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Sartre and the Stranger

Being-for-Others vs. Being-For-Oneself in Camus' The Stranger

Hazel E. Barnes remarks that "it is a long time since serious philosophers have had to waste time and energy in showing that [Sartre's] philosophy is more than the unhappy reactions of France to the Occupation and post-war distress" (vii). Indeed, it would appear to be a waste of time to blame "post-war distress" for existentialism. In fact, to understood the evolution of modern philosophy (of which existentialism is just one more step) one must look beyond the 20th century all-together; in fact, he must place himself at the crucial moment in time when the old world definitively ended and the new world began. Richard Weaver places it in the 14th century when William of Occam denied the existence of universals, thus delivering a blow to the entire edifice upon which the medieval age of faith had been based (which was, of course, Aristotelian). This paper will not look so far back as that, but it will look, at least, politically to the 17th century, when the Peace of Westphalia was forged without the approval of the Roman Pontiff, thereby surrendering Europe to a new form of statehood, which Voltaire himself would mark as the beginning of a new era. That new era was one of religious liberty -- and from that liberty descended any number of modern philosophies, until we arrive finally at Sartre and his existentialism. Camus is said to have been an existentialist writer, though he never adopted the title himself. This paper will attempt to explain Camus' The Stranger from the perspective of Sartre's concept being-for-oneself and being-for-others, and show how Meursault finally becomes a representation of Being-for-oneself.

Being-for-oneself, or being-for-itself, may be defined as that which "is not what it is" (Sartre 64). To explain what Sartre means by this, we must keep in mind the modern notion of liberty -- or the freedom from externals (or even universals, as Weaver intimated). When we imply that being-for-oneself is not what it is, we mean that because the being is not for others (that is to say, is not attempting to conduct itself or be what the external world expects it to be), it is not what it is -- or, it is what oneself chooses it to be rather than what the outside world chooses to see it as. Being-for-others, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: it is being that attempts to conform to whatever others desire it to be.

Meursault of Camus' The Stranger represents a kind of drifting being, first mechanically evincing a kind of being-for-others, and then gradually entering into a stage of being-for-oneself. Whether Sartre, or we the reader, should see this as a victory is not essential to the topic. The fact is that a transformation in Meursault takes place, and that transformation is like a stripping away of unwanted identities -- or, rather, of sentiments that have no foundation in his soul.

The structure of The Stranger is simple: the novel is a first-person narrative divided into two parts -- Meursault's life from the time of his mother's death to the murder of the Arab; and Meursault's life from the time of the murder to his own execution. (The murder of the Arab in fact acts as the pivotal turning point when Meursault consciously begins to embrace being-for-oneself as opposed to being-for-others.) The narrative is written in a stylistic tone meant to drive straight to the point and make no excuses for behavior or attempts at explanation: the tone foreshadows the transformation of Meursault, who in the end will make no excuses for his decision to embrace being-for-oneself. The purpose of the tone also shows that life for Meursault is without any real meaning or purpose: his is a story that has no real beginning and no real end, but begins in medias res. It consists, in other words, solely of a middle -- and that middle element produces no great revelation other than the fact that Meursault cannot live in the manner that others expect of him -- for he knows not how to do it nor why he should nor what it even is that they want. He is a man without faith, without home, without family, and without tradition. He is anchorless and attached to nothing and therefore has only himself by whom to make account.

For this reason, Meursault expresses his disbelief in God and confronts death admittedly "afraid, which was only natural" (116) -- but at least he is doing it on his own terms, with a sense of being-for-oneself, rather than being-for-others. Were he still following being-for-others (as he is at the beginning of the novel -- attending the funeral of his mother, helping his friend entrap his girlfriend), he would convert simply for the priest's sake. But he does not. He has shed his act of being-for-others. He is on a new trajectory. No one truly understands it except for Meursault.

The structure of the novel echoes this naturalistic bent of Meursault: it makes no artistic reach for lofty sentiment or ideal -- although Sartre might attempt to say that Meursault's newfound being-for-oneself is an effect of transcendence. Perhaps it is, but that analysis is beyond our current scope. What we can say is that it is definitely not old world in spirit or in ideal: it disregards the past's concept of transcendence, which focuses on a higher good -- a transcendent ideal: something higher than and above and outside ourselves for which we might strive. Sartre calls this being-for-oneself, but we need not necessarily be convinced of his application. His philosophy is an attempt at explaining the modern. But the modern, as we have stated, might be better understood in terms of the past.

Meursault's world Represents one in which communication is limited: "I was slumped against a soldier who smiled at me and asked if I'd been traveling long. I said, 'Yes,' just so I wouldn't have to say anything else" (4). Meursault's friendships are not based on any type of commitment, although they do stem in a way from his sense of being-for-others, at least initially. As he abandons this sense of being he also abandons them. But at first, he helps Raymond trick his girlfriend because he simply finds it diverting. There is no moral compass in Meursault's eyes because the modern world has divorced itself from the foundations that supported morality. Meursault does not even acknowledge natural law -- instead, he acknowledges a kind of primal, animalistic, brutal sense of nature. The tone of the novel reinforces the idea of disconnectedness. The sentences are measured, rhythmic, part of a stream of consciousness flow that abhors interruptions from the outside (a more proper translation of the title of the novel is The Outsider).

Meursault, essentially, wants everything to be measured to his liking (being-for-oneself). If the Universe seems indifferent, it is because he realizes that it does not indeed revolve around him. Around what does it revolve? Meursault won't admit God, because God would point to something outside himself, and Meursault does not want to face anything outside himself. Indeed, he does not even know how: he lacks the foundation, the moral principle, the basic human nature to be able to do so. His detachment is evident in every line of the novel, and even when he reaches the pivotal point -- the murder of the Arab -- he arrives at the scene as though he had merely been blown there by the wind: the tone is aloof and unconcerned: "His blue overalls seemed to be steaming in the heat. I was a little surprised. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was over, and I'd gone there without even thinking about it" (58). He encounters the Arab and what does he do? He gives a detached description of the setting -- as though he himself were completely removed from the situation and were only a mechanical part in the whole show.

That sense, of course, relates to the cultural aspect of the novel: it is a simple reflection of a culture that has reduced all of life to a philosophical and/or biological kind of determinism. No more did Christ become Man to redeem fallen human nature and draw souls to Him in eternity; now, man is not fallen, only selfish (naturally) and the problem -- as Meursault sees it -- is that everyone wants to pretend that he is not selfish: everyone wants to pretend that he is part of an old world cosmology -- even if the modern world does not support such a cosmology.

The problem that Meursault sees in this is that the old world cosmology is a kind of being-for-others, and, he appears to reason, that being-for-others is a kind of insincere action. The chaplain adheres to it -- but Meursault refuses to accept this adherence: instead, he prefers the hatred of the public, for it is at…[continue]

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