13. Only the Ordinary

Mr. Dame poised himself with the very anticipation of his downfall. It had been some time since he had anticipated much of anything, but what 1984 had made him realize was the power of expectations and, by extension, how far short of his students expectations he must be falling as a teacher. The essays that were being written were top-notch for high school work, but lurking beneath those leveled expectations and glossed with a veneer of polite decorum was an abyss of unconvinced boredom. He realized that at some indefinite point his role with this class was to not be a teacher but instead be a believer. That was the element that he had missed on that first day: he had claimed that he would guide the exploration which Sofia had dismissed as tourism. What he had failed to acknowledge was that the best cast-members at Disneyland acted that distinction out of existence: they expected that tourists were there for an adventure and believed that they could meet that expectation, even though real adventures never happened. So today he was anticipating believing instead of merely teaching. He had never been more prepared for a class discussion than he was prepared for today.

That the efforts to come across as a believer in today’s discussion on The Stranger, a book with an abject lack of belief, would likely constitute a level of absurdity that Camus might jot in a notebook for a future short story? The irony had not been lost on Mr. Dame as he spent more and more time focusing his thoughts on The Stranger to the mild detriment of his other courses. He had been hoping to conjure up Camus by meditating on Mersault prior to facing the judgment of his students, but, rather appropriately, the spirit of Camus did not appear to deliver enlightenment to him. Now the day of the discussion was at hand, and thus he was forced to act. He could act as a teacher, accepting the existential fate and just going with the flow of time. Or he could rebel against the absurdity of believing in this tale of non-belief by reveling in it while simultaneously realizing — in a way that might even be doublethink — that he wasn’t going to be as successful as he hoped to be.

And yet as the students wandered in to the classroom, he realized that he didn’t need to be successful per se; he merely needed the students to believe he was successful enough that they would expect that he could teach them. The dystopia that they collaboratively whipped together for 1984 had been truly stunning, but they didn’t realize it because they expected that it was just toying with an idea that would impress that guy who gets the comfy chair rather than the sage-and-learned adult. If they had been paying enough attention to themselves, they might have noticed their collective brilliance. But they were merely each other’s peers and Mr. Dame was merely Mr. Dame — and that was the low expectation that Mr. Dame needed to elevate, regardless of how The Stranger got discussed.

“I suspect,” he addressed the class as they settled in to their seats, “that many of you struggled with this book not for its complexity or its length, but rather its blandness.” He looked over the class. Many of the non-participants verified his expectation with baleful stares, and even the talkers seemed to acknowledge their uncertainty about the style with their glances. “This book ran quite contrary to the emotional evocations, invocations, conjurations, and show-don’t-tell-isms your writing educations have been filled with to this very day. Camus knew the rules of writing and broke them to create this work of literary style which is still with us today.” He paused to let the thought sink in before pushing it further. “There is a story — popularly it’s by Hemingway, but it may only be Hemingway-ish — that clarifies the power of brevity thusly. The story goes: For sale, baby shoes… never worn. With those six words we get the full curve of hopes and dreams taking off, only to come falling back down again. So the challenge I’d like to start the morning with is this: what six words can you use to tell me about The Stranger?”

The students turned to mumbling amongst themselves. Pencils scratched on paper, fingers tallied words forming on silent lips. Heidi delivered a conclusion first: “Mother died. Arab shot. Mersault condemned.”

“That’s quite good. And probably more accurate than the official answer,” said Mr. Dame, “which means I’m becoming sick of official answers.” He gazed out at the class, watching some ears perking up with curiosity. “The official answer — and you’ll want to write this down — is: Absurd reality condemns everybody to death.” He waited a moment for the scrawling to reach its conclusion. “That said,” he continued, “I am actually convinced this is wrong. It is overly-reductionist, predicated on the belief that Camus was, like Sartre, an existentialist philosopher because we 21st century Americans apparently can’t tell 20th century French guys apart. Does anybody have the proper research to share?”

Sandy raised her hand politely. “Albert Camus was a journalist from French-controlled Algeria who wrote for the subversive resistance newspaper Combat during World War II in Paris. He was friends with Sartre for a while, but Camus was technically an absurdist while Sartre was an existentialist. They got in a fight because Sartre — who was kind of ugly — was into Stalinism, while Camus — being attractive — claimed ‘Après un certain age tout homme est responsable do son visage.’ That is, ‘at a certain age, everybody is responsible for their face.'”

“Very nice. So what’s the difference between absurdism and existentialism, particularly as it relates to The Stranger?”

“I believe existentialism posits that people are the sum of their actions,” suggested Sofia, tentatively holding Man’s Search for Meaning while wondering where she wanted to focus, “while absurdism runs on disconnect between peoples’ actions and their intentions. Related back to The Stranger, the focal issue becomes: why did Mersault shoot the Arab repeatedly?”

Mr. Dame smiled. “That is a good question: why did Mersault shoot the Arab and then shoot him another four times?”

“If it took more than one shot,” muttered Ken to Brett with a bad Russian accent, “you weren’t using a Jakobs.”

“But that’s a trick question, isn’t it?” asked Heidi, looking slightly perplexed. “Because if we’re using an absurdist framework which we’ve just said is about the disconnection more than the action, then the additional bullets don’t necessarily mean anything.”

“And yet the magistrate fixates on them quite extensively when he questions Mersault,” said Christie.

“Except that he’s coming from a theistic background wherein actions do have meaning,” observed Sandy.

“But can’t tell the difference between a meaning derived from divinity and an absence of meaning derived from a common sociopath,” shrugged Sofia.

“Are sociopaths really common?” Jenny asked Diane.

“I hope not,” Diane answered.

“A common sociopath?” asked Mr. Dame in a tone he hoped would qualify as leadingly.

“As opposed to an uncommon sociopath, like Hamlet,” suggested Jacob, “because while Hamlet was a prince, Mersault was just some guy.”

“Hamlet, however, actively blames his victims,” observed Heidi, “while Mersault just kind of shrugs off his casual slaughter in an ‘it’s just life’ kind of way. In that way, Hamlet’s behavior seems more common to me.”

“Let’s stick with this tangent for a bit,” suggested Mr. Dame, “and explore: why does Claudius send Hamlet to England?”

“In a conventional reading,” recounted Sandy, “Claudius is disposing of Hamlet as the only rightful heir to the throne. In the reading we seem to prefer, Claudius is getting rid of Hamlet because Hamlet has threatened his life. The mid-point between the two is that Hamlet has murdered somebody and is a threat to the imperiled stability of Denmark and simply has to go.”

“And how does that then relate to Mersault?”

Sofia smiled one of her insight-laced smiles. “Just as Hamlet is not condemned for killing Polonius per se, but rather the threat to the surviving community he presents, so is Mersault condemned not for killing the Arab per se, but rather for the threat to the surviving community the prosecutor tells the jury he represents.”

“Exac-” said Mr. Dame before Sofia cut him off by adding “And if you consider the nephew-to-queen relationship in The Mousetrap and Mersault’s unconventional relationship with his dead mama, I suspect we could extend the parallels of condemnable behavior based on the expectations of boys and their mothers.”

“Riiiight,” said Mr. Dame, his mind racing to steer the conversation back away from incestuous necrophilia, as it seemed to be particularly off-topic. “But the crucial point of common interpretation is that Mersault was condemned not for what he did, but for who he was. Which you’ll want to write down.”

“But that’s wrong,” protested Heidi as she dutifully scrawled it, “because his actions were devoid of intent. To say that he was condemned for who he was looks at Mersault’s actions through an existentialist lens, not an absurdist one. Which goes back to Sandy’s point about Camus being an absurdist instead of an existentialist.”

“Ah, but what better way to demonstrate the absurdity of existence than to mis-remember the key absurdist thinker as an existentialist?” replied Mr. Dame slyly. “Seriously, though, while you’re totally right, the curriculum says existentialist. As noted, we can’t tell French guys apart. So, making note of that, let’s get away from the curriculum and back to the critical discussion: if Mersault wasn’t executed for who he was, then what what he executed for?”

Sofia quickly deflected the question: “Mersault wasn’t executed. He was merely condemned. The priest even said it was likely to be overturned. It was only Mersault who was looking forward to his execution. The book ends prior to the actual event.”

“Okay, right, my mistake,” said Mr. Dame, realizing the slip of his tongue and feeling his mind wander into the unknown territory between the end of the book and the execution’s dawn, “So what was he condemned for?”

“For not being sad that his mother died,” said Joey.

“And going on a date after the funeral,” added Jenny, “which doesn’t seem wrong to me. He’s alive, why shouldn’t he be getting on with the business of life?”

“Well it wasn’t just that. He was also friends with a pimp — in the bad sense of the word,” added Christie.

“And the guy with the mangy dog,” added Diane, “which seemed kind of horrid to me.”

Mr. Dame was pleased he had re-read the book and not simply relied on memory at this juncture; he had forgotten how awful Mersault’s peer group had been.

Heidi rejoined the conversation to her previous question: “So it seems to me that he wasn’t condemned for who he was, but for where he was. It wasn’t his person as much as his position: given the opportunity to leave a squalid little life surrounded by pimps and sadists, he shrugged it off and murdered a guy instead. His lack of desire to improve his life demonstrated his delinquency to French culture, and that’s why he was condemned.”

“It’s not that he’s trying to be evil,” summarized Sandy, “it’s just that he’s not trying to be good.”

“Exactly,” continued Heidi, “he’s not actually trying anything. He’s a vegetable who isn’t likely to notice when he dies just like he didn’t really seem to notice when he murdered a guy any more than he noticed when Raymond was beating his ho or noticed where the dog went.”

“Which finally answers the question of why he shot the Arab repeatedly,” said Sofia, “with the answer being that there was no reason. It was just something he did, in much the same sub-reasoning semi-conscious way he was living his life out of habit rather than intention. It was the teleological beliefs of the court and general society that decided he had to have had a reason and held that imagined reason against him.”

Joey looked uncertain with this analysis, as it seemed to simultaneously support and undermine the protagonist. Christie, however, suffered no such hesitation: “A sociopath who doesn’t think about murder, he just does it? I’d hold that against him regardless of whether or not a pimp was his arms dealer.”

“So what’s the difference between a sociopath and somebody who just plain isn’t paying attention?” asked Mr. Dame, hoping to keep the frame of mind from wholly turning against Mersault.

“Nothing exciting happens around here. Only the ordinary,” mumbled Ken.

“Well there is that bumper sticker that says that if you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention,” offered Jacob, “but I can’t see how people could maintain a perpetual sense of outrage for the entirety of their lives. It’d be like… like fighting against the Party while actively working for them, wouldn’t it?”

“Well if the system is as pervasive and outrageous as those sorts of people tend to think it is,” acknowledged Mr. Dame. After a second of reflection, he added “But you might not trust me as that system is presumably the same one that pays me to be here. I’m sorry Ken, did you say something?”

“I’m just realizing how much The Stranger reminds me of Fooly Cooly,” said Ken, coming back from some mental expedition all his own. “More commonly known as FLCL. But Mersault’s casual ignoring of Marie, his bored approach to life, failing to distinguish between when he’s free or about to be executed, failing to distinguish between when he’s an… a what, accountant? and a murderer, and orphan or not when he says ‘really, nothing had changed.’ FLCL‘s lead character Naota was the same way: he doesn’t really notice when older girls are very physically coming on to him, he doesn’t notice the robot that is doing housework, doesn’t notice anything at all. His crucial line is that ‘only ordinary things happen here,’ by which he denies the possibility that any of the very obviously extraordinary things that are happening are… uh… happening.”

“Wow, I had totally forgotten about that, but yeah!” agreed Brett.

“What’s this?” asked Jacob.

“An older anime show. Lots of chaos and violence and sexytime scenes — your parents would hate it,” replied Brett.

“Mind if I watch it at your place then?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Sounds fascinating,” Mr. Dame encouraged Ken, “is there any more to the comparison?”

“Not really,” said Ken with a shrug. “Allegedly there’s a lot of psychological stuff and symbolism underpinning a lot of what happens, but I didn’t get that aspect of it. Mostly it’s just that Naota is… I don’t want to say ‘oblivious,’ but… he’s kind of burying his life under his demands for normality and a desire to fit in while lamenting the normality he wishes everything was.”

“He’s really kind of a drama queen about it,” added Brett. Looking over to Jenny and Diane, he appended “No offense.”

Jenny and Diane continued to keep their eyes averted from the blinding geekiness of the conversation that was going on; the “Whatever” went without saying.

“There is another thing, though,” Brett continued flipping to the back of his book, “and that’s the dark wind blowing from the future that Mersault describes as his mortality seems to match with the fog that surrounds the town in the final episode of FLCL. Once the character really focuses their attention on it and they think they get it, then their sensibility goes right out the window. In FLCL, Naota admits that he’s forgetting about the outside world beyond the fog but then does nothing about it, while Mersault inversely claims that every living person is privileged by having their life, but similarly avoids acting to extend his life or prolong his privilege.”

“That’s a strike on his credibility as a narrator,” said Heidi with notable disdain.

“Were there other strikes on his credibility?” asked Mr. Dame, tentatively hopping on a tangent and wondering if the unreliability of narrators qualified as a trope of advanced placement literature.

“Well, when he’s talking about how he’s never really regretted anything because he’s always thinking about the future in the court scene, it’s almost unnoticeable that he’s speaking as retrospective some 11 months in prison later,” observed Sofia. “He’s been doing nothing but thinking about the past for most all of the book and can’t figure out why he should want anything other than to be decapitated in a way which won’t really accomplish anything except to make him dead. I don’t know where he really falls in the spectrum between a sloppy liar and a delusional psychopath because the first thing we can’t be certain of is what he’s really thinking.”

“All we really have to go on is what he does, then,” continued Sandy, “almost all of which he disavows as being meaningless.”

“So the six word exercise could come down to ‘live intentionally, don’t just shoot somebody,’ or ‘lives don’t matter so shoot somebody,'” said Heidi. “And given that it could go either way, I’m not sure I get what the point of this is.” After a brief reflection, she added “Which may very well be what the point of this is.”

“Oh very good,” said Mr. Dame, uncertain of whether he was trying to sound sarcastic or impressed.

“But there was one action that had meaning,” interjected Joey, “and that was Mersault pulling the trigger. He shattered the balance of the day. He makes loud fateful raps on the door of his undoing.”

“‘By the time I realized it, I had already swung the bat. My palms still sting,'” Ken quoted at Brett.

Brett nodded soundlessly, flagging his agreement to the suggested parallel. “But,” he added, “could that be why Mersault refuses to regret the action? Because it’s the only thing in his life that seems to have made a difference? And maybe if he could figure out some other way to be more alive, he’d regret what he did so he could pursue that other thing instead?”

“And that is why…” said Mr. Dame, stretching the y provocatively.

“Why he wants people to hate him at his execution: so that they can definitely feel something and thus appreciate their own lives!” said Jacob, finally feeling like the pieces were coming together.

“Of course, if he is reprieved, then he is undone,” said Sofia, “which might well be hilarious. After all, the peculiarity of his position is that killing the Arab only mattered in as much as it got the legal system to take notice and change his life for him. If killing the Arab had inherently mattered to him, then I suspect he would’ve behaved rather differently after the first bullet which — based on his description — did actually kill the Arab.”

“And if the crowd is full of people like Naota, it won’t matter anyway,” added Ken, “they’ll just see it and say ‘nothing exciting happens here, only the ordinary.’ I think that’s a fatal flaw in his plan… pun not really intended, sorry.”

“And a flaw that he really should’ve realized. Nothing happens until you swing the bat. Nothing happens until you pull the trigger,” added Brett. “Liking a Facebook status, sitting around talking about literature, it’s the same thing — we’re not doing anything more than what we’re doing, no matter how much impact we try to pile on to it.”

“But what about the prosecutor?” asked Joey. “He spends an awful lot of time and effort asking for people to be executed — Mersault and the other murderer on trial later in the day. Does that make him think his life has meaning?”

“He probably thinks his life has meaning, but Mersault would disagree,” said Christie, “but that’s because Mersault doesn’t differentiate between being condemned to death by the state and the ‘dark breeze’ of common mortality. He holds fast to his certainties, but — demonstrating no capacity for empathy — mocks or ignores everybody else’s certainties.”

“With the irony being that his certainty is only a fixed certainty because he refuses to want it to be anything but — which it may be anyway,” Sofia reminded the class.

“But there is a certainty: the Arab is dead. And regardless of the perceived reason as to why Mersault killed him, he’s dead,” said Jacob, wondering why this possibility hadn’t been explored. “I mean, at the end of the book Mersault talks about how his mother prepared for her death, but it never occurs to him that the Arab hadn’t been able to prepare for his really at all. So what does it mean for the Arab?”

“Not much; he’s dead,” said Brett with joking dismissiveness.

“That actually seems reasonable,” said Heidi, “at least with regards to the trial being about Mersault and not the murder. After all, the dead guy’s fate has already been decided — now it’s time to figure out what to do with this living person who made the other person a corpse. And to that end, it further seems to follow that the prosecutor should very passionately fear a specific guy who can go around dispassionately turning random guys into corpses.”

“Which might be right if Mersault were condemned for murder, but he’s not,” said Joey, misunderstanding the direction of the tangent, “he’s condemned for being a sociopath who didn’t follow social standards for grief and had bad taste in friends. The part where he killed somebody merely exposed his life to the scrutiny of the criminal justice system, that’s all.”

“Did he even really think he was condemned?” asked Jenny. Half of the class looked at her disbelievingly. “I mean, if the starting point for existential thought is the fatalistic line of ‘everybody dies,’ then doesn’t it follow — to paraphrase Animal Farm — that ‘All animals are condemned equal, but some are more equal than others’?”

“Mmmm, bacon,” mused Jacob.

“Well, Mersault claims to have felt the condemnation of life before receiving the condemnation of France,” Mr. Dame conceded, “and to that end, he might not have seen the point in the reprieve that lots of people said they expected to be handed down to him.”

“And if he can’t grasp that he’s been in prison for eleven months and actively thinking about the past that whole time, then it’s difficult to say that he’s capable of looking forward to his future which is in dire risk of being…” Heidi paused for emphasis. “Cut short.”

“Wait, doesn’t that mean that Mersault just dumped absurdity on the prosecutor?” asked Joey. “After all, if he can’t tell the difference between dying tomorrow or thirty years from tomorrow, then hasn’t he deprived the prosecutor of the value of winning a condemnation?”

“Not without negating the significance of killing the Arab who died eleven months ago,” reflected Sofia.

“Which Mersault might be okay with because his fatalism is preventing him from finding any value in living,” Brett extended, “with the final absurdity being that he wants his death to provoke the less fatalistic people into… being more lively, I guess.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Dame.

“No,” said Ken, “because the real final absurdity is that the people will walk away from the execution saying ‘Nothing exciting happens around here. Only the ordinary.'”

“Aha,” enthused Mr. Dame, glad that the point had been returned to, “but where does that leave us as readers?”

“It leaves us keenly aware that Mersault was not only a sociopath, but also a liar,” Sofia said with a dismissive flourish incompletely concealing her delight at encountering a new thought. “Because on the one hand,” she continued, “he claims to reject the judgment passed on him by the court, and yet he anticipates the judgment passed on him by the hateful crowd — in much the same way he says he doesn’t think about the past when thinking about the past is what he’s been doing for most of the book. While he claims to reject what is outside of himself as uncertain and uncontrollable, he nonetheless is constantly relating it back into himself and, conversely, shot the Arab when he lost control of himself internally because it was externally a hot and sunny day. So what I get from this book is a call for being honest with oneself and investigating one’s own motives before decrying the metaphysics of others. Especially when some pimp who beats up girls comes asking to borrow your unsullied reputation; really, there’s no justification for him agreeing to that,” she concluded contemptuously.

“And this goes back to Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby’s fight, how?” asked Mr. Dame, hoping that his eyes were flashing cunningly at that particular moment.

To his surprise, Christie jumped in: “It’s the exact opposite. Gatsby is keenly aware of the importance of social perceptions and is afraid of having Tom pierce his carefully calibrated illusion of substance. But Mersault is apathetic about how people react to him and can’t seem to understand why not formally grieving his mother or how associating with pimps and animal abusers reflects badly upon his character. The prosecutor pierces his illusion of innocence, but Mersault just doesn’t get it because he doesn’t understand the importance that society places on social perceptions. It’s like Mersault never figured out that he was supposed to do anything with criticism.”

“I’m not sure that Mersault ever got criticized by his so-called friends, did he?” asked Jenny. “I mean, Salamano hates his dog and probably himself but not Mersault. Raymond hates his girls but claims that Mersault is a great guy and a good friend. The closest to criticism I remember is when Marie says that Mersault is bizarre and that’s why she loves him, but may some day hate him as well. The people who might be critical of Mersault, who might challenge him to grow and aspire, he shrugs off and pushes away. His friends aren’t just low-lifes,” she concluded with a dawning realization tinged with extroverted horror, “they’re cushions to make his sub-mediocrity comfortable. And that’s why the prosecutor can use them against him.”

Diane smiled sweetly at Jenny’s revelation: “If you don’t want to be railroaded, then don’t let your friends tie you to the tracks.”