Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Camus—Meaning and Suicide: A Stranger in Two Tales

Photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Among gods and authors there is a salient and commonly attendant phrase: authorial intent.  This phrase—high-flung though it may sound—means, simply enough: the will of the author as it deploys in their work (or, creation—if your work happens to be God-hood).  The phrase comes up in graduate lectures and cathedrals, mosques and temples, and other domiciles of learning and high intention—whereabout the deliberative meaning of works are most commonly extoled, or, alternatively, called to fist-shaking clarification.  Which is to say: Oh Lord . . . show your work!  Interpretation is, of course, the essence of this matter, and divinities and authors share that monstrous habit of bearing exclusive copies of their source material with them in their products, their lives, and away with them through to their ultimate deconsecration.  —Le poof.


The urge to definitive scholarship in these matters is certainly understandable.  What did he say?  What did he mean?  If that’s all he said, was that all he meant?  It is not merely a question of discrete meanings, of course, but also one of canonical meanings—the bookends of the interpretively possible.  And, as one will readily imagine, because of the physics of the former, we find durable problems with the latter—i.e., because of that issue with the sealed and vanishing container, we find the seeing and the knowing behave very much more like the scrying.  We are collectively alone with our collective ignorance . . . and we have that at least to share.


All the same, we understand through experience and intuition that the life of the work and the meaning of the maker share a type of placental co-vasculature, rather more than an author may say with perfect didaction—The sum of what I meant, and that sum of what you have, is here.  In this way the work may be said to condense and cohere to an extent, of its own meanings, and also to reach out by them and lead their author with their own grasping hand.  So that occasionally we may find that the author’s assertions are patently false; occasionally they are well intended misunderstandings; and very often their declarations represent merely part of a larger, emergent, whole—the blood plasma and skin grafts of the beginning, we might say.  


In 2012, in The New Yorker Adam Gopnik had a very fine piece entitled: “Facing History Why we love Camus.”  The topic of The Stranger—certainly Camus’ most famous and celebrated piece—was not Gopnik’s primary subject, but he wisely framed it beside The Myth of Sisyphus—Camus’ book of essays elaborating on the themes of The Stranger.  But of the novel directly, he says this:

“The Stranger” tells the story of an alienated Franco-Algerian, Meursault, who kills an Arab on the beach one day for no good reason. The no-good-reason is key: if it’s possible to act for no good reason, maybe there is never any reason to talk about “good” when you act.


The characterization is striking for its facile economy, and for how ably it sums the standard reading of the book—a reading I recognize well, and one with which, in my youth, I may once have felt close.  Indeed, it seems something of an institutional article of faith that The Stranger is about moral frames: after all, is its subject not in fact the callous murder of an Arab on the beach—“for no good reason”—which is to say, no reason at all?  Well . . . no.  The murder, as it unfolds, is not accurately described as being literally, for no reason at all.  And . . . no: the murder is not the subject of the work—as that institutional article of faith would have it, and as Adam Gopnik so concisely puts it. 


What, in fact, The Strangeris—about, seems, even after all this time, to be, on the one hand, something half revealed by Camus, in his elaborations in The Myth of Sisyphus, and half concealed by Jean-Paul Sartre, with his often back-handed praise of it in his An Explication of The Stranger; and, a perhaps not coincidental urge to circumscribe and coopt its dark and subtle articulations for his own, rather more sharply ideological purposes.  


It is not just useful, but important, to have The Myth of Sisyphus beside The Stranger here, because, arguably, we lack that definitive key which refutes the standard reading without it.  Camus follows The Stranger with this book of essays, and in them makes clear that he is working on adjacent material, and from the outset tells us he could hardly be more concerned with ‘meanings.’  What Sartre insists in his explication is, that The Stranger is a nothing about nothing.  An absurdity about absurdity—as he says it must be: the world after all is absurd, and so then must be he who comes from it: Meursault—the putative protagonist, or as Sartre refers to him: the ‘hero.’  While it indeed rhymes with Camus, this line of argument seems fashioned to do nothing so much as to strip Camus’ ‘meanings’ from the work in claiming them as deliberate mirages—meanwhile mouthing Camus’ words, and with them overwriting an interpretive veneer of his own.  


Already between the two men—Camus and his self-appointed interpreter, Sartre—we can find a touching upon and then pulling against different argumentative threads.  Both here are preoccupied by the ‘absurd,’ but it quickly seems clear that they mean importantly different things by it.  Sartre appears to see it as acknowledgment of a fundamental meaninglessness at the root of things—that all things are interpretively empty vessels, and cannot be filled.  If the world is absurd, then so are its fruits: if the world lacks meaning, then so do the spoils of it, lives, and therefore, so that life of man must lack it as well.  For Sartre these surfaces are so smoothly polished, so unburdened with intrinsic form, they might be cleaned of even that residual evidence of purported meanings, and might then be reordered and reassigned: a final act of post-war enlightenment, and victorious erasure.  He cannot help but be attracted by the social and political implication for this power.  For Camus’ part, however, he appears to see the ‘absurd’ as more an articulation of something broken—a form which once existed, a thing which once functioned, or was meant to, and which no longer does.  A corruption, then, of what ‘is,’ or was ever intended—a bitterly comic, painful corruption, so dire as to threaten the durability, transmissibility, or indeed, even the ongoing possibility, of meanings.  But this sentiment is fundamentally different from Sartre, and exists as a kind of lamenting ‘should,’ which hangs in man and object the way a vestige odor hangs in the fibers of cloth.  It may not function, but neither will it be purged and reassigned, and the result is a paradoxical admixture of empowerment, and despair.  An instinct and conclusion very much more literary than purely philosophical: not that there was never meaning, but that it has somewhere been lost, Grail-like; made impossible by incipient knowledge, technology, and industrially revolutionized scales of warfare: that it has perished with man’s foreclosed intuitions.  A sentiment, then, which echoes with the Nietzschean declaration that ‘God is dead,’ and ‘we have killed him’: not that there was never prior meaning, but that like a sublime magic, man has defiled and render it ineffective, and now he must live in the liberty and the consequence of his actions—his new power, and the burden of purpose in wielding it . . . and, the new and silent emptiness of living within an authorless work.  —"Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name . . .”     


Of these two—The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus—one may be pardoned for imagining an explicit correlation. Sartre himself sees these not as two, but rather as effectively one work in two volumes.  In his An Explication of The Stranger, to be sure, Sartre sees one continuous arc between them, merely described across two abridgeable texts.  He borrows from The Myth of Sisyphus to describe his paired images of “emotion” and of “lucidity”—and he sees these, then, as twin piers, left and right legs of this arcing ideal.  In his explication Sartre says: “The Myth of Sisyphus might be said to aim at giving us the idea, and The Stranger at giving us the feeling.”  Thought and feeling, emotion and lucidity—two presentations cut of divergent polarities and overlaid to a perfect and singular registration.  Redundant proofs and the singular argument.  . . . If only it were so.  The registration points, however, do not align—they tell us this isn’t so.  The parallax of their arcs is similar, but not the same: they are two individuated assertions, in two distinct tales.


In the case of Meursault, he takes a pistol from his neighbor-friend, Raymond, originally in an act of de-escalation, and then distractedly carries it in his pocket with him on a solitary walk down the beach, to the very scene of an earlier confrontation.  The legal trial which follows fixates on the minutiae of moment and motive, on conscientiousness, lucidity, and deliberations—on the climate of moral character.  But Camus understands the murder of the Arab on the beach as inevitable as violent causes finding a rioter.  By the time Meursault has arrived at the scene, the true moment of prevention has passed, and he becomes, as men often do, an agent of demolition awaiting self-selecting targets.  A fate awaiting particulars.  


When The Stranger is published, France in 1942 remains a nation occupied.  While perhaps some of his contemporaries will have admired a character so unleashed by the death of meanings as to blunder easily into casual and benumbed murder, it is in no way possible that this trait—as common to Nazi secret police and Vichy spies as to hapless street toughs—is to Camus some newfound power of the ‘absurd.’  Also important is the fact that, of ‘an alienated Franco-Algerian’ accused of murdering an Arab in 1942 French Algeria, there is not the least certainty of conviction.  In fact, the reality is that Meursault faces a merely fractional legal danger, and it is an entirely more pressing question why Meursault might not—however corruptly—squeeze through the performative bars of justice, and off into the mundane anonymity of ordinary life.  As it is, over and again Meursault is approached by the various characters and appurtenances of the Law—each of whom at first waits for all they need truly to hear—‘I was endangered!’ ‘threatened!’ ‘I feared for my life!’ ‘acted in self-defense,’ ‘I repent!’  But when these powers of the Law come looking for such gestures from Meursault, when such simple and obvious ameliorating claims will not appear, they try at first with nods and glances to produce them, then induce them between their teeth, and eventually issue flat-out defenses of the case Meursault need do nothing more than assent to.  


In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says early on: “Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life.  In a certain sense, he did right.  That truth was not worth the stake.”  Right or wrong—self-preservation—Camus sees as a rather unromantic, pre-philosophical sacrament—one not to be contravened by mere performances in ideology.  It is the first responsibility of the self.  And yet, Meursault seems to fail this basic test.  He will not speak the words which will save him.  Indeed, he will not even think them into reach.


It is here that we know—must see and understand—that the murder of the Arab on the beach is not at all the subject of the work, nor is it the climax.  It is no more the matter of The Stranger than the fact that Meursault does not, perhaps will not, cry at his mother’s funeral.  The murder of the Arab is neither more nor less than the original sin of the man who discovers that he has been born out of all certainty of meanings.  It is the blundering act which ejects him from them, the epiphany of discovering oneself outside the complicit and express gravity of the agreements of being; it is the slaying of the shade-self that abides there: it is Nietzsche’s madman waving a lantern in a daylit square—announcing the death of God.  It is an act, a discovery, a sin . . . a birth—into power of ultimate liberty and ultimate despair—for which that numbness at a mother’s funeral can be but a foreshadowing prefiguration.  What can be that emotion of birth?—wonders Camus—might it be that joy of release?—or the stumble-drunk disorientation of catastrophe?—the problem of recontextualizing the vehicle . . . and its rules . . . amidst the plummeting absence of lift.  Should this lack of ready-made, articulable emotion really surprise us then?  After all, who is moving away from whom?  Who is genuinely departing—she, or him?


The literal breaks itself.  The consequences of the real explode into metaphor and negative space.  The magnitude of effects fracture planes of continuity and render their own causes impossible—and yet, cannot prevent them.  For Camus, nothing less than the true, unmoderated gravity of a murder will bear the energetic potentials necessary to gain access to the space he means to enter—will pierce the physics of meanings, and allow us to penetrate to their vacuum interior: not climax, but the location of the beginning.  The bardo space; the Planck Scale; the location ineluctably arrived at when we fall out of the sphere of meanings and into the reservoir of their parts—the shatters and sand of implications, where they exist exclusively in their quantum and probabilistic state. 


It is in this space that the two tales of a stranger overlap, where their arcs coincide. Because this is the uterine space of interiority.  All those who collapse through the armature of significances arrive in this space—both Meursault and Sisyphus, you and I—when we are knocked from our root convictions of the consequence of being.  The question from here becomes, what next—where?  Sartre will see here the two purgatory vaults; the two receptacle cells of consciousness; the two penitents bound to eternity and its emptiness—job done, he might say: a portrait record of the truth.  Camus, however, does not.  He sees not a baptism of the end, but the site of the riddle of the self.  The real work has yet to be done.  The labyrinth has yet to be navigated.  This is the location of the choice.  And while the choice will not salve the traveler from the knowledge of the broken context, the failure of meanings, the perilous fall from them, or of the harrowing truth of this vault of the self utterly without them—the choice will allow him motion, a permeability—not a pardon, but the aperture of parole.


The nature of the choice, or its texture in this context, is without import for Camus.  There is in the end—from this place without meanings—not nearly so great a variety of choosing as we might imagine.  The choice may have the sound of labor, or the feel of loving, or the ink stains of creative concentration, or simply just the anchoring touch of wind snapping against our conscious surface.  It is not plural nor binary, so much as singular—the choice of the affirmation.  ‘Yes.’  And this choice is the redemptive act.  Sisyphus eventually comes to choose to push the boulder up the hill.  It is an act of subversion, and reclamation.  A manifestation of meaning by the self for the self.  An act like the drowning man producing the lifeboat which rescues him.  An act of manifestation consecrated in choice.  In this way Sisyphus tells us one side of this story.  His is the one, empowered, melancholy, full arc—falling through the crumbling architecture of meanings, navigating the storm of the self in the void of inconsequence, and then, with an affirming choice based on nothing, and housed nowhere but within, he, like a true god, invents a meaning for himself—however small, however modest—and turns his penitentiary inside out by the mere occasion of the choosing.  This, says Camus, is victory—the only one there is.


But if Sisyphus is victory, if his is the one of two tales, what is Meursault?  Does he not find himself in a cell of his own making?—does he not tumble into the perilous volume of his own interiority?—does he not claim a happiness in his captive state which rhymes with that happiness Camus tells us we must see in Sisyphus?  Perhaps, but just.  The arc of Meursault resembles that of Sisyphus: we witness the fall, the birth into the corruption of meanings, the bouncing the baseball off the walls of the bardo . . . and that is all.  The tale of Sisyphus is that of victory in meaning, and the tale of Meursault is the tale of the suicide.  His is the cautionary tale.  Camus’ warning—that merely to realize a frightening and empowering passage out of meanings, is not, ultimately, to pierce the second veil; is not at all a guarantee to find the self and grapple with him, to make him yield a choice, and by it find transfiguration—rare knowledge and strange freedoms . . . or even, nobility in persistence.


Meursault does not choose.  He does not fall out of meanings by reflecting on them, but by being too careless even to reach for them.  He has neither the agency to avoid murder, nor to prevent his own.  He cannot speak the words which would explain himself, even for ultimate salvation.  Indeed, he cannot consider a salvation that keys at first on his selfhood—only the deliverance of exterior machinations.  Meursault is broken, his interiority has no volume, his reflections are feeble and childish—he is exactly the suicide Camus is preoccupied with, and he is a suicide from the beginning.  He does not choose.  He cannot choose.  The vital self with such powers cannot be located, and his will be a waking death from the outset, the suicide that cannot be bothered to step off the tracks, because it can sense imperative in neither train nor being.  Meursault is a Bartleby for all seasons.  —And a warning . . . that falling into meaninglessness, and abiding in nihilism . . . are only similar in appearance.  One is explicitly fatal.  


In his explication, Sartre says of Meursault: “Once the character had been sketched in, he probably completed himself; he certainly had a real weight of his own.  . . . that’s how he is, and that’s that.”  It may be that Camus originally wanted for Meursault what he would later provide for Sisyphus.  Perhaps Camus had intended sovereign redemption: a single arc across two volumes.  And, perhaps, then, that singular choice of Meursault’s truncated life was to reach out instead, and guide his maker by the hand.