Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Motiveless Killer

At school, at French 'A' Level, I was forced to read the novel, The Stranger by Albert Camus in French. My sophisticated French teacher taught me the creed of 'Existentialism', a repulsive French theory about life being totally pointless, which is what the ‘Enlightenment’ became among some French intellectuals, during the 20th century. After all, once you discard belief in God, what is there but 'nothing'? Camus denied that The Stranger was about Existentalism, but no one told me, at the time. Maybe studying it was just an excuse for the State to teach us contemporary French philosophy?

Its antihero is an amoral, sensual white French Algerian, Meursault, who lacks any sort of feeling for anyone. He is bored to death with life. If you want an example of someone without a soul, Meursault is your man. One day, just because he is irritated by the heat and sun, he shoots dead an innocent Arab. He is completely detached from life, from morality and all responsibility. He is not just 'dead', Meursault is a modern savage. Yet, disturbingly, the novel describes him as if he is 'everyman'.

I wondered why my teacher had given me this text, at fifteen? Was it to tell me that life was pointless, to try to stop me trying to make (moral) sense of it? Or was it to tell me that I must acquiesce in the savagery of the twentieth century, a century of two World Wars and a Spanish Civil War, in which Europe's advanced industrialised nations had nearly destroyed themselves. Surely, the view goes, these brutal wars had ‘proved’ that man is uncivilised, that there is no God upholding a moral universe and that fundamentally our actions do not matter....

I guess my stylish teacher was a committed atheist because in my view, no Christian teacher would have chosen this as an exam text. However, in French literature, with the exception of Hugo and a few other writers, there is little choice because much of it is purely 'secular' (a mild way of putting it). Nevertheless, I was quite angry about being given this book to read. We should have had free choice about the texts we were given to write about, at that age, not plunged into cynicism about life, from the start. It took me years to fully throw off 'Existentialism'.

After the tragic events in Las Vegas this week, I suddenly remembered Meursault: the motiveless ‘existential’ destroyer. Was he more relevant than I thought? Is Meursault the total stranger in our midst, now? Was this book horribly prophetic?

1 comment:

  1. My French A Level teacher must have been conventional (bless you, Miss G) as I read 'Les Hommes de la Route' a short novella about a Protestant town in the Cevennes possessing some of the more 'legalistic' characteristics of my Methodist forbears; Andre Gide (wracked by guilt - didn't he start out as a Protestant too?); and Le Grand Meaulnes (haunted by nostalgia). When I got to college I loved 17th Century French literature, and took a paper for Finals. Pascal - I don't think I could decipher much now - Racine, Moliere. Did do Antigone also on the Tragedy paper. Did not enjoy the modern version, I think it was Cocteau. ?Les Mouches? I think it was the language I loved especially the C17th blank verse tragedies. I feel glad to have had my Breton penfriend Ann, and on the national scale to have had the French nation as longstanding friends and enemies of these islands and the need to pray for this people whose history is intertwined with ours but whose experience and practice of revolution and colonialism is dark and tragic. Of course, Shakespeare is beyond compare and your Italian connections are stronger, brighter and richer, which I well understand.
    Blessings. Alison G