Camus’s Stranger: Hero or Sociopath

Probably the most important hurdle of reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger is to resist the temptation to see Meursault as hero or villain. We’re not “supposed” to identify with him or against him. He just demonstrates in every thought and action the absurdity of the world. The trial puts this in perspective. The prosecutor creates one narrative about Meursault’s murder of the Arab. The defense attorney creates an entirely different narrative about Meursault’s murder. Both create logical narratives, but both are completely wrong – there is no logical narrative that explains any of Meursault’s actions (not his homicidal outburst, nor his passive agreement to marry Marie even though love explicitly “meant nothing” to him [52], nor his passive agreement to help Raymond lure his girlfriend back for another beating after he’d already bloodied her once [38]). The oft-noted comment that he is absolutely honest is strikingly true at times, as in his discussions of his mother’s death and of marriage and of his case, but oddly untrue at other times, as in the totally motiveless deceits he perpetrates with Raymond (luring the girlfriend back for another beating and then attesting to Raymond’s blameless behavior at the police station [60]). Another oft-noted comment is that he comes to terms with his life once he fully realizes the absolute indifference of the universe. This one seems true enough at the end. But I detect a misguided inclination among readers to treat him as a role model or absurd hero, an admirable rebel against society and its phony ways. This, I think, is a mistake. He did, after all, randomly kill “an Arab” without the slightest thought before or after to the human consequences of that deed, he did quite nonchalantly agree to help Raymond brutalize a woman he’d never met, he admittedly feels little or no emotion for his mother or for the woman he sleeps with, etc., etc. Even if intellectually you are the most hardened existentialist, this is not the kind of “hero” you want your daughter to bring home for dinner.

If you want an absurd hero, you might start with the existentialist dilemma. Recognize that the universe is irrational, amoral, and utterly indifferent to human life. Your own life is meaningless and your death will not ruffle the cosmic indifference. Now what do you do? Meursault brings us to the question but he gives us no model for how to respond. The Fool in King Lear might be an absurd hero in that he does seem to recognize the irremediable indifference of the universe and yet tries to inject some clarity and empathy into Lear’s world, not because this will make the universe more meaningful or morally intelligible, but merely because of the local comfort it may give to Lear. Or the Dalai Lama might illustrate the path of the absurd hero in his injunction to act with compassion even though our actions will never alter the fact that suffering is built into the human condition. Although Meursault’s character is a perfect vehicle for bringing the absurd (existentialist) world view into focus, his utter lack of compassion, his complete indifference to suffering caused by his own actions, may illustrate a kind of human predicament but cannot seriously be called a “heroic” response to the existential dilemma. At least the Fool makes the absurd choice to behave morally in a world where moral behavior makes no sense. Meursault’s indifference is, if anything, a logical response to the indifferent world, and does not warrant the badge of absurd hero.

Perhaps then Meursault is the exemplar of life after the age of God. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, opined that this placed at least the most thoughtful of us beyond good and evil, and found this to be a liberation of the human spirit. Dostoevsky and more recent Christians agree that the absence of God places us beyond good and evil, but they are far less upbeat about it, fearing a dystopia where we can do anything at all to our fellow human beings without scruple. The humanist stakes out a third position by denying the shared premise of Nietzsche and the Christians (the premise that without God we are beyond good and evil and all things are permissible). The humanist finds great moral value in human actions even in, or especially in, the absence of God. Treating people kindly and attending to the human consequences of one’s actions have their own intrinsic values irrespective of divine rewards or punishment. In this tripolar scheme, I’d say that Camus’s personal philosophy tends toward the Nietzchean and his personal actions in life tended toward the humanistic, but, ironically, The Stranger seems to best illustrate the Christian point of view – that without a belief in God or any traditional morality, we, like Meursault, become detached from our own lives and indifferent to others, incapable of compassion but quite capable of brutalizing women and killing others on a whim without any sense of wrong-doing. It is easy to see Meursault in this sense as an exemplar not of the human predicament en masse but merely of the sociopathic mindset (not deliberately evil but just wholly indifferent to the human consequences of one’s actions – more a descendant of Dickens’s Harthouse than of Shakespeare’s Iago).  And what better theme for the contemporary Christian than the sociopathic dystopia of life without God?

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Without God

Without God, all things are permissible.

This is a recurring idea in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and it gets a lot of airplay today in social media and popular culture. The problem with this supposed argument for Christianity is that it seems uniquely designed to make the humanist look better than the Christian. If you tell me that without God we would have no reason to behave morally, aren’t you telling me that in your heart you would just as soon screw me but refrain only out of fear of God? Doesn’t this make the humanist — who is nice to others because of a heartfelt recognition of the intrinsic value of being nice — more admirable, more noble, more trustworthy in a pinch? (This is not an attack on Christianity en masse, just on a troubling line of reasoning employed by some Christians.)

Interestingly, Nietzsche may make an equal and opposite mistake. (Perhaps my readers who are more up on Nietzsche can affirm or deny or elaborate.) Nietzsche also suggests that God’s demise puts us “beyond good and evil,” but unlike our Christian interlocutor, he sees this as a good thing, a liberation of the human spirit from dogmatic ethical constraints (at least for those who are strong enough to handle the implications). The problem is that Nietzsche’s conclusion, like the Christian’s, rests on the premise that morality (or systems of good and evil) founder, or devolve into purely personal prejudices, in the absence of God.

Our humanist combatant of the first paragraph disputes this premise, arguing that rational principles and intuitive sympathies can provide a basis for ethics equal or stronger than any God-based ethic. I can’t say for sure that our humanist is correct, but I can say that in times of moral crisis I’d rather have her at my side than Nietzsche or the Christian of our example (although I might opt for Nietzsche when a crisis of wit is at hand).

O’Connor’s Misfit and Christian Existentialism

In a scene from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandma and Red Sam (“the fat boy with the happy laugh,” as he proudly posts on the signs for his barbecue  joint) lament how hard it is to find a good man nowadays. But from these two master manipulators of the older generation to the self-centered brats (John Wesley and June Star) of the younger generation, it’s safe to say that O’Connor’s point is that it always has been and always will be virtually impossible to find a good man in this world. (SPOILERS ahead, so you may want to click the link and read the roughly 10-page story first.)

But the dearth of good men does not prevent O’Connor from giving us a truly interesting man in the villain of the piece, the Misfit, who gets all the best lines as he pours out his bio and hodgepodge philosophy to the grandma’s family when he stumbles upon them after their car wreck on a rural Georgia back road.

When the Misfit’s father says of the Misfit, “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters,” he divides people into two groups – those who live out their whole lives without ever breaking the surface and those whose penetrating intelligence constantly pushes them toward a deeper understanding. The former would include the family, whose comically superficial attitude toward life and death and violence occupies the first half of the story. The Misfit is in the latter group, which leaves us with a knot: the Misfit is in the “good” group, but is clearly not a viable hero.

This brings us to the Misfit’s shrewd response to the grandmother’s comically self-serving claim that he’s a good man: “’Nome, I ain’t a good man.’ The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, ‘but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.’” This clearly divides people into three groups: the “good,” the “worst,” and some third group to which the Misfit must belong. Understanding the three groups requires unpacking the epigraph (which, unfortunately, is omitted from some editions of the story):

 The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.

                                                                                                — St. Cyril of Jerusalem

The dragon represents the existential crisis – the recognition that the world is irrational, morally absurd, and that the lives we live are utterly meaningless. There are three tracks of human existence relative to the dragon. The “worst” off would be those people who coast along from one superficial event to the next and die without ever realizing that their whole lives were lived out on a glassy shallow surface (witness Bailey’s famous last words: “I’ll be back in a minute, Momma”). These never even reach the dragon. Then there are those who do face the dragon/crisis. This requires a deeper intelligence and the Misfit has certainly made it this far. But this by no means gets you home free. At this point one is faced with the only real dilemma that will ever count: irrational faith or despair.

The Misfit has obviously reached the dragon/crisis (thus is “not one of the worst”), but how does he respond? He responds by committing himself to reason and balance. He is driven insane by the fact that “I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” Regarding Jesus’ claim about raising the dead, we are told, “’I wisht I had of been there,’ [the Misfit] said, hitting the ground with his fist. . . . ‘If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’” He wants moral balance, rational certainty. And he is shrewd enough to recognize that this is the path to despair. Indeed, I suppose the unacknowledged ghost in the Misfit’s world view, Kierkegaard, would define “despair” as precisely an insistence upon rational, moral balance in the world. “Beware lest he [the dragon] devour you.”

O’Connor’s point of view is existentialist because it insists that the world is irrational and morally absurd, no matter how many little tricks we use to impose a rational order upon it. And it is decisively Christian existentialism. Jesus, as the Misfit, says, “thown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or . . . .” Jesus throws the whole rational game off balance. We have absolutely no reason to believe anything he said. Indeed, seeking a reason to believe leads us to the Misfit’s path of despair. From the Christian existentialist position, we must conclude that any Christian who believes he or she has good reason to believe must be in group one, among the “worst” who have never truly broken the surface and faced the dragon/existential crisis. Any Christian who seeks a reason to believe, but is smart enough to know that s/he can’t really find one (group 2), has faced the dragon but is continually being devoured by it (as the Misfit). The true Christian (group 3) must choose faith with the full knowledge that such a choice is, in the face of the dragon, absurd.

The story is a bit shaky, despite O’Connor’s overt Christian intentions, on demonstrating the final option – those who have faced the dragon and chosen the irrational leap of faith. The grandmother is supposedly a last-minute exemplar.

“His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him.”

Presumably, the grandmother finally breaks through her petty self-interest and chooses a redemptive act. The fact that it’s the grandmother, the heretofore exemplar of manipulative self-interest, reinforces absurdity, unpredictability. The fact that she’s shot in the chest three times in the next sentence reinforces the idea that the point of faith is not to achieve balance in this world (such an objective would be a variant of despair).

Finally, the famous penultimate line of the Misfit: “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Again, the Misfit very shrewdly sees that the only thing that ever made grandma crack the surface was a gun in her face. This is typical Flannery O’Connor. We need some violent shock to thrust us into crisis – lest we live out our lives in that dreamy, surface complacency. Granted, it’s not pleasant, but it’s the only way: “We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” Thus O’Connor crafts her own recipe for Christian existentialism, like a Waffle House version of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, cut, reshaped, and chicken-fried to the order of the Southern redneck.