Albert Camus's iconic novel is a relevant today as it was when it first hit bookstores, in 1942.
PARIS — Popularity isn't the only indicator of a book's power. There's also the question of how well the work stands the test of time—its universal plasticity—and its ability not only to put readers in touch with human truths but to inspire them to interpret their own reality via personal experiences the author knew nothing about.
The Stranger, first published in 1942, is still the second most-read French book in the world after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. That's because it's one of those rare works that are human and supple enough to be appropriated by anyone who reads it. For us here in France, rereading Albert Camus's pivotal work in light of the growing appeal, in the West, of populist thinking, offers some useful and unexpected insights.
The Brexit shook up the British elite severely. Trump took an arrogant U.S. ruling class by surprise. Italian voters punished the parties of the center-right and center-left. Germany saw the resurgence of a far-right party — the AFD — while Austria, Hungary, and Poland agreed to illiberal demands (the Poles have seen the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression recede). France looks like an exception, for now at least. But if nothing is done to stop the spread, it too could catch the populist fever in the next presidential election, four years and a few months from now.
So what does Camus have to tell us about all this? That we shouldn't be so pedantic; that we shouldn't summarily judge — from so high — those who appear to think so differently from us; that we mustn't fall into the trap of thinking others deserve nothing but contempt, rejection, or the electoral or social guillotine.
Meursault, the well-known hero of Camus's remarkable work of humanity, was initially perceived as a prince of the "absurd sensibility," that of the Myth of Sisyphus. His disinterest regarding the death of his mother ("Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know") and the crime he committed (he blames the sun) is disarming. And it's for that reason — because of his disconcerting behavior, his obvious strangeness — that the court condemns him to death. The crime itself, the fact that he killed "the Arab," is secondary.
In this hellish spiral, there are neither winners nor good guys.
This denunciation of the social mechanics, this deviation of meaning, this exaggerated and atrociously arbitrary gratuitousness is Kafkaesque. This character, the colonial over-interpretation of which still hasn't been digested in Algeria — as writer Kamel Daoud poetically and powerfully analyzed in The Meursault Investigation — has also appeared as a champion of truth, of true-talking, of authentic sincerity, ignoring conventions, refusing hypocrisy.
Meursault is unable to lie, to hide his most puzzling thoughts, to hide behind a socially protective appearance. He's a Randian hero in that sense — like Howard Roark — an architect who is both visionary and totally unsuited to the needs of the community in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Except it's even more complex than that because Meursault is not an inventor. His life is unremarkable. And behind the valorizing figure of ontological truth, the multiplication of Meursault acting solely by instinct, killing because of a ray of sunshine and marrying because he was asked, would plunge us into the night of a world without rules, a world where the superego is banished.
This is where The Stranger ties into the helter-skelter toward which social democracy — and perhaps even Western democracy itself — are now being pushed. There's the faint confrontation between an increasingly important part of the population that is enraged with disappointment, won over by the aggregation of fears (of migrants, of loss of identity, of downgrading, of unemployment), and eaten away by envy (refusal of inequalities), and an elite that is largely blind to these calls and keeps burying its head in the sand by demonizing all extremes while refusing to fully address the underlying anxieties. All of that is part of the book's dialectic.
French-Algerian author Albert Camus — Photo: UPI/Library of Congress
Our contemporary Meursault is the non-voter who is comfortable with the fact that he doesn't care about our common future. But he's also the populist party voter. In the voting booth, the latter hesitates less and less to own up to his choice and vote for a form of disintegration of democracy. The examining magistrate, the prosecutor, and even the priest — whose inflexibility and inhumanity is based on the class certainty of acting for the common good — are all representative of the current elite on the road to ruin, as they continue to use more or less the same recipes and to provide too few satisfactory answers to the silent cries of the dizzying growth of radical votes.
As in Camus's novel, this tragic circumstance eludes any form of Manichaeism. In this hellish spiral, there are neither winners nor good guys. Everyone loses, both the Meursaults and the institutions. The Meursaults of this world head toward a suicidal negation of democracy, as argued by the young Harvard professor Yascha Mounk in his very lucid essay The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Institutions are failing because of their technocratic atavism and refusal to make meaningful reforms to both the more and less fortunate. They have demonstrated their inability to effectively respond to the human difficulties they are supposed to address,
This is what is at stake for French President Emmanuel Macron, who's been in office for almost a year. In my opinion, he should soon initiate new and more protective reforms, particularly on the toxic issue of migrants. This would profoundly transform us and break the populist wave, with a power unequaled in the Western world. Either that, or we can wait for the wave to crash down on us.