a genius in capturing the intricacies of subjective experience—the turns of thought and twinges of emotion that rush through the mind in everyday situations.
But what are we to make of his system? To my mind, the most immediately objectionable aspect is his idea of nothingness. Nothing is just that—nothing: a complete lack of qualities, attributes, or activity of any kind. Indeed, if a nothingness can be defined at all, it must be via elimination: by excluding every existing thing. It seems incoherent, then, to say that the human mind is a nothingness, and is therefore condemned to be free. Consciousness has many definite qualities and, besides that, is constantly active and (in Sartre’s opinion at least) able to choose itself and change the world. How can a nothingness do that? And this is putting to the side the striking question of how the human brain can produce a complete absence of being. Maybe I am taking Sartre’s point too literally; but it is fair to say that he provides no account of how this nothingness came into being.
Once this idea of nothingness is called into question, the rest of Sartre’s conclusions are on extremely shaky ground. Sartre’s idea of freedom is especially suspect. If human consciousness is not separated from the world and from its past by a nothingness, then Sartre’s grand pronouncements of total freedom and total responsibility become dubious. To me it seems unlikely to the highest degree that, of all the known objects in the universe, including all of the animals (some of which are closely related to us), humans are the only things that are exempt from the chain of causality that binds everything together.
Besides finding it implausible, I also cannot help finding Sartre’s idea of total freedom and responsibility to be morally dubious. He himself, so far as I know, never managed to make his system compatible with a system of ethics. In any case, an emphasis on total responsibility can easily lead to a punitive mentality. According to Sartre, everyone deserves their fate.
Admittedly I do think his conception of “bad faith” is useful. Whether or not we are metaphysically “free,” we often have more power over a situation than we admit. Denying our responsibility can lead to inauthenticity and immorality. And Sartre’s embrace of freedom can be a healthy antidote to an apathetic despair. Still, I do not think an elaborate ontological system is necessary in order to make this point.
Reading Sartre nowadays, I admit that it is difficult to take his conclusions seriously. For one, the next generation of French intellectuals set to work demonstrating that our freedom is constrained by society (Bourdeiu), psychology (Lacan), language (Derrida), and history (Foucault), among other factors. (Of course, these intellectual projects were not necessarily any more solid than Sartre’s.) More importantly, Sartre’s system seems to be so completely bound up in both his times and his own psychology—two things which he denied could determine human behavior—that it ironically belies his conclusions. (As an example of the latter influence, Sartre’s revulsion and even horror of sex is apparent throughout the book, especially in the strange section on “slime.”)
In the end I was somewhat disappointed by this work. And I think my disappointment is ultimately a consequence of Sartre’s method: phenomenological ontology. It is simply incorrect to believe that we can closely interrogate our own experiences to determine the fundamental categories of being. Admittedly, Sartre is not entirely averse to making logical argument; but too many of his conclusions rest on the shaky ground of these narrations of subjective experience. Sartre is, indeed, a brilliant observer of this experience, and his descriptions are worth reading for their psychological insight alone. Nevertheless, as a system of ontology, I do not think it can stand on its own two feet.
Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.
Sarah Bakewell has followed her lovely book about Montaigne with an equally lovely book about the existentialist movement. Comparing the books, one can see an obvious theme emerge in Bakewell’s writing: the interest in practical philosophy. Montaigne and the existentialists share the tendency to write about their own lives and, in various ways, to attempt to live out the tenets of their philosophies. This makes Bakewell’s biographical method especially revealing and rewarding, while at the same time adding a subtle, highbrow self-help aspect to her books—life lessons with the imprimatur of big names and fine prose.
Bakewell attempts to tell the story of the existentialist movement from its twentieth-century beginnings (skipping over precursors such as Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard) to its apparent end, with the deaths of its principle architects. The four main protagonists are Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who, unsurprisingly, is the dominant personality), along with shorter appearances by other thinkers: Husserl, Camus, Raymond Aron, Karl Jaspers, and Simone Weil, to name the most prominent. When you consider the sheer amount of biographical and philosophical material this list represents, you realize the magnitude of the task set before Bakewell, and the consequent skill she demonstrated in producing a readable, elegant, and stimulating book.
I am sorry to say that I have read very little of the writings of the principle actors, with the exception of Heidegger. Bakewell’s account of him mostly confirmed my own experiences with the infuriating metaphysician, especially in his disturbing lack of character and, indeed, of basic humanity. Sartre comes across as far more human, if not exactly more likable. Few people could hear of Sartre’s enormous philosophical, biographical, journalistic, and literary output, over so many years, without feeling a sense of awe. Nevertheless, Sartre’s opinions rarely struck me as measured or reasonable. Though I often mourn the decline of the public intellectual, Sartre’s example gives me pause, for his influence on contemporary politics was not necessarily salubrious. Perhaps it is true that intellectuals, seeking consistency and clarity, are naturally inclined towards extreme positions. Sartre was, in any case, and it led him into some foolish and even reprehensible positions.
By contrast to these two giants, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty come off rather well in this story. The former tempered her political opinions with a greater subtlety, thoroughness, and empathy; while the latter lived a quietly productive and happy life, while creating a philosophy that Bakewell argues constitutes the greatest intellectual legacy of the bunch.
Just as Bakewell argued that Montaigne’s writings are newly relevant for his sense of moderation, so she argues that the existentialists are newly relevant for exploring the questions of authenticity and freedom. Not having read most of their work, I cannot comment on this. But what I found most inspiring was their burning desire to think and to write—and to write like mad, for hours each day, in every genre, for decades on end. Though most of this writing was born today to die tomorrow, each one of them produced a magisterial tome for future readers to beat their heads against. I suppose I will have to pick them up sometime soon.
Generally speaking, there is a tendency to underestimate the difficulties of satisfaction and to overestimate those of omniscience.
Alexandre Kojève is easily one of the most influential thinkers of the last century. This is peculiar, considering that his reputation rests mainly on his interpretation of Hegel, an interpretation which he developed and propounded in a series of lectures in 1933-39. Many who attended these lectures—Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Lacan, to name just two—went on to be important intellectuals in their own right, reinterpreting Kojève’s ideas for their own purposes.
Kojève’s thinking extended beyond the lecture hall, shaping his whole intellectual milieu—deeply affecting Sartre, who may never have attended the lectures—and even extended to the United States. This was largely thanks to Leo Strauss, who sent his disciples to study under Kojève. One of these disciples was Allan Bloom—of The Closing of the American Mind fame—and, in turn, Bloom taught Francis Fukuyama, who heavily relied on Kojève for his controversial bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man. Once again, Kojève was influential.
It is too bad, then, that I found his most famous book to be of little merit. Frankly, I failed to see anything of serious interest in these pages: either as textual interpretation or as philosophy. Admittedly, the former did not surprise me. By common consent Kojève was a heterodox interpreter of Hegel, mixing Hegel’s ideas with those of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger to create something quite different from what Hegel intended (whatever that was). But I did not expect this book to be so devoid of intellectual interest. Indeed, I am somewhat at a loss as to why or how it became so influential.
For one, Kojève’s writing style will be irksome to any who prize clarity and concision. He is boorishly repetitious, persistently vague, and pompously obscure. Every other word—when it isn’t an unnecessary foreign expression—is capitalized, italicized, wrapped in scare-quotes, or set aside in parentheses, as if simple words and commas were not enough to convey his subtle message. Meanwhile, his meaning, stripped of its pretentious shell, is either a banal truism, nonsense, or obviously wrong. This, by the way, is so often the case with turgid writers that I have grown to be deeply suspicious of all obscurity. In academic circles, dense prose is easily self-serving.
I cannot make these accusations without some demonstration. Here is Kojève on work: “Work is Time, and that is why it necessarily exists in time: it requires time.” Or Kojève on being: “Concrete (revealed) real Being is neither (pure) Identity (which is Being, Sein) nor (pure) Negativity (which is Nothingness, Nichts) but Totality (which is Becoming, Werden).” Another insight on the nature of existence:
One can say, then, that Being is the being of the concept “Being.” And that is why Being which is (in the Present) can be “conceived of” or revealed by the Concept. Or, more exactly, Being is conceived of at “each instant” of its being. Or else, again: Being is not only Being, but also Truth—that is, the adequation of the Concept and Being. This is simple.
As I said above, Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel is distinctly implausible. Kojève sees the Master-Slave dialectic as the key to Hegel’s whole system, whereas it is only one stage in Hegel’s Phenomenology, and Hegel does not frequently refer back to it. This focus on the issue of subjection, alienation, recognition, and work allows Kojève to read Hegel as a quasi-Marxist. Kojève also has lots of things to say about space, time, mortality, and freedom, most of which is derived from Heidegger and which are totally alien from Hegel’s thought. Kojève’s originality is not in any ideas unique to him, but to the conglomeration of these German philosophers that he conveys in these lectures.
I found all this to be academically slipshod. The attempt to make Hegel into a quasi-existentialist, deriving freedom from the cognizance of death, is especially unconvincing: Hegel was anything but an existentialist. Generally speaking there are not nearly enough citations of Hegel, nor is there any discussion whatever of Hegel’s background, development, or intellectual influences. Thus as an introduction to Hegel, the text is basically useless.
Even more intellectually irresponsible is his habit of deferring to Hegel’s text right when any argument is necessary. Statements like these are common: “Once more, I am not concerned with reproducing this deduction here, which is given in the entirety of the first seven chapters of the Phenomenology. But I shall say that it is irrefutable.” He does this quite often, merely asserting something and than insisting that, to prove it, one must read and understand the whole Phenomenology of Spirit. (This habit of deferring to infallible texts, by the way, is a typical move in religious arguments, and has no place in philosophy.) As a result, this book is one bloated series of unfounded assertions—seldom citing the text or providing anything resembling an argument—which makes it worse than useless.
Now, in case you think I am being overly harsh, let me quote one section where he does seem to be making an argument:
Let us consider a real table. This is not a Table ‘in general,’ nor just any table, but always this concrete table right here. Now, when ‘naive’ man or a representative of some science or other speaks of this table, he isolates it from the rest of the universe: he speaks of this table, without speaking of what is not this table. Now, this table does not float in empty space. It is on this floor, in this room, in this house, in this place on Earth, which Earth is at a determined distance from the Sun, which has a determined place within the galaxy, etc., etc. To speak of this table without speaking of the rest, then, is to abstract from this rest, which in fact is just as real and concrete as this table itself. To speak of this table without speaking of the whole of the Universe which implies it, or likewise to speak of this Universe without speaking of this table which is implied in it, is therefore to speak of an abstraction and not of a concrete reality.
This argument is part of Kojève’s general thesis that only holistic knowledge (which he calls “circular”) is true “Knowledge.” Putting aside the dreary, bombastic pointing out of the obvious, this passage, insofar as it makes any point at all, is obviously incorrect. Kojève is saying that it is impossible to refer to concrete reality without having a complete, total knowledge (knowing everything about the table involves knowing everything about everything). This is false. To show this, as well as to demonstrate that philosophy need not always be written so badly, I will quote Bertrand Russell:
The fact is that, in order to use the word ‘John’ correctly, I do not need to know all about John, but only enough to recognize him. No doubt he has relations, near and remote, with everything in the universe, but he can be spoken of truly without taking them into account, except such as are the direct subject-matter of what is being said. He may be the father of Jemima as well as James, but it is not necessary for me to know this in order to know that he is the father of James.
Now, if this book were truly as devoid of value as I am making it out to be, it would lead to the question of how it became to popular and influential. Well, I can only guess. Perhaps Kojève’s dazzling obscurity, along with his sexy combination of the works of Marx and Heidegger—the two most influential thinkers in France at that time—allowed him to touch the Zeitgeist, so to speak. The attempt to reconcile a philosophical understanding of freedom and death (taken from Heidegger) with an understanding of oppression, historical progress, and work (taken from Marx and ultimately Hegel), may have given Kojève’s students an exciting impetus in the hectic days after the Second World War, when Europe was busy rebuilding itself. To any Kojève enthusiasts out there, please do let me know what you see in him. I remain blind.
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.)