07 September 2005

notes from an existential neophyte

Several weeks ago, I came upon Albert Camus' novel The Stranger by happenstance at the local public library on the way to the subway. Never before have I been so profoundly affected by a book. My philosophical orientations on theology and God, relationships, and mere existence were all shaken up and turned upside down by this book. I also read the SparkNotes online to make sure I was getting the most out of the text. (oh SparkNotes,thank you for getting me through VanWitzenburg's AP English class and to nail the test!). But only read the SparkNotes after you have read the actual novel AND thought about it yourself. It won't be the same experience otherwise. It's a very short read (less than 150 pgs), and Camus's writing style is simple yet deliberate.

Anyway, the novel is an allegory of the principles of Camus' version of existential philosophy. I won't give the whole plot away, but basically the narrator and protagonist is a man named Meursault who lives in Algiers. He is a man who goes about life in reaction to physical stimuli. He is atheistic and amoral. For this latter characteristic, the reader struggles with a sense of ambivalence towards Meursault. No, he doesn't have dogmatic principles of right and wrong, but he is generally a good guy with no malintent. Due to random unfortunate circumstances (being at the wrong place, at the wrong time) and his catlike reflexes to physical stimuli, Meursault kills a man. The second half of the book goes into the legal proceedings of the crime (really is it a crime? the reader ponders) and Meursault's reaction to the outcome.

Camus did not claim that The Stranger was an existentialist work per se, rather he considered it to illustrate the absurdity of existence. The trial of Meursault is a perfect illustration of the way in which society's norms and assumptions create a really screwed up interpretation of reality. Sometimes life just happens, and in the process shit happens too. Theories to explain why things happen, like the popular, but often useless pejorative "Everything happens for a reason," are merely confabulations of Reality (with a big R there).

Another theme within the novel that resonanted with me was the concept of life and existence. Again, so much of life is determined by chance, and our lives could logically be reduced to a series of random scenes leading up to an inevitable death. However, Camus and existential thought does not advocate nihilism. Instead, only thorough coming to terms with the fact that human life is essentially meaningless can one attain true happiness. Life is a struggle in which the individual attempts to find authenticity in the world, yet there is no such thing as individual authenticity due to the shackles of societal mores.

Now, when I think about existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre comes to mind first. So I decided to take a gander at what he's got to say by visiting Sartre Online ("The Ultimate Sartrean Resource"). According to the website, Sartre's philosophy is highly similar to the absurdist basis of Camus, however Sartre's conception of authetnicity is seen as highly individualistic and antisocial. Although I am new to this area and have not read any of Sartre or Camus' other works, it seems that the philosophy of the absurd and existentialism lend themselves well to collectivistic ideas and the search of meaningful connection between people. Authentic connection can only be made once we acknowledge the limitations of our existence (e.g. your mother, father, children, and true love/s will die/disappear/leave someday), and true happiness can be attained if we get rid of the ridiculous expectations of society. Thinking about the Stranger and Sartrean philosophy got me to reconsider the way I look at my own relationships and the way I live my life. I am constantly motivated by the prospect of tomorrow and the desire for the normative experience. Yet, worrying about where my love life will be 5 years from now and whether I will get a "good" Valentine's Day gift does absolutely nothing to help my relationship today. In fact, it only places undue stress on my life and that of my partner.

In a somewhat related vein, I think that existential philosophy would advocate for a multicultural society in which the individual is no longer motivated by the fear of the Other (i.e. the culturally different). The article on Sartre Online titled "Sartrean Collective Authenticity: A Final Word" puts it well:

In the society envisioned by Sartre, the Other is no longer a threat to my existence. Early Sartre argues that the freedom of the other jeopardizes my freedom. The look of the Other objectifies me and by taking away my subjectivity, I lose the ultimate individuality I have and thereupon lose my self. Late Sartre submits that in a society characterized by scarcity, the other imperils my existence since we are both fighting for the same necessities. However, such will not be the case in Sartre's envisioned utopian society which is characterized by sufficiency. As Golomb puts it:

Mutual generosity, respect and genuine feelings cement such relations. I choose to help the other become authentic by not trying to dominate her and by regarding her as an autonomous person who can act simultaneously as object and subject in relation to myself. The other's otherness is accommodated but not assimilated in my self and my life.

Sartre considers that one's relationship with the Other can only come about through human praxis. Not abandoning his belief in the capacity of the individual to induce change, late Sartre asserts the need for human agency in historically conditioned production.
Now, I don't completely understand that last paragraph (even after looking up "praxis" in the dictionary), but this passage sure got me thinking that Sartre should be incorporated in the curriculum at Teachers College! I also freely admit that I am by no means an expert in existentialism, yet I am hesitant to call myself a dilettante given the impact that this has all had on how I think about life. I just really hope that I didn't publicly butcher Camus and Sartre. If you have more to share with me about Camus or Sartre, existential philosophy, or just life in general I would love to hear it! Please leave me comments! And thank you so much for reading this far!


stine said...

this is not going to be very clear and may not make sense. it has been almost 20 years since i read the stranger but the book had a very profound impact on my view of the world as well. i however, don't think of camus as an existentialist but more of an absurdist. absurdism is related to but different from existentialism in that it contends that "the efforts of man to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail because no such meaning exists (at least in relation to man)" from Wikipedia. the two differ in that existentialism believes in the notion of free will whereas absurdism does not. the notion of free will in existentialism as well as camus' obsession with man's futile search for meaning (you should read "the myth of sisyphus--so clear from this) relies on a conceptualization of self which to a certain extent is self absorbed (for lack of better word). the notion that man should be searching for meaning--as central to both existentialism and absurdism) contradicts many of the basic values undergirding collectivism and multiculturalism.

can you believe Camus wrote the stranger when he was 28?

Steph said...

Thanks for the clarification and the recommendation, Stine. I'm curious exactly how reading The Stranger impacted your worldview? Now that I think about it, it does seem that absurdism and existentialism are undergirded by solipsism. Although trying to think through the relationship with collectivism and multiculturalism makes my head spin because it seems that absurdism runs along the lines of social constructivism, which from what I understand is a foundation of multiculturalism. Do you understand my confusion? I will probably have to read more primary sources on the issue and not rely on online synopses of major philosophical views!

stine said...

reading the stranger was very profound for me because i was questioning the very issues raised in the book. mainly, should we concern ourselves with trying to understand the meaning of life? at the time, i was so consumed with this question that i fell into an abyss of intellectual nihilism so to speak. it actually felt almost narcissistic to be solipsistic.

if you read the myth of sisyphus, you may also see parallels with repetitive obsessions in psychoanalytic theory and also some instances of symbolism as representative of Jungian theory. the reason i raise this is because, repetitive behaviors (as is the basis of the myth of sisyphus, are unresolved conflicts from early childhood that are being worked out. I believe this potential connection between absurdist repetitions and obsessive reenactments of unresolved childhood fantasies are grounded in an individualist framework. behaviors, motivations, obsessions are all rooted in intrapsychic processes. i find these ideas counter to notions of multiculturalism which i believe emphasizes one's interconnectedness with others, the universe, nature as part of one's purpose in life. maybe this is crazy, just some thoughts.