Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Stranger

 I’m about to outline one of the most beautiful and stimulating books that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Admittedly, I'm a little biased because I personally adhere to Absurdist philosophy. Understanding a bit about Camus' Absurdism will illuminate facets of this book that might otherwise go unnoticed; however, it’s important to remember that when The Stranger* was first published in France in 1942, there was very little established philosophical context with which to approach it. Existentialism had been lingering on people’s minds at the time, but Camus adamantly claimed that Absurdism was distinct from that line of thinking. Full disclosure: any and all religious beliefs directly butt heads with both this book and the philosophy behind it. I trust that my religious readers understand the significance of reading things you don’t always agree with as well as appreciating that my interpretation of the novel is obviously not the end all be all. That being said, there are three main takeaways for this particular philosophy (as imagined by Camus):
  • It is impossible and contradictory (and therefore absurd) for humans to search for intrinsic meaning in life---because SURPRISE, there isn’t any.
  • There are three viable ways to confront the absurdity: suicide, religion (which he labels “philosophical suicide”), or recognition/acceptance. The first two are merely a craven evasion of the paradox whereas embracing a life devoid of meaning allows for true freedom. This is because…
  •  Recognizing that life has no objective value dissolves any absolutes. A human can thereby actually act as an individual, creating his own sense of purpose and searching for what he believes to be subjectively valuable in life. He does not answer to an externally imposed morality; rather, his own integrity is the driving force behind his moral choices. He can approach each day heroically, fighting an unwinnable war, but drudging along in the hopes that he might come across something really beautiful that would make his day worthwhile. Today I had cheesecake and I’d say it was a successful Tuesday.
Camus devoted much of his literary life to expressing this philosophy through the eyes of various characters. Born and raised in Algeria, he seemed to be the jack of all trades—playing soccer, founding a theatrical company, studying philosophy, sociology, and psychology, and submitting his thesis on “Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought”. You know, the usual. He had a couple of marriages that didn’t work out because deep down he was a bit of a whore. Notably, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature for his illumination of human consciousness. Tragically, at the tender age of 46, he died in a car accident with his publisher. For the record--being French and therefore more fancy sounding—his name is pronounced (cam moo). Like the cow. Don’t be that person at the party pronouncing it Camus, with a strong southern emphasis on the “s”, to a philosophy major (definitely not something I did…).
The novel begins with the now infamous first two sentences: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” (Camus, 3). *Chilling*. It reads in the first person narrative, following the day-to-day life of a man named Meursault from the time his mother dies to when he faces his own death penalty for killing a man known only as “The Arab”. Meursault is a fascinating character, mainly in that he is extraordinarily apathetic. Fun facts about Meursault:
1)      He didn’t know how old his Maman was when she died because he simply didn’t see the importance of it.
2)      His physical nature generally overrides any emotional factors. For example, he shoots the Arab “because of the sun” (Camus, 103). But literally—homeboy gets really hot at multiple points in the book and he reacts to his discomfort in whatever way he sees fit at the time. I was really sweaty on the subway the other day (sexy) and I thought I might strangle the guy next to me for no particular reason other than I was hot. Meursault would sympathize. (As a side note, I think that the heat motif is a symbol for dangerous and over-eager vigor—a vitality which acknowledges meaning in life that doesn't exist for the Absurdist. This heat can, of course, be tempered by the cold—a more level-headed realization that there is no such meaning. Hence why the verdict comes when the sun was getting low. Additionally, when Meursault starts to fantasize about his appeal getting accepted, he has to “cool the hot blood” aka chill out and understand that either way, it is what is is  (Camus, 115)).
3)      He is quite adapting. When he is put behind bars, he discovers that “a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison” (Camus, 79). This guy would do great in time out.
4)      He has the ability to be an excellent listener…as long as the temperature is just right. He claims, “I don’t have much to say, so I keep quiet” (Camus, 66). Shit absolutely no one says.
5)      Unlike Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, Meursault does not experience guilt or remorse. In fact, he’s just annoyed by having to endure such pointless activities as court proceedings.
6)      He thinks certainty is arrogant. Receiving a guillotine sentence means zero chance for survival—if it didn’t chop off your head the first time, they’d give it another go. The whole messed up system has the condemned ironically hoping that it’ll work the first time.
7)      He doesn’t have any self-assuring notions that he’ll leave behind any meaningful legacy… and this doesn’t upset him in the slightest. Who cares? After all, “since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter” (Camus, 114).
Camus shapes Meursault’s nonchalant demeanor not only by the character’s words and actions but also through the raw, seemingly simplistic writing style. His sentences are succinct without the choppy, jerked around feeling you get when reading something like A Million Little Pieces. This is not to say that simplicity of text equates to simplicity of content. As the translator reminds us in his foreword, Camus possesses “an artistic sleight of hand that would make the complexities of a man’s life appear simple” (Camus, v). Moreover, there is a natural pace to the story, as if it were a movie happening before your very eyes. Parts of it even feel like poetry. Camus has an exquisite way of expressing relatable imagery. His images are stunning in their exactitude; while a flowy metaphor is nice every now and then, it’s refreshing to be able to seamlessly read page after page without pausing every five seconds to truly capture what’s happening in your mind’s eye. My favorite sentence in the novel occurs when Meursault is reflecting on his life before imprisonment. He says , “And yet something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day… as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent (Camus, 97). Wow.
Before I wrap up my rant on how baller Camus is, I’ll refer to two separate scenes that I believe serve as microcosms for the crux of the novel as a whole. The first is at his Maman’s vigil, where Meursault sits directly across from the elderly men and women who had lived in the home with his mother prior to her death. In my opinion, the placement of people in this scene serves to create a mirror image—Meursault sees himself in these old people. You’re young and then you’re old and nothing really changes. The parallel is further enforced as Meursault proves continually burdened by physical sensations. He’s tired, his back hurts, he doesn’t like the noises in the room—he has plenty to complain about bodily-wise. Read: old people (hope I don’t scare off my older audience too much). Camus ends this scene with the old people retreating to their rooms single-file, each one shaking Meursault’s hand. Meursault describes the departure, noting—“as if that night during which we hadn’t exchanged as much as a single word had somehow brought us closer together” (Camus, 12). As we will soon see, the events in his life are certainly bringing him closer to death, and it’s almost as if they are one and the same.
                Later in the book, Meursault is attempting to envision what a guillotine actually looks like. It dawns on him that up until now, he’d had the mistaken belief that you had to climb a lot of stairs to reach the scaffold; in actuality, it is much closer to the ground. He thinks to himself, “you always get exaggerated notions of things you don’t know anything about…Mounting the scaffold, going right up into the sky, was something the imagination could hold on to” (Camus, 112). That’s a pretty blatant metaphor for heaven. Thus, according to Camus, life is closer to death than one might think and anything aside from the blade is just wishful thinking.
                In summary, I give The Stranger 5 out of 5 camel humps (surprise, surprise). This is a very short novel, only 123 pages—and this novel is unique in that every single page brought me satisfaction. I was both bemused and amused by Meursault and his effortless detachment from society. It was a book about crime, murder, and death without being a book about crime, murder, and death---instead emphasizing freedom within imprisonment and awakening the joy that can come from acknowledging “the gentle indifference of the world” (Camus, 122).
*Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Random House, Inc., 1988. Print.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Crime and Punishment

Welcome to my blog! Though I am not an expert on literature I am going to pretend to be. Frequently, I finish books and want to talk everyone’s ear off on what I think about them… and people could not care less. Through this blog, I’ll have the platform to discuss the books I read with an audience that might actually be interested. Of course, these are just my opinions, so don’t get all defiant if you disagree with me. That being said, if you would like to share your own opinion please contact me or comment below. My first book of choice is one I recently finished—Crime and Punishment* written by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Now, I respect Dostoevsky as a writer and a human--and not just because he has an awesome, aggressive sounding name. It’s funny when you realize that authors are actual people and not just huge assholes bent on ruining your sacred high school social life by creating deceivingly brilliant works which entice English teachers to assign them. But seriously, Dostoevsky was a very resilient man who more than earned his platform for asserting his outlook on the world. The guy’s mom died when he was fifteen which sucks in and of itself but I suppose you can’t expect a long lifespan while living in poverty in mid nineteenth century Russia (I arbitrarily hate on Russia because it’s too big and too cold). Later in life, he was arrested for his participation in an underground politically-charged book club (think Reading Lolita in Tehran) called the Petrashevsky CircleFollowing a casual eight-month grimy jail stint, he was sentenced to death—one of the accusations being that he “[knew] of the intention to set up a printing press”. I’m sorry….uhhh, what? Now, I have been desensitized to death because I just finished watching the Sopranos, but that seems slightly ridiculous. Then, when he was LITERALLY tied to a stake in front of a firing squad, Nicholas the First was like just kidding, let’s have them do some years of hard labor instead. One of his fellow oh-so-graciously spared prisoners went insane afterwards, as is his right, but Fyodor went back to the books. He attempted to publish two journals—both were shot down by his Majesty’s minions and he suffered financially. Needless to say, I would probably have spent the rest of my life pouting and repeatedly scribbling “I hate Nicholas l” on a sheet of paper. Conversely, he ended up producing this classic and the Brothers Karamazov, so there’s that.

So, after establishing that Dostoevsky has both the intellectual aptitude and enough life experiences under his belt to potentially create something poignant and thought-provoking…do I actually like the book? At the risk of dumbing down the novel, I will provide the briefest of summaries: a man (Raskolnikov), driven by very complex motivations, kills two women and takes some of their money and possessions. The first killing was preconceived whereas the second casualty occurred in the heat of the moment—when the half-sister of the deceased walked in mid-murder. Post murder, Raskolnikov undergoes a deeply agonizing internal struggle in an attempt to make sense of what he did and why he did it. As a student of psychology, I can appreciate that the bulk of the book is concerned with how the event of killing psychologically affects the killer himself. In my opinion, a good book forces the reader to ask him/herself questions. As such, I found myself pondering—is this particular murder justified? Is any murder justified? Is said justification affected by the murderer’s state of mind or particular moral convictions? Moreover, a good book enables and empowers you to learn about yourself. What does it say about me that I really wanted Raskolnikov to chill out, stop being such a dramatic baby about everything, and be able to get away with the murder?

I’d like to think that this is more so a reflection of my dedication to the character than a potential latent serial killing tendency inside me. Not only have I learned to humanize authors, I have also begun to do the same for characters. Characters are people and an adroit author will give them personalities that come to life. Prior to reading this novel, I had just finished Reading Like a Writer, a book generously gifted to me by my 12th grade English teacher. A section of the book suggested that writers resemble actors. I have always admired actors for being able to believably adopt a psychology that is not their own. Similarly, writers construct multiple conceivably realistic personalities. That being said, Raskolnikov was kind of a dick. In the end, it appears that his crime was induced by a self-pride rooted in nihilistic and utilitarian philosophies. In sum: he feels that there is a special class of superior men who are both capable (physically, emotionally) and entitled to violate societal laws. In an attempt to prove—primarily to himself—that he belongs to said class, he kills a woman whom he deems utterly worthless. Much to his dismay, he fails to exhibit the characteristics of this so-called superior man, namely in that he experiences feelings of guilt and ambivalence. Unlike the triumphant man who allegedly makes the world a better place by occasionally acting with no regard for the rules which govern the general public, Raskolnikov cannot murder and simply move on.

Oftentimes, Dostoevsky depicts this inner turmoil through physical reaction. Now, no sane person buys into the antiquated views of mind-body dualism. This isn’t Lizzy McGuire where some floating mini-me is standing above me giving advice akin to the mind. Still, the inextricable link between the mind and the physical body portrayed in this book is alarming. Any would-be murderer who reads this book will assuredly be very turned off by the notion of succumbing to a terribly miserable and physically debilitating feverish state as a consequence of killing. Raskolnikov was essentially a bad murderer—he became severely ill, a reaction which roused suspicion among his fellow Russians.

In the end, we have this character who mistakenly thinks he can accomplish “great” things without retribution… what happens to him? After roughly 700—sometimes rewarding, sometimes grueling—pages, Dostoevsky decided it might be a good idea to start smoking crack before he finished writing the rest of the book. While I have no definitive historical proof of this, the haphazard way in which he ended this novel strongly points in that direction. Basically, Raskolnikov undergoes an epiphany, confessing to his crime and declaring his repentance in the name of Orthodox Christianity. Epiphanies are, by definition, sudden and unexpected; however, I do not feel that his recourse to faith was a realistic development of Raskolnikov’s temperament. There are many modern day examples of men and women who adhere to an ideology so strongly that they will kill for it. Rasknolnikov begins to falter in his “superior man class” convictions, undoubtedly due in part to his inability to cope with the guilt that accompanied his actions. Yet he continues to maintain that his views are reasonable despite his failure to live up to the class of men he reveres. This steadfastness to his ideals directly contradicts his hastened confession.

         The majority of this novel did an excellent job of expressing the experiences of the human condition; unfortunately, it culminated in an ending that is more so a forced portrayal of Dostoevsky’s personal political and religious views than a natural progression of Raskolnikov’s guilt. Furthermore, his religiously motivated confession was thrown in the end of the novel without being fully fleshed out, making the ending appear rushed and not conclusive. Perhaps my feelings are confounded by the common desire for readers to feel “complete” at the end of their reading. But honestly, at this point, I don’t care about feeling complete-- I’d just like the slightest bit of consistency. I understand that people change; what I don’t understand is people instantaneously morphing into an entirely different person. Like, no.

All in all, I give it 2 out of 5 camel-humps (hump day hardbacks, get it?). There were times when I desperately wanted to be done with this book and there were times when the element of surprise fueled me. On a broad scale, you don’t really know what will come of the murder, providing enough intrigue to keep you trucking. Conversely, step-by-step events within the novel are fairly predictable. The book was long—but not too long—I only wish that the ending had been more compatible with the entirety of the novel. 

*Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: CRW Publishing Limited, 2004. Print.