The virtues of uncertainty

How ‘The Stranger’ re-delivers doubt

Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” used to be regarded as required reading — it was ranked as number one on Le Monde’s “100 Books of the Century” in 1999 — and at this point, it should be again.

It is true to say that society has become more polarized. One need only look to the lexicon of new words that have been created to describe groups which occupy more extreme places on the spectrum — terms like alt-right and anti-fa — to see that conversation has become more difficult.

Whether it is ascribing motives to others, taking comments out of context, claiming to know what people are “really thinking” or assuming one has certain beliefs based off others they hold, one can clearly see we have all become susceptible to making truth-claims far beyond which we are really capable of doing.

This is a symptom of a collective decline in our ability to speak with those who hold opinions that differ from our own. We have become more certain of our own virtues while becoming increasingly sure of how morally repugnant the opinions of others are.  We are speaking to each other less, while simultaneously claiming to know more about one another.

What I am describing does not only exist on cable television or campuses who garner news coverage for riots or protests, but has had manifestations at Allegheny. A black and white, right versus wrong, binary view of the world has gained popularity — if only it were so simple.

It’s time to meet Meursault, the protagonist of “The Stranger.” He is a man, much like a young Camus, who lived on the coast of French-Algeria. A man who Alice Kaplan, the most recent biographer of Camus, characterizes as “incapable of empathy.” When reading “The Stranger,” the reader is placed inside of Meursault’s mind, and will quickly find they agree with Kaplan.

“Mama died today, or yesterday maybe — I do not know.”

These are the painful first words of the book, and already the reader has a dilemma of judgment. On one hand, one feels immediate sorrow for the death of his mother, while at the same time frustration with Mersault’s apparent apathy.

This theme continues throughout the novel. Meursault spends days walking around town, sitting on his balcony and smoking cigarettes in the African heat, a truly Bohemian lifestyle. There is one exchange which poignantly captures his hypnotic nonchalance.

“That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her,” he said. “I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.”

The reader’s interest peaks when Meursault kills an unnamed Arab man on the beach. Amid the thick humidity, the glaring sun and the lethargy of a day spent on the water, the reader struggles to orient himself during the whole encounter. The circumstances are opaque and confusing.

The Arab man brandished a knife, so Meursault had to defend himself, but why was Meursault carrying a gun and looking for the Arab man in the first place?

It is hard to feel empathetic about him when he is sent away to jail, for he cannot even muster an emotion. When he appears on trial, his lack of remorse and disregard for his future is exactly what motivates the jury to deliver the death penalty he receives. As he lies in his cell, awaiting death, he hears sirens in the distance.

“They were announcing departures from a world that now and forever meant nothing to me. For the first time in a long time I thought about mama,” he said. “So close to death, mama must have felt free, then, and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody, had the right to cry over her.”

His final wish is only that he is met with hate by the crowd watching his execution.

“For the first time, in that night, alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world, finding it so much like myself, so much like a brother.”

And the story ends. Camus perfectly captures what he calls life’s absurdity and it leaves the reader disoriented. When one emerges from the backward tranquility of “The Stranger,” the reader will find himself incapable of passing a judgement on Meursault.

The whole experience of reading this short novel reminds one of the limits of his own mind. It drapes the reader in humility, for they are incapable of condemning Meursault, while at the same time cannot imagine feeling empathy towards him.

Camus was born in French-Algeria in 1913. He wrote “The Stranger” while France was under Nazi occupation — a time during which he engaged in the French resistance as an editor for “Combat,” a clandestine daily French paper.

He rose to the height of literary prominence with his philosophical books and essays until he was killed in a car crash at 46 years old. He was planning to take the train that night, but then decided to let his publisher drive him — the unused ticket was  apparently found in his coat pocket. His life and writings perfectly captured the uncertainty of life.

The story of “The Stranger” and the life and death of Albert Camus is humbling and provokes wonder. The reader finds himself unable to make sense of things and unable to pass judgment, completely uncertain — a feeling we seldom get in this polarized world. Reading “The Stranger” places one hopelessly in an amoral world, and reminds us all how to feel uncertain  again.