The Murderer and the Priest: Meursault and Chesterton

"But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another ... Couldn't he, couldn't this condemned man see...And that from somewhere deep in my future...All the shouting had me gasping for air. But they were already tearing the chaplain from my grip and the guards were threatening me. He calmed them, though, and looked at me for a moment without saying anything. His eyes were full of tears. Then he turned and disappeared." (122, Camus, The Stranger)
"Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, 'He believes in himself.'" (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

G.K. Chesterton was a British Catholic author and social commentator in the early 20th century. I finished reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton a while ago, and found what he said, even though it was written long before the rise of existentialism to the mainstream, to be applicable to a lot of the themes in The Stranger. The egoist philosophers who Chesterton criticizes, who believe in nothing but themselves, are strikingly similar to the existential philosophers who reject all systems of life but their own, especially including Meursault, of The Stranger, and may even be defined in the same statement.

"For the sake of simplicity, it is easier to state the notion by saying that a man can believe that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be no positive proof given to him that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream. But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him with other logicians in a place which has often been alluded to in the course of this chapter [the insane asylum]. The man who cannot believe his senses [the egoist], and the man who cannot believe anything else [the materialist], are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a threepenny bit is infinitely circular. ...When [these philosophers] wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself." (Orthodoxy)

The main argument against this view is of course that there is a vast difference between the egoist and the existentialist, which is true, at least from a sympathetic perspective, but it could certainly be argued that both philosophies view the world in a similar, or at least comparable way. Chesterton’s criticism applies to both, since both philosophies essentially reject all counter-arguments by saying they don’t matter or don’t actually exist. They cannot be reasonably disproven, but this does not mean that they are correct.

I ended up putting the two pieces (The Stranger and Orthodoxy) together after reading the man referring to Meursault as the antichrist, and especially during the climactic final pages with his interaction with the priest, because it contrasts the vastly different realities these two men lived in, and how they were almost like oil and water to each other. For me, the priest seemed to be the human living his life with care and compassion, and Meursault living like a dead man, as if nothing mattered, so it struck me when Meursault himself saw the exact opposite. I don’t mean to push a religious message here, only that it seems like most human beings can probably see Meursault as the antithesis to humanity, if they look hard enough. Since he lives without emotion, morality, or any other basic human connection to reality.

Manipulation of Power Dynamics in Good Country People

Mrs. Freeman's gaze drove forward and just touched him before he disappeared under the hill. The she returned her attention to the evil-smelling onion shoot she was lifting from the ground. 'Some can't be that simple,' she said. 'I know I never could.' (9)

We talk about power dynamics a lot in class, how they form, why they exist, and especially the effects they have on our society. But one thing we haven’t yet talked about is manipulation of these dynamics for personal gain. Manley Pointer in “Good Country People” fools both the simple, religious Ms. Hopewell, and the atheistic, educated Hulga through manipulation of power dynamics which the characters held, and both of their individual value systems.

Ms. Hopewell represents the stereotypical “good country people,” lacking higher education, being religious, hard-working, and disapproving of the modern, atheistic philosophy of Hulga. Pointer represents her idea of “good country people.” She says, “He was so simple…I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.” (9) Ms. Hopewell follows the Christian idea that simplicity and humility bring wisdom and holiness, and Pointer fully encapsulates the idea of simple, well-intentioned country people. It seems like she believes in a power dynamic of FAITHFUL/sinning (or something like that), with Pointer’s simple persona placing him on the faithful side along with Ms. Hopewell, and against the atheistic Hulga. This persona turns out to be completely fake, but it fooled Ms. Hopewell easily enough.

Hulga represents the well-educated, atheistic, modern person (generally). She acted very much superior towards Ms. Hopewell and her outlook on life. Hulga very much underestimated Pointer due to this haughty superiority over the “country people” around her. She believed her entire relationship with Pointer was governed by the SMART/dumb power dynamic, on which she was smart, while Pointer was simple. She thought she had all the control, even fantasizing about seducing him. But in the end, he flipped this dynamic on its head, she was the dumb one. He says towards the end “And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga…you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.” (9) By completely reversing the power dynamic, he completely surprises Hulga (and probably all of the readers, too) and takes away all the control Hulga thought she had.

There is of course more going on in this story than what I’ve pointed out, I didn’t mention Hulga’s leg, or Ms. Freeman, or the contents of Pointer’s bag, or Pointer’s motivations, but this interaction is what I found most striking about this story.

The Objective Reader and Nabokov

I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgement will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience - of an artist's passion and a scientist's patience - he will hardly enjoy great literature. (41)

Nabokov has proven to be highly controversial for his analysis of what makes a good reader and a good writer (actually for more than that, but that’s a different story). I disagreed with a fair amount of what he said at first, but as I read and reread what he wrote, I realized I agreed with him more than I thought I would.

Nabokov feels that a reader must be paradoxically detached from a story and still attached to it enough to analyze what’s going on, which made no sense to me when I first read it, but I realized that all he meant was that the reader shouldn’t attempt to relate themselves to the story at all. Which I still felt made the enjoyable act of reading too cold and detached from the original story. But I realized that Nabokov’s idea of literature was not the same as mine, he views literature as a truly “pure” art form, one that must create a world and a story free of outside influences, and one that must be consumed in the same vacuum. It might sound cold and almost heartless, which is true to an extent, but view it more as (as a reader) jumping into a new world with no recollection of the world outside, rather than viewing a world from outside a glass box.

One could almost say that the reader must see the work on the same “level of power” as they are on, it is not their story, it is not their world, but it is a world that the author made that the reader is stepping into. The reader cannot impose their personal experiences on their interpretation of the world the author has created, or try to mold the story to fit their own without placing themselves “over” the unique, well-written story Nabokov hopes every author would create. To experience a story in this way requires a mutual agreement of the author and reader to abide by the guidelines Nabokov has laid out, consciously or not, to create a brand-new world unlike any either party had ever seen, to fashion a spectacular, never-before-experienced story, featuring characters nobody’s ever met. To relate this brand-new world to anything in the author or reader’s life (either in its creation or consumption), would completely spoil this pristine vacuum-packed world. It would be like taking a foreign delicacy you had never tasted anything like before and covering it in ketchup, at least according to Nabokov.