by Albert Camus; Matthew Ward Book : Fiction  |  1st Vintage International ed
Not a spare word, but a colonial legacy, ELC review   (2014-03-25)
I give this book only four stars, even though I am impressed with the craft of its prose and the lean structure. It is a pleasure to read the book. However, Conor Cruise O'Brien made what I consider a valid, important, and negative critique of the book, and I think that O'Brien's commentary should be required reading for students of the text. The simplistic reading of the text as a heroic and wholly positive revolt should not be accepted, but there are good reasons why it has been passionately treasured by generations of (especially young) readers.
In college, I had read some of Camus's philosophical writings, but I had not read The Stranger. In reading the first half now, I am struck by the stylistic similarity to Kafka's writing. According to O'Brien, Camus had been reading Kafka at the time of the composition of this book. Camus was also influenced by the spare style of Hemingway. Kafka was known for eliminating psychology from his narratives. Likewise, with Camus, the viewpoint is first person, but we get very little psychology of the inner thoughts. There are objective signs that Meursault is mourning for his mother, such as going to bed without dinner, but no statement of feelings of mourning. Hemingway was also a master of things not being spelled out but inferred.
In studying this book, I tracked down and read O'Brien's book *Albert Camus, Of Europe and Africa* (1970). I consider that criticism very important to a proper understanding of Camus in general and the significance of *The Stranger* in particular. Specifically, Camus was a French colonist in Algeria who was in denial about his role as a colonist. (France for its part officially claimed that Algeria was not a colony but was part of France, even though a majority of the population were muslims who did not consider themselves to be French.) Albert Memmi called such a liberal person 'the colonist who refuses.'
O'Brien argues that the actual killing is treated by everyone, including the author, as irrelevant. "But it is not easy to make the killing of a man seem irrelevant; in fact it can hardly be done unless one is led in some way to regard the man as not quite a man" (25). Earlier critics seemed to want to canonize Meursault and to claim that this novel expressed the conscience of Western man. That may be true, but it also shows the cultural limitations of that conscience with regard to the colony (28).
One could possibly view Meursault as emotionally stunted. He calls his mother "Maman," which is not a name one would use as an adult in public. His emotional obtuseness might also suggest that he falls along the autism spectrum. But one major aspect of the appeal of Meursault and the book itself is the affirmation, his joy of life in the here and now. That does not suggest autism per se. The attitude of revolt against institutions and the celebration of the immediate naturally appeals to college-age students, hence the lasting popularity of the novel.
Evolutionary Literary Criticism
Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism, it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with this text.
Evolutionary Literary Theory Boilerplate
For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of a text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). So we need to comment on the story's relationship to each of the three versions.
The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). To be an effective story, a page-turner, the text should play out a behavioral strategy that would be valid from an evolutionary point of view. So we might learn as much about evolutionarily valid strategies from the text as we learn about the text from evolutionary theory. And we could profitably study the common themes of a genre, not just this particular text. In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.
The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?
The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful factions within a society may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.
ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgeable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.
The Stranger via ELC1
So how can the major themes of the book demonstrate valid behavioral strategies within evolutionary psychology? Or how do the common themes within its genre do so?
I see The Stranger as a precursor to such novels as On the Road. The male protagonist lives for today, revolts against the conventions of the society around him. His willingness to be honest about his own feelings is held up as a virtue. But part of why that honesty is shocking is because he often does not care about the feelings of others and certainly has no respect for the legal institutions that embody the collective view of his society. Because he has the daring not to hide his lack of empathy, he is following a high-risk social strategy. If society accepts him on his terms, he will be a potential leader, with the guts to take action fearlessly. So, just as Chicago gangsters of the 1920s or contemporary gang members inspire others by their brazen disregard for the feelings of others, Meursault is held up as a hero.
Just as The Stranger has colonial blind spots, On the Road lets white males reject sexism and racism while at the same time abandoning their women and children, Hispanic and otherwise. In both books, the joy of living and the quest for being true to one's feelings just happens to be consistent with a sexual strategy of siring children by many women. Meursault's answers to Marie's questions about marriage suggest that if a line of women asked him for sex with them, he would not hesitate to oblige. And then he would go out and enjoy getting some sun.
One aspect of pop neuroscience occurred to me in reading this book. Modern brain science sees the prefrontal cortex as the seat of the brain's function of foreseeing consequences and inhibiting unwise behavior. It sees the amygdala as the seat of the animalistic fight-or-flight fear and lust. (One could argue that these brain structures are analogous to Freud's Superego and Id.) Studies have shown that for person's sensitized to group stereotypes, tense intergroup situations cause the amygdala to light up with activity. Studies have also shown that the lower brain systems may have decided on an action before the conscious mind has become aware of the decision. In the book *A Question of Freedom*, Betts describes his own commission of the crime that got him into prison. He says he cannot understand what possessed him to hijack a white man's car. Perhaps his prefrontal cortex and his conscious mind do not know why he acted, but his amygdala might know. Likewise, Meursault claimed not to understand why he killed the (unnamed) Arab, but perhaps he needed to ask his amygdala.
The Stranger via ELC2
ELC2 deals with the human need to experience narratives. In The Stranger, the main character allows the prosecutor to use his reactions to life to create a narrative in which Meursault is a dangerous sociopath. Meursault's own narration of his story is selective and untrustworthy, spinning his story as that of an innocent man. Camus's philosophy of the Absurd specifically focuses on society. The conventions of your society are absurd, so why follow them? The hero follows his Nietzschean integrity, daring his society to punish him for not conforming to the story of being an accepted member. And they do. In the sense that religion is a set of stories that guide our moral universe, Meursault set himself to challenge the stories his fellow French Algerians lived by.
The second point of ELC2: is the narrative a well-told tale? This text is skillfully crafted. With it's stripped down, hybrid Hemingway-Kafka prose, it has the feel of a parable, timeless. It inspires readers today.
Authors can try to aim their work at two (or more) different audiences, but this text does not. Camus himself did not seem to understand his own ambivalent attitude toward native Algerians.
The Stranger via ELC3
ELC3 deals with what cultural significance the narrative has in terms of group selection and cultural evolution. Camus was challenging his fellow French, and all people, to reject the stories of an outmoded social order. To the degree that the cultural revolution of the 1960s overthrew some conventions of Western morality, Camus's campaign succeeded. His blindness to colonial discrimination has also been subtly reinforced in our current society.
The book itself is an indication of a desire to belong to a culturally exclusive group by challenging the reader to reject inconvenient conventions of his society and embrace the enjoyment of the here and now. Some who even like the book reject the challenge.
Was this review helpful to you?