I Would Rather Be Invisible Than Absurd, Jamming, 01/03/2014

I few months ago, I wrote a post about Albert Camus; to be more specific, it was about Edward Said’s reading of the colonialist presumptions and absences within his most famous work, The Stranger. I recently started reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, sparking a few thoughts in relation to Camus' work, which I think can be enlightening. When I first wrote the Camus post, I advertized a little more widely than usual — beyond Facebook and Twitter, I also went to a couple of Reddit boards — and it got more hits than any other. But there was one critique of what I had written that stuck out to me, which was that I didn’t understand the concept of the Absurd Man.

If you're making a film in Europe about the alienation of a
decadent, nihilistic character who symbolizes all the
existential emptiness of post-War European Man™, you
cast Marcello Mastroianni. Federico Fellini did it with La
Dolce Vita
, and Luchino Visconti did it with his adaptation
of Camus' The Stranger.
Now, I can understand why this Reddit user would say such a thing. The Stranger is the fictional articulation of a universal posit about human nature itself, whose philosophical version is The Myth of Sisyphus. At least, this is how it’s most often presented to people. Camus had more philosophical subtlety than this in his writings, but one can definitely see the common territory between the two works. Basically, the philosophical point is that we all live isolated from each other, that no one can ever truly know our personal perspectives on life, and this personal viewpoint is the sole true source of meaning in our lives. Meursault is only interpreted as having no concern or emotional connection to the death of his mother because he doesn’t express it in the customary way. He practically alienates himself from people because he appears emotionally dead, externally. But this only shows our actual alienation from each other. We all have our own burdens to shoulder, and no one will ever help us or even be able to understand those burdens. 

There are other ways to explain absurdity, about as many as there have been literary theory papers about it. But this will suffice for my purpose today. Because reference to the universalism of what Camus is trying to say doesn’t overcome Said’s basic critique of The Stranger, as well as The Plague: its Arabs are invisible. This would be uncharitably interpreted as Said attempting to invalidate Camus’ philosophical perspective by reducing that perspective to an erudite expression of racism. And it’s exactly what a bad post-colonialist reading of the product of an imperialist culture does. It’s exactly why such reduction is a bad post-colonialist reading.

A good post-colonialist reading would understand how Camus’ universalizable idea failed to achieve all that it could precisely because of the invisibility of Arab people in the social world of his characters. There was an enormous, complicated aspect of Camus’ world that he left behind. The basic concept of the absurdity of life can hold, and remains philosophically rich and useful. The problem with Camus’ version is that Meursault himself is too solipsistic. Even The Plague, which is my favourite of Camus’ novels because it focusses on how worldly friendships and community-building can overcome our individual alienation, remains incomplete because these wider relationships are ignored. 

If Camus had lived long enough to write a truly political novel, it would have been brilliant. Camus was always a partisan for French colonial control of Algeria: he was a French Algerian, and Algerian independence under Arab rule would have disenfranchised its white and mixed citizens. Indeed, it did. But Camus never engaged with his own thoughts on Algerian independence as a wider social phenomenon; he only saw how people like him, the poor whites of French Algeria, would have been left behind. He couldn’t sympathize with Arab Algerians because his own personal heritage embedded him in that war on a partisan side. 

I don’t fault Camus for this lack of engagement. It takes a long time to understand the historical and cultural perspectives of a people who have declared themselves your enemy. A lot of people never do. I think Camus had that potential because of the nuance of his thought. I think an aged Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre could have reconciled their friendship after May 1968 and the conservative counter-revolution of Europe in the 1970s. 

Of course, that never happened because Camus died in a car crash in 1960, two years before the Algerian War even ended. He simply never had a chance to write a great political novel about poor white French Algerians: people who were shut out of the material wealth of the colonial elite, but who were never able to join the cause of the revolutionaries because their race made them complicit with the colonial powers in Arab eyes. He never got to write a gritty, brutal, philosophically deep, epic novel of the Algerian war from the viewpoint of people who always lose in every violent political revolution: poor people, no matter their race. I think that if Camus had lived, he would have had the potential to become one of Europe's great chroniclers of revolutionary war in the 20th century, alongside Gillo Pontecorvo. But he died.

I've heard criticisms of existentialism that it is an
apolitical philosophy that offers no ethical
guidance for your political life. This is true unless,
like me, you consider Invisible Man to be an
existentialist novel.
Instead, we have Ralph Ellison. I’m probably not the first to compare these books; indeed, the comparison strikes me as obvious. Ellison’s protagonist lives a life story punctuated by his attempts to strike his own perspective into institutions and movements that would make him no more than a cog in their machines, a voiceless element in a larger plan. Invisible Man speaks to the irreducibility of an individual’s singularity in the face of wider social values, conventions, institutions, and structures. Just as The Stranger did. But in this regard (as well as differences in style and form), Invisible Man is the better book. After all, imagine if The Stranger’s protagonist was an Arab.

Invisible Man presents a protagonist with a very different type of story, more multifaceted in what kinds of incidents it includes and what kinds of people appear. It’s about someone who just wants to make a positive statement for himself, always with justice in mind, but who is overcome and silenced by his surroundings. Meursault does the same thing, but can only justify it through his individuality alone; separate from political contexts, he only has his raw singularity. That raw singularity is important to understand, but we in our lives have more than our singularity on which to draw. Ellison’s narrator has mobilized his political existence, his entanglement with the world, to justify the singularity of his existence with a power from which Meursault has separated himself: a call for justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment