Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction
Steven Lagavulin

Bush has headed off on his 10-day vacation to his home in Crawford, TX, during which time the press often likes to ask "so what is the President reading?" It's generally presumed that it'll be somehow enlightening to know which books are most strongly calling to our Commander in Chief's attention during these rare moments of personal time. The traditional answers given are a well-scripted list of titles regarding the lives of great past-Presidents, the lessons of ancient history and diplomacy, and with often a nod or two to something of more popular contemporary relevance.

Bush reads Camus's 'The Stranger' on ranch vacation

"US President George W. Bush quoted French existential writer Albert Camus to European leaders a year and a half ago, and now he's read one of his most famous works: "The Stranger."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that Bush, here on his Texas ranch enjoying a 10-day vacation from Washington, had made quick work of the Algerian-born writer's 1946 novel..."

Alright. So does anyone else find the possibility that Camus might be one of Bush's favorite writers deeply, deeply alarming?

Now if this is just an ill-conceived feint toward literary erudition, then the best we might say is...well, that it's very ill-conceived. But the hint from this little press blurb is that Bush likes Camus, that he wanted to read The Stranger before all other books, that he's stimulated by and appreciates what Camus has to offer him during rare moments when he can be truly alone with himself. That leads me to believe he feels a genuine identification with Camus' classic tale...

The Stranger, if you haven't read it, is about a man who kills an Arab. But to be a little more precise, he kills an Arab for no reason. Absolutely no reason at all. Indeed that's the whole point of Camus' story. The protaganist--a rather formless individual by the name of Meursault--has become so completely disconnected from any sensation of reality that he is literally drawn as sleepwalking through his days. While others pretend and pantomime to having heartfelt feelings and relationships, the "truth" through Meursault's eyes is that he's little more than the shell of a human being "going through the motions" of living.

Ultimately the grindingly oppressive and detached atmosphere Camus draws-out for us leads Meursault with a calm fatalism to the moment where he shoots the nameless Arab. But don't let my own third-rate critical analysis mislead you; let me turn instead to the popular GradeSaver.com, which provides free online study guides for popular literary works, all written and edited by Harvard University students:

"[Meursault] is as removed from reality and social context at this moment as every moment. He squeezes the trigger without intent. Each small act is singular. He realizes that he has shattered his happy harmonious life -- so why fire four more times? What kind of monster can this be? He will later stress to the reader that he is really like everyone else. What does this say about man and our struggle in the world? Is there another solution to living than blame or indifference? The shots are the peak of Meursault's physical life. In order to transcend this blurred dazed drunkenness he consumes, he must knock "on the door of unhappiness."

So I'll put the question again...what does it mean to you that "The Decider"--a leader residing at the fulcrum of an era seemingly defined by incessant crisis and catastrophe--should "make quick work" of The Stranger on his first days of vacation? I mean is it just me? Am I simply being a literary bigot? Conjuring up a tempest in a teapot? Or am I justified in having a dark foreboding that perhaps this doesn't speak well to our President's maintaining the mental fortitude needed to determine the beneficent course of world events?

"Sir can you tell us what the President is reading during his vacation?

Of course Jim. I noted Mr. President thumbing through a small selection of books on the drive to the ranch...Goodwin's new whopper on the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, Kissenger's "Diplomacy" of course...and as the President has long been a fan of poetry I noticed he was most eagerly devouring "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath..."

If it is indeed true that Bush turns straight to Camus for solace during his down-time, then for myself I can only heed it as a warning sign. I don't say this as a political statement or criticism--I take every opportunity to remind readers that I've never felt it's prudent to identify oneself with any particular political party. Rather I see this as a distinctly personal concern, because it may well signal that there's danger at the helm. It might even be a cry for help.

The existentialist writers like Camus and Sartre, for all their expressive talents, were really only an anomaly on the philosophic scene. They came out of a Europe that had directly perceived the frailty of human civilization, a shattered realization that "Armageddon" wasn't merely a figure of speech. On both a spiritual and intellectual level these people wrestled with devils using pen and paper as weapons, striving to make sense of the psychically humiliating possibility that individual life might very well be devoid of any purpose or meaning. And The Stranger, let's suffice it to say, wasn't a particularly glorious battle in that war.

So for a grown man in a position of inestimable daily stress, a man who must recognize underneath it all that he was born on third-base never having hit a triple, a young man whose family life was less than nurturing, and whose lifelong struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse is common knowledge...it would only be prudent to take this as a sign.

Certainly a lot could be made of the opening scenes in The Stranger, which show the protaganist dozing-off repeatedly at his mother's funeral, unable to recall even on what day she had died--and seeing as we're talking about G. W. Bush here a lot could be made of it. But it's those final closing passages that leap to my mind right now:

"For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world...For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."

"Thereupon G. W. slowly, almost lingeringly, closed the book and stared toward the window and out at the night sky. "...to feel less alone, I had only to wish that...they greet me with cries of hate." Before long however this pensive mood was captured by the gentle chirping of Texas crickets on the lawn outside the ranch..."

Of course there's also a third theory we should probably entertain as well. It's rather far-fetched to be sure--and I'm bringing it up only for the sake of completeness. Only because...well, we're dealing with NeoCons here after all....

Perhaps the President's reported reading material was not simply a bungled PR bullet-point.

And perhaps it was in fact a signal--but not actually an indicator of his personal mental state.

Perhaps Camus' The Stranger was intended to be a kind of sick joke. A subtle message if you will--to those who follow these types of things--that the plan is still in place and that it's still proceding more or less according to schedule. A publicly expressed wink-and-a-nod to the counter-counter-intelligences of the world. A brief but sharply whispered "We know that you know...and we want you to know that we know that you know". You know?

But I'm not saying that that's it at all. Indeed, like Camus' Meursault himself, I sometimes feel that I'm at a loss to know what is real about anything this administration says or does anymore. I'm just saying that sometimes real-life can seem much stranger to our senses than even the most classic literary works of fiction.