What’s the matter here?: L’étranger

Earlier this year I discovered the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who works with children recovering from trauma and abuse. I’ve read three books co-authored by him so far and I find this topic absolutely fascinating. I think these are some of the most important discoveries of our time, bringing new information about how the brain works, how it processes and is affected by experience and in turn affects our behavior and soul experience. If this research were really taken up seriously, it could transform so much in our society and replace many outdated and incorrect assumptions that keep us locked in vicious circles of damage and blame.

One of the books, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, is called What Happened To You? Its central argument is that when considering adverse behavior, we should shift our question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” What shaped a person’s early life and the way they see and adapt to the world? It’s not a question of excusing harmful actions, but of understanding the matrix out of which they arose, and taking steps to change that, not only to excoriate and punish individuals.

Perry’s research came to mind as I read L’étranger by Albert Camus (chosen in my last Make me read it poll), which, as you may be aware, concerns a man who commits a thoughtless, unpremeditated murder, and his subsequent trial and condemnation at the hands of an uncomprehending society. At the outset, my own question was definitely “What’s wrong with you?” The man, Meursault, is a strange and disturbing character. In the short, flatly declarative sentences which make the book a favorite of French instructors everywhere, he tells us about his life, starting with his learning of the death of his mother (“Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know”). He describes the vigil and funeral in his flat, unemotional style, as if he were a reporter rather than a bereaved son.

I’d give him the benefit of the doubt here. Grief can have strange effects, including temporary numbing of feeling. But as he describes more aspects of his life — his job, his encounters with women, his neighbors — it becomes clear that this is not a temporary effect of shock; in general, he just doesn’t feel much of anything at all. His boss wants to promote him and send him to Paris, but he’d rather stay put in familiar Algiers. His girlfriend, Marie, wants to marry him, and it’s all one to him. When his neighbor Raymond is beating up a woman and Marie protests that it sounds terrible, he doesn’t respond. In fact, the closest Meursault comes to showing a spark of emotion is when he’s hanging out with Raymond, who’s telling him how good it feels to have punished his cheating Arab mistress. Meursault thinks Raymond is very nice and finds this “a good moment.”

So it became clear to me that something was wrong with Meursault, that he was not a human being in the full sense of the word. When he and Marie accompanied Raymond for a day at the beach, and they were followed at a distance by the two brothers of Raymond’s abused mistress, I knew there was going to be trouble. Surprisingly, this trouble was not so much to be found in the hot-tempered conflict that ensued, which ended with flesh wounds, releasing adverse feelings in a flow of blood. Rather, it was when Meursault walked back along the beach alone with Raymond’s gun still in his hand, not looking for violence, hardly even thinking, like a sleepwalker — cold and frozen inside, under a blazing, pitiless sun — that the murder occurred.

The second half of the book concerns Meursault’s imprisonment and trial, during which he is clearly not being tried for the death of an unnamed Arab, about whom the French ruling class of Algiers couldn’t care less. His greater crime, the prosecution suggests, is putting his mother in a nursing home and not showing any emotion when she dies, then going to a funny movie afterward and sleeping with a woman he picks up on the beach. He’s also guilty of not believing in God, as an incredulous chaplain finally has to accept. His lack of properly conventional feeling, or the appearance thereof, is what puts him beyond the pale and identifies him as a heartless criminal. The jury is eager to convict him and thereby use his “wrongness” to justify their “rightness,” their smug self-perception as good and law-abiding folk.

It was in the process of this trial that my perception of Meursault shifted. Of course it was wrong for him to shoot that man, but I knew that I, too, had at times acted in such a numb, zombie-like way, doing things that afterwards I couldn’t explain. I knew that any moral progress I had ever made consisted of admitting that I had this tendency in me and offering it up for healing, not in condemning and suppressing it. I started to want to know, “What happened to you?” What happened to this man to make him so numb, so paralyzed, so dead inside? And how could such a deadened soul be wakened to life again?

The legal system in the book did not address this question, as such systems seldom do. It would trigger too much awareness of our own complicity, of the way in which families, communities, nations, and all of human society are responsible for producing such truncated, humanly paralyzed individuals.

We can’t know what happened to Meursault to make him the way he was. His past is a closed book to us, and probably to himself as well. But his dissociation (as Dr. Perry would call it) is most likely a coping strategy in response to something he suffered earlier in life.He defends himself from further pain by convincing himself that it is necessary and perhaps even noble to feel nothing. But this is a dangerous path for human beings, who are made for love and empathy — as all of Dr. Perry’s books emphasize.

Original English language dustjacket, Knopf

It is surely significant that Meursault identifies the sun under which he commits the murder as “the same sun” as on the day when he buried his mother. Some strange line of dark, underground thinking connects his dead mother, his own inner deadness, and the innocent man whose death he is to cause, while a sun bereft of any sense of divine love pours down its pitiless illumination and wrathful heat.

In the 1940s, when Camus wrote the book, the world was in the midst of a massive collective trauma and the death of humanity itself seemed imminent. At the time, we had little understanding and few resources for helping people through such trauma. Now, thankfully, things are different. We know that dissociation is not a sign of an immutably evil nature, although it can lead to evil actions, but has its origin in a normal, biologically adaptive response to overwhelming stress. We know that it can be healed, not by locking people up in isolated cells, but by re-educating their overburdened stress response systems and restoring them to the community, to the life and hope that comes from strong human connections.

As we continue to judge the Meursaults of the world, and the blind, darkened impulses of our own hearts, I hope that we can more and more bring this perspective to bear. Without it, I fear our future is as hopeless as Camus’s bleak novel would suggest.

Albert Camus, L’étranger. Gallimard, 1997 (originally published 1942).
Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey, What Happened To You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron, 2021.

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12 thoughts on “What’s the matter here?: L’étranger

  1. Oh, thank you for this post and particularly for your discussion of L’Étranger. Your synopsis meant the plot felt familiar from my reading of this in the 60s, but your observations in relation to the questions the Perry books raises not only make the novel’s effect clearer but make me more determined to reread it, and La Peste too, which I also read way back then. And then I need to revisit Kafka…

      1. Ooh, I’d be happy to read that Camus next summer too, though whether in French or English I’m not sure. And Kafka too, either The Trial or The Castle—or maybe both! 🙂

    1. I have the sense that we’ve been through a sort of sea change in the last century that we’re not even yet fully aware of. There is such a different way to look at things now, if only we can take it up.

  2. Don’t know if you’re interested in following up, but you might also be interested in The Merusault Investigation by Kamal Daoud, which tells the story from a different perspective. You can find some comments on it here and here.

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