Thursday, September 23, 2021

Book 303: The Stranger


"I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done this thing but I had done another. And so?"

Dates read: March 16-19, 2019

Rating: 4/10

I like to think of myself as a "thinker". But I don't really go for philosophy. Which doesn't mean that I've never enjoyed books that have a philosophical bent. I loved Sophie's World! But the art of arguing about questions to which we can never know the answer gets old after a while. I'm the kind of person who went to law school because I like to be right, and when it comes to fundamental human nature or why we are here in the universe, no one can ever be right. We just don't know.

I remember my high school humanities teacher assigning us Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (the last part of it anyways). But I'd never read anything more by Camus until I picked up his classic The Stranger. It's a very short book and tells a seemingly straightforward story: a French man living in Algeria, Meursault, shortly after the death of his mother, falls into a relationship with a coworker, Marie, and a friendship with his neighbor, Raymond. When on a trip to the beach with Raymond and Marie, Meursault is walking on the beach alone when he encounters an Arab man, part of a group that had previously confronted him, and shoots him. He's put on trial and convicted, and an appeal seems unlikely to succeed. That's it, more or less. There's not a lot of story there.

As a novel, I don't think this is a success. Meursault is a strange character. He's detached from essentially everyone and everything...he seems to feel little sadness about his mother's death, his appreciation for Marie seems primarily carnal, he drifts into a connection with Raymond mostly because he doesn't have anything better to do. He has no depth, and it's impossible to connect with someone so disconnected from his world and even himself. Others fare no better. The plot lurches forward without much energy or tension. And the prose is uninspiring. But it's hard to know if "as a novel" is even the proper mechanism for evaluation.

As a philosophical treatise, though, I don't know that I think it succeeds either. If the point is to illustrate the tension between the human urge to seek meaning and the inherent meaninglessness of life (as posited by Absurdists like Camus), it does do that, but it fails to be at all compelling. If the point is to frustrate the reader by putting forward a text bereft of meaning, therefore pushing the point about the struggle to impose order upon also does that, but not in a way that I found especially interesting as a reader who isn't a philosophy student.

It is interesting to think about this in contrast to Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which takes pretty much the opposite viewpoint. Both men accept the idea as the world as a place where the events that transpire are not necessarily connected to the actions people take: good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, and there's no way to understand why, or how. For Camus, comfort comes from embracing this meaninglessness and accepting oneself as at the mercy of the whims of fate. For Frankl, comfort comes from identifying a purpose and working toward that purpose, regardless of the obstacles that life puts in one's path. I personally probably tend towards the latter, but understand the idea behind the former. And would have without ever having read the book, which I didn't like and don't recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: Naked

Two years ago, I was reading: Soon The Light Will Be Perfect

Three years ago, I was reading: Ready Player One

Four years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Five years ago, I was reading: David and Goliath

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