Some years ago, I read Sartre’s The Age of Reason (1947) and then his Nausea (1939). These novels were my first encounter with existentialism. Reason has a clear, if unsubstantial plot: the narrator, a professor, no longer young, must raise money for an abortion for his mistress, and must decide whether to revive the revolutionary political ambitions of his youth. Reason’s plot keeps the narrative moving, and makes the emptiness and directionlessness of its characters escapable, if not palatable. Nausea, which is plotless, becomes a bleak prison where the reader may become overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of life – as Nausea’s narrator does, and as I did.
Nausea is a difficult book to read, but I’m glad I read it. Life is difficult. Light, fun literature has its place in helping us to bear life; so does plot-driven, brisk literature; and so does literature that forces us to confront the emptiness of life, to force us to fill out our own lives with deliberation. Nausea’s ending of profound, hard-earned, active optimism redeems it: if it needed redeeming.
Camus’s The Stranger, a tiny novel, was written three years after Sartre’s Nausea, and is strongly reminiscent of Nausea: in its mood, its attention to apparently irrelevant detail, and in the personality (or, rather, the lack of personality) of its protagonist.
The first half of Stranger feels directionless: like excerpts from the diary of an empty man with a dull life. In first person, Meursault narrates receiving news of his mother’s death, travelling to attend her funeral, taking women on dates and to bed, watching a neighbour abuse his dog, and assisting another nieghbour with a delicate affair. Lacking any clear impetus, and narrated by a man who seems a walking shell, these events feel disjointed, creating in the reader a haunting sense of unease. Unable to put his finger on the origin of this unease, the reader becomes dislocated from comfortable ideas about what a story – or a human being – should be.
Only midway through Nausea do you realise that the novel’s directionlessness so far was illusory: a deliberate and artful construct, confronting you with life’s absurdity. A series of events that seemed insignificant as they happened prove suddenly not so. Every event, evert trivium so far, is brought to bear in the court-trial that follows the book’s central event.
Nausea’s eponymous stranger is the narrator himself: a young man who does all that’s expected of him, showing neither enthusiasm nor distaste. He travels to attend his mother’s funeral; has trouble staying up through the all-night vigil before the funeral; is offered coffee and cigars, and avails himself of them. This is the kind of detail that will be brought up against him, as evidence of his character, at his court-trial. Meursault’s personal life, unremarkable and innocuous, will be analysed for evidence of a ‘criminal personality.’
Is there such a thing?
It’s a series of sheer accidents that brings Meursault to the dock. He is able to vindicate each of his potentially dubious actions leading up to the crime for which he’s standing trial, and in his prior life. In the end, the decisive piece of evidence against Meursault becomes his personality itself: the personality of an alien who seems capable of neither pleasure nor pain. That Meursault has committed the crime for which he’s standing trial is undeniable, and he never attempts to deny it; it is the fact of his being ‘a stranger’ to human emotion that will dictate the sentence he receives.
Short as the novel is, Meursault’s emptiness haunts the reader. But given the accidents into which his directionless life lead him – the reader, along with the court, is forced to put Meursault on trial as a human being.
Tellingly, the court agrees that Meursault cannot help being what he is: that he was born this way. To be clear, ‘what he is’ is not a psychopath, just a shell. Void of any sustained, substantive interest in life, Meursault is immensely susceptible to fleeting sensory impressions. The superfices of life endlessly distract him from life’s meaning. But, then, Meursault is convinced that life has no meaning. And Meursault is perfectly lucid.
Void of both emotion and principle, Meursault is able to empathise with individuals whom other people merely dismiss: his dog-abusing neighbour; his possibly-pimp neighbour. Notably, the novel’s other, presumably more ‘humane’ characters, merely stand back and criticise these dubious individuals, taking no steps to correct the situation they vociferously denounce as immoral. Hypocrisy is one of the things of which Meursault’s personality makes him incapable.
Meursault may be a stranger in the sense of being strange to human emotions, which form the core of most of our lives. But does this make him a reprehensible subhuman? Meursault shows himself willing to aid his friends, even at imminent danger to his own life: surely an admirable attribute. Meursault’s friends’ motives are suspect: but are we not all expected to aid our friends? Even on trial for his life, for a crime that he committed by sheer accident, Meursault remains scrupulously honest, not even considering perfidy.
In the end, Meursault’s cardinal flaw is his unflinching, emotionless recognition of the pointlessness of everything. In the dock, considering speaking up, but failing to do so, Meursault privately vindicates his own inertia: “In the end, it would all come to the same thing.”
Meursault’s strange emptiness – juxtaposed with his honesty, lack of hypocrisy, and other admirable qualities – force us to examine the criminal justice system – specifically, the psychological relevance and philosophical significance of character witnesses – and to examine our own preconceptions about what makes someone human.
In its short span, with its taut narrative, with its singular pervasive mood of open-eyed hopelessness, The Stranger manages to disorient us, and dislocate our own comfortable ideas about what it means to live a human life. It’s not a comfortable book – but, like the best existentialist literature, it’s a book that may enable us to search our own souls, and see in ourselves a brother or a sister to criminals and to saints. It’s a book that may empower us to face the essential meaninglessness of life: in order to create meaning for ourselves.