Sunday, July 15, 2007

Camus on White Lies

Camus' 1955 'Afterword' to The Stranger is interesting:
A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider [a.k.a. The Stranger] in a sentence which I realize is extremely paradoxical: 'In our society any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.' I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn't play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual. And for that reason, some readers have been tempted to regard him as a reject. But to get a more accurate picture of his character, or rather one which conforms more closely to his author's intentions, you must ask yourself in what way Meursault doesn't play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie.

Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him.

So for me Meursault is not a reject, but a poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows. Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth...

There's something quite endearing about Meursault's blunt honesty. (Though his indifference to worldly matters is often disturbing.) Consider the following passage from Chp.5:
That evening, Marie came round for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said I didn't mind and we could do if she wanted to. She then wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I had done once already, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't. 'Why marry me then?' she said. I explained to her that it really didn't matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter. I said, 'No.' She didn't say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I'd have accepted the same proposal if it had come from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, 'Naturally.' She then said she wondered if she loved me and well, I had no idea about that. After another moment's silence, she mumbled that I was peculiar, that that was probably why she loved me but that one day I might disgust her for the very same reason. I didn't say anything, having nothing to add, so she smiled and took my arm and announced that she wanted to marry me. I replied that we'd do so whenever she liked.

What do you think of him? Does Meursault illustrate a good way to live, or should we be more embracing of the need for white lies?


  1. I find the key issue with never lying is the massive degree of uncertainty about almost everything that I say.

  2. I don't understand Genius' comment. I find the key issue with lying is the massive degree of uncertainty about almost everything other people say. Then again, I am one of those who have never understood the rules of the game. The game, as far as I can tell, is played with almost everyone knowing which are lies, and which are not, anyway. So why should society collapse if the truth is said out loud instead?

  3. I guess it's easier to avoid conflict if we refrain from drawing attention to irreconcilable differences. (Conventions of politeness are further discussed here.)

  4. For some time I went through a considerable period where I religiously ensured I did not lie (ok I'm excentric, maybe a little crazy).

    Try going through a period making sure nothing you say is a lie - ie no cheap "I am not sure if I am lying" or "by some interpretation it isn't a lie" or "it's a metaphore so it isn't a lie" or "its mostly true" or "its probably true". And see how it restricts what you can say. It's quite revealing. Those sorts of exist allow us to be rather confident about all sorts of things we should not be confident about and make all sorts of assumptions.

  5. The "lie" in Camus can mean either saying what you don't mean (which begs the question, how can you do that?) or making yourself feel something out of belief.

    M is only one third of Camus' Absurd Hero; the other two being Caligula (Dionysian affirmation) and Prometheus (eternal rebellion).
    Camus thinks the rejection of lies is the first step, to get rid of all that is not really and completely yours. Affirmation then follows as a means to accepting the world in its entirety, and rebellion finishes off the Absurd Hero by causing him to continually reject a desire towards nihilism.

    The controversy is over the third. Sartre believed--along the same Nietzschean lines as Camus--that stripping down one's values and then affirming the raw existence of life are essential. The real question is what you do afterwards. Camus basically says continual rebellion against whatever you would rest on as the grounds of your being, raw existence (no lies) as one extreme and metaphysical capitulation (new lies) as the other. Sartre makes it a matter of something like your (Richard's) "self-authorship".


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