Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Meursault the Straw Man

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Meursault the Straw Man

Article excerpt

. . . psychoanalysis and Marxism

always ended up by interpreting

everything. They had ceased to

understand: they explained.(1)

Jean d'Ormesson

Although d'Ormesson was referring to the critic's approach to literature in general, it should be obvious to anyone reading learned articles on L'Etranger that he could have had their treatment of Camus' short masterpiece specifically in mind. This desire to explain, rather than to understand, means that the book will not be discussed as a whole, as an entity, but as a series of all but unrelated segments. There may well be some discussion of the story as a manifestation of the absurde, as well as arguments over just what that word entails, but the book will be examined primarily as an expression of some political, social or psychological cant based on a subjective reading of one or two scenes.

For most critics, the book is either an indictment ot the French judicial system that deprives the proletariat of an effective voice by stealing its language, or it is the case-study of a man with more Oedipal problems than even Freud ever dreamed of. One doesn't have to spend much time in a musty library to verify my charge; Ben Stoltzfus has already done the essential legwork for his article "Camus' L'Etranger: a Lacanian Reading."(2) Perusing it will prove d'Ormesson's point, and mine; some scenes will be "explained," but the basic message of L Etranger will not be noticed, let alone understood.

Stoltzfus's research shows that Meursault is either a nihilistic juvenile delinquent (Rene Girard) or a man of rigorous honesty (Germaine Bree). He could have been condemned to the guillotine because he won't play the game (Sartre and Robert Champigny) or because he is inept and wants to die (Monique Wagner) The death of the Arab was either an accident (Louis Hudon) or a crimen ex machina (Girard). On the other hand, perhaps the judges condemn Meursault in order to "destroy the truth he embodies" (Albert Maquet). Of course, the whole thing might be afatum as in ancient Greek literature (Carl Viggiani).

As to the four extra shots that baffle the judge, J. H. Mathews says they might be the first manifestation of Meursault's will, while Hudon sees them as an expression of exasperation. However, Julian L. Stamm is certain that Meursault was really a homosexual and that the shots on the beach were ejaculations. In his article, Stoltzfus goes on to note that Brian T. Fitch has covered these and various other interpretations of L Etrange7 in his study 1 and concludes by citing Alain Robbe-Grillet's comment, "I am the stranger." (L'etranger, c'est moi.) Stoltzfus then comes to the very dangerous conclusion that the book is "a work that reads the reader." In other words, "We each read the book with our own unconscious desire."

The unfortunate thing here is that he is right. It is unfortunate in that a too personal identification with the work, or its hero, leads to readings that are then presented to us not as one person's very subjective interpretation of, in this case, L Etrange7 but rather as objective, self-evident truth. The book becomes then nat what the author wrote in fact, but what the critic would have written/meant given his/her personal bent had he/she written it. The critic does not say, for instance, this scene makes me think that Camus may have wanted to supplant his father in his mother's bed, but that it is perfectly obvious that he wished to do so. As Hudon wrote in his essay on L Etrange7. "Many put their nickel in the philosophical slot, and existentialism comes out of everywhere, others in the new critical slot. and it rains symbols."(4)

Critics are willing to quote authors on any given subject save one: what the authors think of critics. Stoltzfus. whose article presents a highly personal view of L Etnangel takes Freudians to task and insist!i that his approach is the only valid one . ( For those who do not subscribe to either dogma, the difference between them is not all that obvious. …

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