Good People and Bad Situations

The world of Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exist West can be summarized as one possible future of our own world, with the exception of the magical doors which pop up as an escape for those attempting to escape violence. In Exit West, however, the emphasis is not placed on these doors or the greater conflicts between the militants, the governments, and ‘rich’ western nations, but rather in the intimate and personal struggles of Nadia and Saeed.

However, even in a world with an inordinate amount of senseless war and destruction, ranging from the apocalypse which descended upon Nadia and Saeed’s home city to the massacre in Vienna and the riots which followed, there still are people who try their best to do the right thing. When seeking a way out of the city after it had fallen to the militants, Saeed and Nadia follow the tip of a friend to find agents who could direct them to one of the magical doors. When they do find one, the agent demands “their money and Saeed gave it to him, uncertain whether they were making a down payment or being robbed” (90). The agent does eventually follow through with his promise, giving Nadia and Saeed access to a door to Mykonos. Although the agent could have easily simply worked with the militants and betrayed or scammed Nadia and Saeed, he followed through with his commitments in the most perilous of circumstances.

This idea is further reinforced in the depiction of the riots in Vienna following the militant massacre in the streets. Although a mob was gathering intended to “attack the migrants gathered near the zoo”, some planned to “join a human cordon to separate the two sides, or rather to shield the migrants from the anti-migrants” (109-110). Although the attacks have shocked and shaken certain parts of the population, other parts remain strong in their commitment to humanity and mutual recognition, even as the situation grows more dire as the days go on. One woman in Vienna was forced off a train for declaring her commitment to those principles, but remained steadfast in her commitment to “still go” to the human cordon no matter what.

In Exit West‘s world, although there exists shocking amounts of brutality and violence, there also are good people scattered throughout trying to do the right thing, whether it is popular or easy or not. Perhaps that reflects our own world, one which is not too dissimilar from Exit West in substance save for the concept of the doors, similarly filled with good people making the best of bad situations.

Is Existentialism Deterministic?

In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus argues that Sisyphus, the hero of the absurd, is happy in his supposed punishment to eternally push a boulder up a hill. He reasons that in order for the punishment to be real, Sisyphus must be conscious of his own condition. Since Sisyphus continues to press on regardless of the futility of his task, Camus reasons that Sisyphus must therefore be content with his fate. “[A]ll is well” (20) and Sisyphus can find fulfillment in the endless task of rolling the boulder up the hill and watching it fall back down. He is therefore happy.

According to Camus, “If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which [the absurd man] concludes is inevitable and despicable” (20). The crux of the existentialist viewpoint as endorsed by “The Myth of Sisyphus” is that life is full of random violence, the most brutal of which being the inevitability of death. We are therefore free from any obligation to any societal constraints or illusions imposed upon us, since the inevitability of death means that none of it matters. This seems to result in the conclusion that people freed by existentialism can now act out their own lives with a free will as radical subjects. As Camus writes in The Stranger from the perspective of Meursault, “I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so?…Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why” (121). An absurd hero controls their own fate.

Determinism, or the idea that all things that have and will happen are inevitable consequences of the ‘initial event’, seems to be clearly incompatible with the concept of ‘radical subjectivism’. Free will is defined in this blogpost as the inverse of determinism, that each person is ultimately free to act outside of the influence of their environment. This idea is clearly expressed in Baron d’Holbach’s article “We Are Completely Determined”, in which he explains that if science is to be accepted as being fundamentally true, then free will can be concluded as an illusion made up by our minds to provide the veneer of control. According to d’Holbach, “Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it.” Free will is an illusion created by the complexity of the mind, where one is “unable to unravel all these motions…and supposes himself a free agent.”

The structure of this argument is curiously similar to those made by existentialists to destroy societal notions, but it would seem a lack of free will would contradict the idea that once one was free from societal notions, they could now be master of their own fate – under the doctrine of determinism, that person was always going to become an existentialist, and the actions they take now as a ‘radical subjectivist’ were already predetermined by the fundamental laws of the universe.

To resolve this seeming contradiction, there must be one of two conclusions made about determinism and free will:

  • The world is deterministic and our belief in free will is an illusion. However, this illusion is acceptable as a substitute for real free will in our actions as individuals.
  • The world is not completely deterministic.

The first conclusion would be unacceptable to any self-respecting illusion-breaker. If existentialism and its conclusions about the human condition are taken as a fact, in a deterministic world, we still do not really control our fates. The second conclusion is exceedingly difficult to prove, but its existence as the only other option means that if we are to understand Camus as being correct and Sisyphus to be happy, then d’Holbach must be wrong. Existence precedes essence and necessitates freedom of will.

Inevitability and Meursault

At the end of the first part of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, Meursault, the narrator whose lens we view the world through, shoots a man five times. He describes the encounter as being “where it all started”, feeling as if the final four shots he fired had knocked “four quick times on the door of unhappiness” (59). This shocking event seems to disrupt the relative calm of the previous part and shift every aspect of Meursault’s life in a new direction.

I would like to examine if this event was inevitable – does Meursault’s established characterization in Part I of The Stranger ensure that Meursault’s reactions and actions lead him to the fatal encounter between himself and the Arab man at the end of Part I? Was there any other path for him to take?

In Part I, Meursault can be easily characterized as emotionless and heartless in his reactions to his mother’s death and his relationship with Marie Cardona.

However, I think that his character may be a bit more complex than that. The dry syntax of Part I seems to present an emotionless Meursault, as he does not seem to feel any grief or shock at his mother’s death, but rather viewing it as “one of those things that was bound to happen sooner or later” (33). Despite this, Meursault still seems to hold some level of affection for his mother after her death, consistently referring to her as “Maman” and attending her vigil and funeral, if not without some difficulty.

I believe Meursault’s emotionless tone stems from a notion that things “didn’t matter” no matter how they resulted (8). Although he acknowledges the value others might place upon immaterial goods such as relationships and traditions, to Meursault they represent something extraneous and unnecessary. This is epitomized with Meursault’s conversations with Marie about if he loves her, to which he responds, “I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so” (35). He is simply apathetic about the world, and this apathy acts as a large contributing factor to Meursault’s actions in the final pages of the section.

The main conflict of Chapter 6 is the continuing strife between Raymond and the brother of one of Raymond’s ex-mistresses, who he had accused of cheating on him and beaten. Meursault considers the conflict concluded after a brief scuffle between Raymond, Meursault, Masson, and two Arab men, one of whom was the brother previously mentioned, as well as a second encounter where the two Arab men backed off while Meursault and Raymond were deciding whether or not to confront them.

As stated above, Meursault’s final encounter with the brother of one of Raymond’s ex-mistresses occurs when Meursault goes for a walk by himself, and sees the man sitting with his head underneath a rock. Meursault steps towards him, the man pulls out a knife, and Meursault shoots him.

Meursault has several opportunities to avoid the encounter – once when he could climb the staircase back to the house, and once when he could turn around once he saw the Arab man. However, to him, “To stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing” (57). Meursault’s apathetic attitude ultimately meant that although he did not necessarily wish to kill a man, his actions – or rather, a lack of active decision-making – led inexorably to the final event in the chapter.