Camus’s “The Stranger” and novels as masks for ideology

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Camus’s “The Stranger” is a short and easy read, but there’s plenty to ponder. Considered purely as a novel it’s mediocre at best, but it’s a philosophical text wearing fiction to get past the guy at the door. Meursault and Sintes are the only fully realized characters in the book, and most of Meursault’s personality seems to be dictated by Camus’s need to create tension between him and the rest of France (or the human civilization as a whole, which is not actually a distinction the French generally feel the need to make). Much academic ink has been spilled to paint Meursault as Camus’s ideal self-actualized man, a character whom others might refer to as an existential hero, but I’d like to talk about about something else here (in the context of literature rather than philosophy).

In Testaments Betrayed, (a great read, more information here: https://seanvansickel.com/2014/11/07/milan-kunderas-testaments-betrayed/) Milan Kundera writes that he considers Orwell’s beloved 1984 a failure of both irony and the art of the novel. He laments that the drastic and hyperbolic tyranny depicted in 1984 functions only as a base kind of satire, and -more damningly- that 1984 falls back on the propaganda it seeks to vilify in order to make its point, making use of its own propaganda -different in expression but ontologically the same. Camus’s treatment of isolation and persecution may not have been written in the same spirit, but it suffers from a similar failing. Modern pop culture worships the outlaw and the exile, the creature cut off from his fellows and persecuted for his difference in thought or expression. In everything from Donnie Darko to YA paranormal romance novels and all the way back to James Dean, (who shared some interesting aesthetic similarities to Camus) the Other isn’t something to be feared, but loved and accepted (and perhaps either emulated or assimilated). Not only has the conversation of literature moved beyond the persecution of the truly self-defined Other, so has the popular imagination.

Is The Stranger relevant? I have no idea. Its perspective is well-stated, even in translation (I read Gilbert’s). Maybe there is something lasting and archetypal in our need to persecute the stranger. If so, the text still must be read in context, as our stranger’s are of a very different kind than Camus’s.

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