Comfort in strangeness in Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’
- Ma.Karla Abigail S. Pangilinan () - January 6, 2008 - 12:00am

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Ma. Karla Abigail S. Pangilinan is a Political Science student at UP Diliman. “When I was seven, my parents told me the moon was a portal to another dimension where unicorns and dragons existed. This may explain my penchant for fantasy and science fiction, especially by Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Peter Straub and Ursula K. Le Guin, though I am currently addicted to David Lodge and Albert Camus.” She also plays the piano.

One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn’t know. — Monsieur Meursault, The Stranger

 It is Christmas Eve and I am a very sleepy five-year-old waiting for Santa Claus to drop by our house.
Like any other kid, I want to see him up close.  Instead of seeing a paunchy man with a beard in a red suit, I see a very familiar stranger stealthily slipping my presents in the sack hanging by our window. The “stranger” happened to be my dad.

Astoundingly though, this incident did not ruin my childhood. In fact, the idea that my dad was Santa Claus brought me so much delight. The moment I got back to school after the break, armed with my wild imagination, I immediately told my classmates that just like Superman, Santa Claus also had a secret identity — he was my dad. My confession brought my parents and me straight to the guidance office, but more importantly, it established the fact that I was not like any other five-year-old. I was thrilled at seeing “strangers” and by the whole scenario created by strange circumstances. I would say that my chance encounter with Santa was my first real encounter with strangeness.

From that moment on, my life has been a little strange, a little out of the ordinary — in a good sort of way. I always see things differently because I prefer it that way.

This is the reason why Albert Camus’ The Stranger mesmerized me, from the moment I stepped on it in a cramped Book Sale outlet until I read it again last night. I like it because it talks about encounters with strangers and the strangeness of life itself. This notion is loyal to Camus’ existentialist philosophy in relation to the absurd. By using the concept of strangers and strangeness, he is able to captivate the vicious relationship of men against other men, and the desire to create meaning out of meaningless situations such as a life beset by bizarre situations that man cannot control or evade. It also emphasizes the verity that man is the one who makes meaning out of his life.

The Stranger is extraordinarily short for a philosophical book, which makes it a good introduction to Camus’ philosophy. It is a novel about a man with a name, Meursault, but without a face (he is never described in any part of the story).  Meursault narrates how he is victimized by the absurdity of life and how this takes everything away from him. This faceless man has lived a life of routine until it is briefly disrupted by the death of his mother in a nursing home. His mother’s death signals his journey towards succinct encounters with strangers, such as the doorkeeper in the home, the nurse, and later on, his neighbor Salamano (who has a love-hate relationship with his dog).

His life becomes deeply entwined with these strangers, especially Raymond, his neighbor who relies on him for company, and Marie, the woman of his dreams. He deeply submerges himself in their lives to the point of depriving himself the chance to live his own life. He tends to notice the details in their lives but never his own; he pays more attention to Raymond’s relationship with his girlfriend than to his own liaison with Marie and he even cares more about Salamano’s dog than the death of his own mother.

Being a novel of absurdity, The Stranger gives no importance to the concept of life and hope. The story unfolds and reaches its climax when the faceless man, Meursault, commits a pointless murder. He shoots a man who is a complete stranger to him but is after his friend Raymond, who’s also been living a mysterious double life  as a regular man and as a small-time pimp. Meursault has no motive for the murder and is brought to trial and is later imprisoned.

During his trial, he comes face to face with the strangers he has encountered at least once in his life, and they are now his witnesses who dictate to the jury the kind of person that he is. He is excluded and alienated from his own trial by these strangers and by the illogicality of the murder he has committed.

Meursault’s life as the faceless man is depicted by his stay in confinement, his rejection of God, and his waiting for his own death. These things support his claim that his life has no meaning, no hope. He becomes a stranger to the world and a stranger to himself. From his apathy toward the death of his mother to the pointless murder of the Arab man, he never gives himself the chance to live his own life or to create meaning out of it.

The concept of absurdity is marvelously executed in the novel, where man simply awaits his own death since his life has no real meaning to keep him moving. The book also emphasizes the concept of waking — every time Meursault wakes up, as the ray of light touches his face, a point of realization in his life occurs, only it always comes a little too late.

By submitting himself to the force of strangeness, man deprives himself of the ability to actually appreciate life and find his purpose. He becomes an outsider to his own little “trials,” lost in oblivion, without hope or purpose.

I don’t want to end up like the faceless man. I don’t want to wake up one day only to find out that it is too late to live my life. I want to experience life, no matter how absurd it may turn out to be.

If I had not bragged about and exaggerated the idea that I thought my dad was Santa Claus, then my childhood would have been no different from the lives of my classmates in pre-school.

I acknowledge life’s strangeness and the presence of strangers every step of the way, but I will never allow either to hinder my quest for meaning and purpose.

My four-year-old nephew wants to become a dinosaur when he grows up. I wonder what he will be like 15 years from now. We’re still waiting for his claws to grow. Surprisingly, he’s coping well — despite the wait.

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