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Camus’ Meursault: Is it trauma or viable philosophy that animates him?
An essay and a rectification after revisiting "The Stranger", first drafted on Aug. 2, published on Aug. 4, 2017

    For me, therefore, Meursault is not a piece of social wreckage, but a poor and naked man enamored of a sun that leaves
    no shadows. Far from being bereft of all feeling, he is animated by a passion that is deep because it is stubborn, a
    passion for the absolute and for truth. This truth is still a negative one, the truth of what we are and what we feel, but without
    it no conquest of ourselves or of the world will ever be possible.

    Preface to The Stranger by Albert Camus, January 8, 1955

Only a year ago, we would probably be talking now about Anthony Scaramucci, John Kelly or the DOW hitting
22000. But all this
is hardly relevant now. So we are not going to bore you here with something that is of
secondary importance. Instead we would like to draw your attention to a piece of literature that impressed us
tremendously when we were still in high school. In fact, this work of art impacted us so much that we have
recommended it repeatedly to our friends throughout the years. Obviously, we are referring to Albert Camus’
first and highly acclaimed novel “L’Étranger” (The Stranger) here which was published in 1941 and which has
stayed in the canon of literature ever since.

The truth, however, is that we have never gone back to reading it again after we left school. The novel had its
sacred place in our memory; and we simply felt that we had it down. So, if Camus showed up in our reading list
we would prefer to opt for some of his other works rather than “L’Étranger”.

Circumstances now have it that we are currently struggling with the massive read (1000 pages) that is Robert
Musil’s “Man without Qualities” (1931/33). It therefore seemed like a welcome distraction to us to leave Musil
aside for a while and focus on The Stranger instead. After all, it cannot be denied that Camus’ main protagonist
Meursault has a few things in common with Musil’s Ulrich. They both lack ambition (at least at the time of
narration), they are both
underwhelmed by life in its various facets; and they both echo a notion of absurdity
that is construed to be the underlying force of human existence.

It was, hence, with quite a bit of delight that we took our old school copy of The Stranger from the shelf and
revisited this erstwhile beloved text again.

And what a surprise it was that we found here! Our second read, decades later, no longer gave us a Meursault
that appeared to be the less eloquent Alter Ego of Camus himself. He, Meursault, no longer came across to us
as the unabashed nihilist which we had seen in him back when. Much rather did we find in him a deeply
traumatized individual who had probably experienced a serious destabilization early on in life (long before the
death of his mother), who had been kept in this state of despondency by a largely incompetent if not stupid
society  and who had never really had the intellectual capacity to adequately reflect on that.

Why do we say that? Well, we get to this conclusion because there are no signs that would indicate that
Meursault has in deed gone through a protracted period of serious reasoning and de-construction before his
last days in jail.  He never mocks his own indifference  And he rarely reveals another layer of thought that
would lie below his actual protestations.* Hence, there is little depth and subtlety to his earlier “ça m’est égal”-
stance. It consequently doesn’t come as a surprise that Meursault does not know how to defend himself against
the uneasy incursions into his life by Raymond Sintès, the girl beating pimp; and it’s equally unsurprising that
he finds no way to amicably reject Marie’s wedding proposal even though he neither loves her nor imbues great
significance to the institution of marriage. Meusault's general attitude according to which he bears no grudges
over the fact that he is a largely disinterested and bored passenger to life is, therefore, not altogether credible.  
In fact, later events reveal that he is not at all at peace with himself.

To get a taste of the anger that actually has festered inside of him over the years you just have to look at the
way he eventually kills his Arab victim. He doesn’t pull the trigger on his opponent once or twice in sheer self-
defense. No, he pulls it five times and he does it even though the victim has already gone down presumably
after the first bullet. In fact, Meursault apparently pauses somewhat after his first shot, probably to take a look
at his opponent and then decides to fire another four shots into him.  If this is not to be viewed as the outburst
of pent-up, unprocessed aggression that has been lingering inside of him for years despite the obvious veneer
of calm and indifference then we are willing to forego all further judgment. **

The overall problem with the dramatization of Camus’ novel is that he, Camus gives us a protagonist who has
come to his otherwise reasonable existentialist barrenness without ever experiencing the opposite. Meursault
never experimented with different approaches to life; he never tested different value sets and he certainly
never immersed himself into other philosophies. Instead he got to his
Schopenhauer conclusion by way of a
convenient short-cut that ultimately had no other purpose but to cover up the shocking fact that there probably
wasn’t much of a desire to live in from quite early on. In that he differs considerably from Musil’s hero Ulrich.
Ulrich does in fact experience an ambition at the outset of his adult life. He wants to become a renowned
scientist and engineer and actually achieves some breakthroughs there. Meursault, however, stays in a state of
boredom and disinterest throughout. We would call that trauma or emotional paralysis but not an honest search
for adequate understanding.

It is, therefore, true when Camus claims that Meursault is a “poor” and perhaps “naked man”.  His “passion for
the absolute and for truth” however is largely a passion for staying in his
existentialist comfort zone which just
by sheer chance ends up to be reasonable and sound.  In our mind  you simply cannot be credibly negative
and peaceful at the same time without having been positive at least once in your life.

Perhaps we were too enthralled with our own sense of disconnect back then to get the limits of Meursault’s
intellectual stance right away. Perhaps we simply wanted him to be the brain that Camus certainly is. So it was
probably our own wishful thinking back when that impeded us from seeing things as they conceivably really are.

Whatever the explanation for our reevaluation of Meursault may ultimately be that concept of indifference and
apathy which has been portrayed by Camus continues to stick with us. It may no longer be the Meursault
version that does it for us. Perhaps we are closer to Musil’s Ulrich by now. If we, therefore, feel
bored or listless these days we would nevertheless still hope that we have retained the ability to at least
occasionally ask some questions instead of only answering them.***


* To our recollection there are only a few instances when Meursault does show a deeper and finer sense of understanding.
Granted the finesse that he demonstrates when describing his observations of other people’s behavior and reactions suggests
a clear and present mind. But this may well be a trick or a creative imperfection that Camus plays on us.  After all, it is quite rare
that Meursault’s forensic observation of others is being matched by a similar intensity in the contemplation of his own views.
There is one example that comes to mind when a certain degree of mature soul-searching seems to shimmer through in
Meursault’s explanations. It happens when Marie asks him about his mother’s death. Here is how that segment unfolds :  
« Je lui ai dit que maman était morte. Comme elle voulait savoir depuis quand, j’ai répondu : « Depuis hier ». Elle a eu un petit
recul, mais n’a fait aucune remarque. J’ai eu envie de lui dire que ce n’était pas de ma faute, mais je me suis arrêté parce que
j’ai pensé que je l’avais déjà dit à mon patron. Cela ne signifiait rien. De toute façon, on est toujours un peu fautif. » This last
phrase – “on est toujours un peu fautif“ - echoes a degree of self-awareness otherwise not seen in the text. It was a welcome
relief but not enough to make us change our overall view.

**Perhaps there is a mitigating element here in the fact that Meursault obviously suffered from a sunstroke when firing off these
five bullets. Unprocessed trauma however does tend to manifest itself in spouts of nausea and vertigo. So, the Magistrate judge
who, by the way seems to be one of the few decent and dedicated public service officers in the novel  (contrary to the court
prosecutor), rightly insists on the importance of the sequence of these bullets. “Pourquoi avez-vous attendu entre le premier et
second coup?”, he asks Meursault. « Pourquoi, pourquoi avez-vous tire sur un corps à terre ? (…) il faut que vous me le disiez ».
And, as to be expected, Meursault has no answer for him. He doesn’t even understand the judge’s insistence on this. Instead he
falls back into his usual state of emotional numbness.

*** Camus apparently has characterized Meursault as a man “who answers but never asks a question”.  We got that quote from
CliffsNotes. It doesn’t show up in the preface of our own copy though. It sounds legitimate nevertheless. (Camus “Meursault is
the man who answers but never asks a question, and all his answers so alarm a society which cannot bear to look at the truth.")
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character analysis of Camus' Meursault, Meursault's existentialist stance,
interpretation of The Stranger by Camus, the psychology of The Stranger's main
protagonist Meursault, the philosophical depth of Meursault's existentialism