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Critical Essay by Robert R. Brock
SOURCE: "Meursault the Straw Man," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 92-100.
In the following essay, Brock provides an overview of critical interpretation of The Stranger. According to Brock, scholarly debate centered upon psychoanalytical speculation obscures the novel's primary significance as a treatise against capital punishment.
Although d'Ormesson was referring to the critic's approach to literature in general, it should be obvious to anyone reading learned articles on L'Etranger that he could have had their treatment of Camus' short masterpiece specifically in mind. This desire to explain, rather than to understand, means that the book will not be discussed as a whole, as an entity, but as a series of all but unrelated segments. There may well be some discussion of the story as a manifestation of the absurde, as well as arguments over just what that word entails, but the book will be examined primarily as an expression of some political, social or psychological cant based on a subjective reading of one or two scenes.
For most critics, the book is either an indictment of the French judicial system that deprives the proletariat of an effective voice by stealing its language, or it is the case-study of a man with more Oedipal problems than even Freud ever dreamed of. One doesn't have to spend much time in a musty library to verify my charge: Ben Stoltzfus has already done the essential legwork for his article "Camus' L'Etranger: a Lacanian Reading." Perusing it will prove d'Ormesson's point, and mine; some scenes will be "explained," but the basic message of L'Etranger will not be noticed, let alone understood.
Stoltzfus's research shows that Meursault is either a nihilistic juvenile delinquent (René Girard) or a man of rigorous honesty (Germaine Brée). He could have been condemned to the guillotine because he won't play the game (Sartre and Robert Champigny) or because he is inept and wants to die (Monique Wagner). The death of the Arab was either an accident (Louis Hudon) or a crimen ex machina (Girard). On the other hand, perhaps the judges condemn Meursault in order to "destroy the truth he embodies" (Albert Maquet). Of course, the whole thing might be a fatum as in ancient Greek literature (Carl Viggiani).
As to the four extra shots that baffle the judge, J. H. Mathews says they might be the first manifestation of Meursault's will, while Hudon sees them as an expression of exasperation. However, Julian L. Stamm is certain that Meursault was really a homosexual and that the shots on the beach were ejaculations. In his article, Stoltzfus goes on to note that Brian T. Fitch has covered these and various other interpretations of L'Etranger in his study and concludes by citing Alain Robbe-Grillet's comment, "I am the stranger." (L'étranger, c'est moi). Stolzfus then comes to the very dangerous conclusion that the book is "a work that reads the reader." In other words, "We each read the book with our own unconscious desire."
The unfortunate thing here is that he is right. It is unfortunate in that a too personal identification with the work, or its hero, leads to readings that are then presented to us not as one person's very subjective interpretation of, in this case, L'Etranger, but rather as objective, self-evident truth. The book becomes then not what the author wrote in fact, but what the critic would have written/meant given his/her personal bent had he/she written it. The critic does not say, for instance, this scene makes me think that Camus may have wanted to supplant his father in his mother's bed, but that it is perfectly obvious that he wished to do so. As Hudon wrote in his essay on L'Etranger, "Many put their nickel in the philosophical slot, and existentialism comes out of everywhere, others in the new critical slot, and it rains symbols."
Critics are willing to quote authors on any given subject save one: what the authors think of critics. Stoltzfus, whose article presents a highly personal view of L'Etranger, takes Freudians to task and insists that his approach is the only valid one. (For those who do not subscribe to either dogma, the difference between them is not all that obvious.) In any event, perhaps all critics should read, or reread, what Sartre had to say about literary criticism.
When I picked up a book, it made no difference if I opened it and closed it twenty times, I could see that it didn't change. Sliding over this uncorruptable surface: the text, my sight was only a minuscule surface accident, it disturbed nothing … I left my bureau, turned off the light: invisible in the darkness, the book continued to glow; for itself alone. (Quand je prenais un livre, j'avais beau l'ouvrir et le fermer vingt fois, je voyais bien qu'il ne s'altéait pas. Glissant sur cette substance incorruptible le texte, mon regard n'était qu'un miniscule accident de surface, il ne dérangeait rien … je quittais le bureau, j'éteignais: invisible dans les ténèbres, le livre étincelait toujours; pour lui seul.)
In other words, the reader has no part to play in the work. It exists independently of him and must be approached on its own terms and not as a mirror or manifestation, of "our own unconscious desire." L'Etranger, then, must be seen as a mirror of Camus' soul, not the critic's, a point to which I shall return.
Stoltzfus also quotes Robbe-Grillet's statement, "each of us has a tendency to conceive a history of literature that is his own story." (chacun d'entre nous a tendance à concevoir une histoire de la littérature qui est sa propre histoire.) That is, we tend to see literature as a reflection of ourselves. Stoltzfus gives this quote in order to shore up his argument for a Lacanian reading. He is correct in citing Robbe-Grillet, since this innovative author has based some of his method of writing, not his philosophy, on Camus, as evidenced in his critical essays. However, Robbe-Grillet does not approve of this sort of interpretation. He also wrote that there is no connection between man and things, where Stoltzfus, and others, see the word lame, used to describe both the waves and the knife blade, as being highly significant. (Has any such critic seriously wondered what choice of vocabulary items Camus had to describe knife blade and wave, [lame], or sea and mother, mère and mer? As the French say, there aren't thirty-six.) One must also wonder why such psychological interpretations are always predicated on the most morbid and/or prurient readings possible.
Robbe-Grillet, in any case, does not see things the same way that Stoltzfus and the partisans of psychological interpretations do. For Robbe-Grillet, man is man and things are things and things do not have human qualities. This attitude will be seen as antihumanist and therefore criminal and—be ignored.
The crime is to affirm that something exists in the world that is not man, that addresses no sign to him, that has nothing in common with him … he sees these things, but he refuses to appropriate them, he refuses to enter into any shady understanding with them, any complicity; he asks nothing of them. (Le crime c'est d'affirmer qu'il existe quelque chose, dans le monde qui n'est pas l'homme, qui ne lui adresse aucun siqne, qui n'a rien de commun avec lui … il les [les choses] voit, mais il refuse de se les approprier, il refuse d'entretenir avec elles aucune entente louche, aucune connivence; il ne leur demande rien.)
This statement is clearly counter to the Freudian and Lacanian approaches to literature.
Moreover, the difficulty of a conventional psychological interpretation of L'Etranger was noted by John K. Simon in his article in Yale French Studies. He considers the book to be the first successful novel in a contemporary movement that will lead to Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, a movement marked by its refusal of conventional social and psychological readings.
Critics who are partial to such interpretations have claimed that the beach scene that leads to the shooting is the first outburst of poetic writing in a book previously most noteworthy for its resolutely pedestrian narration and that it must therefore have special significance. Forgetting the wake, the funeral procession and their figura, such critics should at least look at the afternoon and evening Meursault spent on the balcony watching life in the streets. Even students reading their very first novel in French and struggling mightily with the simplest language, are struck by the sheer beauty of Camus' description. As Sunday came to an end, the streets were filled with strutting elegant young men and coquettish women meeting, flirting and joking. There were also the streetlamps and streetcars and their lights reflecting off damp pavement, bracelets and smiles. Camus describes the trees, the paling stars and all "until the first cat slowly crossed the again deserted street" (jusqu'à ce que le premier chat traverse lentement la rue de nouveau déserte.) What great psychological horror story are we to make of that?
It the description of the beach scene, the burning sun and the death of the Arab are more emotionally charged, is it really because Meursault is being pursued by some evil Mother? (Just why do critics who insist that he is being so pursued, and identify the Mother as being Meursault's, i.e. Camus', never speak of the loving relationship between Dr. Rieux and his mother in La Peste? Or did someone else write that book?) The style that an artist chooses normally corresponds to the events that he is describing. Thus the beach scene is in a more electrifying style simply because the act that will lead to Meursault's execution is more emotionally, and dramatically, charged than his spending a quiet day on his balcony and then going down to a now empty street to buy bread and pasta.
Robbe-Grillet speaks of L'Etranger in Pour un nouveau roman because Camus' hero resembles his own "heroes" in Les Gommes and Le Voyeur, heroes that were inspired, at least in part, by Meursault. Even though the literary goals of the two authors have nothing in common, Meursault embodies much of what Robbe-Grillet feels the new hero should be: a single name, no real, detailed past history, no face or physical description, no clearly defined profession or character. In short, none of the standard literary tactics that allow us to identify with the hero and vicariously share in his trials and tribulations. Comparing Meursault to any hero of Balzac or Stendhal should suffice to convince all but those most incurably wedded to the new criticism that no serious links exist between the two schools of writing and that Camus must have had something else in mind when he wrote this book. In the same way, Robbe-Grillet's affinity for Camus' technique, not for his philosophy, came from his belief that Camus had created a "new" literary hero. He had not, of course; he had simply re-invented the hero of the conte philosophique. In any event, Camus' influence can best be seen by comparing Wallas (from Les Gommes) and Mathias (from Le voyeur) to Rastignac or Julien Sorel, a comparison that should convince most that Robbe-Grillet also had something other than the conventional psychological novel in mind. If the doubters need further proof of Robbe-Grillet's thinking, they should read what he wrote in La Jalousie.
Two of the protagonists, A … and Franck, are reading a novel that takes place in Africa. The narrator, who listens and comments to himself but does not speak in the novel, notes that they never talk about the qualities of the text. "On the other hand, they often reproach the heros themselves for certain acts, or certain character traits, as they would for mutual friends." (En revanche il leur arrive souvent de reprocher aux héros eux-mêmes certains actes, ou certains traits de caractère comme ils le feraient pour des amis communs.) The same is true for the critics' treatment of L'Etranger even though they and Meursault are not mutual friends. Some, Girard, for instance, will condemn Meursault for his "crime" even though it is more than obvious that Camus does not. Camus' sympathy, if not affinity, for the accused and against the judges is a constant theme in L'Homme révolté. This attitude may well make some of Camus' admirers very uncomfortable. Nonetheless, he did write that if one cannot prove one's own virtue, an impossible task, the prisons must be opened. That statement is a reflection of his soul, his thinking, and his position on the question of punishment. As such, it is the only opinion that critics should take into account when discussing his works. The critics are free to disagree with his beliefs, but they have no right to falsify or to ignore them.
The major problem with standard political, psychological and sociological interpretations of L'Etranger is that they are by literary people who are in the business of seeking, and finding, learned interpretations of literary works. In his novel of student unrest at the University of Nanterre, Robert Merle, who, like Camus, was born in Algeria, presents us with a non-literary person. And an Arab at that. The Arab, Abdelaziz, is a laborer, not a university student. As such, he is interested in mathematics, not literature, since a simple night-school certificate will allow him to get a better job, while studies in literature will not. His would-be helper, a French student, and therefore an intellectual, insists that he read L'Etranger and L'Immoraliste.
As Abdelaziz knows, and points out, despite all the talk about the "absurd," the only thing that is really absurd is the story itself. As both Camus and Abdelaziz knew, there is simply no possibility that a respectable, gainfully-employed European would ever have been arrested, much less tried, convicted and executed, for having killed an Arab armed with a knife. At least not in the Algeria of 1940. (Let us not forget the Arab prisoners' reaction at finding Meursault, a European, among them.) But since the critics do not live in that place and that period, they have chosen to ignore that simple fact. They should have started by wondering why Camus would base his novel on an impossible situation.
In the same way, the critics have agonized over why he had Meursault kill an Arab. Camus has even been accused of being anti-Arab, an accusation that he probably found too grotesque to bother to refute even though some then mistook his silence for an admission of guilt. He could have cited the articles he wrote attacking the government for its mistreatment of Arabs in pre-war Algeria. But he didn't. Nor did he bother to cite the difficulties he had had with press censors, and the Communist Party, which, for political reasons, backed the government's anti-Arab actions. (How many of the new critics remember that Dr. Rieux refused to cooperate with the journalist, Rambert, when the latter informed him that he could not, or would not, print the whole truth on the Arabs' condition in Algeria?)
Moreover, in a footnote to a discussion of Hitler's Germany and the savage destruction of Lidice, Camus wrote. "We should note that atrocities which could remind us of these excesses were committed in the colonies (India, 1857, Algeria, 1946 etc.) by European nations who obeyed the same irrational belief in racial superiority." (Il est frappant de noter que des atrocités qui peuvent rappeler ces excés ont été comises aux colonies [Indes, 1857, Algérie, 1945, etc.] par des nations européenes qui obéissaient au même préjugé irrational de supériorité raciale.) That statement alone should put to rest all charges of his alleged racism.
But, as some critics continue to look for "proof" of his hatred of Arabs, we are asked to note that there is no Arab culture, such as mosques and souks, in the book. This argument assumes that Camus should have wished to be a latter-day Pierre Loti but I can see no reason for such an assumption. We are also asked to consider the alleged attack on his mother as a motive for the killing of the Arab. If one dares ask the question, "Why, if he hated Arabs to that point, did he not then indulge in language that would cast them in an unfavorable light?", one will simply be ignored, as the student ignored Abdelaziz's objections. The question that should have been asked is not "why did he kill an Arab?", but "Why did he not kill a European?"
Sartre was the first one to note that the book is not really a novel since there is no development in the character of Meursault. (He does come to a certain self-knowledge in prison, but that he has changed is very debatable.) He comes to us pretty much a fullblown figure such as we would find in a story by Voltaire. From this, Sartre deduced, logically, that the story is rather a conte philosophique in the same way that Zadig and Micromégas are. This type of literary work does not have as its primary goal the simple telling of a story. Rather, it has a point to prove or at least to demonstrate. Why should Camus have defended himself against those who read the book as an expression of their own unconscious desires or racism? Did Voltaire ever explain what he meant in his contes? Of course not. He assumed enough intelligence on the part of the reader to be able to determine that without his further help.
In any examination of L'Etranger, one must start with the question, why did Camus write the book? Certainly not for money, since he had no reputation that would lead to serious sales. Just as certainly not to tell a story, since there is no development in Meursault's character or conduct that could lead to a real story. Certainly not, and for the above reasons, to arrive at a philosophical position as Sartre did in La Nausée. As with Voltaire, there must have been such a position already determined. Since the one common bond of any importance between this work and, say, La Peste, Réflexions sur la guillotine, L'Homme révolté, etc., is the question of the death penalty, let us consider that to be the real subject of the book and see if such a conclusion can be justified. (If we wish to drag his father into the story, let us also remember that his father, who was in favor of capital punishment, witnessed an execution and was sickened by it. As was, finally, Tarrou of La Peste.) In chapter five of L'Etranger, Meursault thinks about his father who had been, in contrast to Camus' own father, obliged to witness an execution and had also been revolted by it. At the time, Meursault was disgusted by his father's reaction, but now he understands him. "How had I not seen that nothing was more important than an execution and that, all in all, it was the only truly interesting thing for a man." (Comment n'avais-je pas vu que rien n'était plus important qu'une exécution capitale et que, en somme, c'était la seule chose vraiment intéressante pour un homme.) Moreover, in L'Homme révolté. Camus wrote, "We will know nothing as long as we do not know if we have the right to kill this individual who stands before us or to accept that he be killed." (Nous ne saurons rien tant que nous ne saurons pas si nous avons le droit de tuer cet individu devant nous ou d'accepter qu'il soit tué.) It is obvious, at least to me, that these quotes justify my reading of the novel as a pamphlet against the death penalty.
But, since the majority of people, at any given time, are in favor of capital punishment, how can one write a book against it and make it seem a despicable and unacceptable punishment? The answer, I feel, is by setting up a straw man.
As I said, the question that should have been asked is why Meursault did not kill a European. The answer is, because the European would have to be a "real" person and the Arab would not. That is, since Arabs had no real rights, and often no real identity, in the Algeria of Camus' youth, certain weaknesses in his story would go unnoticed if only because other Europeans, not Arabs, would read the book. If this reasoning bothers you, or seems specious, answer the following questions. Why does the Arab have no name? Why does he not have a face or age or profession? Why has he no family, no friends? Who speaks for him at the trial? No one! He simply does not exist other than as a means to get Meursault condemned to the guillotine. Even in Le Grand dadais, by Poirot-Delpech, a brilliant novel sometimes compared to L'Etranger, the victim had a name, if only Freddy, and two relatives, if somewhat remote. Here, there is nothing. O. Zero.
Why? Because it forces the reader to concentrate on Meursault, the alleged murderer. It shows him at work, at play. It talks of his friends, his dead mother, his loves, his future both before and after the shooting. He has neighbors, good and bad. (Raymond, too, exists only to get Meursault into a position where he will kill a non-person.) In short, it gives us a "murderer" but no victim, and the reader, Camus hopes, will be properly horrified at his unjust conviction and death sentence. And no one will notice that the Arab doesn't exist because Camus wants it that way. A European "victim" would demand, if not equal time of the author, at least a semblance of existence. Even the most minimal, the lowliest European would have what the Arab does not: family, friends, face, character, social position. A European victim might well have gotten the reader's sympathy and that would have drawn attention away from Meursault and his plight. Camus could not take that chance. A conte philosophique must always be played out with a stacked deck.
In a sense, it was the same in La Peste, a parable of the Second World War, that has only victims and no guilty. In that book, the rats came on their own, without a leader. There was no evil dictator or his minions to send people to the death camps and the incinerators. In both books, then, there is no one to really hate, no one to blame, no one to castigate, except, of course, the system itself that causes both death by war and death by guillotine. How very tidy.
In Le Grand dadais, our hero, Alain, accidentally kills a contortionist who works in a strip-joint. Freddy, as I said, had a name, a job and at least two relatives who testified, falsely it would seem, that his death was an irreparable loss. Poirot-Delpech really doesn't spend any time detailing Freddy's life because it simply is not relevant to the story, even if his death is. It is the same for Camus' treatment, or rather, his non-treatment, of the Arab whose sole contribution to the book is his death. But at least, unlike the Arab, Freddy is there, he speaks and participates, albeit minimally, in the story. Like Meursault, Alain also is tried and convicted, but with a difference. Reflecting on the events that got him into prison, Alain says to himself, "Like all criminals, I deserved a spanking or the guillotine. But these two extreme punishments, the only ones that I could have understood, ran the risk of shocking public opinion." (Comme tous les criminels, je méritais la fessée ou la guillotine. Mais ces deux punitions extrêmes, les seules que j'eusse comprises, risquaient de heurter l'opinion.) Instead, Alain got five years and Meursault the guillotine.
Where Poirot-Delpech is not really trying to prove a philosophical point and presents his characters honestly. Camus is, and, in a sense, cheats. After all, had Meursault gotten even an impossible five years in prison instead of the guillotine, can anyone seriously believe that this slim book would have had a second printing? As Judge Orthon put it in La Peste, "It's not the law that counts, it's the sentence," (Ce n'est pas la loi qui compte, c'est la condamnation.) And Cottard, a criminal, tells Rieux that the judge is public enemy number one.
There is much that is admirable in L'Etranger, but this subterfuge is not, because it fails to consider that there are at least two sides to the debate over the death penalty. But then, it didn't really matter since the central question was overlooked in the rush to analyze the hero's non-existent childhood and psyche.
This section contains 4,085 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)