Mr. Dame entered his apartment to find a well-dressed man staring at a clock on the mantle. The man had white hair and seemed to be quite intent on synchronizing the clock to a pocket watch, paying Mr. Dame no notice at all.
“Um, hi,” suggested Mr. Dame as he manuvered into the room to get a better look at his visitor’s face.
The visitor stared fixedly at the clocks as he watched the hands of the timepieces move in unison. “There,” he said in the audible satisfaction of a thick Georgian accent as he dropped his watch into his pocket and turned to face Mr. Dame, “Everything falls into place.”
Mr. Dame beheld the gentleman: his hair was white, his goatee was white, his suit was white, his eyes were icy blue. In most respects he seemed the shining opposite of the Machiavelli-ish man, which Mr. Dame regarded as reassuring until he recalled that the Machiavelli-ish man had made a point of not biting his head off. “And you’re a some sort of great scholar, here to elucidate the hidden meanings of The Stranger to me?” asked Mr. Dame uncertainly.
“Your courtesy does flatter me, but you see a…” — the gentleman’s voice seemed trip in mid-phrase — “man, as others be. But where are my manners? Please, allow me to introduce myself: I am a… Man of wealth and taste.” He smiled warmly as if he were riding on a parade float instead of standing in the living room of a small apartment. “You may call me Nick,” he added.
“What, like Nick Carraway?” asked Mr. Dame incredulously.
“Ah, no. You should think of me as the other Nick,” clarified Nick.
“Okay then. Welcome, Nick, to my…” — Mr. Dame felt his voice catch on the word — “home. Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” replied Nick, “but let’s cut right to the chase: time is always so short. Why, your time is so short you had to read The Stranger but skip The Myth of Sisyphus in which Camus simply describes the absurd man as ‘He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal.’ Now, if you want a truly absurd man, I recommend that instead of looking to Mersault, you cast your gaze over to Goethe’s rendition of Doctor Faust. Now there is a man who admits he has a soul but it willing to wager it against his transient happiness by virtue of his doubt, and thus inspire thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and even Camus, who quoted Goethe’s saying that ‘My field is time.’ If you want the adventure of a lifetime, dear boy, I advise you to look to Doctor Faust: his adventure took a lifetime.”
“I’ll be sure to make a note of it,” said Mr. Dame appreciatively, quietly uncertain whether he had actually read Faust or had merely read about it.
“I should warn you,” Nick disclaimed, “that the good Doctor Faust is the most learned man in the world, ‘cleverer, true, than those fops of teachers, Doctors and Magisters, Scribes and Preachers’ he says. Which is just as well, as the conclusion that Camus finally reached was that the absurd taught nothing. Still, if you are having to teach absurdism, then you may as well have a better example of it. And there are other bits of coincidence between Faust and The Stranger, too: Faust’s story closes with ‘Eternal Womanhood leads us above,’ while Mersault rejects the priest’s metaphysical certainties claiming that they aren’t worth… ‘one strand of a woman’s hair.’ While Mersault might consciously disavow the value of the metaphysical, I must note he also didn’t actually have a strand of Marie’s hair anymore, either.
“But your students were on to something with that Fooly-Cooly business. The lead character goes into the final episode saying: ‘When you’re in a town like this all covered with smoke, you forget that there’s a world outside. Nothing amazing happens here. And you get used to that, used to a world where everything is ordinary. Every day we spend here is like a whole lifetime of dying slowly. But now Haruko’ — his particular view of Eternal Womanhood — ‘is here. That’s how I know there really is a world outside.’ Now Robert Bly’s assertion that men are to stand apart not withstanding, ample literary tradition fixates on the rejoinder of the sundered masculine to the eternalized feminine — as if your mortal shells are merely vessels for the spirits of some freaky-looking anglerfish.
“That sense of separation is one of the vital components of absurdism. But you’d rather me avoid the pscyho-sexual melodrama, and I can appreciate that,” Nick continued, “After all, too much good sex has been ruined by so much bad psychology. So let’s talk about a whale. Do you recall the whale in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Because that whale is very much like Mersault. Both of them had no particular regrets, harboring what they felt was an ‘irreparable innocence,’ to borrow Albert’s phrase from The Myth of Sisyphus. The whale even was quite innocent, despite having been a nuclear missile just a few moments prior. But the parallel and contrast is blowing in the wind — or rather, in the blowing of the wind. You see, Mersault claims that ‘from the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.’ The whale, meanwhile, thinks ‘this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I’m quite dizzy with anticipation… Or is it the wind? There really is a lot of that now, isn’t there?’ Mersault’s was metaphoric, the whale’s was literal, but it was all ultimately the same effect. But the key difference is that Mersault feels the wind blowing against him while he regards himself as immovable. Yet when we consider the whale, we see that it is the mortal life that moves in space and time with gravity toward its ultimate end. Which we could take towards Nietzsche’s observation ‘And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity — through him all things fall.’ Of course, Nietzsche also thought he was a bird and thus regards gravity poorly. Me, I say the spirit of gravity makes everything fall into place.” Nick paused in his lecture to smile serenely while it sunk in to Mr. Dame.
“But everything is falling,” said Mr. Dame, uncertain as to whether he was confused on this point or should be actively protesting against it.
“Why yes indeed,” confirmed Nick.
“That doesn’t seem like a good thing,” said Mr. Dame as he wondered how to protest against gravity.
“It is what it is,” replied Nick. “The only question that really matters is: where do you intend to make your impact? Because regardless of whether you find yourself strapped to a kindly parachute or a cruel piano, you are falling. Gravity does not give reprieve, nor is the ground bouncy and forgiving. To that one end, even the poor souls who find themselves strapped to pianos may still be better off than those people who are stuck in denial about their mortal condition and spend all their future trying to paddle back up a waterfall into their past.”
Mr. Dame smirked at Nick’s allusion to Jay Gatsby. “But is that really absurdism in a nutshell?” he asked.
“No, it’s absurdism from a great height,” replied Nick with a jovial smirk, “but effectively, yes. It has the existential component of time being the critical element to life and the passage of time marking the opportunities for action and the forcing of decisions, but also the absurd disconnection of the present action from the past actions or any guarantee of future results. You are all flailing on the way down and trying to make it look good.”
Mr. Dame pursed his lips skeptically. “That counts as philosophy?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t think so,” Nick shrugged. “I tend to think of it as the framework of conscious reality. Anyway, Camus kind of gave up on absurdism as a philosophical line after The Myth of Sisyphus noting that it didn’t actually teach anything, as previously mentioned. His later work did more to ask what was happening inside the framework and less of interrogating the framework itself. You can ask any question you want of the absurd, but the answer is always going to come back — like so much other philosophy — as an absurd abstraction of your exigent reality. To that end, absurdism is more like the anti-philosophy of not asking questions because the answers are necessarily going to be absurd, so don’t waste your precious time.
“Again, consider The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: when asked for the answer to the great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, the answer was calculated to be 42 with the problem being that nobody had a real clue as to what the question actually was. At the end of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, it is speculated that the ultimate question might be ‘what do you get if you multiply six by nine’ but Adams admitted he hadn’t a clue where he was really going with it. And yet I might suggest that he did have a subconscious point, that the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is actually 1 + 5 × 8 + 1 = 42,” Nick said, drawing out the formula in the air with his finger, “which, when read as ‘six times nine is forty-two’ comes out with the actual interpretation that most people are so unhappy because they’ve got the order of operations their lives horribly, horribly wrong.
“So let’s look at The Stranger with a different order of operations, as it were: have you instead considered that The Stranger might both be a literal and symbolic tale of French colonialism going awry in Algeria?”
Mr. Dame realized that he was still thinking about 42 and had almost entirely missed what Nick had been saying. “Well if you’re telling me about it, I’m guessing that the answer is yes — but not cohesively enough to make sense of it until now,” answered Mr. Dame regaining his focus, “so please, do go on.”
Nick smiled, a genuine smile, pleased with how prepared and inviting Mr. Dame was for his communion. “Let us start with the Arab,” Nick suggested. “He had no name. We know nothing of what becomes of his friends and family after he is callously murdered. Mersault is condemned to death in the name of the French people, not because he murdered an Arab but because he’s not adequately French. Which is all well and good, but let’s look at him as a French colonial: as a colonial with a peer group of pimps and sadists he’s inadequately French before the court — but France still cares more about him than about the Arabs it claims to be bringing the benefits of liberal and democratic civilization to. The lack of focus on the actual crime in the trial is a display of inequality and bad race relations. But let’s take it one step even further: Mersault is French colonialism, claiming a big apartment like Algeria but then only living in one room — or city — of it, looking down on the inhabitants of the street, quickly approaching the end of its practical life not because the imperialistic brutality it inflicted upon the native peoples has made it untenable, but because it abandoned its care for its mother-land — its founding egalitarian and democratic ideals — as being impractical. And while the colonials who appreciated the second-chances offered by colonialist policies may well be low-lifes that earn the scorn of any proper Frenchman, it would be a mistake to reject their humanity based merely on their circumstances — dispassionate dehumanization was, after all, the error that Mersault made that demonstrated he wasn’t really as French as France demanded he be.”
“And the angry mob he wanted at his execution?” asked Mr. Dame, vaguely intrigued while uncertain that this interpretation would hold up to scrutiny.
“Well those would be the Arabs, wouldn’t they?” replied Nick with a simple slyness. “On first reading everybody thinks it’s a French crowd because there’s so much of ‘France France France’ going on. But why would French people really care? He shot some nameless Arab. Most French people seem uncertain as to whether or not that’s even a crime, never mind a capital offense. But the French were the minority in Algeria and Mersault himself accepts that most people who knew him would quickly forget him. Even Marie has stopped visiting. But the native peoples, eager to shake off the French colonial oppression which has delivered on none of the promises that the French empire made, oh, they should be angry and so glad to see him go. And when Mersault is the colonialism, then there will be a rebellious crowd there to see him executed, ready to wake up to lives of autonomy and self-government.”
“Did the war with Germany have an impact on The Stranger?” asked Mr. Dame, feeling himself swayed. “I read that somebody thought Mersault represented the Jewish population, sentenced to death not for what they did but rather who they were by Nazis and antisemitism.”
“Perhaps,” shrugged Nick, “but I don’t think that saying a sociopathic murderer represents Jews is necessarily a compliment to the children of Israel. No, I would be looking instead at the values of the French Revolution — liberty, fraternity, equality — that got replaced with the Nazi-friendly values of work, family, and fatherland during that era. Note that Mersault rejects his family by putting his mother in a home and then not fittingly grieving her passing on the one hand and then snubs both work and fatherland by shrugging off a promotion that would have moved him to Paris. While people still interested in the old values liberty and fraternity — never mind equality; seriously, never mind it at all — might think he can appeal on the basis of liberty and fraternity, society’s change to the new values that Mersault can’t quite identify has ensured that his time is up.”
“Okay, so that’s impressive. But it is still a story of absurdism, right?” asked Mr. Dame. “I mean, we’ve got the recognition of mortality by somebody abandoned in reality, et cetera — right?”
Nick shrugged. “I have my doubts. After all, Camus claims that the absurd man must be in a constant state of rebellion, and that ‘it is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will.’ Now, while we could say that Mersault was going to be executed and thus not going to die of his own free will, we might also reject that claim on the basis that he knew exactly how to save his life: all he had to do was suggest that he was sorry for killing the Arab. Compare that to Faust who does most certainly die, and at a rather awkward moment. For Faust, this was the necessary conclusion. He claimed that ‘In forward-striving pain and bliss abide, he finds them who is never satisfied,’ sentiments that would be echoed by Nietzshe’s claim that even in the best ‘there is still something to loathe; and the best is still something that must be surpassed.'”
“But Mersault was continually satisfied because of his lack of ambition and his perpetual apathy, wasn’t he?” asked Mr. Dame, pleased by what his students had surfaced. “After all, he realizes that he had been happy and was happy still at the end.”
“Happy?” replied Nick with an awkward snort. “He’s incarcerated, lonely, and hoping people will hate him when he’s decapitated. No, it is Mersault’s pride, not his memory that is talking there. It’s a common confusion, as Nietzsche explains: ‘”I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually — the memory yields.’ And that’s just at a human level. If we refer to Mersault as a nation, his claim that he had been happy is the rose-coloring of the past. You’re American, so think of your war of independence with the mighty George Washington and the principled patriots of yesteryear. Think of them dying not for freedom and independence from tyranny, but from diseases ravaging their cold, malnourished, and overcrowded bodies at Valley Forge. And yet you think of Washington’s army as happy because you can see the legacy of their success, but not the legacy of their troubles. But more than that, because you know there were troubles which have been overcome — wooden teeth, for example — you believe you must be even happier than George Washington because you’ve got, for example, your real teeth. Or think of your role as a teacher: previous generations of teachers must have been happy or they wouldn’t have done what they did to create this legacy for you. But between Ritalin and Wikipedia you must have an easier time teaching kids than they ever did, ergo you must be happier than they ever were.”
Mr. Dame bit his tongue while he reflected on this. He was happy now, making a somewhat controlled exploration of his psyche and re-arranging everything he’d forgotten into new things that he could know — but teaching was still a paupering career and he was currently a substitute pauper at that. Finally he settled on saying, “I think the human mind is more complex than that.”
“Only in how it gets described,” Nick replied simply. “The problem is that you always have yourself: Camus suggests that most people are still alive for the very simple reason that ‘We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.’ But as Niebuhr reflects, this alters the relationship of the mind to time: ‘For the time-full self the past and future are not the no-longer and the not-yet; they are extensions of the present. They are the still-present and the already-present.’ Which is perhaps what Camus was getting at when he claimed that ‘Consciousness suspends in experience the objects of its attention. Through its miracle it isolates them. Henceforth they are beyond all judgments.’ It is your consciousness which determines that which is the no-longer and the not-yet versus the never-was and never-will-be as far as you are concerned.”
“That sounds… deranged,” interjected Mr. Dame. “You make it sound like it’s okay to have a self-bleaching conscience, and that sociopathic behavior is totally natural, and that subjective perversions of reality are where we derive value.”
“Yes, well, the memory yields,” repeated Nick with his patient drawl, “but you’re also missing the point: Allowing yourself to be hamstrung or crippled by regrets is a path to unconsciousness, of sacrificing your not-yet to your no-longer. Do remember that you are falling and that you don’t get a choice about that. Looking back up will merely throw off your aim.
“But the refrain traverses from Camus — saying that if you aim to make an impact, it is in this life — back to Eliot, as you know: ‘so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist.’ Haven’t you seen how everything is connected yet?”
Mr. Dame shrugged and wished that his subconsciousness weren’t so adept at making him feel self-conscious about his cognitive inadequacies.
Nick sighed with mild exasperation. “Anyway,” he continued, “let us put your little worries about justifying malfeasance to rest. Camus asserts that ‘The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. “Everything is permitted” does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for that would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility.’ With crime, of course, generally being childish because it does not build, create, advance, or aspire. Those are the adjectives we prefer to reserve for adult ventures, but they are words that did not apply to Mersault at all. They also did not apply to Alfred or to O’Brien, so those characters garner very little sympathy. Conversely, Hamlet and Gatsby have goals they’re trying to aspire to, and because of that people will readily label them as heroes — despite all evidence to the contrary — and then be terribly sad when they fall into their places.
“But getting back to my earlier assertion that The Stranger isn’t really absurdist in the full sense,” Nick continued, “Camus went on to say that ‘All systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion.’ Turning to Niebuhr for a re-phrase, we get that ‘for the ethics of responsibility, the fitting action, the one that fits into a total interaction as response and as anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.’ In The Stranger, Mersault’s consideration of consequences and anticipation of responses was horribly lacking and his acceptance of the consequences of his actions only comes like a bar tab at the end of a night-long bender. No, if we are to see absurdity here then we must also understand the possibility that Mersault — like Caligula, about whom Camus wrote a play around that same time — is serving as merely an example and not a model. Camus made this exact disavowal, asking ‘Do I need to develop the idea that an example is not necessarily an example to be followed (even less so, if possible, in the absurd world) and that these illustrations are therefore not models?'”
“It seems strange to me,” interrupted Mr. Dame pensively, “that the curriculum consumes so much time in bad examples rather than good models.”
“That is an interesting point, but there are reasons,” replied Nick with creeping condescension, “First of all, you’re using bad examples because you’re trying to teach the students to be literary, and proper literature is written from a disillusioned and disgruntled adult perspective, disabused of innocence. That’s what the teacher is expected to bring to class. Don’t worry, you’ll get the proper hang of it in a mind-numbing, spirit-crushing year or two. But the kids, having been saturated with it all for years already, will miss that bit. As Paul Graham recounted his experience with Lord of the Flies: ‘Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn’t get the additional message.’ Really, though, do you actually remember being illusioned and gruntled and innocent? Or has your memory of that past yielded to your pride’s inability to handle your current situation?”
“I remember that my high school class song was ‘These are the Days,’ a choice which struck me as a bit odd,” admitted Mr. Dame with a helpless shrug.
“And has it occurred to you,” posited Nick, “that the notion that the best days of your life are spent in high school advocates for nostalgia in a way that sets up willful ignorance of the ongoing present? Like Mersault…”
“… saying that he had been happy only after he gave up trying to make his present better,” said Mr. Dame, making the connection. “So what you’re suggesting,” he continued as Nick smiled encouragingly at him, “is that the past can only be the best days of our lives if we abdicate our responsibility for making our continual present good. In other words, if those days were the best days of my life, then I’m doing something horribly, horribly wrong now.”
“Why yes, that does sound about right to me,” said Nick. After a pause, he asked “How does that make you feel?”
“I’m not sure. I think I was happy at times in high school and college, faced with the exhilaration of becoming. And yet I remember being bored, depressed, and adrift. I remember feeling that life couldn’t possibly always be so spectacularly empty. It couldn’t just be one staged exercise after another. And yet here I am, staging the exercises, one after the other and hoping I don’t get replaced,” Mr. Dame replied, wrestling with the uncomfortable truth, “Yet I’m getting the exhilaration again because now I can explain that old discomforting feeling. And because I can explain it, I might be able to do something about it to make it better. The best days of my life aren’t necessarily in the past; I’m confident I can do better.”
“See, sometimes you falling people just need a bit of a push,” grinned Nick.
“So is that the sort of conclusion that Camus believes Sisyphus got to that allowed him to be happy?”
“In a way, in a way,” demurred Nick. “What is important about Sisyphus isn’t that he is happy, for any imbecile can be happy and many of them are, but that he is conscious and happy anyway. The value is in the process rather than being solely in the conclusion. Starting from his hatred of being punished and the spite he feels towards his punishers, he deduces that the only avenue for revenge is to deny their power. If he were to feel punished by the rock that the gods condemn him to, as is expected, then he would be agreeing to their assertion of power over him. But in choosing to resist the expectations and instead be pleased by the rock, in choosing to view it as proof that he had the capacity to resist the power of the gods, Sisyphus actually does retain the power to resist the gods. As long as he can be happy, he hasn’t lost his fight. Whenever he might say ‘Today will be a good day,’ he will always be implying ‘because the gods have done their worst to me already.’ It is only when he believes that today, that this day, can’t possibly be as good as those days he had back then in the living world that he grants the gods their power to punish him.”
“But if we look at Sisyphus as a human whose only crime against the gods was wanting to be alive,” continued Mr. Dame, “then he may well have the irreparable innocence that Camus was fixated on and thus it becomes necessary to avoid an unjust punishment that he deprives the gods of their power by being happy, even though he has no hope of change or reprieve.” He paused for a moment, reflecting on this. “That’s nuts,” he concluded.
“No,” corrected Nick, “it is Absurd.”
“But why would Sisyphus want to work to negate the injustice of his punishment at the hands of the gods that he hated for inflicting that very injust…”
“And that could well be the answer,” replied Nick cannily. “As long as the gods are responsible for injustice, then he cannot be reconciled to them. But if Sisyphus can eliminate their injustice, then he might be reconciled to them. The problem that he then creates is that by eliminating their capacity to inflict injustice, he eliminates his need to be reconciled to them by eliminating their godly status. But if you replace Sisyphus with Christ, and hear him negate the injustice of his crucifixion by calling down forgiveness on his enemies before lamenting the lack of power in God the Father to save his life — Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? — then the mystery of the cross that Christians seem willfully incapable of discerning isn’t how Christ’s sacrifice reconciles generation after generation of sinful humanity to God, but rather — by reversing the order of operations — reconciles God to generation after generation of sinful humanity. And in this model, God’s abdication of power allows for no soul to be unredeemable by grace… but at a cost of making human suffering the problem of your myopic, selfish, stupid species.”
“You’re suggesting that Christianity can ignore the problem of suffering and the problem of evil because Jesus said ‘forgive them because they’re idiots’?”
“Bluntly, yes,” Nick replied coldly. “You see, humans have long maintained that it is by their reason that their powers are increased allowing them to be beastlier to each other than any mere beast. So if stupidity was the appeal that God incarnate made to himself on behalf of your species, then no suffering-inducing stupidity should be clipped short of a point of repentance, to which end God cannot both intervene in mortal affairs and redeem immortal souls. And so it is that God is stuck eternally choking to death on his pity for your species. Truly I say to you: his pity for your kind is the only thing as infinite as he is, a fact he finds hard to swallow.”
“What, so God is just off the hook for human suffering?”
“Well who do you suppose killed the Kennedys?” Nick scoffed. “No, don’t bother answering. But know this: with gravity, everything will fall into place. And I have long been content to point my seat in the direction of history and watch the show. Goodness me, I barely even bother heckling you wretched performers anymore. Best you all can hope to do is aim carefully and take a bit of revenge on the ground for what it’s about to do to you. But I fear I have delayed you from grading some papers and should now be moving on. Good luck with with the red ink.”
“Wait,” said Mr. Dame, surprised by the sudden influx of cynicism, “are you saying that lots of people are born, suffer, and then die just for being human and that’s the way it’s supposed to be?”
“Goodness no. Lots of people are born, suffer, and then die because everybody else is nothing more than human and that is the way it is.” Nick shrugged helplessly. “There’s never any mercy for a majority, and even your kind’s rarest and best I’ve still found to be human, all too human.”
And quite suddenly Mr. Dame was once again alone on the planet with the rest of his species, the seconds ticking by.