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Labyrinth: Reading Camus' "Stranger" from the Margins

There once was a Frenchman, a pied-noir. He was the hero of establishment skeptics. With no regard for the dead, for marriage, for religion, his morality was simply speaking his mind. One day, he killed an Arab. He did it because of the ubiquitous glare of the blinding sun. The world puzzled over him. Newspapers obsessively printed his story. With no remorse in his heart, his ethics were only straight talk and the indulgence of momentary passions. He called this honesty. All other morality was absurd. He was a stranger, an outsider, of the establishment. This is the story told of Camus’ Stranger.

I’ve been walking labyrinths lately, contemplating what it means to be marginal. This lead me back to Camus’ The Stranger, written during the French colonization of Algeria. Author Albert Camus was a pied-noir – "black foot" – a French citizen who lived in occupied French Algeria. Camus wrote this book, sometimes translated as The Outsider, to articulate his philosophy of Absurdism. He believed that humans long for meaning in life yet the universe lacks meaning. This leads to a conflict he describes as absurd – the human tendency to create meaning where there is none.   Henri Nouwen pointed out that "in the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, which means deaf." Is the universe really devoid of meaning or are we simply deaf to it? Like it or not, Western social outlook is still influenced by this philosophy. Platforms of thought built on thinkers like Camus and Sartre led to the postcolonial, poststructuralist, and postmodern movements. Famously, Jacques Derrida once said, "there is nothing outside the text."His claim was that every text calls out for interpretation. Different audiences in different places and in different times will deconstruct the text to find new meaning. This is just what I did with The Stranger. Reading this book anew with an eye to the margins, my takeaway has changed dramatically from when I first read it in the 1990s, even though the margins have changed very little. To my husband's horror (and Derrida's delight), I literally deconstructed The Stranger, cutting out words relating to social movement, power, and status. My husband said I looked like a crazy person or a criminal as I dissected the book.  Following the arch of the original story, leading to the climactic killing of the unnamed Arab, I pasted together an alternative narrative.

The hero of the book (and anti-hero of the establishment) was deemed an outsider to a society on the brink of change. Yet, in every way, he was the true hero of colonialism as it constrained “the others” to the margins. The nameless Arabs, the abused women, the distained elderly and disabled are all normalized and reduced to the invisible edges of the text. The abuse and objectification of women "insiders" remains normative and central to the text. This one man may have been deaf to the "absurd" social norms of Colonial Algeria, but he continued to be a Colonialist and remained deaf to those the colony marginalized in order to achieve its power.

Inside the margins of the book, I reconstructed The Stranger as a reverse labyrinth. While the hero believed he was moving counter to his culture, in the end, he winds up blinded by the ubiquitous glare in the heart of colonialism. I suggest this is the unrecognized core of his identity. Although we are now in a postcolonial era, the invisible margins still exist around us. How we organize our social structures – our government, our churches, our schools –will either tear down the boundaries that keep “the others” out or raise higher the walls that divide us. Will we lead an absurd life, or will we listen? Here, I present to you, a marginalized reading of Camus’ The Stranger.

1. Derrida, Jacques (1976). Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore ; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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