Sunday, 31 March 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day seven


Meursault has been arrested, it is not clear how much time has passed since the killing. He's been to the police station to be processed and a week later is being interviewed by the examining magistrate. The first meeting with this man seems unreal to Meursault, like something he's read about in books. The following day he is visited in prison by a lawyer who tells him that while the case is tricky he's confident of success. The lawyers asks Meursault about his private life, including events that took place at his mother's funeral. He asks, somewhat embarrassed, whether Meursault felt grief on the day of the funeral. Meursault gives a strange answer that makes the other man uncomfortable. The lawyer attempt to get Meursault to change his answer into something more acceptable for the court but he refuses.  Meursault's refusal angers the lawyer who doesn't turn up to the next meeting with the examining magistrate. During this meeting the magistrate is concerned with one detail of the case, why Meursault fired four times into the body of the dead Arab. Meursault doesn't give an answer which provokes the man into reaching for his crucifix. Brandishing the cross at Meursault, the magistrate tells him that he must fully confess if he is to be pardoned by God. Meursault tells him that he doesn't believe in God to which the magistrate replies with indignant outrage. Finally Meursault is asked if he feels regret for what he's done; he replies that he feels a kind of annoyance. The attitudes of the magistrate and Meursault's lawyer change after this. There are many more meetings but the two other men barely talk to him, unless the conversation is about something general. They are not unkind to Meursault and even friendly at times. The investigation lasts eleven months.

“The first time at the police station, nobody seemed very interested in my case.”

The murder seems shocking to us, we were there. For others, Meursault shot and killed a man who was armed and who had just previously slashed and wounded another man in the face. Add to this the fact that in European dominated Algiers, a white European who killed an Arab (whether in self-defense or not) would not be considered a heinous criminal. Conor Cruise O’Brien asks us to compare this killing with, for example, the killing of a black man by a white man during the civil rights era in the US.

Note that Meursault himself does not take his crime too seriously, not just in his attitude towards the trial but with the sentence he expects – just a few years and possibly avoiding hard labor as well. We will discuss this later.

“I’d read similar descriptions in books before and it all seemed like a game.”

More games, everyone acting out their designated role.

“On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but I remembered just in time that I’d killed a man.”

Meursault finds it difficult to play his part as ‘the criminal’.

The lawyer asks Meursault if he’d felt any grief on the day of his mother’s funeral

“This question really surprised me and I thought how embarrassed I’d have been if I’d had to ask it.”  Meursault empathizes with the lawyer, who has just expressed his embarrassment at having to ask the question. Meursault is sympathetic towards some characters in the novel and, seemingly, not to others (Raymond’s girlfriend and her brother, for example).

It’s worth remembering that modern readers of The Stranger come to the book knowing that Meursault’s behaviour during the funeral will play an enormous part in the coming trial. The lawyer bringing up his mother isn’t a surprise for us.

“I replied though that I’d rather got out of the habit of analyzing myself and that I found it difficult to answer his question. I probably loved mother a lot, but that didn’t mean anything. To a certain extent all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones were dead.”

The first thing to notice is that Meursault used to analyze himself – he used to and no longer does. Remember his saying that he used to have ambition back in his student days.

The second thing is that what Meursault says is quite uncontroversial, most of us would agree that he’s expressing some kind of truth. The strangeness comes from when he is saying it. The situation is totally inappropriate for this kind of discussion. The lawyer isn’t seeking a philosophical discussion on the nature of love and Meursault – who is not an idiot – would know this. So why say it?

“But I explained to him that by nature my physical needs often distorted my feelings. On the day of mother’s funeral I was very tired and sleepy. So I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on.”

Most commentators put great store in the things that Meursault says. However, by Meursault’s own admission he isn’t very good at explaining things. Think of his later failure to communicate in court (“Mixing up my words a bit and realizing that I sounded ridiculous, I said quickly that it was because of the sun.”) and his reluctance to discuss his ideas with others (not telling the others his suspicions on how the Arabs knew where to find them on the beach) or to even speak unless he has something to say. Meursault is struggling to express an idea with the lawyer but failing. The problem here is one of communication. In the end Meursault can’t be bothered to continue in trying to get his ideas across. “I wanted to assure him that I was just like everyone else, exactly like everyone else. But it was all really a bit pointless and I couldn’t be bothered.” Does Meursault mean something like ‘everything is pointless’ and ‘I can’t be bothered with anything’ or is he simply referring to his attempt to communicate a particular idea to this other man?

“He thought for a moment. Then he asked me if he could say that I’d controlled my natural feelings that day. I said, ‘No, because it’s not true.’”

Why not let the lawyer lie? Meursault will have to know that this lie will help him in court and what harm could it do? The answer usually offered his that to lie violates Meursault’s ethic of sincerity. It would. But the question is, in a meaningless universe, why does Meursault have an ethic at all? For those commentators wanting to consider Meursault a nihilist this is an big problem. It is odd, to say the least, to think of Meursault as believing everything is pointless but steadfastly abiding by an ethical rule.

“He [the examining magistrate] told me first of all that people described me as being taciturn and withdrawn”

Was he withdrawn when he ran with Emmanuel to leap onto a moving truck? Was he withdrawn when he spotted Marie in the water, seduced her, took her out and back to his apartment? Was he taciturn as he chatted with the old caretaker at the care home or with old Salamano? Or when he complimented Masson and his wife on their beach chalet? CĂ©leste and Raymond consider Meursault a ‘man of the world’. For sure, Meursault doesn’t engage people in philosophical conversations or discuss  his emotions but his reluctance to do this hardly makes him ‘taciturn and withdrawn’. It is more likely that inquiries into the character of a man on trial for killing someone have produced the ‘weird loner’ and ‘kept himself to himself’ stereotype that always comes out in these cases.

“’Why, why did you fire at a dead body?’ Once again I didn’t know the answer.”

Why did Meursault fire those extra shots? Note that the magistrate actually asks him several times and Meursault remains silent. Commentators have observed similarities between this and Jesus standing before Pilate. We can believe that Meursault doesn’t know why he fired the extra shots, he doesn’t know why he fired the first one. The question is why Camus chose to put them in.

Meursault, in summarizing the magistrate’s position, says “the rest was alright” – everything that occurred prior to the extra four shots (including the first shot that killed the Arab) – “but this [extra shots] he could not understand.” This reiterates the point that no-one, not Meursault nor the arresting police-officers, the magistrate, even later Meursault’s friends in court, take the killing of the Arab to be very troubling. Commentators, notably Conor Cruise O’Brien, have accused Camus of creating a myth that a European in Algiers would receive a strong sentence for killing an Arab but the point is made, several times over, that no-one really cares about the killing itself.

“Do you want my life to be meaningless?”

Surely the faith of a committed Christian would not suffer too greatly from the failure of one man to elaborate on his crime? Why is Meursault’s attitude so troubling for the magistrate?

“I thought it over and said that, rather than true regret, I felt some kind of annoyance. I had the impression that he didn’t understand me.”

Why does Meursault feel neither regret nor remorse for taking another man’s life? We have touched on this previously, that Meursault may not consider the Arab a man at all but more like a block of stone, but this isn’t very satisfactory. It is difficult for the magistrate to understand him and it is difficult for us to understand him. Meursault has admitted in his account to us (bear in mind that The Stranger is a first-person account) that he doesn’t follow the magistrate’s argument. Meursault also failed to communicate his ideas to his lawyer.

“That’s all for today, Mr. Antichrist.”

The magistrate and Meursault’s lawyers have several meetings. We don’t get to hear what is being discussed because Meursault is left out of the discussions. The investigation, for what appears a very straightforward case, has lasted eleven months. What is going on? Why is so much time and interest being spent? We will learn, later on, from a journalist that the case has been ‘blown up’ but why?

Tomorrow - Day 8

[Text by Simon Lea]

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