The Stranger | Critical Essay by Vicki Mistacco

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of The Stranger.
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Critical Essay by Vicki Mistacco

SOURCE: "Mama's Boy: Reading Woman in L'Etranger," in Camus's L'Etranger: Fifty Years On, edited by Adele King, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 152-69.

In the following essay, Mistacco offers a psychoanalytical feminist reading of The Stranger, drawing attention to elements of femininity in the pre-oedipal relationship between Meursault and his mother.

In his last interview, when asked what he felt critics had most neglected in his work, Camus replied: 'La part obscure, ce qu'il y a d'aveugle et d'instinctif en moi.' Many have since sought to approach this dark, enigmatic side from the perspective of psychoanalysis, emphasising, as Freudian and Lacanian orthodoxy requires, the oedipal moment, and in so doing repressing or devaluing the maternal bond, giving primacy to the phallus and the threat of castration. To my knowledge, however, no sustained effort has been made to view Camus's writing from the perspective of psychoanalytic feminism, stressing rather the importance of the pre-oedipal stage in which the primary figure is not the father but the mother and the primary relationship is a dual not triangular one, between mother and child. Feminist critics have most often adopted this approach to study the mother/daughter dyad in women writers. Shifting the context, I propose here to effect a kind of 'naive' reading, to 'overread' Camus, as if he were a woman writer, for traces of the relationship between the feminine and text production, bracketing psychoanalytic orthodoxy to allow the 'underread,' the feminine maternal, to emerge from the shadows of critical repression and be seen in Meursault's revolt in L'Etranger, the text's ambiguities, and the author's concept of the Absurd. By referring positively to Meursault as a 'mama's boy,' I am drawing upon the hero's infantile vocabulary to suggest the transgressive potential in this relationship and to question the term's pejorative cultural connotations of a somehow 'effeminate' boy whose excessive attachment to the mother extends scandalously beyond the 'normal' time.

It is difficult to appreciate the consequences of this critical move without a sense of the constraints of previous masculinist psychoanalytic interpretations. These have instituted and reinforced a kind of doxa, a rigid hermeneutic grid that only permits repetition of the same, phallocentrism, and generates the greatest degree of critical excitement around the ideas of incest and castration.

The standard procedure among the Freudian critics is to interpret all of Camus, and especially L'Etranger, in the light of L'Envers et l'endroit, a collection of autobiographical essays first published in 1937 just prior to the composition of L'Etranger, then republished in 1958 with an all-important preface in which Camus points to the childhood world of poverty they evoke—and above all the silent mother—as the source of his work. These critics then focus on two features of the mother/son relationship as portrayed in one of the essays, 'Entre oui et non,' the boy's ambivalence toward maternal silence and an incident in which the mother is attacked by a male intruder and the son, called in to tend to her in her state of shock, ends up spending the night on her bed watching over her. Camus uses the third person to refer to the son in the recollected past, distancing himself from what may in fact be fiction or fictional transposition of lived experience for aesthetic ends, something most Freudian critics tend to overlook, keen as they are to (re)discover the 'events' determining Camus's psyche and writing that will allow them to replay the usual gynophobic Freudian scenarios.

Let us first consider maternal silence. Camus's mother as depicted in L'Envers et l'endroit was nearly deaf, practically mute, inarticulate, feeble-minded, illiterate. Conversation between mother and son was sparse as the mother withdrew into a solitary, immobile, and unreflective world of silence. On the one hand, her silence is described in positive terms as a form of presence and plenitude ('"A quoi tu penses?" "A rien," répondait-elle. Tout est là, done rien'), timelessness ('un temps d'arrêt, un instant démesuré') and knowledge ('A se taire, la situation s'éclaircit. Il est son fils, elle est sa mère. Elle peut lui dire: "Tu sais"'). On the other hand, it inspires fear and pain in the young boy and is presented negatively as 'mutisme', 'irrémédiable désolation,' 'silence animal' and as a form of indifference reinforced by deprivation of maternal caresses and linked with feelings of estrangement and strangeness ('L'indifférence de cette mère étrange!').

According to Costes, Gassin, Lazere, and other Freudian critics, this ambivalence and the frustrations that the mother's seeming indifference 'must have' (a key phrase in these analyses) caused the child, led to a splitting of her imago as a defence mechanism. She thus becomes both Good Mother and Bad Mother and is endowed with both maternal (good) and paternal (bad) characteristics, including in the latter instance, a phallus. What is interesting is that although Camus stresses in these essays ambivalence and tension maintained between opposing notions which ultimately revert back to the mother ('Entre cet endroit et cet envers du monde, je ne veux pas choisir, je n'aime pas qu'on choisisse'), for all these critics the scales definitely tip toward the Bad or Phallic Mother whose phallus is her silence. Costes goes so far as to say that the Phallic Mother presides, 'en maîtresse absolue' over the early cycle of the Absurd. Clearly, this type of simplification is commanded by the critic's own desire for unity, an unproblematised unity which, unlike the one I see at work in Camus, enables interpretive mastery of the author's psyche and writings and a repetition of the same, the masculine, the valorised term. The Good Mother and the positive attributes of her silence are essentially dismissed as an idealisation, a defence wrought by castration anxiety. The persecuting phallus turns out to be nothing but a mask for the mother's lack and her silent mouth none other than a castrating vagina dentata. Critical gynophobia is transformed into the hermeneutic key that will unlock the secrets of Camus's work protecting us all (all of us men) from the enigmatic Sphinx who devours young men: 'l'oeuvre entière de Camus n'avait d'autre fonction-de son seul point de vue inconscient, évidemment-que de combler ce silence maternel, véritable gouffre à fantasmes.' The threatening hole must be filled, repressed, covered up with a phallus, lest the 'nothing' be acknowledged to harbour a something and the 'admirable silence' that Camus sets forth in the preface as the centre of his work and an ethical model be viewed positively. Contradictions must be swept aside by the 'symbolisme latent et négatif' of the Mother psychoanalysis relentlessly rediscovers.

The second critical move, involving slippage from the preoedipal to the oedipal, from positive symbiosis to incest, and from maternal discourse to 'incestuous language,' may be discerned in the standard Freudian interpretations of the scene of the attack on the mother and the ensuing night with her son. Gassin and Costes are essentially in agreement that this is Camus's version of the primal scene fantasy—that of the child's witnessing of parental intercourse—with its accompanying panoply of sadism, masochism, and guilt. It is an anxiety-inducing scene in which the mother appears to castrate the father and incorporate his penis. The son's identification with the aggressor, here seen as his taking the place of the aggressor/father in his mother's bed, yields guilty incestuous feelings as well as anxiety about his own potential castration by father and mother combined. Only Lazere suggests that the night shared by mother and son on the same bed may be interpreted as a fantasy of the womb, a pre-genital fantasy of symbiotic union with the mother, although, retrospectively, he too shifts to a negative oedipal interpretation in analysing the remainder of the essay. Incest is clearly but one possible interpretation of the scene which may also be read in a way that highlights pre-oedipal union where vivid memories of the womb subsist and where the simultaneous breathing, the solitary bonding of mother and child against the rest of the world ('Seuls contre tous. Les "autres" dormaient, à l'heure où tous deux respiraient la fièvré'), even abolishing the outside world ('Le monde s'était dissous'), and 'les liens qui l'attachaient à sa méré,' are most important. To view L'Etranger 'dans son ensemble,' not to mention all of Camus's oeuvre, in the exclusive light of an oedipal and primal scene interpretation of this one episode is to blind oneself to the workings of the maternal in Camus and to foreclose all possibility of a hermeneutics of the feminine. It is hardly surprising, then, that Costes should fail to recognise a crucial distinction in his own terminology when he conflates 'la langue maternelle' with 'le language incestueux' as the aim of Camus's literary discourse.

Barthes pondered in The Pleasure of the Text, 'Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus?' I suggest we reformulate the question, asking 'does every narrative have to lead back to Oedipus, even if the subject is male?' Perhaps the oedipal perspective is not, as Freud would have it, 'the only angle on the pre-oedipal.' Freed from the oedipal grid, would we not also be freed from the requisite remarks about Camus's fear and hostility toward the mother and therefore toward women in general? Would we not then be able to see beyond obvious thematics—Meursault's treatment of Marie, his participation in Raymond's sordid scheme of revenge, his apparent indifference to his mother—and come to a more nuanced appreciation of the novel's ambiguities? And as feminists, to escape repetition of the same, must we not propose a feminist reading that is first and foremost a reading of the feminine?

What does this mean? To read the feminine is not primarily to psychoanalyse the hero or the author, but rather to draw attention to traces of maternal discourse, to the workings of the pre-oedipal in the signifying system of the novel. This frame of reference makes it possible to recontextualise previous critical findings and illuminate the text otherwise. Take, for example, the famous opening paragraph:

Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: 'Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.' Cela ne veut rien dire.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

This text represents the first cut, a disruption of undifferentiated pre-narrative existence that sets the story in motion. As such, it figures not so much a death as a birth, the cutting of the umbilical cord which precipitates the child into a first, pre-oedipal, signifying process not structured by the phallus, into a process of differentiation between self and other (Julia Kristeva on maternity, discussed in Jacobus). The first emblem of this process is lexical: 'maman.' In the absence of a father he never knew, Meursault seems to prolong into adulthood the pre-oedipal phase and the early linguistic relationship to the mother. Whether or not this is by choice, as his remark about abandoned studies suggests, is not immediately relevant. Many have noted Meursault's childish, simple vocabulary, his elementary syntax, his childlike attitudes, and infantile occupations (the games he plays to pass the time, his long hours of sleep). What interests me here is that, by ironic juxtaposition with the formal, stilted language of the telegram, a first incursion of the symbolic, the language of patriarchy, Meursault's infantile vocabulary and syntax reinscribe the pre-oedipal in much the same way as feminist theoreticians such as Kristeva, as both a marginal space and a space of dissidence, projecting into meaning lessness language as we know it: 'cela ne veut rien dire.' The feminine maternal thus becomes the vantage point for the crisis in language that is evidenced throughout the novel and for the crisis in meaning it engenders. The pre-oedipal archaic mother presides over a narrative of non-mastery, of meaning decontextualised and deferred, of unresolved enigmas: 'peut être…, je ne sais pas.'

At the threshold and in the margins of the narrative, the mother's body unsettles the border between absence and presence, inside and outside, beginnings and endings, perturbing, by this liminality, identity, representation, and truth. We never actually 'see' the mother's body: 'J'ai voulu voir maman tout de suite. Mais le concierge m'a dit qu'il fallait que je rencontre le directeur.' Paternal figures intervene to screen it. The concierge explains: 'On l'a couverte, mais je dois dévisser la bière pour que vous puissiez la voir.' Later the director reiterates the invitation to view the body in the casket. What this amounts to is maternal repression. From the point of view of the Symbolic Order, to look at the mother can only mean to see death—or lack, as the director's expression 'veiller la disparue' suggests. Above all, for patriarchy to function smoothly, the maternal body must simply be buried, for it is only after the burial, Meursault concludes, that 'tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.'

Situating the mother's absence differently, Meursault's refusal to view the body draws attention to society's repression of the maternal and rewrites feminine lack as dissidence. This is the real crime for which he is punished by the judicial system, the most ostentatious manifestation of the Law of the Father in the novel. In the words of the prosecutor: 'j'accuse cet homme d'avoir enterré une mère avec un coeur criminel.' This symbolic 'matricide' turn out to be in society's eyes the equivalent of patricide: Meursault has threatened patriarchy by killing its body-effacing image of the mother.

The pre-oedipal attachment to the mother is not without contradiction and attempts at distancing, however, just as her procreating body itself marks a space of differentiation. By putting her in an old-people's home, Meursault has re-enacted an infant's primal distancing from the mother as not-yet-object. To explain his impassiveness at the funeral, he tells his lawyer: 'Tous les êtres sains avaient plus ou moins souhaité la mort de ceux qu'ils aimaient.' We need not invoke the oedipal drama, incest, maternal indifference or rejection to account for these apparently negative moments in the son's relationship to the mother. They are part of the self-differentiating process that brings about subject-formation and therefore a pre-symbolic type of signification, a process Julia Kristeva has called 'abjection': 'A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten [pre-natal?] life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome.' The 'abject' or maternal pseudo-object represents a first attempt to distinguish ourselves from the maternal entity even before we exist outside her through the autonomy granted by language. The mother in this perspective is same-but-different and the mother/child relationship is one of estrangement as well as union. It seems difficult not to recognise in these the ambivalent terms of the mother/son relationship in L'Envers et l'endroit also, and not to read a reference to abjection in that ur-text of the maternal in Camus, the first entry in the Carnets: 'le sentiment bizarre qu'un fils porte à sa mère constitue toute sa sensibilité. Les manifestations de cette sensibilité dans les domaines les plus divers s'expliquent suffisamment par le souvenir latent, matériel de son enfance (une glu qui s'accroche à l'âme).' 'The bizarre feeling that a son has for his mother constitutes all his sensitivity. The expressions of this sensitivity in the most varied spheres can be sufficiently explained by the latent, material memory of his childhood (a glue that sticks to the soul)'. Union and estrangement/abjection at once, not only are these the basis of Camus's art, they also anticipate the fundamental contradiction of the Absurd.

Neither fully absent nor present, dispersed and disseminated, the mother's body returns with insistence throughout the novel. During the vigil, Meursault unconsciously discerns its every presence everywhere, from the Arab nurse with her back to him whom he imagines knitting and whose face is covered except for her eyes, to the silent old women with their huge, bulging stomachs protruding under their aprons. These are all anonymous, marginal figures of subordinate otherness with respect to the dominant white, French male colonialists represented here by the paternalistic director and to a certain degree by the concierge—both refer to the old people as 'the others.' But seen through the eyes of Meursault these enigmatic characters recast difference as differentiation rather than polar opposition reducible to the dominant term, just as they multiply and disperse, same and different, the body of the mother—silent, gazing, or pregnant—from whom the child has been severed. Similarly, the old woman's crying and the toothless old people's bizarre sucking sounds displace the infant's instinctual behaviour after being torn from the womb. In this entire episode of the vigil, Camus is calling attention to the originary trauma of birth which creates a space at once separating and linking mother and child where otherness and dissidence may eventually find a voice. The mother's body and her body language—her silence, her gaze ('Quand elle était à la maison, maman passait son temps à me suivre des yeux en silence'), replicated in the judgmental looks and silent intimacy of the old people—become the potential site of an alternative non-symbolic discourse of vigilance, repressed anger, and truth that would unsettle the institutions of patriarchy.

A less obvious attack originating in the maternal takes place on the level of naming. 'Maman' may be buried, but her name surfaces everywhere confounding identity and blurring gender distinctions. The already reduplicated 'ma' reappears in the names or designations of other female characters; Marie, 'la Mauresque,' 'I'infirmière arabe,' 'la petite femme automate,' 'la femme de Masson.' But, more importantly, the infant's rhythmic, pre-discursive signifier is disseminated in the names of practically all of the male characters as well: Emmanuel, Masson, Salamano. In the case of Raymond, as if to compensate for the reversal of phonemes, the maternal is inscribed in Sintès, Camus's own mother's maiden name. The feminine maternal surfaces as non-expressive rhythm, word-play, traversing the symbolic and displacing the founding opposition of female to male upon which the entire oppressive dialectics of patriarchy rests. Summing up this subversive gesture by which sexual difference and the categories it supports are confused and exceeded is the name of the mother's fiancé: Thomas Pérez, 'maman/père,' mama/father.

An apparently marginal figure, Thomas Pérez is nonetheless present at two strategic moments: the beginning where Meursault's lingering fascination yields perhaps the most elaborate, if repugnant, physical portrait in the novel and the climactic final revelation in which he comes to understand why, on the eve of death, his mother had taken a fiancé. This and the fact that a substantial portion of the opening chapter is devoted to Thomas Pérez suggest that this figure merits even more scrutiny than his name alone would warrant. The director's embarrassed dismissal of his relationship with Mme Meursault as 'childish' intimates that here too we might look for subversive traces of the feminine maternal or, more generally, Woman. What is 'embarrassing' to the director and fascinating to Meursault is the intimation by way of Pérez of the mother's sexuality, her existence as woman, both sexual and maternal.

Beyond the surface, in between or outside the categories of the symbolic, the most deeply repressed figure of the orgasmic mother points enigmatically to a truth other than man's, the half-herd truth of woman's jouissance. Thus, the text forges an elusive link between the mother, Pérez, the landscape, and truth. Meursault observes Pérez while the director explains that often Pérez and Meursault's mother would take evening walks to the village.

Je regardais la campagne autour de moi. A travers les lignes de cyprès qui menaient aux collines près du ciel, cette terre rousse et verte, ces maisons rares et bien dessinées, je comprenais maman. Le soir, dans ce pays, devait être comme une trêve mélancolique.

I was looking at the countryside around me. Seeing the rows of cypress trees leading up to the hills next to the sky, and the houses standing out here and there against that red and green earth, I was able to understand Maman better. Evenings in that part of the country must have been a kind of sad relief.

Access to maternal truth-jouissance will be indirect, via the landscape and/or Pérez. The mother earth figure, which others have discussed in Camus, is actually not a figure, a substitute for the mother's body that erases it. The conjoining of mother and earth is, in my view, a manifestation of the confusion of boundaries, of the mingling of same and other in non-contradictory synthesis, that Lacanian and feminist psychoanalysis attributes to feminine jouissance. The feminist psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray analogises this feature of woman's jouissance from her body:

As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity. Woman "touches herself" all the time … for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two—but not divisible into one(s)—that caress each other.

In this light, the mother earth connection represents the insistence in the text of the mother's body as the locus of a non-figural truth beyond meaning and mastery. Thus, Meursault's final revelation, precipitated by sense impressions from the landscape, reconvenes the same elements, including some of the same phrases, that are linked in this passage:

j'ai pensé à maman. Il m'a semblé que je comprenais pourquoi à la fin d'une vie elle avait pris un 'fiancé', pourquoi elle avait joué à recommencer. Là-bas, là-bas aussi … le soir était comme une trêve mélancolique. Si près de la mort, maman devait s'y sentir libérée et prête à tout revivre.'

I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a 'fiancé,' why she had played at beginning again. Even there … evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again.

Mersault's reading of Woman justifies his refusal of patriarchy and culminates in rejection of the binary oppositions that support it. Endings, of novels and of lives, are also beginnings, and in this non-hierarchical imbrication of opposites lie truth, freedom, and the real unity sought in Camus's writings. As we shall see, these are not the only traces of the feminine in the last pages of the novel.

Truth is in neither term of the opposition, but in between, 'entre', 'inter-dit.' Unlike the lighting at the vigil described by the concierge as 'tout ou rien,' 'she-truths' burst forth where contradiction is maintained. In 'Le vréel' ('she-truth' or 'true-real') Julia Kristeva theorises that in this space where the symbolic falters the pre-oedipal archaic mother surfaces and reclaims her right to language, pointing to ineffable jouissance and causing the real to appear as a jubilant enigma. This perspective is strikingly close to Camus's when he meditates on truth in 'L'Enigme' (1950):

Tout se tait … De nouveau, une énigme heureuse m'aide à tout comprendre … Le soleil … coagule l'univers et ses formes dans un éblouissement obscur … cette clarté blanche et noire qui, pour moi, a toujours été celle de la vérité.

Everything grows quiet … Once again, a happy enigma helps me to understand everything … the sun … coagulates the universe and its forms into a dazzling darkness … the white and black clarity that, for me, has always been the sign of truth.

In the inscrutable, unimaginable space between alternatives in Camus's writing may be glimpsed an elusive 'mother's truth' whose roots are buried in childhood:

Si ce soir, c'est l'image d'une certaine enfance qui revient vers moi, comment ne pas accueillir la leçon d'amour et de pauvreté que je puis en tirer? Puisque cette heure est comme un intervalle entre oui et non,… recueillir seulement la transparence et la simplicité des paradis perdus: dans une image.

If, this evening, the image of a certain childhood comes back to me, how can I keep from welcoming the lesson of love and poverty it offers? Since this hour is like a pause between yes and no … only to capture the transparency and simplicity of paradises lost: in an image.

'She-truths' or the lost paradise of maternal jouissance, these represent both the source ('image') and the aim ('image') of Camus's thought and art. When it refuses to repress otherness, when it affirms non-hierarchically both elements of an opposition ('oui et non'; 'Il n'y a pas d'amour de vivre sans désespoir de vivre'), the discourse of the Absurd approximates a discourse of the feminine. By the same token, Meursault's celebrated indifference—apparent in such formulas as 'cela m'était égal,' 'dans un sens … dans un autre,' 'd'un côté … d'un autre côté'—may be understood not as difference annulled but rather as an illustration of this 'feminine' kind of difference.

Most important for their implications of alterity and for Meursault's evolution with respect to otherness are the Arabs. In much the same way as the mother the Arabs contribute to Camus's myth of utopian otherness. 'Ils nous regardaient en silence, mais à leur manière, ni plus ni moins que si nous étions des pierres ou des arbres morts.' These are the same silent looks as the mother's, looks of the oppressed/repressed whose silence may signify anger. They recall the alternative discourse of dissidence suggested in the attitude of the old people during the vigil and the blend of familiarity and estrangement we have traced to the preoedipal relationship to the mother. Marginalised, colonised, depersonalised, presented anonymously as 'Arabes' or 'groupes d'Arabes' or more exotically as 'Mauresques,' from an abstract semiotic point of view—though not, as many of Camus's critics have observed, a pragmatic, political one—they serve in L'Etranger to critique Western notions of identity and the self. In Part 2, the murmured communication between the crouching Arab prisoners and their visitors beneath the din of their French counterparts forms a 'basso continuo' that suggests the repressed semiotic subtext of the symbolic, a non-figural (hence the musical comparison to convey the impression their Arabic makes on Meursault) and more authentic form of communication ('malgré' le tumulte, ils parvenaient à s'entendre en parlant très bas').

Camus reinforces the association with the semiotic or dissident maternal discourse by juxtaposing the Arabs' conversation with the silent communication between two other characters, an old woman and her son, who stare intensely at each other. At parting their silent looks are seconded by gesture and the pre-discursive 'maman,' the only time it does not refer to Meursault's own mother: 'Il a dit: "Au revoir, maman"' et elle a passé sa main entre les deux barreaux pour lui faire un petit signe lent et prolongé.' Meursault describes the son as 'un petit jeune homme aux mains fines,' (italics mine) as if to emphasise his childlike relationship to the mother and a feminine trait that evokes the sameness-in-difference preceding the oedipal cut and the constitution of sexual difference.

If the Arabs carry all these positive, maternal connotations, then what does it mean to murder an Arab? As others have noted, this is the oedipal moment. Raymond has progressively dragged the passive Meursault into man's world: 'il m'a déclaré … que moi, j'étais un homme,' 'Raymond … m'a dit qu'entre hommes on se comprenait toujours.' Reflecting the Symbolic Order, this world of the white Western colonist grants Arabs and women existence only as subordinate others. Thus, Meursault is becoming more 'normal.' He agrees to marry Marie and recognises in the conventional Masson couple an image of his own conjugal future. In the murder chapter there is strong emphasis on traditional gender roles: the men go for a walk while the women do the dishes, the men get into fights and the women cry. Furthermore, Meursault is uncharacteristically patronising: 'Là, nous avons trouvé nos deux Arabes' (italics mine).

This process culminates in the murder. Raymond's revolver, itself emblematic of his phallocentric world, is symbolically related to the sun, the primary paternal symbol in the episode. The sun glints on the gun when he hands it to Meursault. But in this second encounter with the Arabs Meursault remains poised in a quasi-maternal world of equilibrium and suspended choices, of silence and water: 'tout s' arrêtait ici entre la mer, le sable et le soleil, le double silence de la flûte et de I'eau. J'ai pensé qu' on pouvait tirer ou ne pas tirer' (italics mine). 'Everything came to a stop there between the sea, the sand, and the sun, and the double silence of the flute and the water. It was then that I realised that you could either shoot or not shoot.' When he returns to the beach alone, he is both rejecting Raymond's world with its stereotyped femininity and trying to shake off the 'blinding' sun which opposes his advance to the shade, repose, and the cool maternal spring ('je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil'). The play of the sun of the Arab's knife becomes more obviously a metaphor for the threat of castration. The paternal sun in fact prevents him from turning back and pushes him toward the constitution of the Arab—and Woman—as polar Other. The associations between the Arab and Woman are numerous. Not only does the Arab occupy a space connoted maternal, he is lying in a 'feminine', almost seductive pose. And he is there to exact revenge on behalf of his sister. Finally, the sun here recalls the primal separation from the mother's body at the funeral: 'C'était le même soleil que le jour où j'avais enterré maman.' With the passive firing of the first shot under the influence of the sun, Meursault has destroyed 'l'équilibre du jour' and happy silence. He now fully enters the Symbolic Order, firing four more shots with Raymond's gun to complete the repression of Arab and Woman as Other.

Cut from the pre-oedipal by this act, Meursault will (re)discover in it a positive rhetoric of dissidence. The prison visit represents an important turning point in this development. Camus builds on the implications of maternal semiosis in the scene by devoting the rest of the chapter of Meursault's infantile regression. The prison cell becomes a womblike environment returning him to maternal wisdom ('C'était d'ailleurs une idée de maman … qu' on finissait par s'habituer à tout') and unsettling adult temporality, antinomy, fixed boundaries, as well as language: 'Je n'avais pas compris à quel point les jours pouvaient être à la fois longs et courts … ils finissaient par déborder les uns sur les autres. Ils y perdaient leur nom. Les mots hier et demain étaient les seuls qui gardaient un sens pour moi' (italics mine). 'I hadn't understood how days could be both long and short at the same time … they ended up flowing into one another. They lost their names. Only the words "yesterday" and "tomorrow" still had any meaning for me.' But these pages also suggest the dangers of pure silence through the cautionary tale of the Czech who fails to speak his identity when he returns to his village after twenty-five years and ends up being killed by his mother and sister who have not recognised him.

Not until the final chapter, however, does Meursault emerge from his characteristic 'rien à dire' to speech. Before his outburst against the priest, his efforts at symbolisation are striking. He tries, for example, to represent the unrepresentable, the moment his heart will stop beating. More importantly, there is a long meditation on the guillotine, the core of which is the memory of a story his mother used to tell about the father he never knew. Access to the father occurs only via the mother who does not embody here the 'feminine' stereotype of a mute presence whose silence may be rich with meaning. She assumes rather the 'masculine' role of speaking subject, of storyteller, and in her story the father, unlike all the other paternal figures in the novel, appears in a positive light. For in his openness to the man whose execution he witnessed, in his refusal to perceive the assassin as absolute Other, in his bodily protest against death and the horror of the guillotine—he vomits, a reaction not unlike the body language of female hysterics—the father transcends traditional gender roles. Like Thomas Pérez, he mingles the maternal and paternal, the feminine and masculine, just as by speaking the mother embodies both masculine and feminine. In playing out sexual differentiation rather than difference, in suggesting a process, a back-and-forth movement between same and other rather than rigid divisions, the mother's discourse opens a space for the unrepresentable and offers in its form as in its content a model for an authentic language—and literature—of dissidence.

Assuming a feminine maternal posture, Meursault puts this discourse of dissidence into effect against the priest and in his climactic nocturnal vision. His revolt against the priest turns a passionate outcry into a reasoned rejection of the hierarchised world of Fathers and Others. The pre-oedipal origins of this revolt are suggested in the introduction to his tirade: 'Alors, je ne sais pas pourquoi, il y a quelque chose qui a crevé en moi. Je me suis mis à crier à plein gosier et je l'ai insulté' (italics mine). 'Then, I don't know why, but something inside me snapped. I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him.' Meursault identifies with the self-differentiating mother's body. He is both mother and child. The waters break and he gives birth to the cry, the semiotic of the infant converted into the language of protest of the adult. 'J'étouffais en criant tout ceci….' 'All the shouting had me gasping for air.'

By far the most spectacular feminisation of Meursault and the most far-reaching identification with the mother occur after the priest's departure in the closing paragraph of the novel. Calling upon those elements of nature already connoted maternal, Camus presents Meursault's revelation as an opening up to the mother: 'Des odeurs de nuit, de terre et de sel rafraîchissaient mes tempes. La merveilleuse paix de cet été endormi entrait en moi comme une marée … Je m'ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde' (italics mine). 'Smells of night, earth, and salt air were cooling my temples. The wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide … I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.' If in the scene with the priest he identifies with the procreating mother, here his identification is with the orgasmic mother. Opening up to the maternal brings understanding of the mother's taking a fiancé and experience of the limitlessness and confusion of boundaries in maternal jouissance: 'maman devait s'y sentir libérée et prête à tout revivre … Et moi aussi, je me suis senti prêt à tout revivre.' 'Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again … And I felt ready to live it all again too.' The world allows Meursault to re-enact this positive movement between same and different, self and other: 'De l'éprouver si pareil à moi, si fraternel enfin, j'ai senti que j'avais été heureux, et que je l'étais encore.' 'Finding it so much like myself-so like a brother, really-I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.' Maternal and fraternal, the world confounds feminine and masculine, just as Meursault figures in non-contradictory synthesis his mother, his mother's son, and his mother's daughter. Rather than a reversal of the sexual hierarchy with Woman in the dominant position, feminisation entails the displacement of opposition and 'results in an excess, a spilling over of categories and an ambiguous surplus of meanings.'

Meursault has learned to 'read' ambiguous maternal signs 'cette nuit chargée de signes et d'étoiles'—and in dying commits to turning his own body into an equally enigmatic Woman-sign capable of inciting revolt: 'il me restait à souhaiter qu'il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon exécution et qu'ils m'accueillent avec des cris de haine.' With death imminent, Meursault can never really translate feminisation and reading Woman into effective action in his own life. This can lead one to interpret the ending as a death-wish signifying pre-oedipal escapism rather than heroic dissidence. But if Meursault is viewed as a sign to be read and not just a character to be psychoanalysed, then like Janine in 'La Femme adultère'—a more explicit figuration of Woman who also identifies with the orgasmic mother in a nocturnal ecstasy—he can be interpreted as an expression of Camus's own repressed feminine and as the positive outcome of his concerted effort to symbolise the maternal in art and praxis. However surprising it may seem to those who view him chiefly as the proponent of virile fraternity, Camus appears in fact to be one of those rare male writers of whom Héléne Cixous writes, who are 'able to venture onto the brink where writing, freed from law, unencumbered by moderation, exceeds phallic authority, and where subjectivity inscribing its effects becomes feminine.'

This gesture is not without its own ambiguity and I wouldn't be much of a feminist reader if I didn't end by problematising it. For in the long run we have to ask ourselves some questions. Does Meursault/Camus speak for or with the mother? Is the mother effaced as usual as subject and her discourse finally appropriated by man? Is this yet another instance of symbolic 'matricide' and a male fantasy of self-engenderment after all? But ambivalence toward the mother as enabling/engulfing, as eliminated subject yet object of a sustained quest, is as much a feature of women's writing (see, among others, [Marianne] Hirsch). Camus's artistic dilemma, so poignantly voiced in the preface to L'Envers et l'endroit, namely, to find a discourse of love that would 'balance' yet incorporate admirable maternal silence, reflects many women writers' entanglement with the maternal. Not until we approach the writing of men with the insights into the maternal and the critical tools gained from studying women writers will we begin to appreciate the primordial role played by Woman in the generation of literary texts.

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Critical Essay by Vicki Mistacco from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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