Monday, October 3, 2011

Nobel Prizes: Albert Camus

Today marks the first announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prizes!  And it is already up and running with controversy.  In case you haven't heard, they awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine to a man who passed away a few days ago, unknowingly breaking their rule against posthumous awards.  Whoops!  It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

When I wrote my first Nobel Prize entry, I thought it was a nice idea that would move us toward the upcoming awards.  But then I had an extremely busy week and I've sort of missed my chance to do this in a timely manner.  But I'm hoping you are a forgiving audience and will let me discuss at least one more Nobel laureate I haven't mentioned before.

So, I am going to talk about Albert Camus.  In the past, I thought I would omit Camus from my Classics collection, as I have only read The Stranger and I have mixed feelings about it.  However, I do recognize that he is a notable author and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 for "his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."  Furthermore, I am fascinated by the concept of literary existentialism, which I think Camus embodies in his writing. 

The protagonist in The Stranger, (named Meursault), is rather disturbing.  The story is written from his first-person perspective, and his tone is utterly chilling.  At the beginning of the story, he receives word that his mother has passed away, and yet he shows very little emotion about it.  This unfeeling tone is steady throughout the novella and become increasingly more disturbing as the drama in the story intensifies. 

Before I go on too much further, I should probably take a moment to address the fancy pants term "existentialism."  I am not your best source for information about this, as I gain my understanding primarily from Kierkegaard, who is just one contributing philosopher.  Yet although my knowledge is a little shaky, I will try to explain it as best I can.

Existentialism is the examination of one's Self in essence, separate from the characteristics and personality we usually rely on for definition.  In this evaluation, the existentialist almost universally experiences despair, for he or she struggles painfully to find whether there is anything of consequence crucial to one's existence.  When he separates Self from Other, (such as society, family, and social roles), he is likely to experience a great chasm in his life and resort to despondent thoughts and reflection.  This often results in a person withdrawing from intimate relationships and past activities with the pervading attitude of, "What does it matter?"  When he thus identifies the futility of existence, he retreats from responsibility and social guidelines, including the acceptance of a moral code.  This is what is known as "existential angst."  A despairing existentialist is unable to bridge the gap between his true essence and the social qualifications of one's existence.  According to Kierkegaard, a personal in existential angst can only respond to this in two ways: 1. Resolution of the divide in one's Self, or 2. Irreparable Despair/Suicide.

It's a rather grim philosophical concept, but I cannot help being fascinated by the literary characters who show evidence of this angst.  Because I love character depth in stories more than anything else, I am taken in by the fascinating journey of a person working through his or her existential anxiety.  Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment is my favorite example of this, and he falls into Kierkegaard's first category of response.  However, Meursault in The Stranger falls into the latter response, which is probably why I am uncomfortable with the story despite my fascination with existentialism.

Meursault's despondent behavior, which I believe is stemming from existential angst, is so contrary to our view of "normal" feelings and actions that he becomes an absurd "stranger" to readers.  He helps his friend Raymond set up a girl for the sole purpose of beating and raping her because he fails to see a reason to do otherwise.  He is unable to meaningfully connect to his own girlfriend, Marie, though she is kind and loving to him.  And in the most bizarre action of all, he murders an anonymous man, though he was carrying the gun in order to prevent Raymond from acting in violence.

As if this weren't enough, he never shows remorse for any of these actions.  He fails to believe that it is significant and doesn't even try to defend himself in court.  Through his narration, he expresses that the only reason he shot the man was because he was uncomfortable with the sun beating down on him and blinding his vision.  However, I think it is imperative to note that he proceeded to shoot the man four more times after the initial firing.  I believe that this was his dramatic action, which had been steadily building during his prolonged period of listless despondancy.  Once he took an action, he was swept up in the impact of it and kept shooting to maintain the feeling of finally acting out.  Yet his indifference in court prompts the jury to swiftly convict him.  Notably, when he receives this sentence, he shows us the first sign of emotion and is surprised by the result.  Ultimately, he draws his comfort from embracing the "benign indifference of the world" and retreats again from reconciling his feelings and thus his existence.

So why is this a Classic?  Why does this win the Nobel Prize?  I think Camus offers us something interesting and greatly stimulating.  He challenges the idea of one's conscience and resists offering a pleasant solution for it.  The Nobel committee praised Camus for his "earnestness" and the "illumination" of problems in humanity.  I agree that he embodies these things quite profoundly, and thus I suppose I too can add him to my shelf of Classics.  However, it is equally depressing as it is thought-provoking.  Let's hope that reality offers more hope than Camus does.

1 comment:

Becky (Page Turners) said...

Brilliant review. I had mixed feelings about The Stranger (or The Outsider is the translation I read) as well. I recognised how wonderfully written and thought provoking it was, but was thoroughly depressed at the end of it and just couldn't understand the character. I hadn't considered it in light of this idea of existentialism, but I am glad to have this new insight into the character