On May 1, First Monday Classics will be tackling The Stranger by Albert Camus. While researching the book, I saw multiple references to the fact that it’s often assigned reading in high school, which was surprising to me. I first read the book in my early twenties, after I’d graduated from college. I remember being shocked by the book’s blatant and unrepentant atheism. I’d grown up in the Bible belt. Perhaps this book was assigned reading elsewhere in high school, but it seemed to me to be the sort of book that would have wound up getting removed from the library if it had been assigned reading while I was attending school in Mississippi.
Note that I wasn’t shocked by the atheism itself. I’d been raised a fundamentalist, but in my teens I’d become an atheist, and a somewhat loud, militant, and obnoxious member of that tribe. Confronting others with the absence of God was one of my favorite hobbies. What shocked me was the nakedness of Camus’ treatment of the subject, the fact that someone had put so many of my thoughts and feelings onto paper twenty years before I’d been born. Reading the book in my early twenties, I felt tremendous empathy for Meursault, and felt a little less alone in the universe.
The irony of this reaction isn’t lost on me, since the whole argument of the book is that we are ultimately alone in the universe, and Meursault responds to this truth by shedding all traces of empathy. He kills a man and is incapable of feeling remorse. He’s not even able to understand his own motivations for the murder, defending the fact he fired five bullets into a man as simply a thing that happened because the sun had been shining too hot and bright. He has no logical explanation for his action, because he’s incapable of believing that things happen for a reason. Things happen as they happen, and to try to say that not killing the man was a better course of action than killing him is absurd to Meursault. He’s living in an uncaring universe where his death is certain, his victims death was certain, and the details of how a life plays out is ultimately meaningless because eternity will inevitably wash away all memory of our actions. Life is only a short absurdity, and the best we can hope for is to enjoy the few sensual pleasures available to us while we’re here.
When I was twenty three, Meursault’s feelings resonated with me. Yes, of course, life was pointless and absurd, but have what fun you can with it. Now that I’m fifty three, rereading the book proved uncomfortable. I find Meursault’s lack of empathy to be a devastating character flaw. He has the courage to accept the absence of God, but lacks the imagination to see that this doesn’t render life pointless. If we’re all trapped in a universe devoid of any higher meaning, it doesn’t follow that we must withdraw into ourselves and live like selfish, emotionless strangers. Quite the opposite. If there is no God to watch over us, then the full responsibility for the safety and happiness of our fellow man falls on our shoulders. The band Typhoon has a lyric in the song “Morton’s Fork” that sums up my feelings perfectly: We’re all alone in this together.
While I’ve lost respect for Meursault, I still have a great deal of respect for the Stranger. To qualify as a classic, a novel must struggle with a great theme. Camus faces a godless universe within these pages, and does so with skill and beauty. The writing is spare and precise, and despite the focus on the indifference of the universe, you can’t help but be moved by the wonder of small details like the way the sky changes color during the course of a day as Meursault watches from the tiny window of his prison cell. It’s a carefully crafted, thought provoking novel that still rewards the reader’s time and attention.