(I wrote this for the BETC blog in regards to the subject matter of the next production. Edited by Lorna Noguiera)
Like most French students, I was required to read The Stranger in High School. Little did I know the text would affect my life so greatly. A year prior, I was given an English assignment to write a prose piece about a normal school day. Before I even knew what existentialism was, I had rendered the piece with every thought ending in some kind of poetic rhetoric: "I wake up at six, exhausted. School never made sense to me. I put on my eyeliner, searching for a reason as to why my heavy hand lifts itself up to the eye, the fingers intent on precision as the black line magically streaks the edge of the upper lid. I'm just going to wash this off in ten hours." Students, even the ones I cruelly misconceived as vapid automatons, servants living under the reign of parental kings and queens, complimented the honesty of my thoughts, as if, by some miracle, my every day life was actually interesting. I remember thinking, "Wow, people get it." Imagine how at home I felt the next school year with my first introduction to Camus. "Wow," I thought again, "It's an entire school of thought!" But there was something deeper in Camus' writing that some people didn't seem to understand, something we were not taught in French class. Camus himself fought against it; he was wrongly pigeon-holed into an existential and absurdist category that was mislabeled as apathetic and mistakenly linked to nihilism. This mislabeling led some to believe he espoused sociopatholgy.
Existentialism is not a philosophy that renders life meaningless, absurd, and godless. Rather, it moves the individual through the possibility that there is nothing higher to live for, unweaving the threads of objective reality to reveal that life itself is what we should be living for. The realization that we are responsible for creating our own lives leaves us abandoned, orphans to a circumstance that we are so apt to blame when things go wrong, so eager to call "god" when blessings befall us. Existentialism removes this authoritative circumstance, and gives us the power of a god. It also forms a despair and loneliness so great they become obstacles necessary to conquer. We have to move through the anguish and begin to accept responsibility. This magnificent terror removes other obstacles and we become blank slates. From blank slates we transition out of our own hell to create a personal Heaven we can ultimately inhabit and rule.
Recently I met someone who described her introduction to The Stranger as frightening. Until then, I had never thought of Camus' writing as frightening. After some thought, however, I understood that The Stranger expresses the absurd within ourselves on an exaggerated level where nothing affects our, (the protagonist's), perception of life and the world. Considering this terrifying aspect of the text, I half-formed a theory that the process of maturing into adulthood requires the deconstruction of emotion and civilized routine, a process some of us undergo on conscious levels. I say half-formed the theory because this sentiment is only the first link in a greater chain of thoughts. In a sense, existentialism and absurdism are necessary viewpoints one must experience in life to evolve intellectually and emotionally. One facet of this interpretable philosophy is the cessation of empathy in regards to certain events and people. It is this facet that creates misconceptions of existentialist philosophy. However, this natural process releases us from pain, and can replace pain with understanding.
What can be termed as the lack of emotional reaction to an event can also be viewed as acceptance. When we accept that something we wish changed cannot be changed, we let go. In Buddhist philosophy, this is the foundation the four noble truths are built upon. The four noble truths are: There is suffering, there is a cause to suffering, there is a cessation to suffering, and there is a way that can lead us to the cessation of suffering.
Emotional or mental pain arises first from conflict within ourselves. This is transferred to others in our lives as a way of externalizing the discomfort within us. We cannot bear to suffer our pain alone; we share it with others as a way to connect, a way for others to understand us. Why do we feel the need to share pain? We can only theorize. Many biologists believe that humans are herd animals. We are chemically wired, like wolves, to exist in packs. A more spiritual theory is the possibility of what Thoreau calls an "oversoul", a common belief in various religions and philosophies that we are all connected by the same force. This force can be termed "God" or what is considered to be "divine." Without this desire to communicate, loneliness arises and instead of understanding the beautiful quality and necessity of alone time, people who are unable to connect with their true selves feel lonely. If we interpret our true selves as divine, however, that intense recognition makes us feel we are no longer truly alone.
Aristotle wrote, "He who prefers solitude is either a wild beast or a god." Aristotle's sentiment rests on perception. An individual with a negative perception of the world around him who has been surrounded by painful experiences may choose solitude in attempt to free himself of a world which he views as negative. However, this choice does not truly release him from his negative perception. Such an individual may also try to ease his sense of loneliness by securing the company of another because he cannot be alone with himself. Being alone with himself in peace requires resolution of the conflict within, a conflict he may be unaware of or chooses to ignore due to the difficulty of the battle that may ensue. He does not perceive the grand rewards of fighting and winning this battle. This refusal to battle will cause a great imbalance within him, resulting in repression and lack of internal peace. Instead of contemplating himself in relation to objective reality, he considers himself separate from the world and others, believing it is others who are negative. He does not face himself and so can't understand that it is his own negative perception he is projecting on the outside world, and that he holds the power to change it.
On the other hand, another individual may also first think, "It is everyone else who is sick, who is bad, who is horrible, and I am good. I would never hurt somebody in the way that all these people have hurt me." This painful sentiment is a necessary precedent for an ultimately perceptive individual. Eventually he will consider the rational fact that the entire world and human race cannot be bad in comparison to himself, a fact borne out by the impossible odds that he or she is the only person in the world who practices morality and goodness.
A rational individual will consider deeply their relationship with others and their relationship with themselves. This individual may seek solitude to self reflect, meditate or to distance themselves from others to attain a more objective and balanced world view. According to Aristotle, an individual seeking solitude in this sense is a god. He is closer to some state of understanding which is the basis for enlightenment. The man in the first scenario, though, is a wild beast, acting solely on emotional drive and defensive animalistic instinct. In existentialist texts, both the wild beast and the god are in a common state of solitary contemplation. In this state, the individual may choose loneliness, adhering to a non-progressive being. As is exquisitely displayed in Camus' The Stranger, an individual making this choice risks engaging in what some may consider to be sociopathic or psychotic behavior, acquiring the ability to commit murder without remorse or fear of consequence. The godlike individual elects to progress past this state, attaining wisdom with the effort to know himself and his connection with the world around him. He reaches understanding, and is therefore freed from his pain.
Protagonists in both Camus' The Stranger and Satre's Nausea understand that in certain situations expressing emotion only brings more turmoil. However because these characters do analyze situations, readers deduce that these protagonists do have feelings with abnormal intensities. With these feelings, they move beyond expression; they let events unfold as they will and access a part of themselves that is beyond human. Their feelings are not necessarily expressed as anxiety, fear or illness but through metaphors. In The Stranger, for example, an exquisitely detailed metaphor of the sun is employed. This weighty metaphor causes us to ruminate upon the protagonist's relation to the sun, drawing upon its symbology in traditional mythology. It is commonly known that the sun represents that which is divine. In Camus' The Misunderstanding, the murderer Martha dreams of the ocean. These dreams express her wanting to move beyond her current state of misery and apathy to access the power that is actually within to live a happier, satisfactory life. Martha does not understand her unconscious attempt toward sublimation; she really believes that moving to the coast will make her a truly better individual. Therefore, she creates a mythology out of the sea, in the same way an individual relinquishes their power to circumstance or an external higher power out of fear or ignorance. Martha misunderstands her own behavior and the true meaning of her relationship with the ocean. In this passage of Nausea, Satre summarizes the dazzling beauty of perception induced by true feeling;
"I very much like to pick up chestnuts, old rags and especially papers. It is pleasant to me to pick them up, to close my hand on them; with a little encouragement I would carry them to my mouth the way children do. Anny went into a white rage when I picked up the corners of heavy, sumptuous papers, probably soiled by excrement. In the summer or the beginning of autumn, you can find remnants of sun-baked newspapers in the gardens, dry and fragile as dead leaves, so yellow you might think they had been washed with picric acid. In winter, some pages are pounded to pulp; crushed, stained, they return to the earth. Others quite new when covered with ice, all white, all throbbing, are like swans about to fly, but the earth has already caught them from below. They twist and tear themselves from the mud, only to be finally flattened out a little further on. It is good to pick up all that. Sometimes I simply feel them, looking at them closely; other times I tear them to hear their drawn-out crackling, or, if they are damp, I light them, not without difficulty; then I wipe my muddy hands on a wall or tree trunk." (Sartre, page 10, Nausea)
Here, the melancholic narrator finds beauty in something that is perceived by a relatively normal individual, Anny, as trash. Ironically, in existentialism and absurdism, philosophies that are reached by the relinquishing of one's ego, something profound happens; terror arises, induced by the fact that one believes one must have emotions, one must care about things all of the time. When caring stops, what happens is what Sartre calls the Nausea;
"Things are bad! Things are very bad: I have it, the filth, the Nausea. ... The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the cafe, I am the one who is within it."
This is a reaction to depersonalization. While frightening, this depersonalization is not necessarily negative. It is the moment one is closest to understanding, closest to that which is unknown. In Buddhist philosophy this depersonalization is called Sammasati, a moment of acceptance and recognition that the individual is indeed not separate from the world around him, that all is one. To realize that we are a small part of the one is a challenge not all humans are prepared to face. Fear and confusion can result. Theoretically, this may sometimes create a breeding ground for mental illness.
With such an awareness, an individual becomes a stranger, a stranger to customs, routines, recognizing that the order civilization has instilled is absurd, and is, in essence, a game. In The Misunderstanding, two women kill and rob the tenants who stay at their Inn. To them, these acts are neither terrible, nor evil. They put strangers out of their misery, and by killing them, pull themselves out of what they deem to be a situational misery, saving money for the dream of living by the coast. The mother experiences nausea in the moment she discovers her hands as a newborn would. Her hands seem strange to her; it is as if she is connected to a higher self that suddenly realizes her physical being in connection to her victims. (This happens in The Stranger as well, when the protagonist is driven to kill the Arab). Because the mother does not explore this feeling she does not recognize it on a deeper level and does not move beyond the state of nausea. She occupies the behavior of a wild beast, rather than that of a god.
In The Plague, (a novel Camus wrote after The Stranger), Camus viewed the protagonist as the same protagonist of The Stranger. Camus transitions past the stagnancy of the narrator in The Stranger though and expresses love and caring for humanity by making the main character a doctor. This is certainly an expression of Camus himself evolving past his individual ego, past the murderer within himself. He reaches an understanding that existential anguish can be remedied by accepting this suffering and lets go, attaining a state of awareness that connects him to a source - called God, by some, the universe by others, the unknown origin of life as we know it. It is this awareness that existentialism and absurdism hope to achieve, helping us to recognize that we are all, at one point, strangers to the world, to others, and to ourselves. Relating to each other on this level, knowing that life itself is sickening, bizarre, depressing yet somehow funny, and joyful, we learn from each other to understand the capacity of our actions. We ultimately find that we'd rather witness the beauty in sun-baked newspapers than kill ourselves and what makes us human by killing one another.