Albert Camus, perhaps the most iconic figure to rise out of the existentialism movement, which includes the likes of Samuel Becket and Jean-Paul Sartre, penned a short novel that hit the tenor of a culture alienated from spirituality while simultaneously confounded by its spiritual dogmas.
Albert Camus’ The Stranger, begins with the line, “Mother died today.” And on some level, as an exploration of the absurdity of life, which is what Camus preferred to think of what others have termed “existentialism”, this book resembles the absurdity of life without the feminine principle. Just how distant from the divine feminine Camut's protagonist was, was largely lost in translation. The famous line Mother died today, was actually somewhere between Mom and Mommy, the French word Maman, carrying a different essence than the English word Mom.
Camus poignantly rejects the Christian Patriarchal Male God, and finds no need of it, finds our desire for it peculiarly alien, un-relatable, and yet, beginning from the loss of Mother, it is no surprise that the twinkling love interest in his thunderous novel is named Marie, french for Mary, symbolically resonant with Mary the Mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ lover and most present disciple. Camus’ protagonist is both pulled to and disinterested in this feminine figure, much in the same way he reacted to the death of his Mother, a reaction implicit in the manner in which they had related to each other in life, and how he behaves toward Marie, the woman he says he would marry, from a sort of fond distance.
Camus’ protagonist is disembodied, there and not there, not much about nothing. It is in a way, the result of a male-heavy authoritarian Church, and the need for freedom amidst moral codes injected by injunctions of a card-counting Godhead. The book in itself, represents both a disembarkation from the church and a bridge to finding one’s own enlightenment. Monsieur Meursault is disillusioned by the presumed moral code of humanity and seeks an internal system of valuation, within which he is only able to find himself, and no other. And very deep within himself he did not journey, for he abetted upon the shores of self-discovery, and thus found no reason not to shoot, wait, and fire three more times.
In his incarcerated mind, Mersault, Camus’ protagonist, does not wish to die. Though he attempts to console himself with the understanding that we must all die one day, and thus to die on a day, is no greater or worse, than to die on another day. But this philosophy is thread bare, and provides no emotional support. It is fascinating to think of the penultimate scene, when the chaplain comes to visit Mersault in his cell whilst facing the guillotine, Mersault is sitting against the wall and a beam of light rests upon his forehead. How the protagonist wished to see that light with his back against the brick walls that surrounded him. How to him, the truth of existence could appear upon this wall, a truth that “was a sun-gold face, lit up with desire--Marie’s face.” And being unable to experience it, because of his circumstance, his actions, and his simultaneous ownership of the “teeth” of existence upon him, Mersault is sunk, and notes, “I had no luck. I’d never seen it, and now I’d given up trying.” This is the substantive plea from the infant lost in his own sea of insignificance, astray from his nurturing mother, the sun-gold face that looks like Marie is his desire for the arrival of the Goddess amidst a struggled rejection of the Patriarchal Godhead, and its multivariate and dogmatic conditions.
You see, Camus’ protagonist is right to reject and berate the compassionate chaplain, not because the man is bad, for he seems to be of an authentic and benevolent character, but for what his system represents. Oppression. Imperialism. Torture. Guilt. Shame. These are the things which Mersault refuses to accredit and thus becomes violent against the priest. In his own deed, he is not “guilty” of the crime of murder, he is “aware” he is a criminal because he killed a man. Camus makes no attempt to justify the murder, other than his character’s disenchanted perspective of its occurrence, but more simply the author aims to assert the viewpoint of a man that has become disillusioned, and thus disembodied. It was not a man that killed “The Arab”. It was the absence of the feminine spirit sought by a character that hoped to learn from his experiences, and to remember. His crime against his fellow man, (which carries a prophetic undertone that speaks to the xenophobia of today) the murder of a man for a vendetta to which he’d expressed minimal interest, the deep dark grey nothingness that became the only wall upon which he could lean, ultimately relieved Mersault’s amnesia of the spirit. At least, through his violent rejection of a life, of both another's and his own, and his concurrent desire to save his own life, Monsieur Mersault achieved a realization toward existence. I want it. And, I want to remember it.
Mersault finds his deeds on trial, and ultimately his own life taken. The way in which this character fantasizes about being able to attend his own execution is not dissimilar to the larger trope of the novel, to make the execution of “The Stranger” a public spectacle, a form of entertainment. For the stranger that dies is the absence of the face of Mary. But just as the novel closes, the author notes, “People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever.” And then he thinks of Mother.
Mersault’s not having seen the “face of Maria” only gives him recourse to lament his own absence from it. He pines alone to at least go out with a bang. His last wish is to entertain the culture that judged him, and sentenced him to death. His musings on the absurdity of his sentence, such as the description of “the french people”, was an indictment against the notion of nationality and its provinciality, but also a morally dissolute character with little conscious of his crime. For Monsieur Mersault is adrift, a denizen of all places and no places. He is guilty. He is aware of that. He wishes to remember his transgression. Here is the true essence of the stranger: lost in time, and from a different time, for he is not where he is, nor where he wants to be, and thus must suffer, both on account of his personal mistakes and the “society” he lives in.
In the final scene, just before Mersault lets loose on the chaplain about how he doesn’t believe in what he can’t “sink his teeth into”, it is interesting to note that Camus brushes his protagonist’s forehead with sunlight, and notes that his back is up against the wall. “The chaplain gazed at me with a sort of sadness. I now had my back to the wall and light was flowing over my forehead.” Particularly the choice of the word flowering, gives rise to an illuminating gesture, a blooming of spiritual light (gnosis) touching his forehead (third eye).
Mersault says that yes of course he like others wished to believe, but that this wishing was no different than wishing to be rich, or famous. That he had tried to find the “face of Maria” or the compassion and emotion to existence, upon the cold indifferent brick-wall of suffering and imprisonment, but had failed. This is the poetic keynote of The Stranger, for he is estranged from Mother (Nature), and though longing to return, cannot find his way amidst his currently strange existence. He cannot see the face of Mary upon the wall as the true face of the Goddess, perhaps because it is not a man that is looking, but a disembodied moral code. And yet, to him it still “was a sun-gold face, lit up with desire--Marie’s face.” There leaves no question as to the vision of the Goddess he wished to serve.
And fittingly, as the last bit of prose, as he wakes from a deep sleep he hears a siren, and thinks of his mother:
“I must have had a longish sleep, for, when I woke, the stars were shining down on my face. Sounds of the countryside came faintly in, and the cool night air, veined with smells of earth and salt, fanned my cheeks. The marvelous peace of the sleepbound summer night flooded through me like a tide. Then, just on the edge of daybreak, I heard a steamer’s siren. People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a “fiance”; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like my-self, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.” - The Stranger
Camus’ protagonist’s beheading is in essence, indicative of those that have tried in vain. His final plea for “a huge crowd” “with howls of execration” is a resolute understanding of the “absence of a man” in Mersault at that point, having lost touch with the golden hued face of Mary. The chaplain asked him what then he thought of “life after the grave?” And all Camus’ protagonist wanted of a life after death, “A life in which I can remember this life on earth. That’s all I want of it.” This final plea to the universe is substantive with respect to his existence mattering, for the true key note of existentialism may be, not that life is absurd, but that perhaps to bridge the absurdity, and perceive the face upon the wall, one must be able to know what one has accomplished in between attempts.