A Strand of a Woman's Hair
In an essay discussing Che Guevara's death, written shortly after his assassination in 1967, John Berger notes that the present age forces upon us certain questions that were never before pressing. One is that suffering is no longer tolerable: we cannot pretend that there are not terrible sufferings around the world. The second is that we are responsible for this suffering and responsible for ourselves. There is no longer a God we can believe in nor even a king we can so easily serve. Before there was: "between himself and his own meaning there is always a power to which his only possible relationship is one of service or servitude. The power may be considered abstractly as Fate." (The Uses of Photography) Berger doesn't at all invoke existentialism in his essay; it is instead Marxism that would be behind the thrust of the piece. But Camus, whose fall out with Sartre and others was partly predicated on Camus' resistance to revolutionary communism, nevertheless would agree with Berger that we cannot rely on a higher authority than ourselves for our actions. Few books have explored this problem more astutely than The Outsider, and one reason why we invoke Berger is to indicate just how completely an existentialist perspective had made its way into post-war thought. What Berger offers in theoretical form, saying "the world is not intolerable until the possibility of transforming it exists but is denied. The social forces historically capable of bringing about the transformation are - at least in general terms - defined." Camus articulated dramatically twenty-five years earlier in passages from The Outsider. Here, the central character Meursault, sentenced to death for killing an Arab in the sun, insists on his freedom to choose rather than fall into religious dogma that won't save his life but will at least save his soul. Refusing to see the prison chaplain three times, before eventually the chaplain turns up and tries to convince Meursault of God's presence. Meursault is having none of it after the chaplain asks him how he pictures his life after the grave. "I went close up to him and made a last attempt to explain that I'd very little time left, and I wasn't going to waste it in God."
Here is a character who has lived through his senses and sees no point or purpose in finding meaning in God. Meaning lay in the pleasure of things not the abstractions of virtue. He has already been sentenced to death partly because of this abstraction under the guise of morality and justice and sees no reason why he should have his soul saved by a system that will be taking his life. When he loses his temper with the chaplain, when "I hurled insults at him...I'd taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in an ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him, all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain." Meursault sees someone who "living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn't even be sure of being alive." Meursault can be sure that he has been, and this is where the book's existential approach meets with the strictures and structures of society - a set of values that has a society to protect rather than an individual to respect.
When the prosecutor tells the jury that Meursault was someone who didn't cry at his mother's funeral, who went to see a Fernandel comedy shortly after she died, who didn't know his mother's age, so we have a man constructed in the eyes of society to the detriment of how he would perceive himself. It's as if the naivety of Meursault, his innocence within his guilt, rests on this inability, and then later his refusal, to see himself from the societal, insisting instead on seeing himself from the sensual. He does not live in a world of cause and consequence, but in a radical empiricism that works with impressions and sensations. There I no room for sensations and impression for the prosecutor or for the chaplain, and thus from Meursault's point of view they must be dead, even it happens to be his attentive relationship with the senses that means that he will die.
The two most famous aspects of the work are probably that Meursault never cried at his mother's funeral (societal), and that he killed the Arab because of the sun (sensual). Indeed it was the sensation of the sun at his mother's funeral that made a far stronger impression upon him than his mother's death - "I was surprised to see how quickly the sun was climbing up the sky, and just then it struck me that for quite a while the air had been throbbing with the hum of insects and the rustle of grass warming up. Sweat was trickling down my face." We can say however approvingly or disapprovingly that Meursault is a figure of sensuality rather than society and that the two function antonymically: that whatever progress may have been made as the modern age moves beyond the authoritative figures Berger invokes, man is still at the mercy of the abstract over the concrete, an abstraction that Camus addressed in the early forties not only in The Outsider but in The Myth of Sisyphus too. "...If I admit that my freedom has no meaning except in relation to its limited fate, then I must say that what counts is not the best living but the most living." Yet the more abstract approach insists that the best living is more important than the most living. If only Meursault had lived better, had loved life less and morality more, he might not have had to face the scaffold.
Camus offers the book up in two parts that could be seen consistently with the most and the best. The first half focuses on the most as it leads to the murder of the Arab; the second follows on from Meursault's arrest. From living in a world of sensuality he passes into the world of morality - he is condemned not yet to die, but already condemned to be viewed through the prism of a moral system that will decide if he should live or not. Meursault can't really understand this, cannot comprehend why the act of killing another man which he makes no attempt to deny, nor even excuse, must have built around it a moral system that can justify the deed. For Meursault, there was no more pressing reason than that the sun was bearing down on him. He has neither especial hatred for Arabs nor great feelings of loss for his mother, but an abstract approach would demand one or the other. If he detested Arabs then he was motivated to kill; if he loved his mother there were extenuating circumstances. But Meursault doesn't care to hate a group - that would be part of the abstraction; a useless generalization that indicates racists aren't only detestable, we might think, because they dislike someone of a different colour, but they dislike a group of people in the process of a weak phenomenology. To hate a group is to generalize, which is in the process a refusal to phenomenologize: to take responsibility for one's moment to moment perception, a point Camus addresses in The Myth of Sisyphus when saying "thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one's consciousness, making of every image a privileged place. In other words, phenomenology declines to explain the world; it merely wants to be a description of actual experience." Meursault lives in this world, seeking from it as much sensual pleasure as he can without feeling obliged to attend to the abstractions that will later define him.
Obviously, he has a sense even in the first half of the book that there are social values he is expected to conform to, but they don't at all come naturally to him, and he is inclined to think little of them unless some vague imperative manifests itself. Early on he is speaking to the Warden of his mother's death and Meursault feels when the Warden says "Madame Meursault entered the Home three years ago. She had no private means and depended entirely on you", Meursault thinks, "I had a feeling he was blaming me for something and started to explain." But the Warden cuts him short saying that he has investigated things and could see that Meursault was in no position to help; that he wasn't very well paid. Meursault doesn't disagree, but he can see this is the Warden applying a moral generalization to the specifics of the situation. As he says, "a young man in jobs likes yours", after he says "one gets on much better with people of one's own generation. You're much too young, you couldn't have been much of a companion to her." At this point in the book the generalizations needn't cause our narrator any harm; later in the book they will lead to his imminent death, evident when the prosecutor says in court: "Gentlemen of the jury, I would have you note that on the next day after his mother's funeral the man was visiting the swimming pool, starting a liaison with a girl, and going to see a comic film. That is all I wish to say." In other words, a series of actions, generalized from the particular of a mother's death, tells us all we need to know about the character of a certain type of man. Our narrator doesn't see it like this, reckoning, "I'd have liked to have a chance of explaining myself to him, in a quite friendly, almost affectionate way, that I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I've always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back."
This doesn't mean a generalization is wrong but that one must take responsibility for it, making the generalization an impression. The generalization is the depersonalized observation; impressions personalize. Meursault notes at one stage that "the silence of these people was telling on my nerves. The only sound was a rather queer one' it came at longish intervals and at first I was puzzled by it. However, after listening attentively, I guessed what it was, the old men were sucking at the insides of their cheeks, and this caused the odd, wheezing noises that had mystified me." This is an impression. The Warden's comment is not. There is perceptual responsibility in the latter; none in the former. We could even see that Meursault's act when he murders the Arab is an impression; the prosecutor's accusatory claims generalizations. Meursault doesn't deny he killed a man and tries to explain precisely what took place. But the prosecutor wants a generalized murderer - the type of man who kills someone. "Not only did the man before you in the dock indulge in the most shameful orgies on the day following his mother's funeral," the prosecutor says. "He killed a man cold-bloodedly in pursuance of some sordid vendetta in the underworld of prostitutes and pimps. That, gentlemen of the jury, is the type of man the prisoner is." It will always be easier for the state to kill a man if you can create of him a type rather than an individual. It can mean you have a figure of guilt without quite having a body.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says "all systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimate or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible men but there are no guilty ones." By trying to turn Meursault into a guilty person when he will do no more than acknowledge that he is a responsible one, the priest must face the wrath of our narrator. Initially, Meursault tries to explain his position. The priest assumes Meursault is saddled with guilt, but Meursault says: "I told him that I wasn't conscious of any 'sin'; all I knew was that I'd been guilty of a criminal offence, and no one had the right to expect anything more of me," But the priest does expect more and after laying his shoulder on Meursault claiming he would pray for his soul, our narrator says: "I don't know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him...he seemed so cocksure you see..." The priest's dogmas are generalizations in metaphysical form, trying to claim a higher value that lead to even farther abstractions than those Meursault faces under the legal system. "In his view man's justice was a vain thing; only God's justice mattered." For a man like Meursault who lives as close as he can to his senses, the further abstractions of God on top of those of the justice system are enough to have him grabbing the priest by the lapel.
Camus famously claimed in interviews that his central character died because "he refuses to lie" (Selected Essays and Notebooks) but that seems odd when he is a character willing to lie for his friend Raymond. When Raymond asks Meursault to act as a witness he agrees and asks Raymond what he is expected to say. Meursault is no more an honest man than many others; what makes him exceptional we believe is his concreteness - the sort of man explored in Camus's essay 'Summer in Algiers'. "During their entire youth men find here a life in proportion to their beauty. Then, later on, the downhill slope and obscurity. They wagered on the flesh but knowing they were to lose. In Algiers whoever is young and alive finds sanctuary and occasion for triumphs everywhere: in the bay, the sun, the red and white games on the seaward terraces, the flowers and sports stadiums, the cool-legged girls." They are their own Gods and seek no other in a higher figure. This doesn't make Meursault heroic, brave, virtuous or even dignified, first and foremost. What he happens to be is someone consistent to an ethos he wouldn't feel obliged to name unless another contrary one that he does not believe in happens to be forced upon him. Meursault may be in the tradition of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, may be someone who we would expect to find in an analysis of existential fiction, but while Raskolnikov foregrounds his position as he writes a tract on the right to kill and then puts it into practice, Meursault has no thesis to offer in the first place; only one that he feels obliged to conclude upon because of the freedom that he no longer possesses. Dostoevsky writes about a world in which God is absent and man must become his own God - a metaphysical underpinning that will allow him to choose. Camus, coming seventy-five years later, and from the sun of Algeria rather than the snow of St Petersburg, feels his character is in the world as it is, not as he wishes it to be. Dostoevsky's character needs a value system to live; Meursault is given one that will leave him to die. Dostoevsky wonders whether God might be a solution; for Camus God is a further problem - a further way of making man alienated from himself. It is thought he can just about tolerate going to his grave for justice, for a system that insists if a man kills another he must die too. But to insist on top of this that Meursault should admit God into his life just as society is taking life from him seems an abstraction too far.
It isn't even as if Meursault hasn't wished on occasion for an afterlife - but he sees it as no more than an idle daydream rather than an ontological underpinning. Being isn't predicated on God; God is a thought one occasionally allows to pass through one's mind when more pressing matters or more pleasing pleasures don't present themselves. "When the chaplain insists he must sometimes think of an afterlife, Meursault doesn't deny it but says, "it had no more importance than wishing to be rich, or swim very fast, or to have a better-shaped mouth." It is wish-fulfilment; hardly part of a proper reality principle. But we shouldn't pretend that Camus had no interest in the question of faith, and when we think of existential writing, we will find it divides quite evenly between the theologically inclined and the atheistically insistent, with Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel, for example, concerned with the question of belief, and Sartre and Camus determined to build on God's absence. In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus notes that "knowing whether or not he is free involves knowing whether or not he has a master. The absurdity peculiar to this problem comes from the fact that the very notion that makes the problem of freedom possible also takes away all its meaning." The hope for a God might be no different for Meursault than wishing he had a nicer mouth but for Camus the absence of a God demands an enormous responsibility, taking into account Berger's remark when he talks about man having various masters that he can no longer claim to serve. Meursault instinctively feels no obligation to serve any masters but the book itself is an exploration of what that feeling might mean when a man's sensual honesty is confronted with judicial, moral and spiritual systems that won't go away. It is one thing to accept the judicial - Meursault knows he has killed a man and makes no attempt to deny it. We then can expect from that justice system a full comprehension of the facts and to sentence a man accordingly. Few would be inclined to read The Outsider and believe that Meursault should be released from prison; most would be likely to feel he should get the sentence appropriate to the crime. That needn't have anything to do with moral insistence or religious inclination. "Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man" Meursault's defence lawyer proclaims, but if he isn't very good at his job it rests partly on assuming that there happens to be a big difference between the two in society's eyes. The prosecutor jumps to his feet and says that he is surprised that the other man cannot see the connection between the two. "In short, I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother's funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart." It is the prosecutor who understands the jury, who knows that ingenuity will trump reason; that playing into the hands of prejudice will win the case because the sort of person Berger and Camus invoke, the sort of individual who knows that they must be their own master, whether existentially (in Camus' case) or socio-politically (as in Berger's) remains rare indeed.
We might read The Outsider and believe that we wish for a society that can judge on reason alone, at least in a court of law, but it instead often practices what might seem like an example of the sensual but is actually its inversion. If the sensual is the removal of abstraction, the moral is the insistence upon it. Neither works off reason, but while the former has little need to do so as it acts out of immediate physical self interest, the latter usually has to justify its position with argument and external dictate. This is why we have anything from the ten commandments to the categorical imperative, from the utilitarian belief of the greatest good for the greatest number, to the catechism. They are in different ways, and of course to different degrees, a child guard against the sensual. But so often moral argument is weak because it cannot find any first principle in which to ground itself, and relies on the prejudices of those who work off what Nietzsche would call "the social strait-jacket". "the task of breeding an animal entitled to make promises involves, as we have already seen, the preparatory task of rendering man up to a certain point regular, uniform, equal among equals, calculable." But Nietzsche also sees another possibility: the "fully emancipated man, master of his will, who dares make promises - how should he not be aware of his superiority over those who are unable to stand security for themselves?" (Genealogy of Morals). Meursault may be right to resist the chaplain's proclamations but he is wrong to assume that they are no more valid than wishing for a better mouth. If man is somehow forced to make promises, to live within social strictures many of which have been brought into being whether through the will of God or the reason of man, then any sensualism he demands must be met with a belief that he can defend. The point isn't to live from moment to moment, but to defend one's wish to do so, which requires a necessary but minimal amount of reason. In the introduction to The Outsider, Cyril Connolly disagrees with the great French critic Maurice Blanchot over the book's conclusion. Blanchot, according to Connolly, thinks that "Meursault grows out of character in the last pages, when he becomes too articulate, and thus detroys the unity of the book." Connolly instead sees in Meursault someone articulating a position that is "neo-pagan, a reversion to Meditteranean man as once he was in Corinth, or Carthage or Alexandria or Tarshish, as he is today in Casablanca or Southern California." But though such a figure can enjoy simple pleasures without justification: "whose least pleasures, from a bath to a yawn, afford him complete and silent gratification", that doesn't mean there isn't a belief system behind it. Nietzsche's remarks acknowledge the reason required to defend one's position, but that is Nietzsche's point: there is an individual defending it; not an abstraction determining one's behaviour. When Meursault reckons the chaplain lives like a corpse it rests partly on this inability to see his life from the point of view of his own wishes and desires and instead from God's, and thus "why none of his certainties are worth one strand of a woman's hair". Meursault at least knows what his certainties concern directly: "Actually I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming."
If in Blanchot's view the closing pages damage the book, from Camus' we could see that it was the working out of a philosophical perspective with the aid of characters. The Myth of Sisyphus came out the same year, in 1942, and raised some of the same questions as The Outsider but in argumentative form. Yet as Camus said, reviewing Sartre's Nausea in 1938, " a novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images." He also added, however, that "in a good novel, the whole of the philosophy has passed into the images." Camus also believes that if the "philosophy overflows the characters and action, and therefore looks like a label stuck on the work, the plot loses its authenticity and the novel its life." But equally, a novel without a philosophy can resemble any number of books; it is the philosophy that can give it backbone. Most of the great novelists have a philosophy even if they don't practise philosophy, may even have no interest in the subject. But we can at least talk of the worldview of Balzac and his interest in the avaricious, Flaubert and his fascination with stupidity, Hemingway's with pride and Fitzgerald's with fragility. Their books gravitate towards certain narrative inevitabilities because of their 'philosophy' - their way of seeing the world.
Camus was, of course, a philosopher, though not always a respected one. Pierre Jansson says for example that Camus "hasn't understood what [bad faith] is. To confuse that with hypocrisy is a pretty serious mistake." ('The Third Man in the Story') Gilles Deleuze reckons, "As for Camus - alas! Either it was inflated heroism or it was second-hand absurdity." (Desert Islands and Other Texts). But if he wasn't always so conceptually astute or philosophically rigorous, he could conjure up images that gave the work its own heft. Whether it is describing workers each day going off to do their daily toil in The Myth of Sisyphus, describing the climate in 'Summer in Algiers', Meursault's lazy routine in 'The Outsider', or the cold emptiness of the desert at night in the short story 'The Adulterous Woman', Camus was at his best as a sensual writer, trying to find the means by which to create a philosophy out of his senses. Thus the weakness Blanchot sees in the book, the inadequacy Deleuze sees in Camus the philosopher can be seen within the context of a writer who thinks and feels, as someone whether writing essays, stories or novels, who was looking for a way to interrogate the senses with the context of freedom.
Perhaps this is most clearly expressed in Camus' late novel The Fall, even the physical can become the moral. Believing that his interlocutor will doubt how easy it was for our narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, to seduce, he says "alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face. Mine...But what matter? It's a fact - I was considered to have charm and I took advantage of it." With one woman he "began to mortify her in every way. I would give her up and take her back, force her to give herself at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places, treat her brutally, in every respect..." Near the end of the book he says, "we are odd, wretched creatures and, if we merely look back over our lives, there's no lack of occasion to amaze and scandalize ourselves." If Meursault is in an unrepentant murderer; Clamence is the repentant barrister, someone who enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh as readily as Meursault but who lived to tell the tale and to explore the flipside of the sensual. When Camus said that Meursault refuses to lie he also added "to lie is not only to say what is not the case. It also, above all, means saying what is not the case, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, more than we feel. It is what we all do, every day, to simplify life. Meursault, contrary to appearances, does not want to simplify life." (Selected Essays and Notebooks). Clamence doesn't want to simplify either. He is as verbose as Meursault is usually quiet, but they both share the need to be themselves, an apparently simple task since this is the one thing it would appear we cannot but be. Yet of course being oneself in existential terms is not an essential thing but a contingent one: it is an ongoing process of 'authenticity' - a big word and a problematic one, but in Camus' lexicon it need mean little more than that one does not force tears out of oneself at one's mother's funeral, claim a motive for a crime that doesn't have one, and seek excuses for one's actions in a contriteness one doesn't feel. Meursault and Clamence might seem very different characters, but they are just different ends of a spectrum that incorporates age and class. Both insist on 'authentic' expression: saying what is on one's mind or admitting that nothing happens to be.
Yet there is a difference, and Camus addresses it a little in 'Summer in Algiers', as we have noted when he says " they wagered on the flesh, but knowing they were to lose." Meursault loses it with his life; Clamence loses it through age. This suggests perhaps there is a value higher than the sensual, which is not the same as saying one need fall into abstraction. One can focus on the body and arrive at the dissolute or the wretched, or focus on the mind and never be equal to a strand of a woman's hair. If the chaplain sanctimoniously lives without living, Clamence has lived indeed, but how many women tore their hair out as he "involved [himself] in so many simultaneous liaisons"? To get older is to become wiser, we might believe, but the wisdom is only as good as the body that contains it. There is more self-awareness in Meursault than in the chaplain if we assume that there isn't much self in the chaplain's awareness and a lot of self in Meursault's relative ignorance. The point is one lives as concretely as possible, and that wisdom is the accumulation of that experience in the face of what resists our possibilities. Meursault meets with that resistance enormously as he knows he faces his own death, but he does so knowing that concrete experience can be very concrete indeed, evident when he thinks about the guillotine. "One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn't know. Now I had to admit it seemed a very simple process, getting guillotined; the machine is on the same level as the man, and he walks towards it as one steps forward to meet someone one knows." The law might talk about putting a man to death, but that is a man who doesn't exist in the flesh. How many people who support the death penalty would be willing to witness one; better still put into practice the execution itself? One can talk about justice being done, even an eye for an eye, but these are ways in which one talks about things that are giving society value over the man. Perhaps such a society that values the human being over the social unit, the specific over the general would be impossible, but that doesn't mean the individual should give up on their own attempt at 'being themselves'. Meursault will go to his death being himself because he has not been willing to become somebody else in the eyes of the law, someone who will create socially acceptable excuses for failing to cry at his mother's funeral, and for shooting an Arab. He will remain himself as he will no longer be a self at all. Unless, paradoxically, we see Meursault at his most concrete when he becomes most abstract: when he will no longer exist but leave behind a value system that he happened to live by and the book exemplifies.
© Tony McKibbin