Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.

  Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.                                                   

Burton Weltman

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger,

for you were strangers in Egypt.

Exodus 22:21

Dead Men Talking: Albert Camus’ Meursault and Kamel Daoud’s Musa.

“If the world were clear, art would not exist.”

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus.[1]

Does it matter if a literary work is widely misread in a way that is contrary to the intentions of its author and/or the plain meaning of the text?  It clearly matters if a legal text is misread.  The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, for example, has recently been misread by a majority of the Justices on the United States Supreme Court to function as a guarantee of the right of people to keep guns in their homes and carry guns with them almost anywhere they want.  This is a misunderstanding of the intentions of the Second Amendment’s authors and a misreading of the plain language of the Amendment’s text that is so unreasonable and so contrary to the facts of the Amendment’s adoption as to be absurd.[2]  It is a misreading that has, however, contributed to the proliferation of guns and the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, and people are dying because of it.  It clearly matters.  But what about the misreading of a literary text?  Does that matter?

The premise of Kamel Daoud’s recent novel The Meursault Investigation[3] is that the misreading of a literary text does matter, and the narrator of Daoud’s book claims that Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger has almost invariably been misread for over seventy years since its publication in 1942.  The Stranger is the story of the murder of an Arab by a Frenchman in colonial Algeria.  The murderer’s name is Meursault and he is the narrator of the book.  Meursault has, much to his surprise, been found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to death for shooting the Arab.  He had assumed that he would be found guilty of the lesser offense of unpremeditated manslaughter or not guilty by reason of self-defense.  Although an appeal of his sentence is pending, Meursault tells his story while facing possible execution, and death envelops the book.  It opens with the death of Meursault’s mother, is punctuated by the Arab’s death, and closes with the prospect of Meursault’s death.  Meursault tells his story in deadpanned language, and portrays himself as an emotionally deadened person who has endured life in a chronically depressed state.

For many reviewers over the years, Meursault has been seen as the ideal of an honest and dispassionate man, and an existentialist or absurdist hero.[4]  This seems also to be the view of the general reading public, based on comments provided on popular websites that can be taken as reflecting mainstream public opinion.  These websites include Wikipedia (Meursault is “often cited as an exemplar of Camus’ philosophy of the absurd and existentialism.”)[5] and Sparknotes (Meursault represents “Camus’ philosophical notion of absurdity.”).[6]  Amazon reports that The Stranger remains a best seller to the present day, as it is “a staple of U.S. high school literature courses.”[7]  It is, thus, a widely read and potentially influential book.

The narrator of The Meursault Investigation is an old man named Harun who seeks to dispel Meursault’s heroic image.  His argument is based on a critical rereading of The Stranger, and on providing a side-story to Meursault’s narrative, as well as a sequel to the events in the book up to the present day.  Harun is ostensibly the brother of the Arab murdered by Meursault, and he claims to speak for his dead brother.  Harun complains that decades of readers have failed to react to the fact that his brother (whose name is Musa) is not even named in The Stranger (he is merely called “the Arab”) and that nothing is told in the book about Musa or his family.

Since no one has previously spoken for Musa, Harun claims that readers have missed the underlying meaning of the events in The Stranger.  Only Meursault’s side of the story has been told, and Musa’s death has been seen only in the light of Meursault’s brilliant portrayal of his own pathetic life.  As a result, Harun argues, Meursault has effectively gotten away with murder in the public mind, and Meursault’s account of the killing has both trivialized murder and perpetuated racist views of Arab Algerians.  Although the story dates from 1942, Harun contends that people are still dying today because of the attitudes toward murder and toward Algerians presented by Meursault in the book.  In Harun’s mind, the public’s misunderstanding of the story clearly matters.

History is full of dead men talking, and the meaning of what they said and did is often important to us.  They help us to figure out who we are and what we ought to do.  That is why historians and Supreme Court Justices continually review and revise what they think the Founders meant to say in the Constitution.  The thesis of Daoud’s book is that it is also important to set the record straight as to the meaning and message of fictional dead men.  Fiction can influence people as fully as facts can.  There are, for example, lots of young people today who cite the wisdom of Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books as though he is a real person.  Daoud has provided us with the novel case of a fictional character calling out another fictional character in order to get a fictional situation right.

Getting things right in a work of fiction is not, however, always easy.  It has been said that great books are those that can be reread over and over again with the reader getting something different each time.[8]  Great books, such as The Stranger, can legitimately be interpreted many different ways.  The same can be said for the United States Constitution.  One of the things that makes the Constitution great is that it is a living document that can be interpreted in different ways as circumstances change.  However, there are some interpretations of the Constitution that are just plain wrong, such as the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Second Amendment.  Similarly, there are some interpretations of a novel that are just wrong, and they can have consequences.

Both The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation are written with first-person narrators. Interpretation is particularly tricky with first-person narration because it raises hard questions about to what extent and in what ways does and does not the narrator speak for the author.  It also raises questions as to the reliability of the narrator.   Conflating a first-person narrator with a book’s author, or assuming that the narrator is reliable, can lead to misunderstanding of a book.  In the cases of The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation, this problem has been exacerbated by the tendency of reviewers to focus on what they see as Camus’ philosophical views and Daoud’s social and religious views, and to ignore the psychological nuances and character development of the narrators in the course of the books.  The result is often a misunderstanding of both the authors’ views and the narrators’ characters.

It is my contention that neither Meursault nor Harun has been intended by their creators as a hero or a role model, and that neither of them can be taken as either reliable narrators or spokespersons for their authors.  Meursault’s narrative is essentially an exercise in what existentialists call “bad faith.”[9]  Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist-in-chief, described bad faith as dodging responsibility for the effects of one’s choices.  He claimed that one has to realize that when one chooses to do or not do something, one is choosing not only what one wants to be oneself, but also “choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be.”  People act in bad faith when they “believe their actions involve no one but themselves.”  For Sartre, “any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith.”[10]

Meursault fits this description.  He does not take responsibility for his actions or for the way his actions affect others, and he seeks to explain away the harms he has done to others.  The book begins with the excuse he gave when he asked his boss for time off to go to his mother’s funeral (“Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know”), and ends with him giving himself absolution for his actions (“I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right.”).[11]  His narrative is a sustained attempt to exonerate himself for his actions.

Harun’s story is essentially a guilt trip.  It is at first an attempt to avoid guilt, then a reluctant admission of guilt and, finally, an attempt to purge himself of guilt.  It is a circuitous narrative that starts with his blaming Meursault and the world at large for the death and indignity suffered by his brother, and the hardships suffered by him and his mother.  It ends with a confession and a mea culpa for committing the murder of a Frenchman.  He begins his story by distinguishing himself from Meurault and ends by identifying with him.  They are, he acknowledges, blood brothers under the skin.[12]

Harun is an alcoholic, a self-described blowhard, and a murderer.  He is no hero and he is not Daoud.  The consequences of misreading Daoud’s book have, however, been frightening.  As a result of things that Huran says about religion, a death sentence fatwa has been issued against Daoud by a radical Muslim cleric in Algeria.  Daoud has responded that “It was a fictional character in the novel who said those things, not me,” but to no avail thus far.[13]

The thesis of the present essay is that The Stranger has been widely misread and that The Meursault Investigation seems in danger of being similarly misunderstood.  With respect to The Stranger, I think that reviewers and readers often miss that Meursault is relating and reconstructing past events, not telling about things as they happen.  They also miss that Meursault is telling his story in the immediate aftermath of being condemned to death.  They mistakenly think that Meursault is speaking for Camus.  And, they mistakenly think that Meurault represents the absurd man that Camus promoted in his book The Myth of Sisyphus.

Critics often extol the at-best amoral Meursault as some kind of existentialist hero or romantic anti-hero.  This sort of misreading demeans the work of Camus who was, above all else, a passionate moralist.  In conflating Meursault with Camus, these critics have missed what seems to be Camus’ intent that readers empathize with Meursault and see something of themselves in him, even as they hopefully disagree with him and reject his behavior.  These critics effectively undermine the moral value of the book.

With respect to The Meursault Investigation, I think that reviewers are in danger of mistakenly treating Harun as a hero, a reliable narrator, and a spokesman for Daoud.  These mistakes would diminish the social and political meaning of the work.  And that matters.

Meursault in the Face of Death: The Stages of Grief.

We live “as man condemned to death.”

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus[14]

“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”  These are the opening words of The Stranger.  They are generally translated as mother or mama died today.  The words seem to situate the narrator, Meursault, in the present, as though he is learning of his mother’s death at the time he is telling us about it.  The rest of that paragraph and the next also give the appearance that the narrator is describing what he is currently experiencing.  But then the narrative abruptly turns into what is clearly a description of the past, of thoughts, feelings, and events the narrator has previously experienced, and the narrative continues that way for the rest of the book.

Camus wrote The Stranger in the present perfect tense in which “etre” is added to the past participle of a verb in French, just as “have” is added to the past participle in English.[15]  The effect of using that tense is to produce the feeling of an indefinite past, as though the past continues into the present.  This seems to be part of what Camus is proposing in the book, that one cannot escape the past or responsibility for one’s actions.

Meursault’s story opens with a description of his mother’s death and her funeral.  These events are the alpha and omega of his story.  The facts he relates include that his mother died in a nursing home to which she had been sent by Meursault over her strenuous objections, and that he wandered about at her funeral without showing any interest or emotion.  The overwhelming importance of these facts to Meursault stems from his contention that the way he treated his mother and behaved at her funeral were the main reason he was convicted of first degree capital murder.

Meursault repeatedly complains that his murder trial seemed to be more about disparaging his character over the way he treated his mother and her death than about ferreting out the facts of the shooting.[16]  The prosecutor repeatedly railed against Meursault, insisting he was “morally guilty of his mother’s death,” and was “an inhuman monster wholly without a moral sense.”  The court was seemingly more concerned with Meursault’s mother’s death than with the Arab’s, and Meursault was apparently convicted of the premeditated murder of the Arab because he was found to have behaved badly toward his mother.[17]

Camus once facetiously said that the moral of The Stranger was that “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.”[18]  And Camus’ narrator, Meursault, tries to use the absurdity of his trial to portray himself as the victim in his case.  Camus was not, however, justifying Meursault’s actions or criticizing Meursault’s conviction for murder.  Camus was criticizing a society that seemed more concerned with enforcing social conventions than with enforcing laws against murder, especially when the victims were Arabs.  And he was asking us to identify with Meursault, despite our objections to Meursault’s behavior.

Opinions of Meursault’s state of mind as a narrator, and as a character in his own story, have been varied over the years.  To some reviewers, he is the soul of objectivity[19], sensitivity,[20] and honesty.[21]  To others, he is “a clinical psychopath,”[22] who “cares about practically nothing.”[23]  But one thing these reviewers have had in common is that they treat Meursault as a reliable narrator and take his version of events on face value.  This is not plausible and does not seem to have been intended by Camus for at least two reasons.

First, Meursault is still in the process of appealing his death sentence as he is narrating his story.  He has a life-and-death interest in making himself look as sympathetic as possible.  We have to see his story as potentially self-serving, and as not necessarily reflecting events as they actually happened.  Camus portrays Meursault as an ingenious fellow, and Meursault tells what seems to be a tale designed to gain our sympathy and minimize our antipathy.  For example, he leaves out any account of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.[24]  The artfulness of his narrative is emphasized in The Meursault Investigation by Harun, who insists that Meursault’s story is a fiction designed to justify himself to posterity.[25]

Meursault comes across as a distressed person.  He repeatedly describes himself to the people around him, and portrays himself to us readers, as a person without deep emotions.  Most commentators take it for granted that Meursault was, in fact, that kind of person.  But we cannot take Meursault’s portrayal of himself as being the way he always was.  He may have been rendered emotionally numb by his recent experiences and his narrative may reflect that effect, or he may be dissembling for sympathy.

Second, Meursault had just been sentenced to death when he begins telling his story.  This is a key to his psychological state and his character development as he goes on.  His deadened picture of himself could be a result of shock.  He is seemingly in a state of shock as he begins the story, and his anxiety level increases toward the end as his execution date approaches.  As a result of his emotional wavering, Meursault’s story does not come out as well as he would have liked it.  He does not make his best case for himself, either for his appeal or for posterity.  This is seemingly part of the story that Camus is telling us, through Meursault, about humans facing death.

Most reviewers treat Meursault’s narrative as being of a piece and his narrative tone as being uniform throughout.  This does not do justice to the psychological subtlety and complexity of Camus’ book.  The Stranger was Camus’ first published novel.  In his other works of fiction, the characters tend to be one-dimensional representatives of philosophical or social positions rather than complex persons. That is not the case with Meursault.   He is a complex character who morphs in the course of his tale.

Meursault’s narrative, in fact, seems to unroll in stages, almost like what have been described as the five stages of grief.[26]  He has just been told he is going to die, and his story seems to proceed from denial, which is ostensibly the first stage of grief, then to the next stages of anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.  This is not to say that the book can be explained by some psychological formula, but that analyzing it in those terms can help illustrate the changes in Meursault’s narrative tone as he tells his story.

In the first stage of his story, Meursault essentially portrays himself as a victim of circumstances.  His mantra in this phase is “it’s not my fault.”[27]  He repeats this sentiment throughout the scenes of his mother’s funeral, which go on for many pages.  In a foreshadowing of his complaint about his trial, he complains that people at the funeral kept looking at him askance because he did not exhibit any emotion.  “I had an absurd impression,” he says, “that they had come to sit in judgment of me.”[28]  Meursault’s affect at this point is that of a pathetic person in a state of denial.

In the second part of his story and the second stage of grief, Meursault portrays himself as just an ordinary fellow who goes along to get along, and who follows the path of least resistance as he claims most people do.  He describes his relationships with his neighbors, his friend Raymond, and his girlfriend Marie in this segment.  Raymond is a pimp who beats up his Arab girlfriend, and who repeatedly says that he wants to be “pals” with Meursault.  Meursault claims that he does not know what that means.  But he hangs around with Raymond and helps him in his schemes, which eventually leads to Meursault shooting the Arab.  Meursault also repeatedly tells his girlfriend, Marie, that he does not love her, that the word love “had no meaning” for him.  But he also tells her that if she wants to marry him, “I didn’t mind.”[29]  The affect in this part of the story is defensive, as of a person who is upset at being picked on and just doesn’t want to be bothered.

It is at the close of this segment that Meursault commits the murder.  He, Raymond, and Marie are at the beach when they came upon “the Arab” and another Algerian Arab.  Meursault believed that the Arab was the brother of the girlfriend who Raymond had assaulted, and that the Arab had a knife and might be out for revenge.  Meursault was holding Raymond’s gun.  Meursault claims he was overpowered by the heat and confused by the glare of the sun so that, standing there with Raymond’s gun in his hand, “it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing.”  He had seemingly lost his sense of reality and self-control.  Later, when he shoots the Arab, he describes holding the gun in his hand and then “The trigger gave,” as though the shot just happened and he was not responsible for it.[30]  His attitude toward the murder is completely passive, a “things just happen” tone.  It is as though in describing the event, he is either still in a state of shock or he is trying to avoid responsibility for his action.

In the next stage of the story, Meursault describes the police interrogation and the trial, and the failure of his attempts to work things out with the authorities.  He begins to sound persecuted and even paranoid.  It is not only that the police and the prosecutor keep describing him as “callous” and “inhuman,”[31] but that “there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings.”  The lawyers, court officials, reporters, and spectators all seemed to know each other, and fraternized as though they were members of a club that excluded him.  He felt like “a gate crasher.”  He wanted to tell them that “I was just like everybody else, quite an ordinary person,” but they would not listen to him.  He says that he realized then “how all these people loathed me,” and were out to get him.[32]

Following the verdict and sentencing ,Meursault describes going into a state of anxiety and depression.  He is desperate to find a way out of being executed.  He says that to find “a loophole [in the law] obsesses me.”  Although he still has an appeal pending, and repeatedly expresses hope that the appeal will be successful, his tone is increasingly agitated.  He is assured by a visiting priest that “my appeal would succeed,” but he is, nonetheless, admittedly possessed by fear, and he goes into a rage at the priest when the priest suggests that he repent.[33]

Finally, on the last page of the book, Meursault says he has become “emptied of hope” and that “for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the tendre indifference of the universe.”[34]  This statement is generally taken by reviewers to mean that he has come to accept his fate and has realized the absurdity of life.  But, of course, he still has at this point an appeal of his sentence in the works, so it is not clear that he has really given up hope.  In addition, the French word tendre can be translated as “benign” or “tender.”  In using the word tendre to describe the universe, Meursault has essentially contradicted the idea that the universe is indifferent or that he has given up hope.  A benign or tender indifference is not indifferent.  It is sympathetic, caring, and agreeable.  The universe will, he seems still to hope, help him.

In sum, Meursault is a cunning but not entirely consistent apologist for himself.  My purpose in analyzing The Stranger in this way is not to reduce Camus’ complex novel to a series of formulaic stages.  It is merely to demonstrate that the emotional tone of Meursault’s story evolves as he narrates it, and that the narrator is not to be taken as totally reliable.  It is also the case that he is not a spokesperson for Camus nor is he intended as an existential hero.

Meursault and the Myth of Sisyphus: Apathy versus Absurdity.

“To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason.”

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus.[35]

Meursault has been seen by most commentators as a spokesman for Camus, and as an ideal exemplar of the absurd person that Camus promotes in his philosophical work The Myth of Sisyphus. They see The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, which were both published in 1942, as companion pieces, with Meursault representing Camus’ philosophy of absurdism.  Some of these commentators admire Camus’ philosophy and extend this admiration to Meursault as its exemplar.[36]  Others are appalled by what they see as Meursault’s callous and inhuman behavior, and extend this negative opinion to Camus’ philosophy.  Some have even accused Camus of racism based on Meursault’s attitude toward “the Arab” he has killed.[37]

Conflating Meursault with Camus and The Stranger with The Myth of Sisyphus began with an influential review of The Stranger in the mid-1940’s by Camus’ then friend Jean Paul Sartre.  Sartre, who was already a famous philosopher and novelist, gave the neophyte Camus and The Stranger a strangely ambivalent review.  In the review, Sartre repeatedly insists that The Stranger is a fictional rendering of the philosophy in The Myth of Sisyphus, with the message that life is absurd.  Along the way, he also comments that Camus “seems to pride himself on quoting” philosophers in The Myth of Sisyphus “whom he seems not to have always understood.”   And he says that Camus’ methods of writing can be best compared to those of Charles Maurras, who was a notorious anti-Semite and fascist.  Sartre concludes that The Stranger, as a novel about absurdity, “aims at being magnificently sterile,” and succeeds.  With friends like this… [38]

The problem with all of these opinions, from that of Sartre on down to the present, is that The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus do not function as companion pieces.  They deal with very different issues.  The Myth of Sisyphus opens with the declaration that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”[39]  The book is, thereafter, a sustained argument that although life is absurd, it is for that very reason worth living.  Life and living with others are all that we have for sure, so we ought to hang onto them.  The Stranger is not a novel about suicide.  It is about murder.  It deals with the reaction of a character to having committed a murder and to his impending execution.  In any case, Meursault is in no way an exemplar of Camus’ philosophy in The Myth of Sisyphus.  To the contrary, he is better seen as a negative foil to Camus’ ideal of the absurd person.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes and prescribes a philosophy of absurdity.  Absurdity is a “feeling of strangeness in the world” that results from the contradiction between our attempts to find transcendent meaning in the universe and our inevitable failure to do so.  The absurd person recognizes that “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it.  But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”  As a result, the absurd person tries “to live without appeal” to any higher authority, which includes God, the gods, or any metaphysical concepts, and to live without hope for life after death.[40]  This is not an easy thing to do.

Absurdity, according to Camus, is not a stable or secure position.  We are forced to live in a state of “permanent revolution” against ourselves because what we can rationally establish as truth conflicts with what we feel ought to be the case.  We are perpetually caught up in a contradiction between the inescapable conclusion that we cannot reasonably find any final answers, and our incorrigible feeling that they must exist.  “There is so much stubborn hope in the human heart,” Camus warns, “that hope cannot be eluded forever and that it can beset even those who wanted to be free of it.”  He concludes that “Absurdity, hope and death carry on their dialogue” in the mind of an absurd person, all of which makes for an impossible situation, but it is one the absurd person has to live with.[41]

The absurd person is best exemplified for Camus by the mythological figure of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus is variously portrayed in ancient Greek mythology as a villain and a hero, but all accounts agree that he was the craftiest of mortals, and that he frequently defied and outwitted the gods.  At one point, he even succeeded in enchaining Hades, the god of death, and thereby put a halt to humans dying.  Sisyphus was eventually defeated by Zeus, so that Hades was able to go back to work, and he was sentenced by the gods to eternally push a rock up a hill, only to have it fall back again so that he would have to push it up again.

Camus presents Sisyphus’ situation as a metaphor for the human condition.  We are all engaged in what seems like pointless activity.  But, Camus claims, Sisyphus does not despair.  Having defied the gods and rebelled against death on behalf of humankind, Sisyphus is actually happy in his perpetual toil.  In “his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life,” Sisyphus epitomizes “the absurd hero.”  He is physically chained but metaphysically free.  And even as Sisyphus knows that the rock will roll back down each time he gets it to the top of the hill, he can feel that maybe this time it won’t.[42]

The Myth of Sisyphus opens with the question of whether suicide is warranted given the opacity of the universe.  Camus’ answer is an emphatic “No.”  An absurd person does not despair of his/her hopeless condition but, instead, revels in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion” for life.  This is a passion that must includes others.  People, says Camus, have to make their own meaning in life, and that is a social and collective activity.  In an absurd world, he insists, there is one value that is certain and that is the value of “human relations,” “friendship,” and “fraternity.”  The isolated individual is an idiot and the isolated life is without value.  Meaning comes from solidarity.  We live with and for others, so that whatever the universe is, we are all in it and in for it together.[43]

Critics who portray Meursault as some sort of existentialist hero extol what they see as his honesty in admitting his indifference to the deaths of his mother and the Arab.  This, they contend, makes him a forthright nonconformist. [44]  They also admire what they claim is his sensitivity to those around him.  He does not deliberately offend anyone, with the exception of the dead Arab.[45]  And they commend his “emotional detachment” from the awful things he has experienced in his life.  He is in their eyes a genuine Stoic. [46]  In sum, they see his life story as a “tragedy of integrity” and a “tragedy of the ethical,” a man who was vilified at trial and convicted of murder because he failed to proclaim grief for his dead mother or love for his girl friend.[47]  Camus himself apparently once said that Meursault was condemned because “he does not play the game,” “refuses to lie,” and “agrees to die for the truth.”[48]  But none of these things make Meursault either an existentialist or an absurdist, let alone a hero.

Existentialism has been described as the doctrine that existence precedes essence, and that we are what we are not and are not what we are.  That is, it is a philosophy of becoming and change in which people are seen as having continually to go beyond themselves and make choices as to what they become next.  Existentialism insists that we must take responsibility for who we are and what we do.[49]  Given this description, Meursault is clearly not an existentialist because he continuously refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and particularly eschews responsibility for shooting the Arab.  He repeatedly describes his life as something that just came to pass, and describes the shooting as though the gun just went off almost by itself.  He also insists that he has always been the same, has never changed, and has rarely made a deliberate choice.

Meurault is also not an absurdist as Camus describes that doctrine.  Absurdism requires a person to be constantly at war with himself, looking for where and how he is starting to believe in transcendent ideas, and then rejecting them.  The absurd person has to be vigilantly self-reflective, watching what he/she thinks and feels, continually engaging in a vigorous  internal dialogue.  Meursault, to the contrary, is completely and admittedly unreflective.[50]  He is a creature of impulse, which is epitomized by his shooting of the Arab.

Some readers have mistaken Meursault’s complete absorption in the present as a sign of his existentialist and absurdist leanings.  But his self-absorption is merely a sign of selfishness and self-centeredness, which are contrary to the emphases of both existentialism and absurdism on our need to work with others to define and develop ourselves.  Significantly, Meursault is capable of sympathizing with others — he even feels sorry sometimes for his neighbor’s annoying dog — but he is incapable of empathizing with them.  He is emotionally and intellectually isolated, from others and even from himself.

Some readers have also mistaken Meursault’s unconventionality with Camus’ absurdity, but Meursault represents the apathetic person rather than the absurd person.   As he describes his life, what looks like nonconformity is really just indifference.  Deliberate rebellion is foreign to Meursault’s personality, as is passion.  He repeatedly tells his girlfriend that he does not know what love means, and he repeatedly says about choices he has to make, including the choice to shoot the Arab, that it makes no difference what he does.  The passion for life, the feeling of solidarity with others, and the revolt against injustice that characterize Camus’ absurd person are not sentiments that one could plausibly ascribe to Meursault.

Finally, while Camus emphasizes that the absurd person is energized in the face of death, defying its inevitability and gaining from it a passion for life, Meursault is depressed by his impending death and his narrative is a depressing tale told in a depressed voice.  In sum, Meursault is the opposite of the absurd person Camus is describing in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Meursault and Murder: A Rebel without a Cause.

“I rebel – therefore we exist.”

Albert Camus: The Rebel.[51]

Camus’ next philosophical book after The Myth of Sisyphus was The Rebel, which was published in 1951.  It is an essay on “whether or why we have the right to kill.”  Camus says that the book extends to a consideration of murder the “train of thought which began with suicide and the absurd” in The Myth of Sisyphus.[52]  If one must not kill oneself, may one kill others?  Reviewers have generally construed The Rebel in light of the breakup of the political alliance and friendship between Sartre and Camus over the former’s support for revolutionary Communism and the latter’s support for reformist socialism.[53]

Camus argues that revolution, which tries to impose all at once a final regime of justice on society, inevitably leads to oppression and murder.  Only a reformist movement that recognizes limits on what it can do can move toward genuine social justice.  The anti-revolutionary position Camus takes in The Rebel is generally seen as a function of the end of alliances between socialists and Communists that formed during World War II and that broke up with the beginning of the Cold War.

But there is also a continuity in Camus’ thinking that goes back to the composition of The Stranger during World War  IIMost reviewers, having already taken for granted that The Stranger is a companion piece to The Myth of Sisyphus, have not made a connection between The Rebel and The Stranger.  But The Myth of Sisyphus is a book about suicide.  The Rebel and The Stranger are both books about murder.  In this light, The Stranger can be best seen as a fictional prologue to Camus’ philosophical speculations in The Rebel, not as a companion piece to The Myth of Sisyphus.  And in light of the precepts promoted by Camus in The Rebel, Meursault comes across as a negative foil to the ideal rebel.

Camus reiterates in The Rebel many key concepts from The Myth of Sisyphus.  He insists that absurdism means that “human life is the only necessary good” and that, therefore, murder, which like suicide destroys life, is wrong.  Murder splits the soul in two, which is a good description of Meursault in The Stranger, a person living a half-life.  Camus acknowledges that “The absurd is, in itself, contradictory” because it denies value judgments but judges life to be of value, which is a value judgment.  Absurdism is a prescription for contradiction because it requires us to continually rebel against beliefs that we inevitably fall into.  But these contradictions are life-giving, Camus contends, because stagnation is death.  Rebellion, which is a “protest against death” and which was Sisyphus’ crime and his glory, is life.[54]    

Camus also insists in The Rebel, as he did in The Myth of Sisyphus, that humans are social creatures, not isolated individuals, and that “Human solidarity is metaphysical,” not merely conventional.  The person who does not engage in collective activity, either rebelling against  social oppression or in favor of greater social justice, is a stranger to humanity and foreigner in the world.  The stranger is the self-imposed outcaste who does not recognize that “dignity is common to all men,” or acknowledge the ultimate truth that “I rebel – therefore we exist.”[55]  That is, Camus concludes, we only truly exist to the extent we engage in collective rebellion.

Meursault seems to think of himself as a rebel, and many critics have thought likewise, because he does not conform to social conventionalities.  But he is an unrepentant murderer who does not stand for anything or with anybody.  He has no cause to which he is dedicated.  He is merely an isolated individual, who is strange to others and strange to himself.  In Camus’ terms, a person like Meursault is not a rebel and has only a form of half-life.

Brothers in Blood: Meursault and Harun.

Who is the Stranger of the two?

“The absurdity of my condition, which consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down again, endlessly.”

Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Investigation.[56]

The words L’Etranger, the French title of Camus’ novel, can be translated as the stranger, the outsider or the foreigner.  It is usually translated as The Stranger and most commentators see Meursault as the stranger.  He is a man estranged from himself and society.  But, the Arab he kills is also a stranger and a foreigner to Meursault, just as the Frenchman Meursault is a stranger and foreigner to the Arab.  So, who is the stranger?  Who is the foreigner?

That is a question that Huran, the narrator of Daoud’s novel The Meursault Investigation, repeatedly asks.  Both the French and the Arabs saw themselves as the genuine Algerians.  Each claimed the land was rightfully theirs, and saw the others as foreigners.  They also knew little about each other and were effectively strangers to each other in the same land.  With the independence of Algeria from France, Harun contends, this did not change.  “Independence only pushed people on both sides to switch roles,” with the oppressed becoming the oppressors and the oppressors becoming the oppressed.[57]

Harun tells his tale over the course of several days to an auditor in an Algerian bar.  He claims to be telling the story of his brother, Musa, and, thereby, reclaiming Musa’s dignity and the dignity of Arab Algerians as a whole.  His story is replete with critical comments about the French colonial regime and the current Algerian government and society.  He is himself an outsider or stranger to contemporary Algerian society.  Harun is particularly critical of the conservative Islam that has increasingly been dominating Algerian culture.  It is these latter comments that have sparked the enmity of conservative Muslims toward Daoud, as though Harun is speaking for Daoud.  Although Harun makes comments about society and religion with which apparently Daoud agrees, Harun is too unreliable and erratic a narrator to be considered Daoud’s spokesman.  He tends to discredit himself.

Harun’s narrative is more of a rant than a story, and the facts come out in dribs and drabs with lots of inconsistencies.  Ostensibly correcting Meursault’s narrative with the story of his brother, Harun’s narrative is actually a winding, whining, long-winded complaint about his own life.  His father abandoned the family when Harun was a small child.  Harun’s mother then favored Musa and neglected Harun.  When Musa was killed, Harun’s mother was inconsolable and, according to Harun, thereafter made him feel like she wished he had died rather than Musa.  Harun idolized his brother, but also feared him.  Musa seems to have been a bit of a brute who mistreated Harun.  Harun actually knows very little about Musa’s life except what his mother told him, and she was an unreliable narrator who constantly changed her stories and magnified Musa’s achievements.  She also was obsessed with getting revenge for Musa’s murder, and put the burden on Harun to achieve that.  In sum, he portrays his mother as a monster who has pushed him around all his life.

When the revolution of Arab Algerians against the French began, Harun did not join the rebels, and was subsequently scorned by his neighbors for being an outsider to their liberation struggle.  In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, at his mother’s instigation, Harun shoots and kills a Frenchman who was seeking sanctuary in their shed.  This man was a member of a neighboring family that had previously gotten Harun a place in a French school at which Harun gained the education that enabled him to get a good government job.  It is not clear exactly what was the relationship between the dead man and Huran’s mother, but the man may even have had some sort of sexual relationship with Harun’s mother.[58]  Harun was arrested by the new Algerian government for shooting the man, but was released and, as he puts it, was condemned to live rather than condemned to die as Meursault had been.  Harun seems incapable of having close relationships with anyone.  He is a very old man but in his long life he has had one girlfriend for one summer, and then she left him.

Although some reviewers have rushed to crown Harun as “an existential hero”[59] or the ideal of an honest man,[60] and others have proclaimed him a liberal social reformer,[61] Harun does not present himself as a social reformer.  Although he continually complains about the way Algeria was under the French and the way it is now, he has never done anything to change things.  One reviewer has aptly called him “a barroom kvetcher.”[62]  Like Meursault, he has been wandering through life without purpose, seemingly looking after only himself.  He is no hero and he is not Daoud.

Harun parades his alienation from society.  He is an atheist and an alcoholic in a deeply religious and abstemious society.  “I detest religions and submission,” he declaims.[63]  He is a stranger in an estranged land.  But he is no existentialist.  Like Meursault, Harun refuses to take responsibility for his actions, blaming everything on his mother, the French, his Arab neighbors, and circumstances out of his control.  With respect to the murder, he says “I blame my mother, I lay the blame on her.  The truth is, she committed that crime.”[64]

The underlying theme of the book is Harun’s feelings of guilt, which he seemingly tries to pass on to his auditor in the book and to readers of the book.  Like The Stranger, The Meursault Investigation is divided into two parts.  The Stranger is formally divided into two parts, punctuated by the murder of the Arab.  The Meursault Investigation is informally divided into two parts, with Harun’s admission that he murdered the Frenchman as the dividing point.  In the first part, Harun focuses on the murder of Musa and on his own survivor’s guilt.  In the second part, he focuses on his murder of the Frenchman and his efforts to deal with his feelings of guilt about that.

Harun’s diatribe has the superficial appearance of spontaneity, but seems really to be orchestrated.  He releases information in drips and in ways that seem calculated for maximum shock to the auditor, but also for maximum sympathy.  His is a strategy of ostensibly admitting the worst about himself as a way of pretending he is being honest, but he is really being manipulative.   When, for example, Harun finally admits his murder of the Frenchman, he at first claims that he did not know the man.  Eventually, however, he admits that he did know the man and, in fact, knew him well.  Harun first gets his audience used to the fact that he killed someone, and then gradually lets us know how awful his act really was.

Harun is an admittedly unreliable narrator.  At the close of the book, he even hints that he may be “just a compulsive liar.”[65]  In discussing The Stranger, for example, he talks at one point about “when the murderer leaves prison,” as though Meursault got the reprieve he had been seeking and was not executed.  But later in talking about Meursault, Harun refers to “after his execution,” as though Meursault had been executed.[66]  Harun also claims that this is the first time he has ever told his story, but he seems to be such a compulsive talker that this is hard to believe.

Harun’s story is laced with references to The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus and, significantly, The Rebel, and the word “absurd” abounds throughout.  I think the main point of Harun’s story is proclaimed midway through the book when he paraphrases the theme of The Rebel, saying that “whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher.”[67]  That is, when faced with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, do we have the right to murder our way out of our troubles?  And I think that Harun’s answer is “No, because you can never live it down.”

Harun illustrates this in a paraphrase of an image from The Myth of Sisyphus, when he compares his situation to “pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down, endlessly.”[68]  Instead of the rock that Sisyphus had to push around, Harun has to deal with guilt for two corpses, those of his brother and the Frenchman.  He seems to need to tell his story as a way of relieving himself of his guilt feelings, and thereby getting the corpses to the top of the hill.  But the guilt feelings will inevitably return again, the corpses rolling back down upon him, so that he probably has been compulsively telling his story over and over again all his adult life.  The story ends with an almost complete identification of the murderer Harun with the murderer Meusault, and the last pages of the book consist of Harun telling about how he started yelling at an Imam just as Meursault did to a priest. Harun repeats virtually the same words that Meursault said at the end of his story.[69]

The theme of The Meursault Investigation was aptly stated by one reviewer as the importance of “individual responsibility,” which is something Harun does not display, nor did Meursault.[70]   In Meursault and Harun, we have characters pushed to the extreme of facing death as isolated individuals, Meursault through execution and Harun through old age.    They make some cogent social criticisms, because self-centered people are often acutely sensitive to slights and slight social injustices to themselves.  But they are also both selfish and at best amoral.  They are not held up by their creators as model citizens.  The moral of both books seems to be the need for human solidarity as a basis for individual responsibility.  Camus once commented that the trajectory of his work from The Stranger on was toward calling more insistently for human solidarity.  Daoud seems to be furthering that trajectory.

[1] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.73.

[2] As though any sane person during the 1780’s would want to keep a musket (the standard  gun at that time) in his/her house along with a bag of volatile gunpowder (needed for loading a musket) which could explode with the slightest change in humidity.  The reason the British were marching on Lexington and Concord during April, 1775, and fought the battles that are seen as the start of the American Revolution, was to confiscate the muskets and gunpowder Americans had stored in their militia armories that were located a safe distance from their homes.

[3] Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015.

[4]  Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’ The Stranger.” Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.bpi.edu  9/5/08.  Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). 6/6/14.  Charomonte, Nicola. “Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless.” The New Republic. newrepublic.com  11/7/14. John. “Algerian Writer Kamel Daoud Stands Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ on Its Head.” NPR Book Reviews. NPR.org. 6/23/15.

[5]  “The Stranger (novel). Wikipedia. 1/23/16.

[6]  “The Stranger.” Sparknotes.com. 1/23/16.

[7]   “The Stranger.” Amazon.com Review. 1/23/16.

[8]  Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book.

[9]  Although Camus worked with Sartre and other existentialists, he repeatedly rejected applying the label existentialist to himself.  Camus rejected what he saw as the radical skepticism bordering on nihilism of some existentialists.  But I think that some of the concepts developed by his one-time mentor and colleague Sartre can be legitimately used in analyzing The Stranger.

[10]  Sartre, Jean Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.”  Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. pp.25, 47.

[11]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.1, 151.

[12]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.137, 143.

[13]  Messud, Claire. “The Brother of ‘The Stranger.'” New York Review of Books. 10/22/15.

[14]  Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.

[15]  Sartre, Jean Paul. “A Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.94.

[16]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.123.

[17]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.121, 128.

[18]  Quoted in Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[19]  Gwyn, Aaron. “Albert Camus’ Poker-faced ‘Stranger’ Became a Much Needed Friend.” NPR Books, WBEZ.  August 10,2014.  Charomonte, Nicola. “Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless.” The New Republic. newrepublic.com  November 7, 2014.

[20]  Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’ The Stranger.” Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.bpi.edu  9/5/08.

[21]  Hudon, Louis. “The Stranger and the Critics.” Yale French Studies #25. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960. pp.62-63.  Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.”  International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[22]  Podhoretz, Norman. “Camus and his critics.”  The New Criterion. November, 1982. at newcriterion.com

[23]  Poore, Charles. “The Stranger.” Books of the Times. The New York Times, April 11, 1946.

[24]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.76, 89.

[25]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.2, 7-8, 53.

[26] [26]  See grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief

[27]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.1.

[28]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.11.

[29]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.44, 52.

[30]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.72, 75, 76.

[31]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.79, 109-112, 120, 125, 128.

[32]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.104-105, 112, 124, 130.

[33]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. pp.136, 141, 143, 146, 148.

[34]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.154.

[35] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.27.

[36] Hudon, Louis. “The Stranger and the Critics.” Yale French Studies #25. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960. p.60.  Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[37] Podhoretz, Norman. “Camus and his critics.”  The New Criterion. November, 1982. at newcriterion.com  Ulin, David. “Review ‘The Meursault Investigation’ re-imagines Camus’ ‘The Stranger.'” Los Angeles Times. 5/28/15.

[38]  Sartre, Jean Paul.  “A Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. pp.76, 80, 81, 82, 84, 85.

[39] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.3.

[40] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.11, 38, 39.

[41] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.8, 22, 40, 76, 83.

[42] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.89, 90.

[43] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.41, 47, 66.

[44] Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[45] Scherr, Arthur. “Camus’ The Stranger.” Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.bpi.edu  9/5/08.

[46] Gwyn, Aaron. “Albert Camus’ Poker-faced ‘Stranger’ Became a Much Needed Friend.” NPR Books, WBEZ.  August 10,2014.

[47] Charomonte, Nicola. “Albert Camus Thought That Life Is Meaningless.” The New Republic. newrepublic.com  November 7, 2014.

[48] Quoted in Gnanasekarau, R. “Psychological Interpretation of the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Camus.” International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Vol.2(6). June 6, 2014.

[49]  Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

[50]  Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. p.127.

[51] Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956, p.22

[52] Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. pp.4-5.

[53]  “Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. plato.stanford.edu  “The Rebel: Essay by Camus.” britannica.com.  “Camus: Portrait of a Rebel.” Socialist Standard. worldsocialism.org

[54]  Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. pp.6, 8, 10, 281, 285.

[55]  Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956. pp.17, 22, 280, 297.

[56]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.47.

[57]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.11, 34, 60.

[58]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.119,122.

[59]  Yassin-Kassab, Robin. “The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud review – an instant classic.” the guardian. 6/24/15.

[60]  Messud, Claire. “The Brother of the ‘Stranger.'” New York Review of Books. 10/22/15.

[61]  Moaveni, Azadeh. “‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud.” Financial Times. 6/10/15. Battersby, Ellen. “The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud review: L’Estranger danger.” Irish Times. 6/27/15.

[62]  “The Meursault Investigation.” Kirkus Review.

[63]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.66.

[64]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.77, 84, 88, 89.

[65]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.143.

[66]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. pp.53, 55.

[67]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.89.

[68]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.47.

[69]  Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation. New York: Other Press, 2015. p.140-142.

[70]  Powers, John. “Algerian Writer Kamel Daoud Stands Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ on Its Head.” NPR Book Reviews. NPR.org  6/23/15.

Burton Weltman

A country road.  A tree.  Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot.

He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

Setting and action at the beginning of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

A guy trying to take off his boots, and failing.  That is how Waiting for Godot opens, and it is a prime example of the sort of action that takes place during the play.  There is very little dramatic action at the beginning of the play, and none at the end.  In between, two ragged men, Estragon and Vladimir (Gogo and Didi for short), wander back and forth on a bleak stage and talk at each other as they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot, whom they may never have met (it isn’t clear) and know almost nothing about.  They are briefly interrupted by four other characters, a poltroon named Pozzo with his slave Lucky, and two messenger boys sent by Godot.  That’s it.

Godot was completed in 1949 by Samuel Beckett in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.  It was a time when many Europeans were suffering from what we might today call post traumatic stress disorder.  They were still trying to figure out what had hit them and what they could do about it.  Godot was part of a flood of existentialist works produced during the 1940’s and 1950’s by Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and other writers.  Sartre and Camus, the leading figures in the existentialist group, emphasized the helplessness, hopelessness, and pointlessness of human existence.  Godot has been compared with their works.  The setting of Godot is bleak, the main characters wander about to no obvious purpose, and the play has no obvious plot.  I intend to show, however, that Beckett makes a very different point than Sartre and Camus.

Godot has also been compared in recent years with the television comedy show Seinfeld.  Seinfeld has been famously characterized and satirized by its own characters as a show about nothing.  And although Seinfeld is amusing, it really is pretty much about nothing.  Godot has been similarly characterized as being about nothing because the play seems so unfocussed and nothing dramatic happens.  But this comparison is weak.  Godot is amusing, but there is also something to the play that has led critics to describe it as “mesmerizing,” and induced many to rate it as a great work of art.  One may ridicule Godot, it has been said, but one “cannot ignore it.”[1]  Very few people would say that about Seinfeld.  What is it about Godot that accounts for its hold on audiences?  I hope in this essay to show what that is.

A great work of art has been described as one that can be experienced repeatedly with something new gained each time.  A great book is, for example, one that can be read over and over, with the reader getting more and different things each time.  A great play is one that can be seen many times with new insights each time.  The more a work can be profitably reread or re-watched, the more there is to it and the greater it is.[2]

That is something we can do with the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens, and that is why people today frequently read and reread, watch and re-watch works by these authors.  It is not something that most people can do with the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporary and friend Christopher Marlowe or with the books of Dickens’ contemporary and friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton.   Marlow and Bulwer-Lytton were considered innovative and widely popular authors in their day.  But they have not stood well the test of time, and their works are not often performed or read.[3]  Bulwer-Lytton has even had the singular misfortune to have named after him an annual contest for the worst opening sentence for a novel, having opened one of his novels with the oft ridiculed line “It was a dark and stormy night.”[4]

Great literary works like those of Shakespeare and Dickens appeal to us to consider them carefully.  They connect with us in a way that says that there is more to them than meets the eye at our first glance, and that we are missing something important if we don’t try to find it.  Great works are also multidimensional, not merely one-dimensional, sentimental appeals to our emotions or didactic appeals to our intellect.  They appeal to us and challenge us in a variety of ways, intellectually, experientially, imaginatively, and emotionally.

A literary work is said, for example, to have intellectual appeal if it challenges our ideas about things.  It has experiential appeal if it relates to things with which we are familiar but focuses on things we have ignored.  A work has imaginative appeal if it is couched in imagery that opens our eyes to something we are capable of seeing but have not seen before.  It has  emotional appeal if it evokes empathy and emotionally involves us in unexpected ways.  A great work makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange.[5]  Godot does just that.  As I hope to demonstrate in this essay, the play appeals to our intellects, personal experiences, imaginations and emotions, and provokes us to think and feel about things in new ways.  It can also be seen over and over without exhausting its appeal.  In sum, it is well worth waiting for Godot.

Estragon: Nothing to be done.

Vladimir: I am beginning to come around to that opinion.  All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything.  And I resumed the struggle.

Opening lines of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

“What is to be done?” asked Vladimir Lenin in the title of his famous book of 1901.  The book was written at a low point in working class struggles in Europe, at a time when apathetic workers seemed to be adapting to their oppression under the capitalist system.  Lenin’s answer was to build a revolutionary movement led by a vanguard cadre of radicals who would energize workers and show them the way.  Estragon parodies and critiques Lenin with his “Nothing to be done” as the opening salvo of the debate between him and his comrade Vladimir, which largely constitutes Godot.  Vladimir responds in Leninist fashion that whenever he feels at a low point, he thinks of all the things he has not yet tried, and then he resumes the struggle.

But there are limits to Vladimir’s stamina.  He is beginning to despair.  His despair recalls that of his namesake Lenin, wasting away in exile in Switzerland during January, 1917.  Lenin told a group of visiting comrades that they must reconcile themselves to the fact that there would probably be no revolution in Russia during their lifetimes.  But, he adjured, they must keep the faith and wait things out.  Quite unexpectedly, revolution broke out the next month in Russia and Lenin returned to lead it.  One never knows what can be done if one has not tried everything.

What is to be done, Estragon and Vladimir are continually asking?  How should they spend their time while they wait for God knows what?   So, they play with words and play verbal games, just as Beckett wrote plays and played with words.  They goad each other with what are seemingly intentional misunderstandings of the other, a way of making something of a conversation out of nothing.  “Let’s contradict each other,” Estragon suggests and later insists “Let’s ask each other questions.”  After one such episode, Estragon rejoices that “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.”  “Yes, yes, we’re magicians,” Vladimir responds.

They sprinkle their conversation with allusions to books, events and ideas that they have difficulty recalling and construing, just as Beckett sprinkles Godot with allusions to things for us, the audience, to try to decipher and ponder.  Vladimir, for example, referring to the story that one of the two thieves who were to be crucified with Jesus was spared, notes that only one of the four Gospels mentions the story.  Estragon’s reply is “Well?  They don’t agree and that’s all there is to it.”  Vladimir’s response is “But all four were there and only one speaks of a thief being saved.  Why believe him rather than the other four?”  This is not only a question about the New Testament, it is a question about evidence and testimony of all sorts, and about ethical choices.

“It is a game, everything is a game,” Beckett once supposedly said about Godot.[6]  There is an almost endless number of things in the play for Estragon and Vladimir to think about, and us too.  The play has enormous intellectual appeal and appeal for intellectuals.  Philosophy, religion, politics, and ethics are just a few of the themes with which it deals, and which the characters discuss.  It is not clear that Estragon and Vladimir make any progress in their speculations, but they greet each day and each other with an embrace and a celebration.

Vladimir: It’s a scandal!

Pozzo: Are you alluding to anything in particular?                                                            

Vladimir: To treat a man…like that…I think that…no…a human being…no…it’s a         scandal.

Estragon: A disgrace.

Vladimir and Estragon reacting to Pozzo’s treatment of his slave Lucky in Act I.

“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?,” asked the Lollard priest John Ball, one of the leaders of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381.  In fighting against the oppression of the peasants by their overlords, Ball exhorted his followers to return to the simplicity and social equality of the Garden of Eden, where there was no private property or social hierarchy.  Ball’s appeal tapped into a traditional Christian utopian dream of the sort that in modern times was voiced by John Lennon in his song Imagine.  “Imagine there’s no heaven…Imagine there’s no countries…Imagine there’s no possession,” John Lennon asks us.  And then, he says, imagine the wonderful consequences, with everyone living in peace, sharing the world, and living for today.

Lennon’s words are a surprisingly plausible way of describing the situation of Estragon and Vladimir in Godot.  They own virtually no property, and share what they have.  They do not demonstrate any tribal loyalties or prejudices.  They bicker a lot, but they do not actually fight.  They sometimes envy the seemingly wealthy Pozzo and hope for riches for themselves, but they don’t do anything about it.  They live totally for the day.  So, is Godot intended as a description of utopia?  Or a portrait of dystopia?  Is it a parody of the Garden of Eden?

Godot been called “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” [7]  It has also been declared so ambiguous as to be “Whatever you want it to be,” let your mind make of it what you will.[8]  Although I think that is an overstatement, the play does make a strong appeal to the imagination.  A big part of this appeal stems from its minimalism.  Godot has a minimalist script calling for a minimalist setting and a minimalist performance.  It strips life down to a bare minimum of things, and focuses on the moment-to-moment and day-to-day survival of its two main characters.  This minimalism makes for a maximum of interpretations.  Godot has been produced as a comedy, tragedy, tragic-comedy, farce, and melodrama.  It has been interpreted as a psychological, political, sociological, metaphysical, and/or religious drama.

The setting is stark, and the play has been described as “about nowhere and therefore about everywhere.”[9]  The stage set consists essentially of a dying tree and a rock.  If it is Eden, it is a devastated garden.  Beckett sets his characters in a barren physical and psychological environment in which they are starving for stimulation.  They seem to suffer from sensory and intellectual deprivation and, as a result, they often imagine things.  Upon first meeting Pozzo, for example, they mistake him for Godot.  Estragon explains: “That is to say…you understand…the dusk…the strain…waiting…I confess…I imagined…for a second.”  We, the audience, too thought that our waiting might be over, that Godot had arrived.  But no, we must wait further.

The imagery is haunting.  It is a post-apocalyptic setting that is befitting a Europe devastated by economic depression and war.  But the setting also befits a post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima world that has been stripped of its moral veneer.  It is a world that needs an imaginative revival.   Beckett provides a structure for our imaginations, and forces us to think about the possibilities.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?

Vladimir:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

End of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

 “To be or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet proclaims, as he contemplates suicide and ponders what he should be and how to be it.  Hamlet’s answer is essentially a cop-out.  He claims that killing oneself may not end one’s problems because there may be an afterlife in which one’s tribulations may continue and even increase.  But Hamlet then goes on to pontificate in terms that seem to negate taking action of any sort, and do not apply merely to committing suicide:

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

This is an elaborate excuse for inaction.  Hamlet is a play about someone who does not want to choose, and does not want to act.  Godot is a play about people who are making choices and taking action.  This is the case even when the result looks like indecision and inaction.

In a seeming parody and rebuke of Hamlet, Vladimir claims that “What are we doing here? That is the question (emphasis in original).”  Suicide is not the question.  Action versus inaction is not the question.  The question is what should we do and why should we do it, since we are always doing something whether we like it or not.  This is the core question of the play and one that almost all of us ask ourselves at least sometimes, some of us a lot.  With this question, the play appeals to the personal experience of the audience, all of us wanderers in a time and place not of our choosing, searching for some meaning and for something meaningful to do with our lives.

Vladimir’s question is also arguably a response to Albert Camus’ influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was written in 1942, while France was under Nazi occupation and Camus was involved in the seemingly hopeless struggle of the French underground against the Nazi occupiers.  The opening words of Sisyphus are “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  As with Hamlet, suicide is the question.  For Camus, living without hope is the answer.[10]

Sisyphus was a character from Greek mythology who was condemned for eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down, so that he would have to push it back up again.  Camus claims that Sisyphus embraces this “futile and hopeless labor” because “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” and Sisyphus’ scorn for the gods sets him free.  “Sisyphus,” Camus claims, “teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.”  He concludes that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[11]  Heroic endurance, an acceptance of hopelessness, and happiness through scorn for one’s oppressors is Camus’ answer to the question of suicide.

Although Beckett’s main characters in Godot repeatedly consider killing themselves, boredom seems to be the main philosophic question for them, not suicide.  In contrast with Sisyphus, Godot was written at a time when economic depression and war were giving way to economic and political recovery, and the conformity of mass society had become a main worry among intellectuals.  Cultural critics such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were warning about the coming loss of individuality in what was becoming a homogenized Western society.[12]

Adorno and Horkheimer were the advanced guard of a legion of critics concerned that an age of coerced uniformity by fascist dictators was being succeeded by an era of voluntary conformity, and by the boredom that comes from a paucity of imagination, genuine choices and meaning in people’s lives.  Beckett was writing at the dawn of the age of David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd[13] succeeded by Vance Packard’s The Organization Man,[14] which eventually became Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.[15]  Self-suppression and willful conformity were their main concerns.  Western culture, they complained, was becoming a domain of intellectual, experiential, imaginative, and emotional vacuity.

Physical suicide was not the problem for these intellectuals.  Psychological suicide was.  Both Act I and Act II of Godot end with Estragon and Vladimir saying they will kill themselves tomorrow.  But we know they won’t.  They are merely bored, and are entertaining themselves with speculations about committing suicide.  It is just one of the many things they think of doing, but don’t do.  Estragon and Vladimir are continually thinking about how to be, even when they are speculating about how not to be.  They seem to be Beckett’s response to the complaints of mass society theorists.  Beckett’s everymen are as shabby as they can be, but they are anything but conformists.  There is no “Keeping up with the Joneses” with them.  Beckett seems to be saying that a tawdry tedium should not be confused with a vacuous conformity.        

In a contrast with Hamlet, who does not really answer his own question about being, Vladimir answers his.  He says “And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear.  We are waiting for Godot to come.”  Unlike Hamlet, Estragon and Vladimir are not dithering around in a quandary about whether or not to do something.  They are doing something, according to Vladimir, even if, like Lenin biding his time in Switzerland, it is only keeping the faith and keeping themselves together while they wait for things to unfold.

“We are not saints,” Vladimir concludes, “but we have kept our appointment” with Godot, and that is something to be proud of.  It is also something with which we in the audience can empathize.  “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” Woody Allen once said.  “I can’t go on,” Estragon complains at one point.  “That’s what you think,” Vladimir responds, and they go on.  Vladimir and Estragon show up every day to wait for Godot.  Most of us would do well to do the same in our own lives.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?                                                                                                        

Vladimir:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

End of Act II of Waiting for Godot.

 “It’s all symbiosis,” Beckett is supposed to have once said about Godot.[16]  Beckett was extremely reluctant to comment on the meaning of his plays, but he seems hereby to have acknowledged that Godot is above all a play about human relationships.  Strip life down to its bare bones and what you have left is relationships.  Godot is frequently paired with Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit as a play about people who are trapped physically and psychologically, and who cannot get out of the vicious cycles in which their lives, or their afterlives in the case of No Exit, unhappily revolve.  No Exit portrays what Sartre saw as the contradiction between being metaphysically free but psychologically imprisoned, which is a frequent theme in existentialist writing.

Similar to Camus’ writing of Sisyphus, Sartre wrote No Exit in Paris during 1944,while France was still under Nazi occupation.  It is a story about three dead people, a man and two women, who are locked in a room. The room is ostensibly Hell.  In the beginning, they marvel at the idea that where they are is Hell, and they anticipate that they will be okay if being in a locked room is the worst they will suffer for their misdeeds in life.  But then their personalities start to come into play.

The man is chronically depressed and despondent.  One of the women increasingly lusts after him.  The other woman increasingly lusts after the first woman and scorns the man.  He, in turn, seeks the scornful woman’s approval.  The net result is a vicious circle in which each of them preys on the others.  Toward the end of the play, the door to the room opens so that they apparently could exit the room.  None of them, however, chooses to leave.  They seemingly want or need to be tortured.  Psychologically, there is no way out for them.

The man sums up what the play says about the human condition with the phrase: “L’enfer, ces les autres” or “Hell is other people.”  He also voices the moral of the story in the last words of the play: “Eh bien, continuons,” that is, “Let’s continue” or “Let’s get on with it.”  Written in circumstances similar to those in which Camus wrote Sisyphus, Sartre’s moral in No Exit is similar to Camus’ in Sisyphus.  We must resign ourselves to a living hell.  The moral of Godot is different.

There are three sets of symbiotic relationships in Godot: Estragon and Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky, and the two messenger boys and Godot.  As Pozzo appears in the first act of the play, he is a pompous braggart and a wealthy bully.  He drags his slave Lucky around with a rope and routinely denigrates him.  Although Pozzo looks down upon Estragon and Vladimir for their poverty and for hanging about waiting for Godot, he goes hither and yon without seeming to get anywhere.  In the second act, Pozzo shows up having been accidentally blinded.  Now the slave is pulling him around by the rope.  Pozzo has gone from bumptious to pathetic, but Lucky remains his slave and neither knows how to get away from the other.  Theirs is a symbiotic master-slave relationship that has enslaved and degraded them both, but with no way out.

The two boys have an ambiguous relationship with Godot.  One is a shepherd, the other a goatherd.  Godot apparently mistreats and beats one of them, but it is not clear which.  This is like the Cain and Able story in the Bible in which God favors the shepherd Able over the farmer Cain for no apparent reason.  From passages such as this, many interpreters of the play claim that “It seem fairly certain that Godot stands for God.”[17]  In this view, waiting for Godot would seem like an act of religious faith.  This view is reinforced by Vladimir’s response to Estragon’s question about Godot.  “And if he comes?” asks Estragon.  “We’ll be saved,” answers Vladimir, with salvation generally regarded as a religious goal.  But Godot and salvation could stand for any number of things for which people hope, from God to Lenin’s revolution.  I do not think it matters to the moral of the play.

The moral of the play, I think, resides in the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir.  Most interpretations of the play focus on the dourness of the characters’ situation and the hopelessness of their enterprise.[18]  It has been said that the play has “a unique resonance during times of social and political crisis,” and that its appeal is as a catharsis for people’s despair.[19]  I do not see the play as a catharsis for despair.  I propose, instead, that the play is a success story with a happy ending, thus making for the strong emotional connection that we feel for the characters.

Waiting for the arrival of Godot is primarily an excuse for Estragon and Vladimir to stay together.  The real reason they sit and wait is that they complement each other, care about each other, and take care of each other.  They bicker constantly and repeatedly consider going their separate ways, but they don’t go and they don’t separate.  “It’d be better if we parted,” Estragon suggests for the nth time.  “You always say that,” Vladimir responds, “and you always come crawling back.”

Beckett has been quoted as saying that “Estragon and Vladimir are like a married couple who’ve been together too long.”[20]  They go nowhere, but they have each other.  They seem pathetic at first, but not later.  In the repetition of their daily tedium, Estragon and Vladimir encourage each other to assume a dignified posture, and they appeal to us in their striving for integrity and meaning in their lives.  As they struggle at one point with Estragon’s boots, he observes that “We don’t manage too badly, eh Didi, between the two of us.”  “Yes, yes,” Vladimir agrees, and the conclusion seems to apply to more than just the boots.

Pozzo looks down on Estragon and Vladimir in the first act when he is flying high, but envies them in the second act when he has fallen and they have stayed the same.  Vladimir asks Estragon at one point whether he thinks Pozzo and Lucky have changed.  “Very likely,” Estragon responds, “They all change.  Only we can’t.”  It has been said that the play mocks us, the audience.  We sit in the theater doing nothing while watching actors who do nothing.  We fill our meaningless time watching characters who fill their meaningless time waiting for a phantasm.[21]  I do not agree.

I think the play is in the end a love story, a story of endless love that abides through boredom and makes the tedium of daily life worthwhile.  “How long have we been together all time now?,” Estragon asks.  “I don’t know, fifty years maybe,” Vladimir answers.  Out of almost nothing, out of merely their meager selves, Estragon and Vladimir make meaningful lives through caring about each other and taking care of each other.  The hopefulness in their relationship belies the sparseness of their situation.  It does not matter whether Godot ever shows up.  And that, I believe, best explains the hold that the play has on audiences, and why people continue to sit time and again with Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for Godot.

[1] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[2] Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] Bulwer-Lytton is even reportedly responsible for convincing Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations to leave open the possibility that Pip and Estelle will get together, a change that clearly weakened the ending.

[4] The contest has been held annually since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University.

[5] Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

[6] Quoted in www//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot

[7]  Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[8] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[9] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[10] Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.3.

[11]  Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.90-91.

[12] Adorno, Theodor & Max Horkheimer.

[13] Reisman, David, et al.  The Lonely Crowd.

[14] Packard, Vance. The Organization Man.

[15] Marcuse, Herbert. The One Dimensional Man.

[16] Quoted in www//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot

[17] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[18] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>

Beckett-Godot

[19] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[20] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the guardian.com

[21] Gardner, Lyn. “Waiting for Godot review – a dystopian Laurel and Hardy after an apocalypse.” 6/7/15.  Theatre. at http://www.theguardian.com

 

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