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:
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!
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.