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Reading L'étranger through an anti-existentialist perspective Doğan, Tunç Berk 2015

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Reading ​L'étranger​ Through an Anti­Existentialist Perspective Tunç Berk Doğan 2014­2015 Winter Session Research Advisor: Stephanie Dreier, department of CENES    L'étranger [The Stranger] by Albert Camus is about a man, Meursault, who kills an Arab                             for no discernible reason and as a consequence who is termed to be executed. In this essay, we                                   will be concerned mainly with the transition Meursault goes through after killing the Arab and                             with Meursault’s relationship with the chaplain, who, before the day of his execution, tries to                             convert Meursault, causing Meursault to shout at the chaplain. This tirade is usually seen as an                               affirmation of our freedom to do whatever we want and only be accountable to ourselves (also                               termed: ‘existential freedom’). Various psychoanalytic readings of the text accede the same                       point. Nonetheless, once we adopt a Lacanian perspective, things are not the same: the ending is                               still an affirmation of ‘existential freedom’, but in a different manner. In this essay, we intend to                                 show through a Lacanian perspective that Meursault affirms his freedom by “traversing his                         phantasy” . 1Before he kills the Arab, Meursault is characterized as a “preverbal man, whose actions                           follow so close on the sensual impulse that his motives are literally indescribable” . The point in                               2characterizing Meursault as a “preverbal man” is his literal inability to pin down actions with                             words as meaningful or intentional; the concepts of ‘meaning’ and ‘aim’ elude Meursault. This is                             the point at which forces Meursault to put meanings and aim to his actions, which Meursault is                                 unable to do, as he quips in his discussion with his lawyer: “(...) I had pretty much lost the habit                                       of analyzing myself (...)” . In the context of the novel, no reason is given for Meursault’s actions. 3By being forced to put his actions into words, the bureaucratic­social body that judges                           Meursault becomes the Other of Meursault. In Lacanian theory, the Other, generally speaking, is                           the other person, entity, group, or body to which one addresses and is addressed by. (Lacan, later                                 1 ​Lacan, Jacques. ​The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho­analysis​. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth, 1977. 273. Print. 2 Showalter, English, Jr. "Critical Reception." ​The Stranger: Humanity and the Absurd​. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1989. 17. Print. 3 Camus, Albert. ​The Stranger​. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989. 65. Print. in his career reformulates this and says that the Other is language itself. ) It is through being                                 4addressed and through addressing that one becomes a subject, a person. In​L'étranger​, this Other                             literally interrogates Meursault, tries to integrate him into what Lacan termed the Symbolic                         Order, the domain of words, meaning, and the unconscious . It is important to note that, for                               5Lacan, the movement towards the Symbolic ‘crosses the subject’, i.e., alienates himself from                         himself, constitutes what in traditional psychoanalysis is called the ​Ich ​[ego​]. Lacan famously                         expressed this in his quasi­algebraic​mathèmes​, as the movement from S, the unbarred subject, to                             $, the barred subject. In colloquial terms, we can characterize this transition as a movement from                               a pre­theoretical/ideological/verbal/volitional universe to a non­pre one. It is Meursault’s trial                     that marks the beginning of his integration to the Symbolic Order. This transition from S to $ has been expressed in David Sprintzen’s reading of the text.                               Sprintzen, however, does not recognize the Lacanian meaning of his words: he characterizes the                           transition of Meursault as from being a “de facto rebel” to a “de jure” one (“de facto”                                 6corresponding to the pre­theoretical subject and “de jure” corresponding to the barred subject $).                           So far, we’ve said that, in ​L'étranger​, the place of the Other is instantiated by the                               social­bureaucratic body and that this Other moves Meursault from the position of S to $ by                               literally interrogating him. The second point at which Meursault is forced to articulate himself, to                             make the transition to the “self­conscious subject” (the $) is during his interaction with the                             chaplain at the end of the novel, where the chaplain tries to convert him. 4 ​The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955­56​. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. 274. Print. 5 ​Lacan, Jacques. "Seminar on "The Purloined Letter"" ​Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English​. Trans. Bruce Fink, Héloïse Fink, Russell Grig. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 10. Print. 6 Sprintzen, David. "The Stranger." ​Albert Camus's The Stranger​. Comp. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. 107­25. Print. The chaplain and Meursault’s interaction results in Meursault to go on a tirade until he                             runs out of breath. Why this excessive reaction, which the social­bureaucratic body didn’t elicit?                           The reason chaplain elicits such a reaction is that the chaplain is particularly insistent on getting                               on “[his] side”: “(...) I told him (...) he wasn’t even on my side.” . Why would an individual                                   7insistent on getting “on our side” be particularly infuriating, especially when we think that his                             motives are motivated by false ideals? The answer is that we know that such an individual                               doesn’t possess the truth to guarantee meaning, that the individual is barred, Ø, and because they                               are trying to impose their own phantasy on us. In Lacanian theory, phantasy is more than what we mean by the word fantasy in the                               everyday sense of the word; rather, phantasy is a certain narrative which we use to make sense of                                   our lives, of our identity, and the world in general . For instance, when we daydream, we may                                 8engage in phantasy by dreaming about another life, what we would like to say to someone but                                 can’t, what we would like to do that would be utterly unacceptable, etc.. What makes such                               thoughts utterly private? The Lacanian answer is that such thoughts are private because to utter                             them would be to enunciate the lack in Other, resulting in the barring of the other and our having                                     to face this truth. Lacan thus theorizes that “traversing the phantasy” is the act of acknowledging                               that the Other is lacking, and that the ​narrative whereby we sustain the illusion that the Other is                                   not lacking is false . Provided that phantasy functions as a ‘cover up’ for the barred­ness of the                                 9Other, then, “traversing the phantasy” amounts to a crossing­out of this narrative, acknowledging                         that it ​is ​a ‘cover up’ for the inconsistency or the lack of the Other. 7 ​ibid. 120. 8 ​The relevant passage can be found here: Lacan, Jacques. "The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power” ​Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English​. Trans. Bruce Fink, Héloïse Fink, Russell Grig. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 532. Print. 9 ​Žižek, Slavoj.  The Sublime Object of Ideology​. London: Verso, 1989. 80. Print. A similar situation can be one where we have to listen to the confession of a lover to                                   whom we don’t requite their love. In this case, the emotion of love would be the phantasy, the                                   cover up for what our lover glossed over in us, such that they don’t realize our actual nature, that                                     we ourselves are barred and don’t possess what s/he wants. (Suppose that s/he took us as being a                                   gentle person whereas we’re actually very coarse.) What happens, however, when such a lover                           becomes insistent on their confession? We might get angry, like Meursault, and declare that the                             lover’s love for us (their phantasy) is unreasonable because whatever reason s/he loved us for,                             it’s not the case that we’re such a person, that, in reality, we’re not we s/he took us for, we’re not                                         what s/he’s looking for. Upon our doing so, we would be “traversing the phantasy” of the lover,                                 which, in this case, is all the more powerful because it comes from an other from whom one                                   expects reciprocation. How does then Meursault stand with regards to the first instantiation of                           the Other, the social­bureaucratic body, and the second instantiation of the Other, the                         Judeo­Christian tradition for which the chaplain stands? The answer is that Meursault “traverses the phantasy” of both of these instantiations of                           the Other. In other words, he exposes the narrative (phantasy) these others use to justify                             themselves. Meursault, then, exposes the narrative of, first, the modern unitary subject predicated                         on the Kantian idea of freedom , and second, the Judeo­Christian idea of eternal life from which                               10the chaplain is motivated . The narrative of the first instance of the Other is so because the                                 11modern law­bound secular social­bureaucratic body addresses its subjects as reasonable,                   coherent, unified in terms of identity, and that they’re free in such a way that they’re accountable                                 10 ​This particular reading of the social­bureaucratic body is borrowed from: Bowker, Matthew H. "Meursault and Moral Freedom." ​Albert Camus's ​The Stranger. Comp. Peter Francev. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2014. 204­23. Print. 11 ​This particular reading of the chaplain is borrowed from: Favre, Frantz. "L'Etranger and 'Metaphysical Anxiety'" ​Albert Camus's ​The Stranger. Comp. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. 139­46. Print.  for their actions (how otherwise could someone be tried for their actions?). The narrative of the                               second instance of the Other is so because the ideas to which chaplain subscribes regarding the                               meaning of life, etc. are those of the Judeo­Christian tradition. As such, Meursault traverses the phantasy of the Other (the narrative which the Other                           uses to justify its rule), enunciates that the basis on which the Other is the social hegemon is                                   utterly contingent and is not the ‘natural way of things’. In Lacan's ​mathèmes​, the transition of                               Meursault is from S(Ø) to $(Ø) because Meursault is at the place of S during the first chapter and                                     he ​does possess from the beginning the knowledge that the Other doesn’t fully possess what one                               wants. Meursault’s display of the Other's barred­ness serves to trespass the ultimate taboo on                           which society is based, namely, the contingent character of the Other’s hegemony. Thus, at the end of the novel, Meursault announces the inconsistency of the Other.                           Meursault’s being at the position of the barred subject with a barred other, thus corresponds to                               his having “traversed the phantasy” of Other, expressed as the crossing of the $◊​a in Lacan’s                               mathèmes​, read as the crossing of the barred subject in relation to the object (of his desire) . So                                   12far, we’ve said that Meursault entered the Symbolic domain and made the transition from S(Ø) to                               $(Ø). We’ve also said that he traverses the phantasy of the other, and that he possessed the                                 knowledge necessary for this all along, so the realization that the Other is barred (Ø) is there                                 from the beginning. The commonplace reading of ​L'étranger ​characterizes the predicament of                       Meursault at the very end of the text as an affirmation of our existential freedom. However,                               Lacan relegates such a person, the barred subject, to a position of utter enchainment. The only                               way out of this enchainment is “traversing the radical phantasy” . The ‘radical phantasy’ Lacan                           1312 ​Lacan, Jacques. ​Écrits: A Selection . Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 313. Print. 13 ​Lacan, Jacques. ​The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis​. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth and Institute of Psycho­Analysis, 1977. 273. Print. talks about is that which gives the subject consistency, and that which prevents the subject from                               dissolution. There is no evidence of this happening until Meursault’s tirade at the chaplain, at                             which point, at the very last sentence of the text, Meursault acknowledges explicitly the truth                             about his desire, thereby traversing his phantasy: “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.” . This results in Meursault realizing the                               14truth of his desire and thus announcing what gives consistency to himself as a person. On the                                 Lacanian view, without this desire, Meursault would simply disintegrate as an individual .  15In this essay we characterized Meursault’s trial and the chaplain as embodiment of the                           Other forcing him to put his actions into words, thereby instigating his move from the unbarred                               subject S to the barred subject $, placing him firmly within the Symbolic order. We have                               characterized the relationship between Meursault and the Other, embodied in the novel as the                           modern social­bureaucratic machine and the Judeo­Christian tradition, as one that changes from                       S(​Ø) to $(Ø), with Meursault’s traversing the Other’s phantasy forming the reason for the                           negative attention he so much attracts. Although Meursault is barred, he ultimately realizes his                           freedom via traversing his phantasy, by acknowledging and announcing his desire which gives                         consistency to his identity. ‘Traversing the phantasy’, then, is the Lacanian gesture that                         corresponds to Camus’ affirmation of what is termed ‘existential freedom’. It turns out that an                             anti­existentialist theory like that of Lacan’s can nonetheless redeem an existentialist work.    14 ​Camus, Albert. ​The Stranger​. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989. 123. Print. 15 ​Lacan, Jacques. “​Le séminaire, Livre XIV: La logique du fantasme.”  Ecole Normale Supérieure. 1966­1967. 


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