Saturday, 5 December 2015

Who Are You?

It is a fact of life that we don't see problems or issues with something until some event or insight allows us to see things from a different point of view, not the one we hold, not the one we regard as "normal". So it was that yesterday I found myself reading Albert Camus' short novel, The Stranger. The Stranger is an existentialist story about a character called Mersault. Mersault is in almost every respect an unspectacular and ordinary man living in French Algeria (much as Camus himself did). He has a mother (who has just died when the story begins), a job and lives in a room in a building that also allows him to mix with others and notice their habits. He is neither an idealist nor particularly active in any other sense. He is just a guy living his life, an everyman.

But Mersault is also the "stranger" of the book's title. He is this stranger because, from the existential point of view of the book, Mersault is a man who simply refuses to pretend. He is honest, so most others would say, to a fault. If someone is addressing him or talking to him and he has no thought or response he simply says nothing back, leaving an ugly silence. When thinking how to act in public he doesn't generally bother thinking how to act in public. He just unreflectively does what he wants - unlike pretty much everyone else who has been socialized into public expectations. At his mother's funeral he never cries and sits by the coffin drinking coffee and smoking. He leaves as soon as possible after giving the impression of little remorse and having imparted the fact that he doesn't even know her age. When he gets a girlfriend she asks him to marry her and he agrees but concedes to her that he'd marry any girl he liked in the same way. 

So Mersault is a man who absolutely refuses to pretend. It is not that he is doing it for effect but that he himself refuses the pretense that is living as a social being. He ignores expectations whether they be to do with funerals, business or personal relationships. He doesn't really care for social consequences in any sphere of life. He speaks and acts a bald, unfettered truth as if this should have no further, social implications. Mersault is a man literally out of phase with the world around him. He is in it but not of it. Its every day concerns and its ways make no impact on him except to irritate or bore him. He comes across as a lackadaisical individual whose own world is a completely different set of signs, symbols and significances. For this Camus calls him "the stranger" since, to everyone else who is "normal", he seems passing strange. Its also worth pointing out that in the course of the story all this comes to be used against Mersault so being strange is not without dire consequences.

It is, of course, Mersault's own strangeness that shines the light back on to the rest of society for in Mersault's character we see its opposite, the socialized character that society expects, in sharper relief. As Hannah Arendt saw it, writing about the book in 1946, "the stranger is an average man who simply refuses to submit to the serious-mindedness of society, he refuses to live as any of his allotted functions." And its this last point which starts to tweak my ever sensitive nipples in regards to the subject of personal identity, my subject for today. 

We all are assigned a number of functions by society. I'm male so that could be son, father, brother, co-worker, citizen, British, English speaker, etc., etc. There are a number that apply to each of us and maybe you can think of roles which would apply to you. But these are socialized roles and each one of them has expectations attached because in each of them we can think of stereotypical ways in which each of them should be acted out in various situations. Yet if we read The Stranger we find that Mersault is oblivious to people's views about him or expectations for him. Indeed, it seems as if he never even cares to consider the question. It is because of this that Arendt can go on to write in her review that "Because he does not pretend, he is a stranger whom no one understands... he refuses to play the game, he is isolated from his fellow men to the point of incomprehensibility." One insight that the story gives us is that in public or with others you really shouldn't say what you really think - for this will have social consequences. And so the existentialist novel is starting to weave its particular concerns into the fabric of story. Its asking "Must you be dishonest and inauthentic to be a person in society?" There can be no doubt that you must. But is this a good thing?

And so I find myself asking "Who am I?" And, to be honest, I wish that more people would ask it of themselves too. There is a great strand of philosophy extending right back to Socrates with his "The unexamined life is not worth living" that encourages if not demands that people know themselves better. ("Know thyself" is, itself, a ubiquitous Greek maxim that has been attributed to many.) The great Friedrich Nietzsche has a strand of his philosophy that is about "becom(ing) what you are" but you cannot do this unless you know what it is you are. Well, that's not quite correct. Its truer to say that you cannot become what you are unless you drop all the pretense and expectations that others exert upon you and begin to live authentically as yourself. To do this is not without its price though because you can be sure that others will not do the same. You will then appear, once more, as Mersault did to his fellow Algerians, strange, different, aloof, a bit of an oddball. But it is the testimony of Mersault that all you can do is be yourself. So why do so many play at being like others and fitting in? What is thereby gained?

And its with this that we come to the meat. The conclusion of The Stranger seems to pose a dilemma. Already in the book it has been hinted that choices in life, the path we take through its shadowy corridors, maybe doesn't make that much difference. I write notes as I read, things I need to remember or important points that I'm gleaning from the text. I had already written midway through the novel "Recurring theme: this option or that one, it makes no difference." With the ending of the novel I think this is made more explicit. The Stranger poses all readers a challenge. It asks them to consider life as going from Point A, your birth, to Point B, your death. These are the only fixed points. It then challenges you to answer the question: What does it really matter how you get from Point A to Point B? And, I think, it asks you to consider that question primarily from the position of Point B.

And we can make this quite extreme. Think of yourself as anything and taking ANY possible path from Point A to Point B. Living life as a criminal, a thief, a cheat, a murderer, a philanderer, a pimp, a confidence trickster. How about a terrorist or a pedophile? I am not saying these are good things to be or urging any choices here. I'm trying to be extreme in order to make Camus' question in The Stranger more pointed. People are many things in life and have many experiences. They make many choices. A number of them most would call immoral or even evil. Many religious people would hope and believe that their god punishes such things. Failing that, the State may punish people for certain life choices. Mersault himself is sentenced to death in The Stranger for shooting an Arab and its from his cell that the question is framed. The point is not the details of the life you lead. The point is what difference does it really make how you get from Point A to Point B?

It seems to me that, in this way, Camus offers the question "Everything you are, everything you do, leads up to nothing, Point B. So what matters the route?" Indeed, in the story Mersault starts to understand why his dead mother now seemingly took a close male friend near to her death. Mersault imagines that seeing the door to life closing and the door to oblivion opening, she felt a new freedom. Mersault, in his cell, says that "for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe". This, it seems to me, is death as the release, death as the escape from life. This is death as freedom and life as always a somewhat constricting prison.

And so my question to you, my readers, is this: Who are you? Who are you really? Are you a person who fits in, or someone who is going to be you regardless of those around you? And what difference do you think it makes how you get from Point A to Point B?

PS On this occasion I have need for a postscript. For when I read the story of Mersault I felt like I was reading an alternative biography of my own life. I am, myself, a stranger and much of Mersault's characterization could equally apply to me. I don't fit in socially and very often don't try. I'd be the worst employee in the world and am, no doubt, a terrible son and brother. I have been in the past a boyfriend and felt very much the way Mersault does towards his girlfriend in the story, Marie. Indeed, I recall telling my last girlfriend, when she stupidly asked, that the girlfriend before her was the most beautiful girlfriend I had ever had. This, of course, was not the answer she expected nor the answer that people would expect me to give. But I straightforwardly told her what I regarded as the truth. Shouldn't that be enough? No, for in a social world there are expectations and, reading this story, I feel the weight of them, and my own strangeness, all the more.

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