03 May 2009

The Stranger

We actually didn't quite make it to Albert Camus' The Stranger in Existentialism this semester. Levenson wound up making it an optional read, though he spent the last ten minutes or so of the last class discussing some of its themes. It's...a strangely compelling, yet disturbing, read. Meursault is the main character, and he is pathologically without attachment. Whatever comes his way, he accepts, and accepts without examination or thought, or even much resembling a reaction. In the middle, this leads him to kill a man.

There can be pathological detachment as well as pathological attachment. The latter is more common, so most people need to learn some distance. Meursault, though, is too detached. What came to mind when I was trying to think what bothered me about his character was a taiji reference. The goal is to relax the body, but not have it be limp: alert relaxation, we often call it. The muscles are relaxed but there is still life in them, and they can respond. Meursault only ever yields; throughout most of the book he never actually responds. "Yield and neutralize" is a decent summary of all you need to know for push-hands, but if all you ever do is yield, you eventually are pushed further and further back until your root breaks. This is a surprisingly apt description for all that happens to Meursault.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this book is how much I wanted to keep reading it, to find out what happened next. The next strangest thing is the effect the ending had on me. I don't want to spoil it, but what should by all rights have been a depressing, demoralizing ending is instead empowering and freeing, and I'm not quite sure I understand why just yet. Perhaps it's because Meursault finally responds to his situation rather than just passively accepting it. I'm not entirely certain.

I am certain that the Matthew Ward translation is excellent. It does not feel like a translation at all. The prose is brilliantly crisp.


donna said...

Hmmm. Try this article, might explain the feeling about the ending...


Qalmlea said...

That's probably part of it, but in this case I think it's specifically due to Meursault's "awakening" just before the end, and how he is no longer just passively accepting, but actively participating. Or, as actively as he can at that point.

Good article, though.