I’ll be real with you. When I took Philosophy in college I hated it. There were a million answers and it was more about making an argument for your position. In retrospect, it would have been a valuable class, but I was too busy trying to argue the point that if there was no right answer, the class was pointless and I couldn’t be given a bad grade because all answers were technically correct. Looking back, I would have been very frustrated with me as a student.
I forget how The Stranger by Albert Camus ended up on my list, but as a fiction novella I wasn’t sure what to expect. I came to find out in reading and discussing with others (including Sparknotes) that the essay “asserts that individual lives and human existence, in general, have no rational meaning or order.” Perfect. Nothing like reading about how human existence has no rational meaning or order in the middle of a pandemic.
The tale revolves around a man named Meursault dealing with his mother’s death, the many days after, and then the time he (spoiler alert) spends in jail after the murder of a man. I didn’t get much from a philosophical standpoint, but there was one major thing that stood out.
The Danger of Culture
Meursault does not experience the world as any other man and his emotions echo that feeling. He is best described as flat and appears unperturbed by his mother’s death and any of the events that he partakes in. While on trial for the murder of a man, he is straightforward and unemotional, much to the shock of all the others in the courtroom. How could a man not mourn the loss of his mother or feel the regret of taking another man’s life?
Even while he sits in jail, Meursault seems uncaring, determined to wait it out and sleeping 18 hours a day to pass the time. With no strong stance on anything, Camus begins to show that anyone who appears indifferent or uncaring of the “norms” of a culture is guilty of anything and everything they stand accused of. His indifference is strange, and therefore he is a blight on society.
It’s a dangerous conclusion to make and one that I think we can run into in the tech world too often. When we don’t keep a close eye on diverse perspectives and experiences, it’s easy to hire others who are exactly like us. We form an echo chamber to a degree where everyone thinks the same or has the same take. This limits our ability to be creative and there are countless studies outlining the benefits of diverse perspectives and diverse backgrounds. If we’re not mindful, we can fall into traps where anyone who does not act as we expect or does anything outside of the acknowledged expectations can become estranged and exiled.
Another thing around this that stuck out is that Meursault finds nothing odd about his behavior until people tell him later on (most through the trial). This is the same as hiding feedback from someone in our day-to-day, whether it be a co-worker or a loved one. If we aren’t letting them know that they are acting bizarrely, how can we ever expect them to change? Meursault smoked at his mother’s wake, but no one scoffed or told him it was rude. At his mother’s funeral Meursault does not cry, but shouldn’t we all grieve differently? It’s these events and the perception of those within the culture that stifles Meursault’s growth and ultimately condemn him to his sentence. If we don’t call out odd behavior, how can anyone ever know they are being odd? How can we ever learn what they’re experiencing?
Overall The Stranger was an interesting exploration into philosophy, but it’s not one I’m likely to revisit. If I was to summarize to a degree, it would roughly be find meaning and the things that bring out your emotions or something along those lines. There are apparently additional essays and novellas from Camus that highlight similar thoughts, but I’ll leave those for folks that are smarter than I am to explain.
It’s a quick read and the short bursts of sentences help push the story along while keeping it relatable. If you’ve read it, I’m definitely interested in your thoughts and takeaways!
See the full list of my attempt at 52 books in one year.
One thing to remember about Camus is that he is considered an existentialist, which definitely colors what he is getting at in The Stranger. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/