Essays from the underground – Revisiting The Stranger

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A dark wind rises for some time in Meursault’s life, leading to his ultimate fate. Since I read The Stranger in my late teens, the relentless machinery of society and justice continues to keep the dark wind blowing. This wind has blown in the absurd notion of democracy under the guise of elite minorities whose rule is accompanied by pathological resentment that seems to know no bounds. The machinery of the state and the ruling minority are hell-bent on retribution removing any semblance of equality and equal treatment. The favoured few push their snouts into the trough leaving little or nothing for the people. (We need to turn to Dostoevsky to understand this ressentiment and its inner motivations.)

A former newspaper editor said the other night that people enjoy unrivaled freedom of the media. It’s the kind of cliche that easily falls from lips. Since 1946 when The Stranger was published the machinery of society has grown enormously under the guise of protecting people. However, today we are experiencing the rise of a new and vigorous authoritarianism where freedom is curb by the liberal left, family life is increasingly being prescribed and the street mob hold sway, destroying and burning private and state property, chaffering to get what they want. Some see the end of the enlightenment era as authoritarianism sweeps across the world. It isn’t necessarily big government that perpetrates authoritarian rule but the aggressive left and the rising mob demanding social justice. Leaders have little or no say and kowtow to all sorts of new demands. Those without the ownership of the machinery of the digital age (in the hands of a few), where people can be summarily banned from media platforms, lose careers and have their reputations destroyed.

Near his execution, Meursault sees people as all privileged but all condemned — and opens himself to ” gentle indifference”. Which means living life on one’s own terms, not being a prisoner of the absurd machinations of societal machinery in whatever form. It’s difficult yes. Is it possible to be free from the mental prison of society where one becomes a unit of production, a consumer and a taxpayer (fleeced to the hilt)? In your own mind, your own life and attitude towards it, one can be free — free to choose what you believe but still bounded by the reality of the absurd. Being condemned to die places everyone in the same circumstances, the same ultimate fate. The Stranger reminds one that you are free to choose how to live on your own terms despite the guillotine ready to fall at any time, the dark wind rising about you.

How does this apply to the ordinary person who most likely wouldn’t be interested in reading Camus? I can think of one person, a friend, who died last year. His death came as a surprise to even those closest to him. It was clear that he had been suffering for a long time with a terminal illness. Knowing him for more than 45 years, I can understand why he chose not to disclose his illness. He was a private person and a rugged individualist. Like Meursault, but for very different reasons, he chose to depart on his own terms with a personal philosophy that created his own individual meaning. The backlash was frustration and even anger from those whose views and attitudes have been shaped by convention and the prevailing societal machinery.

Knowing where you stand in relation to society offers a firm foothold. However, society and its machinery may become more forceful, more demanding and more authoritarian. It doesn’t mean despair or feeling impotent. Meursault was pleased that his mother had taken a “fiancé” near the end of her life. He thinks to himself: “So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her.”

We are all free to take away what we want from The Stranger. Each person will have their own interpretation. One can say a lot more about this fast-paced short novel. It’s deceptively simple on the surface but juxtaposition working on various levels add to a depth, complexity and paradox. The novel still challenges us to think about the conventional and unconventional whatever the prevailing social circumstances and whether you are just starting out in life, as I was when I first read the book, or in the situation where lives are “fading out”.

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