How To Love Lit Podcast
Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 2 - Edna Pontellier Defies All Explanations!

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 2 - Edna Pontellier Defies All Explanations!

May 7, 2022

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 2 - Edna Pontellier Defies All Explanations!

 

HI, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is our second episode in our four part series discussing the world of Kate Chopin.  Last week we introduced our author and what is generally considered her masterpiece, the novella, The Awakening.  Today we will continue discussing this book as we meet Edna and mosey around the Creole world of Victorian Louisiana on the vacation island of Grand Isle.   

 

This book is like Camus’ The Stranger in that it is incredibly complicated but deceptively simple looking.  It has been misunderstood since the minute it was published, and it’s still misunderstood.  Critics have claimed it’s a champion of the women’s movement; a challenge to the patriarchy, an expose on depression, a discussion of narcissism, an exploration of female sexuality- and certainly it can be looked at through each of these lens without any difficulty at all and there are things to say there.  And yet, Chopin cryptically told one critic in response to her book nothing along any ideological lines.  This is how she chose to frame her book, and I never and I quote, “dreamed of Edna making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did.” 

 

What does that even mean?  

 

Exactly, it’s a consciously and deliberately messy book.  It is NOT best read as an ideological book of any kind- no matter if your prejudices lie for or against her apparent causes.  It certainly makes it easier to read if you’re looking to make it a political statement, and when I was first introduced to it, that’s how I was taught to read it, but I have since decided to reject easy interpretations of great literature in general primarily because that makes something great immediately uninteresting.  And this book is definitely NOT uninteresting. 

 

So, if we’re not to read it about being about politics, the patriarchy, oppression or that sort of thing, how should we understand it? 

 

Isn’t that the million dollar question?  What is so compelling about Edna Pontellier- and she has been compelling even maddening for the last 120 years. 

 

I don’t find her necessarily a likeable person, are we supposed to?  At first I wondered if it was designed so that men are supposed to not like her or maybe not like themselves by looking at what’s happened to her, but do women generally find her likeable?  I also don’t see how to avoid seeing gender as an important component of this book. 

 

Oh I agree, you can’t help but see gender and you’re definitely supposed to.  It’s about a woman- it’s about being a woman- but is there anything more complicated than a woman? 

 

That’s a loaded question!!  Do you honestly think you can bait me into answer that? 

 Ha!  Wise man!  In all serious, it’s about being human, but from a women’s perspective- and that can’t be reduced to any single set of definable variables.  That’s what’s messy about it.  It’s about a woman in the Victorian era at the turn of the century- the particulars of the challenges women faced that that particular political moment in US history- the woman question, as they referred to it in those days, but that’s just our starting point- the setting, so to speak- there are more interesting parts of Edna and her awakening than just resolving the contextual economic, sexual or matrimonial roles in society.  Beyond that, let’s just look at the term “the awakening”.  It's kind of  a strange  term to use in a book where the protagonist spends an unusually large amoung of her time asleep.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a protagonist sleep as much as Edna in any book, except maybe Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Wrinkle. 

 

And yet, the title begs a question.  What is an awakening, or at least what is ’”The Awakening”? as Edna is to experience it.  The first part of the book which we are going to talk about today- chapters 1-16 IS her awakening.  For her, it’s kind of a gradual experience that happens to her over a summer.  Chopin first defines it in chapter 6, it’s described as coming into one’s own humanity – to recognize one’s relations as an individual to the world within and about. 

 

You know that’s a great definition of what it means to grow up really- to find one’s agency in the world.   

 

Chopin insightfully connects someone’s internal awakening with their sexual awakening.  This awareness of how you are a sexual being and as such interact with other beings as sexual beings- both of the same sex as well as the opposite sex.  Chopin illustrates this many ways and, and I would go far as to say seems to use sexual agency as an expression of agency of a general kind. 

 

 Yes, and what does that mean?  How should we define agency, as in human agency?  What do you mean when you use that term?  I know I asked a question that could be a long answer, but in just a few words.     

 

Agency, in general, refers to our capability as humans to influence our own functioning.  It is our ability to direct the course of events through our own actions.  Said another way, it’s our ability to determine and make meaning through purposeful and reflective creative action.   

 

A psychologist by the name of Albert Bandura out of Stanford university is a leading figure in this field, so if you’re interested, just Google his nam and you can read as much as you want.  But basically, according to Bandura, we exercise our agency in four ways.  We are self-organizing, pro-active, self-regulating, and self-reflecting. We are not simply onlookers of our behavior. We are contributors to our life circumstances, not just products of them.  That’s a quote 

 

 

 We like to think, and we do think the younger we are, that agency means freedom.  And in many ways it does.  But what does freedom even mean?  Does it mean I get to do whatever I want?  Well, sort of, but we’re interacting in a world full of forces both from the outside but also from the inside.  Understanding that seems to be what Chopin is wanting to explore in a very feminine context- because female forces aren’t always the same as male forces, by definition.  

 

Well, I will tell you what Bandura would say.  The problem is that Most human pursuits involve other people, so there is no absolute agency. Let me use Bandura’s words here.  He says, “Individuals have to accommodate their self-interests if they are to achieve unity of effort within diversity. Collective endeavors require commitment to a shared intention and coordination of interdependent plans of action to realize it- in other words you have to get along in the world you live in.  That’s the rub.   

 

Ahhh- getting along with others.  That’s another important idea to think about here.  The Awakening wasn’t even the original title of this book. The original title was A Solitary Soul.  That makes you think of the story in an entirely different wayIs this a story about waking up or being alone or both?  If there’s something that we can see immediately in the characterization of Edna, is that she is a solitary woman.  She is very much alone and has been all of her life not physically alone, but emotionally.   

 

Well, for me that title tells me that this book is about attachment and intimacy, but I may be jumping the gun.  We didn’t get very far into the story last episode. We basically only got through the first chapter, so let’s kind of start there.  We found ourselves on a vacation resort island, the Grand Isle- which is fifty miles from New Orleans.   Emily Toth, Chopin’s biographer, described it as kind of a tropical paradise of sorts.  She said that For young mothers, like Kate Chopin it was a wholesome place to spend what otherwise was a dangerous season in the South.  Unlike New Orleens the Grand Isld didn’t have open canals or cisterns.  There weren’t swarms of disease infested mosquitos to threaten children or adults. No one there had to lock their doors.  The island was a tropical paradise.  It had palm trees, vines, orange and lemon trees, acres of yellow chamomile.  There were no actual streets only grassygreen or sandy paths.  It was seductive to the imagination, too, with tales of shipwrecks and pirate gold from Barataria Bay, the old haunt of the pirate Jean Lafitte. 

 

And of course that makes sense Memphis is also sweltering hot in the summer.  And for years, summer months in the South were deadly.  Mosquitos came in and with them deadly diseases.  Yellow fever especially was terrorizing, so if you could afford to get away from the city in the summer you did; and many many people did exactly what we see the Pontellier’s doing here.  Edna and the kids would stay at Grand Isle, Leonce would go into the city during the week and would come out to spend the weekends with the family. 

 

Last week, we didn’t actually meet Edna; we met her husband who is annoyed by these cackling birds that are making so much noise he can’t read his newspaper- a parrot and a mockingbird, and we talked about how birds are important symbols in this book.   

 

Yes- Birds and wings.  We have a parrot, we have a mockingbird, and later we’re going to have a pigeon house.  We’re also going to have a woman with angel wings, and another woman who tells Edna she needs strong wings.  But before we get to the lady friends with wings, let’s meet Edna Pontellier.   

 

Soon after Mr. Pontellier leaves the house,  Mrs. Pontellier and her summer companion Robert LeBrun come strolling along.  It’s not one of the world’s more normal love triangles- watch how these three interact-  Let’s read this interaction 

 

Page 4 

 

Well, there’s nothing quite so startling as introducing a book’s protagonist as an object on page one.  Mr. Pontellier literally looks at his wife as a piece of property according to our narrator, and he seems to care less about the man she’s spending all of her time with. 

 

Yes, but there’s more to see here.  She’s clearly a beautiful woman and a prize for her husband, but what does she get in exchange- rings.  And they sparkle.   She also gets days at the beach free of responsibility- in fact, we will see that Edna is the only character in this book who does no work of any kind, ever. These two have made a deal.  And what we clearly see as we watch the relationship develop is that love was never part of their original agreement, at least not the way we would like to understand love as it works in an ideal marriage.  Edna married Leonce because he loved her and flattered her, but Chopin is careful to make us very aware that she never loved Leonce in return or even deceived herself into thinking she did.  She  was “running away from prayers, from the Presbyterian service” from her father.  Although, we have to jump ahead to chapter 7 to see that.  Let’s just read the love story of these two lovebirds…to borrow from Chopin’s bird motif: 

 

Her marriage to Léonce Pontellier was purely an accident, in this respect resembling many other marriages which masquerade as the decrees of Fate. It was in the midst of her secret great passion that she met him. He fell in love, as men are in the habit of doing, and pressed his suit with an earnestness and an ardor which left nothing to be desired. He pleased her; his absolute devotion flattered her. She fancied there was a sympathy of thought and taste between them, in which fancy she was mistaken. Add to this the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage with a Catholic, and we need seek no further for the motives which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband. 

The acme of bliss, which would have been a marriage with the tragedian, was not for her in this world. As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams. 

But it was not long before the tragedian had gone to join the cavalry officer and the engaged young man and a few others; and Edna found herself face to face with the realities. She grew fond of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution. 

 

Not the most romantic love story I’ve ever read.  In fact, she seems almost proud that she doesn’t love Leonce, but honestly, I think we can say that story is common enough.  How many girls and guys marry whoever they're dating in their youth just because it seems like it’s the time to do something like that happens to be the person they met at that time- as Chopin would call it, “an accident masquerading as a decree of Fate”?  How many others make a deal of convenience- a financial transaction or sorts. 

 

I agree completely- my favorite Marilyn Monroe movie, is about that- Diamond are a Girl’s Best Friend. Although I will say, most of the time things don’t work out like they do for Mrilyn Monroe.  Chopin’s portrayal is more realistic.  People marry and then sooner or later, one or both partners start doing things that resemble Chopin’s descriptions of the Pontellier marriage. In Victorian days, it was women, but today, I’ve seen situations where either partner experiences this exact thing Edna’s experiencing- sad isolation- being discarded for one thing or another.  Edna and Leonce have two small children, but here in chapter 3, Edna finds herself in isolation and crying in the middle of the night.  It’s gut-wrenching.  This relationship is cruel, and not just because Leonce wakes her up in the middle of the night wanting to talk- the scene  as it unfolds is an expression of a total lack of understanding between these two.  

 

What is most cruel here is the total lack of intimacy between these two. And money doesn’t make it all better even though they seem to think it does.  Leonce gives Edna a bunch of money the next day knowing that it makes her happy.  And later on after he goes back to New Orleans, Edna receives a care package from her husband, and she even admits to her friends that she knows of no better husband than Leonce Pontellier.   

 

Of course, this comes across very ironic to the reader because Chopin has already taken us behind the veil of what looks like a perfectly ideal marriage to see a lonely woman who cries when no one is watching.    

 

I also found it interesting that in the second chapter of the book before we even read the sad incident of Edna crying through the night, we are told that her mother had been dead- just a very psychological detail to introduce into the text.    

 

She’s a solitary soul.  There’s a couple more important details I think we need to pay attention to here early on in the text- what about this gentlemen- Robert LeBrun- Robert spends all day every day with Edna at Grande Isle, but Leonce is not jealous of him at all.  In fact, we are told Creole husbands are never jealous- that the gangrene passion is one which has become is dwarfed by disuse- although I’m not really sure I understand exactly what that expression means.  

 

No, On the contrary, Leonce seems to like the fact that Edna has a playmate. Robert takes Edna off his hands, so to speak.   Later in chapter 5, we are told that Robert picks a different girl every summer to fawn over. Some of the girls are single, but mostly  he picks married women- unattainable ones. These women apparently enjoy the attention, and Robert isn’t taken seriously as a threat. It’s part of the beach culture, and not a threat in this Creole culture.  

 

Agreed, except, as we’re going to find out, Edna isn’t a Creole woman and things aren’t the same with her- as Adele reminds Robert in chapter 8 as she tries to talk him into leaving Edna alone.  She point blank tells him, “Edna isn’t one of us”.  And she very much is NOT. Edna, the reader knows, was raised in a very frigid home- nothing like the physicality, sensuality and the openness of the Creole people.   I’ve got more to say about that, but before we get too far from the crying scene in chapter 3, I want draw attention to the detail where Chopin connects Edna’s loneliness and tears to the sea.  As Edna sat there alone and crying in the night, Chopin points out that and I quote, “no sound abroad except the hooting of an old owl in the top of a water-oak, and the everlasting voice of the sea.”  Two ideas here worth noticing- first Chopin is going to do a lot with sounds.  Music is important, which we’ll talk about extensively next episode.  But Grand Isle is noisy place- we’ve already had noisy birds and little, girls playing the piano, but here's the second idea- notice the emphasis and presence of the sea, it is the most important symbol of the entire book. The ocean is also an archetype. 

 

Just in case you haven’t heard us talk about archetypes before and unfamiliar what we mean by them in this literary context, archetypes are psychological.  The psychologist Carl Jung famously theorized that they are symbols wired into our brains- that’s one way to look at them- he called them a universal collective consciousness.  They are universal…meaning cultures all over the world throughout time having had nothing to do with each other use the same symbols to mean the same things- although they have had no way to coordinate this.  It’s an interesting  and true phenomena whether you agree with Jung’s understanding of the unconsciousness or not.  Not all traditional symbols are archetypes, but many are.  The ocean is an archetype that represents death, rebirth, timelessness, eternity, the mother of all life- it has in cultures of all times all over the world.  This is not a symbol Chopin just made up.  Do we know how she’s using it here, Christy, any ideas? 

 

Well, we’ll have to see how she develops it along the way.  That’s the thing about symbols, they take a life of their own in the story but also inside of every different reader.  But let’s just take note of what we can see: they are at the seaside, Robert and Edna have been at the sea all day, and now Edna listens to the sea- to its mournful lullaby- it’s just something to pay attention to and watch. 

 

In chapter 4, we meet our first Creole woman,  Mrs. Adele Raginolle, and my goodness she is basically described as a goddess.   Chopin says there are no words to describe her, she’s that gorgeous.  She’s the bygone heroine of romance. 

 

Oh yes, I’m intimidated by just reading about her.  I also want to point out before we get too far away from our discussion of archetypes that Chopin does a lot of things in threes- an archetypal number.  There are three women- Adele, Edna and this other one we’re going to meet in chapter 9, Mademoiselle Reisz.  Edna was raised in a household of 3 girls.  She had three crushes before marrying Leonce.  She has three male lovers in the later part of the book.  She has three homes to consider living in later on- it’s all carefully constructed and thematic, and we’ll need to look at all of them. But we’ll start with the women.  First, the amazing Adele.  She reminds me of some of the Louisianan beauties that intimated me when I showed up my ninth grade year at West Monroe  Junior High School, home of the Colonels.  Adele is perfect- gracious, well-mannered.  She is Southern charm writ large. Let me quote, “there was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spungold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were nothing but sapphires, two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious or crimson fruit in looking at them.”  Does it get any more perfect than that? 

 

HA!, well, before she even talks about her physical beauty we find out she is the ideal mother-woman, and Chopin describes what that is.  A  mother-woman is one who is “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood.”  A woman who and again I quote, “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”  Christy,  of course we’re supposed to notice the wings, but I can’t help but detect a slight bit of sarcasm on the part of the narrator.  Is she mocking “mother-women”? That whole description of Adele and the mother-women sound over the top. 

 

Great point and good question- and truly hits on another of the several brilliant strokes of this novel. We talked about this when discussing Jane Austen, but Chopin uses the same narrative style Jane Austen used- this thing we call free indirect discourse. And- for me this is important in understanding the novel as a whole.   What Chopin does is manipulates our perspective of events by mixing the perspective of a neutral narrator  and merging that perspective with perspectives of the characters, mostly Edna’s but not always.  When we have this objective narrator we see sarcasm and strong opinion, like when we saw that Mr. Pontellier looked at Edna on page two as a valuable piece of property.  That’s the narrator’s perspective, but then sometimes we have with this also an ability to merge into the point of view of one of the characters and see how they see things- like when Edna describes not really being in love with Leonce when they got married or fighting with her younger sister or even crying alone.   Sometimes we even see things from the point of view of another character, and a lot of times this objective narrator is very ironic about this- like here, but we saw it before when Leonce came in from the club at 11pm after Edna was asleep.  Listen to how Chopin phrases this, “He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in the things which concerned him and valued so little his conversation.  Isn’t that ironic and kind of funny.  It seems unreasonable for him to think of her as the object of his existence. But the way she writes it makes us understand that Robert really and truly believes Edna is the center of his universe.  We just don’t buy it.  Here again, we truly believe that everyone thinks Adele is the ideal woman, we’re just not so sure we should buy it.  It doesn’t really seem a holy privilege to us to be efface oneself as an individual and grow wings as a ministering angel.  In fact, it sounds terrible.  Never mind the fact, that right after that glowing recommendation of Adele’s perfection, we are let on to the fact that she fakes being sick all the time.  Why do that?  That’s manipulative- that’s not a perfect angel at all. 

 

Well, being around Adele, being around all the sensuous women and you haven’t mentioned the dirty book these ladies passed around, that embarrasses Edna- but all of this changes Edna.  She’s not use to the carefree openness of the Croele culture towards sensuality.  She doesn’t understand it.  And to add onto that, being around the ocean, being around this adoring younger man, Robert, being around the physicality of the females towards each other affects her- it’s the sensuality that awakens something in her, if you will.  She had felt it slightly before, but shut it down and almost prided herself in shutting it down by marrying Leonce. 

    

And, in some ways, it comes in slowly and takes her by surprise.  By chapter six Edna is starting to dream, to feel emotional- something beyond just whatever is going on between her and Mr. Pontellier.  In short, “Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relationships as an individual to the world within and about her.  Ths may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of 28- perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman. 

But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.  How few of us ever emerge from such beginnings!  How many souls perish in its tumult!  The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abyss of solitude, to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.  The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.  The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” 

 

Dang, that’s definitely an outside narrator.  It feels a little like foreshadowing.   

 

 The language is metaphorical- the ocean is personified- it’s alive.   

 

There are two things that really stand out to me psychologically, the first is the admission that chaos is the beginning of things.  Which of course is true.  Organizing chaos is what starting anything is about.  But that is problematic.  Chaos requires a lot of effort and responsibility to untangle.  Is Edna ready to begin something like that?  Is that what she wants? Because we aren’t given any hints that Edna looks towards anything.  The text goes to a lot of trouble to suggest that she’s whimsical, thoughtless, impulsive, almost childish even.  What comes after an awakening is naturally more responsibility- the exercise of agency as Bandura would describe it.  We haven’t seen much of a responsible side in Edna. The second is how dangerous the ocean is expressed to be- which of course is something everyone knows who’s ever gotten into the ocean.  The ocean is certainly seductive; it’s beautiful but incredibly dangerous?  And thus the second question?  Is Chopin suggesting that Edna is walking into something that is deceptively beautiful- something that looks enticing but is actually terrible- something that promises to be an awakening but actually something that would silence her forever.  Just asking for a friend, as they say?  As a man, I wouldn’t want to presume to unsettle any woman’s spiritual awakening.   

 

HA!  No, I would say you would not- that would be wading in dangerous waters- parumpum.  And of course, you are right on all accounts.  Edna doesn’t look forward, but she does look back and in chapter 7 as she and Adele stroll on the beach, Chopin takes us back into Edna’s past.  Edna reflects on the three men she had crushes on, how being infatuated made her feel.  This is the chapter where Edna reflects on not loving Leonce but enjoying his flattery.    She also awakens in chapter 7 to the idea that she has mixed feelings about her own children.  She doesn’t think she loves her kids the way Adele loves hers.  And I quote, “She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way.  She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them…their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself.  It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her. Garry, what do you think about that? 

 

Well, it’s hard not to diagnose Edna, even though it’s not prudent to diagnose fictional characters. Obviously Kate Chopin is an incredibly observant student of human behavior.  She has seen this in real life.  Her interest in Edna is microscopic in some of the details.  What we know now from neuroscientists as well as psychologists who study attachment theory is that some women because they weren’t nurtured as babies or children DO have trouble attaching to their own children.  Obviously that was not Kate Chopin’s experience, but she clearly saw it somewhere.  She goes to great lengths to talk about how isolated Edna was as a child, how her mother was dead and her older sister was distant.  When we meet Edna’s father later on in the book, the reader can see for themselves that he’s mean.  It seems clear, that Edna either feels guilty or at least feels like she at least should feel guilty that she doesn’t seem to feel the way Adele feels towards either her husband or her children.  There’s a very telling passage at the end of chapter 16 where she tells Adele that she would never sacrifice herself for her children or for anyone.  That had actually started an argument with Adele.  Edna says this, “I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.  I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend which is revealing itself to me.” 

 

I would also add, that that might be a dangerous thing to say in a Victorian world.  A Victorian woman would never admit to having such a feeling.  That wouldn’t be well-received. 

 

Yes, I’ve read that passage too.  In fact, it’s quoted a lot as a passage for female empowerment.  A woman saying she won’t give up her essence as an individual- to be subsumed into anyone else- be it a child or a man or anything. 

 

Yes, and maybe that’s what it means, but it may not mean that.  It may mean that she just can’t.  She literally can’t.  Lots of men and women both give up their lives for their families, their friends, even their country- and giving up their lives doesn’t mean giving up their identities. It means they love greatly.  I’m wondering if Chopin is suggesting Edna is realizing she is incapable of loving anyone outside herself, at least not loving greatly.  It’s not entirely clear to me which direction she intends to direct this character.   

 

So, if Adele is the first model of woman for Edna, the second model is Madame Reisz.  Adele and Madame Reisz are foils.  Total contrasts.  Chapter 9 introduces Reisz at an evening party there at Grand Isle.  I should mention that the treatment of time in this novel is completely non-traditional.  There are large gaps of time between events, so you just have to keep up.  Anyway, a few weeks have passed between chapter 8 and chapter 9.  In chapter 8 is where Adele tells Robert to stop flirting with Edna because, to use Adele’s words “she is not like us” and she might take him seriously.   

 

Of course, Robert ignores Adele’s warning and spends all of his time with Edna.  He seems to have decide he’s good with that.  

 

Yeah, he’s good with that until he isn’t…but that’s not the point I want to make here- In chapter 9, we meet another version of a feminine ideal in the person of Madame Reisz  The summer residents of the Grand Isle are having a party at the big house.  Everyone’s dancing.  Adele is on the piano since she’s too pregnant to dance herself, and everyone is having the best time. It’s pointed out that Adele plays the piano, not because she cares about the piano but because music makes her kids and husband happy.  Music brightens their home.  It’s a means to an end, but not the end itself.   She is passionate about her family- that’s the goal.   

 

She is the mother-woman, after all.   

 

Exactly- but not so with Mademoiselle Reisz.  Mademoiselle Reisz we will see is the artist-woman.  Mademoiselle Reisz’ relationship with music is much deeper.  Music is the end for her.  It’s her passion. and her music doesn’t make people happy it moves them to another place entirely.   

 

Before we talk about how Madame Reisz’ music affects everyone including Edna, let’s see how Chopin describes Madame Reisz- and contrast that with how she compared Adele. if you remember Adelle is the most beautiful creature to alight on planert earth.  But here’s Madame Reisz. 

 

She was a disagreeable little woman, no longer young, who had quarreled with almost everyone, owing to a temper which was self-assertive and a disposition to trample upon the rights of others….she was a homely woman, with a weazened face and body and eyes that glowed.  She had absolutely no taste in dress, and wore a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violents pinned to th side of her hair.” 

 

Well, that’s not exactly flattering. 

 

No, I’d say it isn’t.  She is not a mother-woman either.  She’s single and strong in a different way, not that Adele isn’t strong because I think she is.   It’s just a different feminine ideal. When Madame Reisz plays the piano it sends a tremor down Edna’s spinal cord, literally.  Let me read the text here, “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body.  She trembled, she was choking and tears blinded her.”   

 

Edna is crying again, but this time it’s very different.   

 

True, and it is this night that Edna finally learns to swim.  Robert talks the entire party out into the white moonlight for a late night swim.  The sea is quiet, and Edna for the first time, boldly and with overconfidence goes into the water all by herself.   She has been trying all summer to learn to swim and has failed, but tonight it’s different.  A feeling of exultation overtakes her.  She grows and I quote, “daring and reckless, overestimating her strength, she wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”  She’s intoxicated by her power to swim alone.  The text says, ‘she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.”  She tells Robert how swimming made her feel as he walks her back to her cottage.  She said this, “A thousand emotions have swept through me tonight.  I don’t comprehend half of them…she goes on to say.  It is like a night in a dream.”   

 

She stays on the porch that night instead of going in to bed like she usually does.  Mr. Pontellier comes home sometime past 1am (although I’m not quite sure where he went after the beach party), and she’s still on the porch wide awake.  He tells her to come in with him.  The text says that she normally would have “yielded to his desire”- however you want to understand that- but this night for the first time in her life, she tells him no.  She feels strong- maybe even masculine.  He’s kind of shocked and stays on the porch with her the entire night.  The text says this, “Edna began to feel like one who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream, to feel again the realities pressing into her soul.” 

 

That sounds like she has had her awakening.   

 

Well, it does, but then what does that awakening impel her to do?  The very first paragraph of chapter 12 says this, She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility.”  That does NOT sound like empowerment or Dr. Bandura’s description of human agency.  It sounds like the opposite of empowerment.    Impulsivity and irresponsibility are not noble character traits that lead to success. 

 

No, and if Edna is the parrot from the first chapter of the book, it seems to me, she might be parroting the behavior of her husband as her first acts of independence.  She tries to outwait him at night, then, the next morning, she gets up early and leaves him, just has he has done to her every single day.  She calls Robert and is gone, and she stays gone until 9pm at night leaving Adele to put her kids down.   It seems to me Edna and Leonce have more in common than we might have thought from the first two chapters of the book.   

 

Yeah, the text literally says, “She was blindly following whatever impulse moved her, as if she had placed herself in alien hands for direction, and freed her soul of responsibility.”  Robert even mentions to Edna that he had often noticed that she lacked forethought. 

 

There’s that word again- responsibility.  And hence the great paradox Edna does not understand responsibility and freedom go hand in hand.  If you don’t have responsibility, you really can’t have freedom.  Edna tries to have one at the expense of the other.   

 

She also starts things and doesn’t see them through.  Even on this little adventure outing, she starts the mass, but walks out.  She literally goes into the house of a woman she doesn’t know, imposes herself by laying on her bed and sleeps the entire day away.  She is able to exercise freedom, but often only because other people are willing to take responsibility for her.   

 

The first part of the book ends with chapter 16.  Robert has announced that he is leaving Grand Isle and going to Mexico.   

 

We are left to infer, that after a day with Edna and the realization he might have real feelings for her, he doesn’t want the entanglement taking responsibility for that will bring.  Edna, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get it.  She is distraught.  She doesn’t know how will she spend the rest of her summer without Robert.  Her husband literally asks her, “How do you get on without him, Edna?”  Which I think is a question I would never ask you about another man, but again I’m not a Victorian Creole. 

 

Ha, no, that’s true, but these two don’t think a thing about it.  Let me read this part, “It did not strike her as in the least grotesque that she should be making or Robert the object of conversation and leading her husband to speak of him.  The sentiment which she entertained for Robert in no way resembled that which she felt for her husband, or had ever felt, or ever expected to feel.  She had all her life been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves.  They had never taken the form of struggles.  They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and they concerned no one but herself.”- again that outside narrator commenting somewhat ironically on the state of affairs.   

 

Well, our solitary soul has not found wings, but she has found her sea legs and is exercising them.  I don’t find her behavior necessarily admirable at this point, but, but as we said in the beginning of the podcast- beginings are always chaotic.  That’s the normal state of affairs.  The question will be, is Edna capable of creating a story for herself?  She has decided she hasn’t been the protagonist of her own life, she’s been a parrot, or an object of Leonce’s.  She’s awakened to that in some way, she has begun.  She has two models of womanhood before her- the mother-woman of Adele and the artist-woman of Madame Reisz.   Next episode we will see the middle part of her story, what will Edna do when she goes back home?  What will she do when she’s away from the sea, the dreamy unreality of vacation life.  Will she take on new responsibilities with her awakening?   

 

Will Leonce? 

 

Indeed, things aren’t always the same when we get back home after vacation.  So, thanks for listening……….. 

 

peace OUT.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 1 - Meet The Author, Discover Local Color And Feminism!

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 1 - Meet The Author, Discover Local Color And Feminism!

April 30, 2022

Kate Chopin - The Awakening - Episode 1 - Meet The Author, Discover Local Color And Feminism!

 

I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love lit Podcast.  This episode we begin a journey to a very unique American location to discuss a very American author. Kate Chopin, was born in St Louis but her heritage is more associated with Louisiana than with Missouri as she is from an originally American people group, the Louisianan Creole’s.  Christy, I know, you lived a part of your life in Louisiana, and your dad’s family is from Louisiana.  As we discuss Kate Chopin and her unusual and ill-received novel The Awakening, I think a great place to start our discussion, especially for those who may not be familiar with American geography, is with the Pelican State itself.   What makes Louisiana so unusual than the rest of the United States, and why does that matter when we read a book like The Awakening. 

 

Well, there are so many things that people think of when the think of Louisiana- Louisianan distinctive include Mardi Gras, crawfish bowls, jazz music, bayous, The French Quarter of New Orleans and its beignets.  The list is cultural distinctives is long.   But, just for a general reference, Louisiana is part of the American South.  Now, it might seem that the states that constitute the South are kind of all the same- and in some respects that’s true.  Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, and the rest of them, … after all, they all succeeded from the Union during the Civil War, they all had slaves, they all have had to one degree or another racial tension over the last two hundred years, and, of course, to bring it to modern-day, they all are deeply entrenched in a tradition of American football, barbeque, shot guns, sweet tea, the Bible and a general admiration of good manners that include addressing each other as mr. mrs, yes mam and no sir.   

 

Ha!  Yes, that IS the South.  I remember moving down here and being frustrated that I could never find anywhere that served tea without sugar- and when they say sweet tea down here- I’m talking one step away from maple syrup.   

 

I like it!!!   

 

 People do and feel strongly about it.  In fact a lot of people have a lot have strong feelings about this part of the United States.  Some love the South; others hate it.  It’s a part of the United States that is historical, by American standards, although laughably young compared to other parts of the world,  and controversial- to this very day.  

 

Yes, yet having said that,  once you move here, it doesn’t take you long to realize that  The South is not one cohesive unit.  Every state is very different.  Florida was colonized by the Spanish- and has strong ties to places such as Cuba to this day.  Virginia was the seat of government and is still central to the heart of American politics.  The horse-racing people of Kentucky are very different from their cotton-growing neighbors in Mississippi.  There are many many cultural distinctives that are both old and deep.  Which brings us to the great state of Louisiana- Louisiana, especially South Louisiana, in some ways has more in common with the Caribbean islands than it does with other parts of the United States.  My daddy was born in Spring Hill, Louisiana and raised in Bastrop Louisiana which are in North Louisiana- far from the coast but the people of north Louisiana share many commonalities with their Cajun and Creole brothers.  I have early memories of magnolia trees, cypress trees, bayous, shrimp gumbo,  and, of my Uncle Lanny taking us in the middle of the night out with his hound dogs to go coon hunting- as in racoon hunting.   

 

So, for the record, these are things you don’t see in other parts of the United States.   

 

Indeed, they don’t have bayous and gumbo anywhere else- and although they do have racoons in other places and likely hunt and eat them, I don’t know.  The whole government of Louisiana is different and its visible.  They have parishes instead of counties.  The law is based on French law, not British law which affects everything.   It is predominantly Catholic not Protestant, hence Mardi Gras, which is what they call Carnival in Brazil but which we don’t celebrate in other part of the US.  But what interests us for this book is the ethnic origins of the people indigenous to the region.     The rural part of the state has been dominated by a group we call Cajuns.  Cajuns are Roman Catholic French Canadians, or at least their descendents were.   

 

They were run out of the Captured French Colony called Acadia in North Eastern Canada- it’s actually be termed “the Acadian diaspora”.  Acadia was in the maritime provinces up on the Atlantic side, near the US state of Maine. That part of Canada was very British hence the obvious antagonism.  

 

 Well, The word Acadians kind of morphed into Cajuns over the years.  That’s one people group.  But we also have another distinctively Louisianan people group  called the Louisiana Creoles.  This group of people ethnically are entirely different group than the Cajuns but also speak French.  Our author today, Kate Chopin was a creole, and she wrote about Lousianan Creole people.  Garry, before we introduce the Mrs. Chopin, local color and her influencial work, The Awakening, let’s learn just a little about these remarkable people.  Who are the Creoles of Louisiana? 

 

Well, let me preface by saying, as Kate Chopin would be the first to admit, history is always messy- people marry, intermarry, languages get confused and muddled, so when we talk about distinctives, we are talking about generalities, and if you want take to talk about Creole people the first word that must come to mind is multi-cultural.  There are creole peoples all over the Caribbean.  Haiti is the first country that comes to mind, so we need to be careful as we speak in generalities. But  the first generality you will notice of the Louisianan Creole people shows up in the first chapter of Chopin’s book, and that is that they also speak the French language, except for the Louisiana Creoles that can mean two different actual languages.  Today, and the latest stat, I saw was from May of 2020,  1,281,300 identified French as their native tongue- that would be Colonial French, standard French and the speakers of would include both people groups the Cajuns and the Louisianan Creoles.  But what is even more interesting than that is that the language Louisiana Creole is its own distinctive indigenous language, and is not the same as Haitian Creole or Hawaiian Creole or any other form of Creole where you might hear that word.  Meaning, Louisianan Creole although having origins in the French language is not French at all but its own distinct language.   This is confusing because the Cajuns speak a dialect of French that sounds different than the French from France or Quebec, but it's still French and French speakers can understand what they are saying even if it sounds different than the way they might pronounce things.  That’s different. Creole is French-based, but has African influences and is literally its own language and French speakers cannot understand it.  Today it’s an endangered language, only about 10,000 people speak it, but it is still alive.    

 

Yeah, that wasn’t something I understood as a teenager living in Louisiana. I thought Cajun- Creole all meant Lousianan.  Since we lived in North Louisiana, I never met anyone personally who spoke Lousiana Creole.  All the Creole’s I came into contact, including Mrs. Devereaux, my French teacher spoke traditional French, which is what they do in Chopin’s book too, btw.    

 

Of course, Cajuns and Creole people have a lot in common in terms of religion and even in taste in cuisine, but where they differ tremendously is in ethnicity and also in social class.  The Cajuns are white and from Canada but often rural and historically lower-middle class.  The Creole’s are not white, but culturally a part of the urban elite, the ruling class.  They are the first multi-cultural people group on the American continent and deserve a special status for that reason. 

 

Explain that, because that’s really interesting.  Today, to be multi-cultural is cool, but 100 years ago when ethnic groups did not intermingle, and being a multi-cultural group that was upper class seems like a huge anomaly.  Although I will say the word “creole” tips you off to the multi-cultural element.  It actually comes from the Portuguese word “crioulo” and the word itself means people who were created. 

 

 And again, I do want to point out that this is kind of a very big simplification of a couple of hundred years of history, but in short, the criolos were people who were born in the new World- but mostly of mixed heritage.  Gentlemen farmers, primarily French and Spanish came over to the new world.  A lot of them came  by way of the Caribbean after the slave revolt in Haiti.   They had relationships and often even second families with local people here. Many were Black slaves, others were native Americans, lots were mulattos who also came from the Caribbean.  Unlike mixed raced people from Mississippi or Alabama, Creoles were not slaves.  They were free people.  They were educated.  They spoke French and many rose to high positions of politics, arts and culture. They were the elite, many were slaveholders.  Now, I will say, that most chose to speak Colonial French over Louisiana Creole as they got more educated, also over time as we got closer to the Civil War era being mixed race in and of itself got pretty complicated with the black/white caste-system of the South, which is another story in and of itself.   And as a result, you had creoles who were identifying as white and others who didn’t- Chopin’s family were white creoles.  But regardless of all that, but in the 1850s and through the life of Chopin, until today, Creoles are a separate people group that identify themselves as such.  They are a proud group of people who worship together, connect socially together, and often build communities around each other. They have societal behaviors and customs that set them apart, and we learn by looking at life through Edna Pontellier's eyes, have a culture that can difficult for an outsider to penetrate, if you marry an insider. 

 

And so enters, Mrs. Kate Chopin, born in 1851 to a mother who was Creole and a father who was a Irish, both Catholic. She was not born in Louisisana, but in the great midwestern city of St. Louis.  St Louis, at the time had a rather large Creole population by virtue of being a city on the Mississippi river- which runs from New Orleans miles north. Her mom’s family was old, distinguished and part of what has been termed the “Creole Aristocracy”.  Kate grew up speaking French as a first language, and as many Creole women was raised to be very independent by three generations of women in the household. She received an exceptional education, was interested in what they called “the woman question”.  This will give you an indication of how progressive her family actually was, now brace yourself because this is scandalous….on a trip to New Orleans at the ripe age of 18, Kate learned to smoke. 

 

Oh my, did she smoke behind the high school gym or in the bathroom stalls? 

 

Ha!  Who even knows, but we do know that at age 19 she married the love of her life, another Creole, Oscar Chopin.  Kate and Oscar were very compatible and the years she was married to him have been described as nothing but really happy by all of her biographers that I’m familiar with.  They lived in New Orleans at first and then to Natchitoches parish in the central Louisiana where he owned and operated a general store.  They were married for 12 years, and- this small fact wipes me out- they had five sons and two daughters. 

 

Ha!  That confirms all the Catholic stereotypes of large families.   

 

I know right, that’s just a lot…and their lives were, by all accounts, going well until…there’s always an until… Oscar suffered the fate of a lot of people around the world even to this day, who live in hot climates.  He caught malaria, and suddenly died.  And there Kate was, alone in the middle of the interior of Louisiana,  with this store and all these kids.  She ran it herself for over a year, but then decided to do what lots of us would do in that situation…she moved back to the hometown of her childhood, St. Louis so she could be near her mother- I didn’t mention it before but her father had died in a terrible railroad accident when she was a young child and her brother had died in the Civil War- so basically all of the men that had meant anything to her at all, had all died.  One of Kate’s daughters had this to say about that later on when she was an adult talking about her mom, “When I speak of my mother’s keen sense of humor and of her habit of looking on the amusing side of everything, I don’t want to give the impression of her being joyous, for she was on the contrary rather a sad nature…I think the tragic death of her father early in her life, of her much beloved brothers, the loss of her young husband and her mother, left a stamp of sadness on her which was never lost.”   

 

Goodness, that Is a lot of sadness. 

 

Well, it is and it took a toll.  When she got back to St. Louis, Dr. Kolbenheyer, their obgyn and a family friend talked her into studying some French writers for the sake of  mental health, specifically Maupassant and Zola and take up writing.  She took that advice ..…so at age 38 a widow with six living children, Chopin began her writing career.  A career, sadly that was only going to last five years.  It started great, and she was super popular, but then….she wrote a scandalous book and was cancelled, and I mean totally cancelled.  Five years after the publication of  this candalous book that today we call The Awakening, she had a stroke and died.  At the time of her death, Kate Chopin as a writer, was virtually unknown and uncelebrated.   

 

What do you mean by cancelled? That sounds like a crazy story for a mommy writer. 

 

True, and it is.  When she started  writing, she was super popular.  This kind of reminds me a little of Shirley Jackson, honestly.  She wrote short things for magazines for money.  What made her work popular, at least in part, was because writing about a subculture of America that people found interesting.  Although she was living in St. Louis, her stories were set in Louisiana amongst the Creole people- and people loved it.  This movement in American literature where authors focus on a specific region or people group  has been called “Local Color”, and her ability to showcase the local color of the Creole people led her to success.     

 

Subcultures are so fascinating to me and I’m always amazed at how many different subcultures there are- and I’m not talking about just ethnically. There are endless subcultures on this earth, and most of the time we don’t even know what we’re looking at. 

 

Oh, for sure.  I think of guitar players as their own subculture- they speak their own language, have their own passions, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have their own foods. 

 

 HA!  Do I sense a bit of mockery?  But you are right, we do have a little bit of a subculture, but if you think guitarists are a subculture, what do you think of my cousin Sherry who is neck deep into Harley Davidson culture and goes to Sturgis, South Dakota every year.  

 

True, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who participate in that subculture all over the world   And of course, we’re talking about hobbies which are not the same as actual ethnic subcultures in any location, understanding and just seeing behind the fence of someone else’ experience is the fun.  The idea of living life vicariously through the stories, so to speak, of people who are so radically differently is one of the things I most love about reading.  In the real sense of the term “local color” though, this was an actual movement after the Civil War.  Authors were using settings from different parts of the country and it made the writing feel romantic for people unfamiliar with the setting while actually being fundamentally realistic- I know that’s a paradox, but if you think about it it makes sense.  They were works that could only be written from inside the culture by someone who was a part of it- that’s what made them realistic.   Chopin was considered a local color author because she was Creole writing about the world of Louisiana Creoles.   

 

Well, apparently it was well received.  She got stories printed first in regional publications but then in national publications.  “The Story of an Hour” which was the only story I had ever read of hers, and I didn’t know this, was published in Vogue in 1894.   

 

Very impressive, Houghton Mifflin, the publisher that to this day publishes quite a bit of high school literature textbooks actually published a collection of her stories, titled it Bayou Folk.  So, just in the title, you can tell they are playing up her Louisiana connection.  And that book was a success.  Chopin, who kept notes on how well all of her works were doing, wrote that she had seen 100 press notices about the book.  It was written up in both The Atlantic and the New York Times.  People loved how she used local dialects. They found the stories and I quote “charning and pleasant.”  She was even asked to write an essay on writing for the literary journal Critic- which I found really insightful.  

 

Well, of course, all of these things sound like a woman bound for monetary and critical success- stardom of her day.   

 

 And so her trajectory kept ascending.  She was published in the Saturday Evening Post.  Of course that was a big deal.  Everything was moving in the right direction….until.. The Awakening.  The Awakening was too much and she crashed immediately and hard.  

 

You know, when I read these reviews from 1899, it’s so interesting how strongly they reacted.  Let me read a few, her local paper, The St Louis Daily Globe-Democrat wrote this, “It is not a healthy book….if it points any particular moral or teaches any lesson the fact is not apparent.” The Chicago Times Herald wrote, “It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the over-worked field of sex-fiction.  This is not a pleasant story.”  Here’s another one, “its disagreeable glimpses of sensuality are repellent.”   

 

She was not prepared for this.  She did not expect it.  She was expecting people to see it as the American version of some of the things she had been reading in French that had been published in France.  Her treatment of sexuality is what really got her, and maybe if her protagonist had been male she could have gotten away with it.  Actually, I’m pretty sure, she would have gotten away with it, there are other authors who did.  But discussing how women felt about sexuality- and let me say- in case you haven’t read the book- this is not a harlequin romance.  She doesn’t talk about hot steamy passion in descriptive tones.  She is very polished and shows deference to the WAY things were expressed in her day.  The problem was not in how she was treating sexual content- the problem was that she WAS discussing how women felt about sexuality and this just was too realistic.  People weren’t and maybe we still aren’t, ready to be vulnerable about how we feel about intimacy.   

 

You know, I tell students all the time that in American politics, sexual issues have always been used as a wedge issue to define people’s position as good or bad people.  That has not changed in the American political scene in 200 years and is something our European and Asian friends have mocked us about for just as long.  We are a people committed to moralizing, even to this day.  For a long time, it was cloaked in religion, but now, hyperbolic moralizing, although not done in the name of a faith is still a favorite American pastime.   

 

Well, honestly, I guess that’s also been true for the arts as well.  But honestly, greatr art is never moralizing.  And Chopin knew that.  Furthermore, if anyone had read that essay Chopin printed about her writing that I referenced, they would have seen that Chopin, by design, does NOT moralize in hers.  She does not condemn or judge.  She has no interest in telling us how we should or shouldn’t behave.  She sees the role of the artist, and clearly stated as much,  and the role of fiction as in demonstrating how we genuinely ARE as human beings.  It is a role of showcasing the human experience.  It is meant to help us understand ourselves.  What she does in her writing by using a culture that is unfamiliar to us, is allow us a safer space from which we can pull back the veil that IS our experience, so we can see ourselves.  Let me quote her from that essay and here she’s talking about the Creole people of Louisiana,   

“Among these people are to be found an earnestness in the acquirement and dissemination of book-learning, a clinging to the past and conventional standards, an almost Creolean sensitiveness to criticism and a singular ignorance of, or disregard for, the value of the highest art forms. There is a very, very big world lying not wholly in northern Indiana, nor does it lie at the antipodes, either. It is human existence in its subtle, complex, true meaning, stripped of the veil with which ethical and conventional standards have draped it.” 

Well, regardless of how she wanted to come across, apparently, she struck a nerve people didn’t want struck.  The Awakening unsettled America.  The book was published in April of 1899, by August critics were destroying it, and again I’ll use the reviewers words,  it had been deemed “morbid and unwholesome” and was reproached on a national stage.  She was scorned publicly.  When she submitted a new short story to the Atlantic “Ti Demon” in November after the publication of The Awakening it was returned and rejected.    Her own publisher, the one who had published the controversial book decided to “shorten is list of authors”- and they dropped her.  Of course to be fair, they claimed that decision had nothing to do with the problems with the reception of The Awakening. 

 

I’m sure that it didn’t.  Chopin was obviously crushed.  She would only write seven more stories over the next five years.  In 1904 when she died of a stroke, she was basically a forgotten writer.  And likely would have remained forgotten until, ironically the French discovered the novel in 1952.  A writer by the name of Cyrille Arnavon translated it into French under the title Edna with a 22 page introduction essay called it a neglected masterpiece.  What he liked about it had nothing to do with “local color” or creole people or anything Americana.  He saw in it what we see in it today- psychological analysis.   

 

So fascinating, this is the 1950s; this is exactly the time period psychology is shifting from Freudian interpretations of Chopin's’ day into behaviorism and eventually to humanistic psychology.   

 

Why does this matter? 

 

With Freud everything is secret and we’re ruled by unseen forces we don’t understand without psychoanalysis.  Chopin’s book came out when this was how we were looking at the world.  After him came Skinner’s behaviorism which said everything can be reduced to rewards and punishments.   Humanistic psychology is this third way of looking at things.  It’s extremely empathetic.  Names like Karl Rogers were looking at life with the idea that it’s just plain difficult to be a human, and we need to understand this complexity.  They would like books that are not all black/white thinking or moralistic.  This is what’s crazy to me about Chopin.  She wrote in the days of Freud, but she was so far ahead of her time psychologically; nobody would get her for another 60 years- literally two entire movements later in the field of psychology.   

 

Well, when they did get her, they really got her.  In 1969 a Norwegian critic Per Seyersted brought her out into the open in a big way.  This is what he said, “ Chopin, and I quote “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.” 

 

Finally people were understanding what she was trying to do.  That’s exactly what she wanted to show- the complexity of being human.  Here’s another Chopin quote whole talking about the role of a writer, “Thou shalt not preach; “thou shalt not instruct thy neighbor”.  Or as her great- grandmother Carleville, who was extremely influencial in her life, used to tell her, Kate’s grandmother who raised her was known for saying this “One may know a great deal about people without judging them.  God does that.” 

 

Well, she was immediately resurrected.  Today she is considered one of America’s premiere writers. 

 

Well, it also didn’t hurt her reputation that she was being discovered in Europe at the exact same time, the women’s movement was taking off in the United States and finding an unsung feminist writer was very popular.  

 

Yeah, I thought she WAS a feminist writer, but you don’t see her as that. 

 

I really don’t, and that’s not to say there isn’t any feminism in the book, because obviously, it’s about life as a woman at the turn of the century.  Virginia Wolfe famouslty argued in her essay A Room of One’s Own that no one knew what women were thinking and feeling in the 17th century because they weren’t writing.  Well, you can’t say that about Chopin.  She was absolutely writing about what women were thinking and feeling, it just took 60 years for the world to allow her to share it.   

 

 

If we want to talk the particulars about The Awakening, which of course we do, we have a female protagonist.  I’m not going to call her a hero because I don’t find anything heroic about her.  But it’s very very honest characterization of what women feel, and honestly, perhaps it’s what a lot of people feel- both men and women when they live, as we all do, within cultures of high expectations.   

 

Isn’t writing about standing up to cultural norms and societal expectations kind of cliché?  I’m surprised you find it interesting in this situation. 

 

 Well, it for sure can be.  It’s what a lot of teenage angst poetry is about.  But Chopin’s book is a lot more complex than just a denouncement on social expectations of women’s roles.  In some ways, that’s just the setting.  This particular woman, Edna, is for sure, unhappyily objectified by a husband.  That part is obvious.  But, Chopin isn’t necessarily moralizing against this or anything else.  In the opening encounter between husband and wife, we see the wife being objectified, but we also see that they have worked out some deal.  She has a very privileged life.  It’s not a life between two people who have emotional intimacy, for sure.  These two clearly don’t.  Edna asks if her husband plans on showing up for dinner.  He basically sayd, I don’t know- I may; I may not.  It doesn’t appear Edna could care less one way or another and Chopin isn’t condemning them; she is observing.  This are the deals people are working out in the world.  She makes other observations in regard to Edna and her relationship with her children.  She loves her children; sort of; but it’s certainly not the motherly and passionate devotion most mothers feel towards their kids.  It’s definitely not the self-denying ideal, we see expressed through a different character in the book.  Again, Chopin is not endorsing nor condemning.  She’s observing.  There’s no doubt, Chopin herself was progressive.  She was raised in a house of dominant women.  She herself was a head of household.  She was educated.  She made money, but she had healthy relationships with the men in her life.  She is not a man-hater, that I can tell.  She never remarried but there is reason to believe she had at least one  other significant male relationship after her husband’s death.  So, portraying her as a woman who influenced feminism in any kind of deliberate way, I don’t think is something that she intended, nor was it something that happened.  She was cancelled. 

 

I understand that, it’s just interesting that today, we think of her first and foremost as a feminist writer in large part because she had sexual content in her books.  Although, as I think about the progressive women in the 1890s, what we know about them from history is that most were not really be fans of indiscriminate sex.  

 

Oh my, we’re getting edgy here, but I have to ask.  Why do you say that? 

 

You have to understand this is before birth control.  Sexual relationships for women meant running the very real risk of generating children which was often a life-risking ordeal.  Kate herself had gone through that seven times in twelve years.  Women were spending half of their lives pregnant.  Many progressive women in this time period were not fighting for the freedom to have sex, they were fighting for the right to NOT have it.  They wanted the right to say no.  The goal of Self ownership was central to nineteenth century feminism.  Woman's rights were about possessing a fully realized human identity.  We think of this today in terms of sexual freedom but that’s the arrogance of the presence kicking in.  Obviously human sexuality is a core part of the human experience and that’s likely why it’s central to Chopin’s story, but there are other aspects of person hood.  Women, especially educated ones, were interested in navigating a sense of place in the community and the universe at large- and that involves all kinds of things- hard things like love, connections, maternity. 

 

Exactly, and that’s why Edna is so complicated.  Being a human is difficult.   Navigating  “the woman’s sphere”, to use the expression of  the notable Chopin scholar Sandra Gilbert is complicated.  And so, we all find ourselves, one way or another in cages- some of our own making, some of the makings of our community, our religion, our culture, our own personalities- whatever it is.  And that is the opening of our story.  The Awakening starts with a woman in a cage.  This is not to say that men do not experience cages or awakenigs- they absolutely do, but Chopin is a woman and will speak from inside the world of women.  She will drop a woman named Edna, a middle child Presbyterian English speaking girl from Kentucky, into a French speaking Catholic world of elite Creole women.  Edna is flawed, but not awful.  She’s flawed in the sense that we are all flawed.  This woman acts out- in the way that many of us have acted out- often as children, but for some of us, we don’t experience this desire for agency until later in life.  For Edna it comes at the age of 26 and when it does- she will scandalize her world the way acting out always does.  She finds herself in a cage and decides she wants out...but then what…where do you go from there.  Let’s read how Chopin sets this up in the first paragraph of her story. 

 

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: 

Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!” 

He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence. 

Mr. Pontellier, unable to read his newspaper with any degree of comfort, arose with an expression and an exclamation of disgust. 

He walked down the gallery and across the narrow “bridges” which connected the Lebrun cottages one with the other. He had been seated before the door of the main house. The parrot and the mocking-bird were the property of Madame Lebrun, and they had the right to make all the noise they wished. Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining. 

 

Christy, does she give the entire story away in the beginning? 

 

She’s doing something.  She opens with a bird- a parrot. We will talk more about this later, but birds are a big deal in this book.  But why a parrot- what do parrots do- well they imitate.  They talk.  This parrot is in a cage repeating something an English reader may not understand.   

 

What does that phrase mean? 

 

It means Go away! Go away!  For God’s sake!  The bird is telling everyone to go away, and Mr. Pontellier pretty much ignores the bird and does actually go away.  The bird speaks a little Spanish but also a language no one else understands.  There’s a lot of intentionality here.  This book begins with a bird in a cage and the book ends with a bird, but I won’t tell you how we find that bird yet.   

 

 These 19th century writers were always using symbols on purpose.  

 

 

They really do.  And if this one is our protagonist- what we can see is that she’s beautiful, she’s in a cage, and although she can talk, she cannot articulate something that can be heard properly or understood.   

 

And so that is our starting point. 

 

I think it is.  Next episode, we will join Edna and explore this beautiful place, Grand Isle- the site, and if the title of the book hasn’t given it away yet, I will, of her Awakening.  We will watch Edna awaken- but then, we know from our visit with Camus…that is only step one.  Now what. 

 

Indeed…now what.  Well, thank you for spending time with us today.  We hope you have enjoyed meeting Kate Chopin and jumping into the first paragraph of her lost but rediscovered American masterpiece, The Awakening.  And if you did, please support us by sharing this episode with a firend, either by text, by twitter, Instagram or email.  That’s how we grow.  Also, if you have a favorite book, you’d like us to discuss, you are always invited to connect with us, again via all the ways Modern world people do. 

 

Peace out! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foo Fighters - Lyrics That Camus Would Call The Antidote For Absurdity!

Foo Fighters - Lyrics That Camus Would Call The Antidote For Absurdity!

April 23, 2022

Foo Fighters - Lyrics That Camus Would Call The Antidote Of Absurdity!

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I am Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  You have heard Christy say, over dozens of times if you’ve listened to a lot of our episodes that we’re here to discuss books.  Having said that, the word “books”  is being used as a synecdoche- to use a literary word- in other words, books is a word we’re using to symbolize something bigger of which books is just a part- and that something bigger is this concept of words.  Words that have moved the world and have moved us.  And so, in that spirit, this week, we’re pausing from looking at traditional text and looking at music lyrics, specifically rock lyrics, specifically the phenomena that is Foo Fighters and their music.   

 

And let me just add, for Garry, this is an exciting change of pace.  He’s been a guitar-head since childhood.  He’s a rock and roll and has been since, as a young teenager he saved up his money to buy his first  amp.  Tell us that story, Garry…this is for all the rock-n-roll heads who share a similar experience.   

 

The story….. 

 

And if you are like me, until I met Garry I had no idea that playing the guitar is akin to jumping down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.  To parody Freud, sometimes a guitar is not just a guitar- 

 

No, for me the guitar was the gateway instrument into a whole new world of Rock and it was the way that I discovered a bigger world other than the small town I grew up in.…and I will add, not just me.  David Grohl, who started the band Foo Fighters, in 1995 talks about hearing the Album The Record by the band Fear and wanting to become a musician.   In fact, if you listen to Grohl’s ac 

 

 Well, you say ___________, It’s still a bit of a  rabbit hole- I mean just in terms of gear, for those of us who didn’t know, you can be a Gibson person, a telecaster person, a stratacaster person, a Gretch person- just to name a few of the kinds of electric guitars, nevermind the amps, the pedals, the boards, the pick ups, the tones- and that’s not even the music side of it- just the tech of blasting music on an electrical guitar- think of Michael J Fox in Back to the Future.   

 

But having said that- once you put all those elements together, and if you do so in a genius sort of way, you will get a ticket to transcend into this other realm called Rock and Roll.  Today, and this stat is only an American stat, I don’t have the numbers worldwide, but today Rock is still the preferred genre of 56% of the American population, surpassing pop, country and rap- which I found surprising.  Rock albums still account for the majority of all vinyl music sales- although they do not surpass rap or country when it comes to streaming services- that might tell you something about demographics.  But in a world with so many things that divide us, Foo Fighter unite audiences which range over 4 generations and across all nation-states, rock and roll is a powerful unifier.     

 

Yes, and the uncontested leading rock band in the world in 2022  is The Foo Fighters.  And how do we determine that?  Well we can look at awards,   they have won 12 grammies for one thing, including Best Album 4 times.  But awards are not an awesome metric to measure human impact- especially for Rock.  But there are others.  Since David Grohl started his one man band in Seattle in 1994, They have released 9 albums, gone on 9 worldwide tours which each lasted over a year-  just the 2017 tour from the album “Concrete and Gold” consisted of 113 shows on five continents grossing $114 million.  They have sold out the famed Wembley stadium in London- not once but twice, oh and it sold out in 24 hours.  That stadium holds 86,000 people.  Another big hint as to the enormity of their impact from that same tour was the performance at Glastonbury, when over 150,000 people were documented singing in unison the lyrics to their song “Best of You”.  Their top five songs, just on Spotify, which is only one and not even the largest of streaming  services have over 2.5 billion downloads- and that is just on Spotify.  They have 16 million monthly listeners on Spotify.  In 2021 they were inducted into the rock and Roll hall of fame, the first year they were eligible.  There is no overstating the influence, the passion, the commitment and connection that this group of men, led by Dave Grohl, has had on over 4 generations of humans of all ages, races, and gender from all over the world these last 25 years.  Literally hundreds of millions have been touched by their music both in person and over the sound ways.   

 

And so today, we would like to look at the history and the music of this powerful force of positivity, and it has been a force of positivity.  How has this group connected and improved the lives of so many?  There are hundreds of millions of personal examples from fans, but here’s a famous one.  In 1995, David Letterman, who at the time was a famous late night comedian on tv, gave the foo fighters their first spotlight on television.  They played a song from their album which I’ll tell you about in a minute called “”This is a Call”.  Letterman was hooked on the Foo Fighters.  In 2000, he had a quintuple heart by-pass surgery and after his recovery, he asked them to come to NY and be on his first show back after his surgery.   For him, them being with him was personal.   He publically stated on the show that night that their song “Everlong” was what got him through his surgery and recovery.  When Letterman retired from television, he asked that they play that song again for the last few minutes of his final show after he said farewell for the last time ending his long career.  How did that song, this band, inspire him to fight off death as his heart struggled to regain strength?  What has been the impact of their music on so many across the globe?  The answer lies in the lyrics, in part.  It lies in the musical talent, in part.  It lies in the energy and passion, in part.  It lies in the showmanship But all of these components are working together to produce a single effect- what is it?  What is the power of Rock and Roll? 

 

I think we can see the answer by looking at this band and looking at three of our favorite Foo Fighters songs.   

 

I think we can too.  What we see is that the Foo Fighters in general, and Dave Grohl personal story in particular in every way embody Camus’ idea that life is best lived  fighting the absurd, rebelling against meaningless, rebelling against the constant pressure to commit philosophical suicide.   

 

 Dave Grohl’s life and music showcase one man’s fight to do this- in spite of pressure to conform, in spite of death, and in spite of the heavy-handed trappings of success, and that is the gift he shares in his lyrics as well as how he plays and how he lives his life on and off the stage.  

 

We mention Dave Grohl’s story, first, because Foo Fighters really starts with him.   For those who aren’t familiar with that. Name, Dave Grohl was the drummer for the rock band Nirvana.  In 1994, Nirvana was on top of the world with international success and Grohl became famous.  Last week we mentioned the existential song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”- that’s Nirvana. 

 

Well, I want to add, Grohl’s story is almost the classic Camus journey.  His mother is a retired public school English teacher from the suburbs of Washington DC, so shout out to mom!!, btw.  His father was a political speech writer- also from that Washington DC area.   One finny thing is that his mom is a democrat and his dad a Republcan- so there you go navigating that as a kid!!   

 

 He left this kind of suburban highly educated lifestyle at the age of 17 and literally dropped out of high school to play the drums.  He even lied about his age because he was a minor.  But he auditioned and joined this band called Scream.  He lived for four years, sleeping on a sleeping bag, living out of a van with the 4 other band members and a roadie, playing night after night in dives to groups of 20-200 people max.   

 

That sounds kind of like a rock and roll movie, and, Of course I don’t know, but I can’t image his mother being very excited about those life-choices, especially the dropping out of school one. 

 

Probably not, especially since there was no guarantee it would work out.  It almost never does.  But as Grohl tells it, stardom wasn’t really the end goal.  He was pursuing music, a community, the life he wanted with nothing to prove really. At one point, Scream was really struggling.  He was in LA and things were at a standstill.  He hears about an opening with this other band called Nirvana.  It wasn’t mainstream, but was popular with the underground community on the West Coast, specially Washington state.  David calls a friend who knows the band to try to get an audition and gets it.  He calls his mom to ask her if he should drop Scream and go to Nirvana, with her encouragement he makes the change that would launch him into a different world. 

 

Well, Nirvana’s success is pretty well documented, but of course, even people who don’t follow rock music cannot think about Nirvana without thinking about the tragic suicide in 1994 of Nirvana’s singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain.  The famous Neil Young quote from his note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” has been controversial itself and unfortunately led to teenage suicides since its release to the public, but for Grohl the loss was personal.   

 

Cobain’s death left David heartbroken.  He lived with Cobain, slept on his sofa during the early days.  He had watched Cobain struggle with depression.  He says he saw him have lows and he would go to his room and not come out, but Cobain also could be incredibly fun and alive.  They traveled together, played together, worked together.   He had grown to love his friend.  Beyond just losing a friend, With Cobain’s death, Nirvana was over, and Dave had to decide what to do.  Tom Petty, famous in his own right, invited him to play the drums for him, but he decided he didn’t want that.  He didn’t know if he even wanted to play the drums anymore. 

 

What he wanted was to carve out a new thing- make his own reality- and for him that meant recording an album all by himself.  So, that’s what he did.  In 1995, for five days he sat with the engineers in a studio by himself.  He recorded the vocals, recorded the guitar parts, recorded the drum parts and then the engineers put it all on top of each other.  He wanted to make it look like it was actually a band so he used this pseudonym Foo Fighters,  He’d been reading some stuff about UFOs and kind of just used the name.  Later when he was inducted into the hall of fame he said this, “had I actually considered this a career, I probably would have called it something else, because it’s the stupidest _________ band name in the world,”  BTW, if you listen to Grohl talk on platforms meant for educational purposes, you will have to get used to a bleeping.  Grohl is passionate and very colorful, it’s funny, but there are a lot of bleeps.   

 

The point I want to make by bringing up David’s personal history is because it’s here we see Grohl, like Camus, choosing to fight the absurd and choosing also to fight philosophical suicide.  He did not conform to th suburbs just because it certainly was an easy thing to do growing up in DC.  He didn’t say, “it doesn’t matter” when his friend died, because it does matter.  No where in this story can you find someone taking the easy way out- or lying to themselves. This is the story of a child growing into a man determined to be as completely honest as possible and committed to creating meaning- his own meaning- in this world. 

 

And so the Foo Fighters are born.  This very first album was a success and they even got on David Letterman, but it is on the second album The Colour and the Shape that we find one of their most endearing hits,  Everlong, the one Letterman had them perform when he retired. 

 

Which I find so interesting because the song isn’t really about anything I would think Letterman would like on the surface, in terms of lyrics.  Grohl wrote it in 1996 after going through an ugly divorce.  He had met another girl, Louise Post, and they just connected.  It’s such a funny story.  He originally recorded at a friend’s studio in DC, again playing all the parts himself, but it was rough.  When it came time to record the album the The Colour and the Shape, the producer wanted to include Everlong.  He raelly thought it brought the album together thematically.  Grohl was cool with this but he wanted Post to sing the real back up vocals for it because it was about her.  Post recalls, and this is from her Instagram post and I quote, “I sang these back-ups over the phone at 2am after being woken up from a deep sleep in Chicago by David Grohl who was tracking the vocals for “EverLong” in LA.    

 

Again- and this is why a song is not just words - lyrics are VOICE plus words.  And the voice, if it is good, functions to enshrine language – elevate it beyond just the content of the words.  In Grohl’s case, he doesn’t have the range of someone like Mariah Carey or even Steve Perry from Journey.  But the voice is action and it’s that movement that Grohl and all the Foo Fighters communicate.  Grohl screams at times, but his voice is communicating something beyond the words on the page.   What do you hear? 

 

There’s just an authenticity there.  I heard him talking about the origins of the song, Everlong and I was shocked when I learned that he doesn’t even know how to read music.  He never studied formally.  He just strummed a new combination and heard a song.  I don’t want to use the word innocence because that’s not the right word, but it’s this raw pursuit of wanting life and bringing people along and it has captivated the world- obviously only an authentic genius could ever do what he does, especially self-taught.  But, when you think about how songs, and this song in particular lives in the hearts of so many, we know that the human voice holds a special place.   It is a human instrument, where the soul, to sound mystical- unifies with the lungs, the diaphragm, the abs- to do something different.  But Let’s look at those famous lyrics and talk about them.  

 

Hello 
I've waited here for you 
Everlong 

Tonight, I throw myself into 
And out of the red 
Out of her head, she sang 

Come down and waste away with me 
Down with me 
Slow, how you wanted it to be 
I'm over my head 
Out of her head, she sang 

And I wonder 
When I sing along with you 

If everything could ever be this real forever 
If anything could ever be this good again 
The only thing I'll ever ask of you 
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when 
She sang 

Breathe out 
So I can breathe you in 
Hold you in 
And now 
I know you've always been 
Out of your head 
Out of my head, I sang 

And I wonder 
When I sing along with you 

If everything could ever feel this real forever 
If anything could ever be this good again 
The only thing I'll ever ask of you 
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when 
She sang 

And I wonder 

If everything could ever feel this real forever 
If anything could ever be this good again 
The only thing I'll ever ask of you 
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when 

 

 

The words are simple- which is why they work as lyrics.  No one has time to explicate poetry while they’re at a rock concert.  You have to understand the idea in a instant.  

 

There is also a lot of repetition, when you just read it, like we did it feels redundant, but when you add the voice the repetition plays a different role.  It signifies hooks and choruses and gives us a sense of excitement and anticipation for the next drum riff or energetic pulse.   

 

Well, the ear is listening for something different in music than it is in poetry.  Then you add the signature guitar riffs to that- you have a different emotional experience.  And I want to point out that all good music that people love is emotional. The song Everlong has two versions- the version with the whole band as well as just the acoustic version- both are powerful, but really two different experiences.  The emotions are different.   

 

 For sure, but Everlong, like all rock ballads is meant to be sung.  The contrasting anaphors of If everything, if anything, rhyme with the following line- the only thing----are drawn together in your ear because of that rhyme and they create this tension that leads you to the climatic line of feeling real.  In fact, that’s the central idea- whether it be in the acoustic or the band version-  they both convey a universal feeling of holding on to one single moment- and making it feel eternal- holding on -look at the word he chooses- what is real.  It’s really a paradox- eternity felt in a moment- on the surface it doesn’t make sense, but it’s a feeling we all have or at least want to have- and he expresses it so simply, with simple words- but the drums, the bass, the guitars plus the screaming vocals- make the idea completely alive.   

 

 “And I Wonder when I sing along with you” you feel the power of the line that “If everything could ever feel this real forever” whether your heart pounds with that overpowering electrical guitar or with just the strumming of the acoustic one- you’re inspired to hold on- to feel the moment again- just like that repeating riff. 

 

YOu know, Everlong is an interesting example of a hit song that grows into its success overtime.  People liked it when it came out, but over time it’s just grown and grown to the point that it’s the song everyone most wants to hear when they go to a Foo Fighters concert- and they end their concerts with it., but it wasn’t that way at the first.  If you want their first hit that entered the BillBoard hop 100, you have to go to the next album they recorded called Echoes and the song from there that we all remember is Learn to Fly.   

 

I want to ask a question, what is the BillBoards or the Billboard Hot 100- that is a term everyone uses to determine success. 

 

Sure, Billboard is a magazine, Billboard biz is the online extension.  Billboard tabulates the popularity of songs on a weekly basis.  Sometimes the charts are genre specific, for example you have the country chart or the rock chart, but they cover all genres.  They are ranked according to sales, streams, airplay, thst sort of thing.  The Billboard Hot 100 combines all aspecits of a single’s performance (sales, radio airplay and streaming activity) and ranks how successful any one song is, it has to be a single.   The top rated songs on Billboard will be the songs featured on radio because they draw the audience that leads to higher advertising rates.  

 

The Song Learn to Fly actually won a grammy for its music video.  The lyrics were written, not just by David Grohl, but Taylor Hawkins the drummer and Nate Mendel.  By this point in the history of the Foo Fighters, What we have seen evolve is the vision of one man, Dave Grohl, into a collective- a brotherhood.  Foo Fighters by 1997 is no longer a one-man band.  “Learn to Fly” has three co-writers.  There have been a couple of entrances and exits over the years, but not many really.  Today Foo Fighters is David Grohl, Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel, Franz Stahl, Rami Jafee, Pat Smear, and until his untimely passing Tayler Hawkins. 

 

Let’s read this famous anthem. “Learn to Fly” 

 

Run and tell all of the angels 
This could take all night 
Think I need a devil to help me get things right 
Hook me up a new revolution 
Cause this one is a lie 
We sat around laughin' and watched the last one die 

 

Now, I'm lookin' to the sky to save me 
Lookin' for a sign of life 
Lookin' for somethin' to help me burn out bright 
And I'm lookin' for a complication 
Lookin' cause I'm tired of lyin' 
Make my way back home when I learn to fly high 

I think I'm dyin' nursing patience 
It can wait one night 
I'd give it all away if you give me one last try 
We'll live happily ever trapped if you just save my life 
Run and tell the angels that everything's alright 

 

Now I'm lookin' to the sky to save me 
Lookin' for a sign of life 
Lookin' for somethin' to help me burn out bright 
I'm lookin' for a complication 
Lookin' cause I'm tired of tryin' 
Make my way back home when I learn to fly high 
Make my way back home when I learn to 

 

Fly along with me, I can't quite make it alone 
Try to make this life my own 
Fly along with me, I can't quite make it alone 
Try to make this life my own 

 

I'm lookin' to the sky to save me 
Lookin' for a sign of life 
Lookin' for somethin' to help me burn out bright 
And I'm lookin' for a complication 
Lookin' cause I'm tired of tryin' 
Make my way back home when I learn to 

I'm lookin' to the sky to save me 
Lookin' for a sign of life 
Lookin' for somethin' to help me burn out bright 
And I'm lookin' for a complication 
Lookin' cause I'm tired of tryin' 
Make my way back home when I learn to fly high 
Make my way back home when I learn to fly 
Make my way back home when I learn to 

   

 

Again when you read the song, you see the repetition that characterizes a lot of great music.  You see the anaphoras 

 

Now what is an anaphora 

 

It’s when you read the beginning of a phrase but you change the ending 

 

Make my way back home when I learn to fly high 

Make my way bak home when I learn to fly 

Make my way back home when I learn to 

 

In that case, the phrase starts the same, but the ending is different- in this case, it drifts off and is shortened each time.  The effect only works when you sing and play it.  The power is lost when you read it.  Song lyrics are just not the same as poetry for that reason- their power is different.   

 

the rhythm bends the lyrics into different shapes or patterns that aren’t the natural flow of conversation or even in reading poetry.  The percussive breaks the lines on the page, the rhyme and repetition springs out in different places than in normal poetry- for example the word “lookin’” it’s all over the song and your ear catches it when we sing it, but if you just look at it on the page, it looks random.  I heard it said once that song lyrics exist in the air, and that is a good way of thinking about them. 

 

When you watch a video of people watching the performance of this song, all you see are arms raised, everyone singing in unison, Everyone identifying something personal in those words.  They’re looking for something honest- looking for something to help push through the absurd and in this song it’s represented in the sky the sky.  This is a great example of how music and poetry for that matter  take a life of their own.  It’s symbolic.  It’s universal-  looking to the sky- but what does the sky represent?  Should we look up the archetype?  Is it something unattainable?  Is it something spiritual?  For each person, it’s something totally different thing and you can see it in the eyes of every person in the stadium or in the field of the festival.  Kelly Clarkson asked the band, one time on her show, what it was the song was about- at least what it was for then when they originally wrote it,  Grohl revealed the secret.  At the time I wanted to become a pilot! I wanted to learn to fly.  

 

Well, I can tell you, and I’ve seen that interview, too, the Foo Fighters absolutely know this song is about more than being a pilot.  And if you ever had any doubt, those doubts were laid to rest with the Rockin 1000. 

 

Oh yes.  Tell us what that is.   

 

So, in 2014, a man by the name of Fabio Zaffagnini had a vision to get Foo Fighters to come to Italy.  His plan was insane.  He wanted to unite 1000 musicians: drummers, guitarists, , bassists, vocalists, everything- and he did it.  In July of 2015, over 1000 musicisns gathered in a field in a little town in north east Italy called Cesena and together- in unison- all 1000 played this song “Learn to Fly”.  It’s an amazing YouTube video, everyone should watch it.  At the end of their performance, Fabio appeals to the band and asks them to come play in their little town of Cesena.  Of course the band soon tweeted, “Ci Vediamo a presto, Cesena”- or See you soon, Cesena.   

 

Well, I’ve watched that YouTube, and it almost makes you cry.  It’s so beautiful, so passionate, how could they possibly say no.  Those musicians of every age- both men and women jumped, waved in the air, sang with their hearts.   

 

Well, exactly and why would they. Three months after the Rockin 1000 video went viral, the Foo Fighters played in Cesena, on the night of the concert, Dave Grohl admitted to the audience that their video made him cry.  This group of musicians represent everything Foo Fighters is giving to the world: energy, passion, the fight and will to live and live well.  It’s who the Foo Fighters are.  And there are endless examples of this band doing just that. On their tour of Iceland, the night before the concert they were out in the country having dinner when they drove past a barn where a group of local punk rockers were practicing.  The Foos stopped and went in and jammed with this little local band called Nilfisk AND invited them to play their original song “Jacking Around” as an opening act for the Foos.  The front man for this band at the time was 16 years old.   
 

In May of 2005, they released one most of the most recognizable and highly regarded of all Foo Fighters, “Best of You.”  Prince even performed it during the half time show at SuperBowl.  Let’s read these lyrics and talk about why this song has resonated around the world.  

 

've got another confession to make 
I'm your fool 
Everyone's got their chains to break 
Holding you 

Were you born to resist or be abused 

 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 

 

Are you gone and on to someone new? 
I needed somewhere to hang my head 
Without your noose 
You gave me something that I didn't have 
But had no use 

I was too weak to give in 
Too strong to lose 
My heart is under arrest again 
But I break loose 
My head is giving me life or death 
But I can't choose 
I swear I'll never give in, I refuse 

 

Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Has someone taken your faith? 
It's real, the pain you feel 
Your trust, you must confess 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Oh 

Oh, ho-oh, oh, oh-oh, oh, oh-oh, oh 
Has someone taken your faith? 
It's real, the pain you feel 
The life, the love you'd die to heal 
The hope that starts the broken hearts 
Your trust, you must confess 

Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 

I've got another confession my friend 
I'm no fool 
I'm getting tired of starting again 
Somewhere new 

Were you born to resist or be abused? 
I swear I'll never give in, I refuse 

Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Has someone taken your faith 
It's real, the pain you feel 
Your trust, you must confess 
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you 
Oh 

Well, first of all the word “best” is repeated 40 times.  And repetition is emphasis.  We know that.  This song is about that.  We all have secrets in their heads about themselves.  We all fight something inside to overcome the worst in us.  This song is a personal fight song, an anthem of recovery from brokenness.  

 

It’s also a lot about the drums.  Taylor Hawkins inspired the millions who watched him lead the band with this anthem.  His drumming was raw.  He pounds these eighth-note accents that you can hear from the back of a stadium.  There’s so much power and energy- it’s driving- it builds.   
 

In an interview during that 2005 tour a journalist from the Globe and Mail asked Hawkins what kept his work interesting.  He said this,  

“I'm scared to death every time I get on stage. I have insane stage fright. If Nate screws up, the beat goes on. If Dave screws up, everyone laughs. But if I drop the beat, we can all go down in flames. It's like jumping off a cliff every time.” 

 

 

I don’t know how you could NOT be.  So much is at stake.  10s of thousands of people have spent hundreds of dollars and come with astronomically high expectations to have their lives changed and to be inspired.  

 

 

 I can’t imagine the weight of it.  But I think I understand, at least in part, the heart of it.  In 2011, the band released their 7th studio album.  Wasting Light would eventually win four grammies including Best Rock Album.  I think how they created that album really captures who they are as a band, what they represent and why their essence reverberates around the world.  Tell is the story, Garry, 

 

Well, they decided to record in in Grohl’s garage with no computers.  The album is messy, distorted, over the top and they had to rehearse for three weeks to even do it because they used old fashioned editing techniques that didn’t allow for mistakes to be fixed in post-production. 

 

And why do it? 

 

Well, they wanted it to be real.  Grohl speaks to that at the Grammy’s after they won Best Album of the year, and his words became highly controversial almost immediately.  He said this, “This is a great honour, because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine...It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer.” 

 

So, what’s controversial about that.   

 

Well, it was taken to insult everyone else in the industry who is using auto-tune to fix their voices so they never go off key, or any number of editing tricks that could make someone like you or me sound like Rihanna with the right computer. Pro tools is the recording software that can make anyone sound like they are good.  

 

The next day Grohl released a statement clarifying his comment.  This is what he said,  

 

 

I love music. Electronic or acoustic, it doesn’t matter to me. The simple act of creating music is a beautiful gift that ALL human beings are blessed with. And the diversity of one musician’s personality to the next is what makes music so exciting and … human.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s exactly what I was referring to. The ‘human element.’ That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That thing that makes people sound like PEOPLE. Somewhere along the line those things became “bad” things, and with the great advances in digital recording technology over the years they became easily ‘fixed.’ The end result? I my humble opinion…..a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place.And, unfortunately, some of these great advances have taken the focus off of the actual craft of performance. Look, I am not Yngwie Malmsteen. I am not John Bonham. Hell…I’m not even Josh Groban, for that matter. But I try really f—ing hard so that I don’t have to rely on anything but my hands and my heart to play a song. I do the best that I possibly can within my limitations, and accept that it sounds like me. Because that’s what I think is most important. It should be real, right? Everybody wants something real. 

An interesting aside – live orchestra music actually prefers when the concert attendees cough and make noise. It proved the recording is a live take and the orchestra truly is as good as it sounds. 

Everybody wants something real…there’s that word again that brings us back to Camus…we do want real, we want honest, we want someone with the courage to show us what it looks like.  The history of the Foo Fighters is just one crazy example of this after another.   In Sweden in June of 2015.  They were in the second song of a show that consisted of 26 songs in front of 53,000 people, Grohl landed wrong from a jump and his ankle collapsed and he fell.  He had broken his leg.  The band didn’t know what had happened and they just played.    Grohl grabbed the microphone, and said this, ““You have my promise right now that the Foo Fighters, we’re gonna come back and finish this show,” he said. “But right now, ladies and gentlemen, I’m gonna go to the hospital, I’m gonna fix my leg. But then I’m gonna come back, and we’re gonna play for you again! I’m so sorry!” 

 

He handed over the show to Taylor Hawkins who led the band til Grohl came back an hour later.  They had to cancel a few dates, but by the fourth of July they had the problem solved.  They built a giant throne made just the occasion the Foo Fighters came out for their 20th anniversary Fourth of July blowout at RFK, and Grohl who screams and jumps lead the band sitting down.  That tour continued with 60 more shows.    

 

And that’s what I mean about fighting the absurd.  Taylor, Nate, Chris, Pat, Rami, Chris, Franz, Will and Dave lead with their lyrics, their beat, their riffs, but also their example.  This is what “not surrendering either to the absurd or to philosophical suicide can look like”.  This is what not giving in looks like.  This is what finding the best in yourself looks like.  Dave Grohl spoke about what it felt like when Cobain died.  He said at one point he didn’t know if he ever wanted to play music again, but then he realized that music was the one that had healed him over the course of his entire life.  It had saved his life more than once.   

 

I can absolutely understand and agree with this 100%.  Music absolutely been there for me personally and  has kept me sane in the worst moments of my own life.    

 

Unfortunately, Dave and the rest of the band are going to have to face the full force and pain of absurd in a very personal way yet again.  On March 20th, Foo Fighters played at Lollapalooza in Argentina.  They ended their set with Everlong, as they usually do with Hawkins on the drum.  At the end of the song, Hawkins tossed his drum sticks to the audience, threw his arm over Grohl’s shoulder, and took a bow with the rest of the band.  Although no one had any idea, this would be his last performance.  

 

That night Dave Grohl ended the show with these ironic words, “I don’t say goodbye,” Dave Grohl told the crowd before kicking it off. “I don’t like to say goodbye. I know that we’ll always come back. If you come back, we’ll come back. Will you come back? If you come back, we’ll come back, so then I won’t have to say goodbye.” 

 

Hawkins said goodbye, but the music he made, the energy he emitted does. not  And so, we end this episode saying, thank you, Foo Fighters.  Thank you for pushing forward, encouraging the world to not let the world get the best of us, for inspiring us to look to the sky, learn to fly and holding on to the moments of eternity when they come. 

 

Thank you for sharing with us in this episode on a different sort of book- the music of the Foo Fighters.  As always please feel free to connect with us on any of our social media: FB, Insta, Twitter, LinkedIn.  Email us, tweet us, if you are a teacher, visit our website for educational support, if you are a friend, check out our merch on the website as well.  In any case, if you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend, when you share about us, we grow.   

 

Peace out…. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Easter Story

The Easter Story

April 16, 2022

The Easter Story

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 3 - The Absurdity Of A Happy Ending???

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 3 - The Absurdity Of A Happy Ending???

April 9, 2022

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 3 - The Absurdity Of A Happy Ending???

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  Today we finish up our three part series on Albert Camus’ class novella  L’Etranger- translated in English to either The Stranger or The Outsider depending on which side of the Atlantic ocean you reside.   

 

We talked extensively about problems with translation when we discussed Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey but it’s a subject that comes up anytime someone seeks to translate anything.  How much of any translation is affected by the personal interpretation of the translator?  Even in a book written so deliberately simple in its construction that most French 3 students can read it in French, the translation of this book has seen its share of controversy starting with the title, but extending to page after page.  Let me give you an example from the first page and ending with the last page which we’ll discuss in full today.  That famous first line that reads, Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,”- aujourd-hui means today- est morte means is dead.  That sounds pretty straightforward. But the problem is  how you translate that second word- some translators translated it Mother; but others say if you do that you throw the entire book off- arguing it’s not today mother died.  It’s today Mommy is dead.  But maman isn’t exactly mommy, either- that’s too baby-ish- but it’s an English word with tenderness and mother is too sterile.  Also, notice how we’ve also changed the ORDER of the words in English- and in a book so intent on using words so sparingly and deliberately do we miss the true impact of that first line by saying mother died versus mommy is dead? 

 

Do you know what I have to say? 

 

What? 

 

It’s just absurd!!! 

 

Yes, indeed, it’s all absurd!  So absurd!!  And yet it matters- which is the definition of absurd.  

 

Well, I have a controversy to bring up in regard to mis-understanding and mis-representing Camus.   

Oh really.  What is it?   

In 1976, the English rock band The Cure released it’s very first single and it was titled, “Killing an Arab”.  The intent of the single was to reference and honor Camus’s novel.  I want to read the lyrics and see, after reading part 1 of the novel, if you see the connection songwriter Robert Smith was making with Camus. 

 

Standing on the beach 
With a gun in my hand 
Staring at the sea 
Staring at the sand 
Staring down the barrel 
At the Arab on the ground 
I can see his open mouth 
But I hear no sound 
 
I'm alive 
I'm dead 
I'm the stranger 
Killing an Arab 
 
I can turn 
And walk away 
Or I can fire the gun 
Staring at the sky 
Staring at the sun 
Whichever I chose 
It amounts to the same 
Absolutely nothing 

Well, from a literary perspective, it’s a fairly straightforward musical homage to not just the story The Stranger but it expresses Camus’ vision of the absurd- the indifference of the universe in the face of humanity.   

I think so too; however, it was not universally well-received.  The Cure were labeled as racist and have sometimes chosen to sing the song with revised lyrics of “Kissing an Arab”. 

Hmmmm, to be honest, as I reread the those words with no context, even though, it’s a direct reference for sure, it most certainly would be misunderstood to anyone who hasn’t read the book The Stranger- which I’ll speak for Americans, but I don’t think most Americans have, to be honest.   

 

No doubt.  In fact, if you were to read just the title  “Killing an Arab” on a Spotify or Apple song suggestion today, you likely would be emotionally triggered, especially if you are Middle-Eastern or have friends or professional acquaintances that are, which, today, most of us do.  I don’t think it’s even arguable.  And so, it has been The Cure’s most controversial song for the last fifty years.  So much so, It has been widely dropped from radio playlists. It’s been rebranded under the title Standing on a Beach which has helped, also it often contains a sleeve sticker. The sticker reads: 

“The song Killing an Arab has absolutely no racist overtones whatsoever. It is a song which decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence. The Cure condemn its use in furthering anti-Arab feeling.” 

 

So, although it has had this controversial, for those of us who love music, The Cure is what introduced me to The Stranger.  So it’s been a mixed reception, but honestly starting in the sixties but and even to this day, there is quite a bit of existentialism especially in Punk Rock and New Wave music- another example would be The Doors and their Song Five to One which literally says, “no one gets out alive” or Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana which starts out with “Load up on guns, bring your friends- it’s fun to los eand to pretend”. 

 

Yeah, I have to be honest, I don’t know almost anything about either of those bands either, although I have heard of both of them, I’m not that disconnected to the music scene. 

 

Welll, Meursault would say, “it doesn’t matter, we’re all going to die either way.”  Let’s recap where we are in our series on Camus and the book The Stranger.  In episode 1, we introduced Camus’ home country of Algeria and a little about his life.  We introduced the idea that is forever associated with Camus and that is absurdism and we got through chapter 1.  

Absurdism that irreconcilable idea that the desires and passions of our heart collide head on with the apparent indifference and haphazardness of the universe we seem to inhabit. 

 

 True, our guy Meursault confronts the absurdity of the world and cannot resolve what to do with the conclusion that nothing matters.  And let me just say now, although Camus will offer some sort of dogmatic answer to this question at the end of the book -He allowed his thinking to evolve throughout his l ife.  The book The Plague is kind of a development from The Stranger, and when you get to the Rebel which a lot of scholars consider his best work, you see an even greater evolution of thought.   But here,  Camus is at the beginning of his journey into the world of the Absurd.  He presents the problem of understanding the absurd nature and argues emphaticially against some ways others have erroneously, dishonestly and  and actually harmfully responded to the absurdity of life.   

I will say, it does help to read Camus’ companion piece, The Myth of Sisyphus, because it explains these ideas where here Camus expresses the emotions and the experience of the absurd.  In The Stranger, we watch this young man deal with all the absurdity of life-  the absurdity of man confronting the absolute certainty of death-  whether you live to be 12, 50 or 103.   And adding to the inescapabilty of annihilation, Meursault, as must we all, faces the very other inescapable burden of being a human and that is the feeling of guilt- we argued last week to look at the symbol of the sun to express this- this confusing yet perpetual and indominable discomfort.  But guilt and death are not the only human dilemmas Meursault confronts.  Today we add this third absurdity of being a human-  our insatiable need to find meaning in a world where we are obviously just a speck.    Without a grand plan or a divine planner, anything and everything we do, no matter how big or small is equally pointless if measured against the millions of years of time itself, and so we find ourselves just like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill just to watch it fall down and then to have to do it all over again- and if we are honest, that’s the key, if we are honest- we know this to be true.  We know we are specks. 

 Camus decries and I quote, “Nothing is clear, all is chaos, that all man has is his lucidity and his definite knowledge of the walls surrounding him.” 

The Stranger begins with death, the climactic end of part one is death and now we will confront it for the third time at the end of part 2.  We talked about the vague abstract guilt Meursault experiences with the death of his mother.  However, as we got to the end of part one, Camus creates a contrast with a flat out murder- a more concrete expression of death with a straightforward connection to guilt.  When I finished part 1, there was no confusion in my mind as to who was guilty of murder.  Yet Meursault expresses no remorse, and although it causes an outburst at laughter at the court, when asked he basically says, “the sun made me do it.  And strangely enough, I, as a reader, seem to understand where he's coming from.  But I do have another question. Meursault  pointlessly murders a man he only identifies as an Arab.  Christy, are we supposed to see anything racial about this? Why doesn’t this man have a name?   

Again, an interesting question with no definitive answer.  We know Camus  had many Arabic friends, we know that, so I don’t think we should look at this book in terms of race.  This story claims that NO one’s life has value, regardless of anything. Period.  The Arab is insignificant; for sure; but so is Meursault who won’t even live one year longer than the man he murdered.  It’s not about the Arab, it’s not about the woman who gets beaten up by Raymond.  It’s not even about Marie- all of which could be seen as being victims- the Arab being the last and most horrific expression of victimization.  This is about Meursault who cannot see that any of that even matters and so if nothing matters, what’s the difference- eating, drinking, sleeping, smoking, beating up women, getting a promotion, murdering people- it’s all the same.  Total nihilism- nothing matters. 

What is interesting about Meursault, beyond being pretty nihilistic is what he does with this reality- and what he does is  refuse to pretend things matter when he clearly believes they don’t.  He won’t pretend to love Marie, if he doesn’t.  He won’t pretend to care for Raymond’s girlfriend, so he doesn’t.  He doesn’t feel any sadness when his mom dies, so he doesn’t cry.  He doesn’t have remorse for killing the Arab, so he doesn’t fake it.   And that is how most of us are different from Meursault.  We clearly understand that as social beings no matter what we actually feel, we should follow certain social norms.  For most of us in these same situations, no matter how we felt about any of this, we most certainly would have expressed the proper emotions.  You may not cry at your mother’s funeral, but you wouldn’t smoke a cigarette.  Last episode we read a quote by Camus describing Meursault. Camus said that  Meursault is simply a man who does not play the game.  Today we ask, is it for this reason that he is ultimately killed 

Exactly, and is he right to not play the game?  Camus says yes- and that is what makes him a hero to emulate and not a person to see as doing everything wrong. 

 And so what IS the game of life?  What’s wrong with following social norms? What does Camus value here with this disagreeable character?  And finally, why are the stakes of this game so high that refusing to play it costs lives? 

Great questions- and here’s the paradoxical answer that will take the rest of the episode to explain.   Truth 1 for Camus death is inevitable- start there.  Truth 2 the cost of PLAYING the game of life  is never living AT ALL.  For Camus, many of us commit philosophical suicide pretty early on, and in doing so, confess to ourselves that life is not worth living.   

As a metaphor that makes sense, I guess, but,  it’s very abstract. What does philosophical suicide look like? 

 Enter part 2 of this book.  It shows us.  As we look at Meursault who never commits philosophical suicide, we see a guy who stays honest with himself until his moment of death.  And let’s look at the truths that really define him.  For one, Meursault is an atheist.  He doesn’t like religion at his mother’s funeral; he doesn’t even like Sundays.  He doesn’t believe in God.  And so, he won’t pretend that he does, if he doesn’t.  This, btw, is not an appropriate social belief in the 1940s not in France, not in Algeria, not in a lot of places around the world.  Meursault is told that everyone believes in god.  He is told that all criminals confess before they face the guillotine.  Of course, a careful reader knows that can’t possibly be true.  All people agree on nothing.  What might be true that most of us under pressure will pretend to believe in whatever we need to to fit into our communities- be we Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindi, Buddhist or anything else.   Many of us do believe, but many others play the game.  In this culture, to be an atheist is to be an outsider, and most of us don’t want that.  But Meursault absolutely cannot make himself pretend.  He isn’t going to pretend to be a Christian just because the magistrate wants him to do or what the priest wants him to do- even if just a halfhearted fake confession would extend his life.    He’s also not going to lie to himself about believing in Jesus so he can keep on living.    

And let me add, that neither the magistrate or the priest really do anything to actually meet him where he’s at with this atheism.  They don’t try to have an honest conversation or even to make sense.They do not try to cite ontological arguments for the existence of God by quoting Renee DesCarte or Soren Kierkegaard.  There is no discussion about the proofs of God.   

No,  they make it about themselves, “Do you want my life to be meaningless?  And, this of course, is an absurd line of reasoning to Meursault as well as to us the readers.  It’s irrational.  Camus is suggesting that they won’t have these conversation with themselves.  They have already committed philosophical suicide.  They want an easy answer to the problem of finding meaning in their lives- even if it makes no sense.  Meursault sees this as absurd.  It’s why he’s nihilistic. 

I think it’s a good idea to define what we are calling nihilism.   Basically nihilism is the belief we’ve heard Meursault pronounce time and time again. It’s coming to the conclusion that nothing matters. My job, my girlfriend, morality, not even my mother, not even myself.  He’s consistent and very truthful, unfortunately, as Camus says, ““Man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them.” 

 Meursault has admitted to himself a few truths and now he’s prey to what that means: and a few issues with his belief system are: detachment, apathy, and inertia, and guilt- you might even say a little bit of hedonism.  Those are the problems he’s trying to solve. 

 In part 2,  our absurd hero is interrogated after being arrested for the murder of an Arabic man on a beach.  Part 2 feels just as absurd as part 1, but in a totally different way.  In the first half, we see the absurdity in how Meursault reacts to life, but here we are going to see the absurdity in the world in how everyone else reacts to life.  Meursault is locked away in prison with nothing to do.  He even has to give up smoking.    By sentence 3, he’s been locked up for a week and in front of the magistrate.  We don’t have those in the US, but think of it basically as the judge.   

A lot of time passes in the first and second chapters of part 2- 11 months to be exact, but nothing really happens.  Meursault is stripped away from the world: from women, cigarettes, his job, his favorite diner, his neighbors, from everything.   Meursault is put through this crucible of nihilism to see if he can subsist in a world with nothing- which he actually finds out he can- he finds once you get used to your reality, you can be happy anywhere.   

 

 Meursault, since his arrest, has watched the world play a game with him almost as a game piece.  He has been the game.  When he’s appointed a lawyer which is required by law,   he literally says, “it all seemed like a game to me”- Mersault, as we know from Camus, won’t play the game but society will- with or without his consent- Meursault will face extreme pressure to play the game- he will confront first, the power of the state, secondly  the power of culture/religion and finally the power of the absurd: the magistrate, the priest and the guillotine.  He will lose only to the absurd. 

This is a good time to look back at the Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’ first sentence where he says the only serious philosophical problem is about committing suicide- should I kill myself.  This seems rough, and of course, he IS talking about physical suicide, yes, but more importantly- the broader idea is something he terms philosophical suicide- the idea of physical suicide is obvious, one decides that life really has no point at all and so, one physically, often despairingly chooses to take it.  

 

 Camus rejects this.  Suicide is not an answer- not physical suicide but also not philosophical suicide.  This second dimension of suicide is what is symbolized in this book by that powerful symbol of the crucifix and the role of the priest.  For Camus philosophical suicide is just as damaging and honestly maybe even more damaging than physical suicide- for one reason is that I can lead to demagoguery,  violence and murder in the name of an -ism.  Camus suggests philosophical suicide is a way more common approach to dealing with life’s absurdity.  It’s an easy but a very dishonest way to confront life’s absurdity.  It’s hypocritical- and demands that we to lie not to others, but to ourselves.  It demands we surrender our freedom of choice, of our consciouses and that is what defines us as being human.  It’s what makes us alive to begin with.   

And in the midst of World War 2, this was what he saw all of Europe- and the result was death, despair and destruction all in the name of the greater good. And I want to point out that Camus was, very much, a war hero.  During the second World War, he joined the Combat. (pronounced comb- bah) Resistance group.  He became the editor of their underground paper during the war and after the war.  He faced genuine danger. Death was not theoretical in Paris during the German occupation when you are an outspoken member of the resistance. From his early days as an orphan of WW1, and the son of a woman from Spain, he saw what people did in the name of their -ism.  Whatever it is.  In the name of Fascism, many defied their own consciouses and followed Hitler and Franco.  In the name of Communism, millions were butchered.  In the name of nationalism, Algeria tore its own country apart.  In a Combat editorial published on August 8th, 1945, Camus was the first to condemn the United States for dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He called it the “the terrifying perspectives opened up to humanity”.  All of these are demagoguery masquerading as humanitarianism.  

 

 But religion has masqueraded as well.  The name of God, in which Camus didn’t even believe, us wielded like a weapon to force us to surrender our consciouses- to commit philosophical suicide. 

 

There is pressure from within and pressure from without to lie to ourselves- it’s just the miserably easy thing to do.  Of course, from a psychological perspective it’s crippling.  Every time you lie to yourself, you disorient yourself in the world.   

 

So, why do it?   

 

We do it in response to the absurd.  We need to have meaning in the world.  We want to be part of something big and meaningful and that will outlast us, define us, give us a reason to confront suffering- and so we pick something.  It can anything really.  It can be a career, a child, even a sports team, a delusion of a personal dynasty- lots of people do that.  But what Camus saw was people in 1940 were ideologies -ism’s, religions- some of which were secular. These are hidden demagogueries which he is going to illustrate in part 2 of this book.   

 

And what’s demagoguery? 

 

Demagoguery is when a leader appeals to the lowest prejudices of people and the emotions tto create very simplistic cures for complex problems.   Its goal is to dominate others.  

 

In chapter 1, Meursault is interrogated by his lawyer.  And as the questions progress they take on a sort of apparently non-connected line of questioning about whether or not Meursault believes in God.  Meursault says he doesn’t.  The lawyer returns with this line, “it was impossible; all men believe in God.  Of course, we know, anytime someone says ALL people do this, or NO ONE does that- That’s the language of demagoguery.  We can’t even say ALL people breath- because there are some, those on ventilators, that do not.  But why make a statement like that, why even talk about God at all?  What does God have to do with anything?  Well, he explains it in the next lines.. 

 

“That was his belief, and if he were ever to doubt it, his life would be meaningless.  “Do you want my life to be meaningless?” He shouted.  As far as I could see, it didn’t have anything to do with me, and I told him so.  But from across the table he had already thrust the crucifix in my face and was screaming irrationally, “I am a Christian.  I ask Him to forgive you your sins.  How can you not believe that He suffered for you?”  I was struck by how sincere he seemed, but I had had enough.  It was getting hotter and hotter.  As always, whenever I want to get rid of someone I’m not really listening to, I made it appear as if I agreed.   To my surprise, he acted triumphant. “You see, you see!” he said.  “You do believe, don’t you, and you’re going to place your trust in Him. Aren’t you?”  Obviously I again said no.  He fell back in his chair.” 

 

This is the very definition of philosophical suicide in the name of religion.  This guy is throwing out cliché after cliché in ways that cannot possibly make sense. He emotionally tries to force an agreement from Meursault because if Meursault won’t go along, HIS life, the lawyer, not Meursault, but HIS life will be meaningless.   

 

And this is the game Meursault won’t play- and it won’t matter how much pressure that magistrate, the lawyer and later the priest put on him. He will rebel; he will NOT kill his own conscious.  In part 1, we see Meursault wrestle with the forces of nihilism, but here in part 2, we see him wrestle against the forces of philosophical suicide.  There is a lot of pressure to take the easy way out.  Turn off your brain.  Accept the -ism, give your life meaning by believing in something- even if you don’t.  This is what is being symbolized by this crucifix- don’t think about it- just accept it!   

 

And, for me, this is so easy to understand in terms of religion.  Today it’s actually safer to talk about this in terms of religion instead of hot button current ideologies.  But both religion and secular ideologies were rampant in the Europe of the 40s.  The first world war destroyed faith in a lot of people's lives, and religion began to give way to other forms of philosophical suicide.  The atrocities in the world were always being done in the name of the greater good.  Why did young Germans kill, it wasn’t because they believed in murdering Jews per se, it was because they believed in the Motherland.  Why were millions murdered in Russia, it was in the name of Communism, the greater good.  How did Che Guevera and Fidel Castro justify killing untold numbers in Cuba?   For Camus, all of this starts at the individual level.  If life is absurd, there is no greater good.  What does it matter if you are of the left, or of the right, if you are religious or areligious, if you are of this race or that race- in the face of the absurd we are all the same.  We are all going to face the guillotine in exactly the same way- alone and with total assurance it will win.   

 

It doesn’t matter what the -ism- it is not worth killing for. It is not worth lying to yourself about.  Killing is agreeing with the absurd. Lying to yourself is as well.  Camus was very consistent until the day he died about this.  Killing and violence are NEVER the answer- and ironically, he might have been killed for this idea.  Of course, nobody knows what caused the car crash that ultimately killed him in 1960 at the age of 46, but there are some very credible conspiracy theories that it was not an accident.   It’s speculation, of course, I’m not sure we will ever know, so I don’t feel justified in going into it, but if you’re interested Google it. 

 

Oh yes, he enraged a lot of people, but one group we know about is the KGB.  Camus wrote articles critical of the Soviet massacres in the Hungarian Revolt of 1956, and these were not well-received. But it didn’t matter.  For Camus the enemy of man is the absurd, and we should fight it with truth.  He campaigned vigorously against capital punishment.  At one point he flat out said, “I’m not cut out for politics, because I’m incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary,”   

 

For Camus, death starts with dishonesty about who you are, especially the kind of dishonesty where you lie to yourself about your personal worth in this world- you think you are way more important than you are- more important than another person.  At the end of chapter 1, Meursault is called the Anti-Christ which is an unusual designation- since he doesn’t seem anything like the Jesus Christ in the Bible.  But Camus sees here a secular Christ because he dies for truth.  Camus is not a Christian, so he sees Christ not as a divinity, but as a person who died because he would not play the game.  He would not be dishonest with himself and others.  That is how the analogy with Christ holds true. Camus’ idea is that both Meursault and Christ died because they stood up to a society bent on forcing them to confess lies about the nature of reality which they absolutely would not do- albeit their truths were different, but in both cases, they preferred physical death over physically freedom but mental slavery.  

 

Christy, that makes a person’s head spin.  How can we possibly understand that? 

 

I know, it’s philosophically complex, but it’s easier to see just reading the story.  Over the course of time, prison strips every pleasure out of Meursault’s life.  If you remember, in part 1, Meursault pretty much lived a life with the goal of finding as much pleasure as possible.  His joys were smoking, sex, eating, relaxing, that sort of thing.  In jail, they strip every one of those away.  That is the punishment- but it’s also somehow where Meursault will find some sort of peace and freedom from the terrible burden of guilt that bears down on him.  He sleeps on boards; bugs crawl all over him, his bathroom is a bucket.  It is all pretty bad, but after a while, Meursault adjusts to it.    In chapter two he has this to say,  

 

“At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it” (77). Then he remembers something his maman used to say repeatedly that you could get used to anything.   

 

Which, of course, is what he does.  For a nihilist who has said that nothing matters for the entirety of the book, the biggest paradox of the entire book is that Meursault does not want to die.  He does not wish for suicide of any kind.  The law kills him because he wants freedom on his own terms, and this he can’t have.  He is killed in pursuit of life.  He is killed because he will have his philosophical freedom even if it costs him his life.   He will NOT commit suicide. Camus, in the myth of Sisyphus talks about the draw we have towards finding a meaning in a man-made construct.  He says this, “There is so much tenacious hope in the human heart.  Even the most desperate men sometimes give their consent, finally to illusion.”   

True, if Meursault has decided anything in this life, he has decided he will not be that guy, but, if he rejects nihilism, and then if goes on to reject philosophical or physical suicide of one sort or another, then what’s left?  How do you solve the reason to keep living in this world- how do you face the absurd?   This is not a question Camus knew the answer to in his 20s, so don’t expect an answer, but Camus thinks he found step one in the process- and even if you are not a nihilist or even an atheist there is something to agree with here.  Meursault’s life is going to get incredibly shortened, and we see him change significantly in part 2.  In chapter 3, we watch his trial.  It’s absolutely yet another expression of the absurd.  There is never any doubt as to whether he killed or didn’t kill the Arab, the question seems to be about if he should die for it.  There is a long list of personal friends that come to his defense, but mostly they revisit the death of his mother- and it appears that he is being tried not for the murder of the Arab but for the death of his mother and his reaction to her death.  All of it is surreal and we get a crazy frustrated feeling as we read it.  At one point in the trial, the judge calls his mother’s caretaker to the stand.  The caretaker answers questions about his time at the home after his mother’s passing.  After the caretaker finishes Meursault thinks this, and I quote, “It was then I felt a stirring go through the room and for the first time I realized that I was guilty.” 

What is he guilty for?  Killing the arab?  Killing his mother. What is he talking about.  It’s ambiguous stream of conscious.   

Well, it is and much of the logic of the prosecution is convoluted.  The justification for condemning Meursault for killing a father is that he first killed a mother… 

 

Page 101-102.   

And so he is convicted, let’s read that..’ 

107 

Camus never knew his father.  He died when Camus was 1 year old just at the beginning of WW1.  Camus knew very little bit about him either, but in an essay called Reflections on t he Guillotine, Camus writes about one of his only stories he knows about his father.  Let me read what Camus wrote in that essay, “ One of the rare things I know about him, in any case, is that he watned to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He woke up in the middle of the night to get to the execution site, at the other end of the city, in the nidst of a great throng.  What he saw that norning, he did not say anything about to anyone.  My mother told that he came home like a gust of wind, his face overwhelmed, refused to talk, stretched a while on the bed and suddenly threw up.  He had just discovered the reality which hid under the great formulas which masked it.” 

What does that mean to you? 

I don’t know, but this true story is embedded in chapter five, Meursault asserts that there is nothing more important than an execution. Man versus the absurd.  He inserts a little bit of his personal life into this story.  There is something very freeing for Camus about facing death- facing the certainty of it- the absurdity of it.  It is only here after Meursault is convicted of murder that he finds strength within himself to exert any agency.  He’s going to lose his detachment and passivity.   He’s going to transcend the nihilism that has been the hallmark of his existence.  He’s going to find courage to live. And he asserts himself by refusing to see the chaplain.   

It's also here that we see him start to think through the certainty of the guillotine.  He wishes to find a way to barter with it; to cheat death somehow, but that can’t be.  Death will not be cheated.  In his case, the machine of society is already at work.  He has to embrace hopelessness.  There is no hope of freedom.  And that for Camus seems to be the key.  It’s the key to embracing life.  It’s the key to enjoying small things and not feeling compelled to find meaning in the greater good or  pursuing a delusion of immortality in one way or the other. 

 In his later years Camus said that he had sought reasons to transcend out of darkest nihilism.   

If you are a thinking person, regardless of your position on the rational basis for the metaphysical or transcendent,  the way to avoid nihilism is to find agency in yourself.  To create your own future.  For Camus, even if the universe doesn’t have a plan, you have consciousness.  It’s what makes  you a person, and that is a great privilege.  Don’t give that up.  Don’t kill it off.  Make a life for yourself- live.  Camus said it this way, “it is a problem of our civilization and what matters to us is to find out whether man alone, without the help of the eternal or of rationalistic thought may create his own values.” 

 

When the priest comes for the last time, Meursault engages him with courage and agency and emotion, unlike we’ve seen at any other time in this book.  He’s awake.  He’s alive.  His confrontation is passionate and he realizes the man he’s talking to is already dead.  Let’s read just the first paragraph of his reflection on his rant.. 

Page 120 

After that rant, he calms down and sleeps. He says the wondrous peace of that sleeping summer flowed through me like a tide.  When he wakes up, he thinks of his mother for the last time.  He understands why she got engaged right at the end of her life.  He feels ready to live life all over again.  He opens himself and I quote to the indifference of the world and finds that’s he’s happy.   

You know, after all the things Camus lived through during those turbulent decades, he never lost his faith in justice, the life of the spirit and above all, the power of truth.  In a later essay titled “Letters to a German Friend” he says this, “Man is that force which ultimately cancels all tyrants and gods.  He is the force of evidence.  If nothing has any meaning, you would be right.  But there is something that still has meaning.”   In the same essay, he admits that he once had been nihilistic and thought, exactly like the Meursault of part 1 that nothing mattered.  If nothing matters than it doesn’t matter if you beat up a woman or kill a person whose name you don’t know.  It matters just about as much as getting married or getting a promotion.  But he doesn’t stay there, instead he says this, “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.  But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one.  This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justification against fate itself.  And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life.”   

For Camus, man is nothing endowed with consciousness and the ability to have courage.  And this is where Meursault arrives, unfortunately a little too late to live courageously, or really live at all- but at least he didn’t commit suicide- he lived and died free.  And so, he walks out to meet his fate with some of the strangest words to end a novel and I quote, “I felt happy and that I was happy again.  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.” 

What does that mean?  That sounds terrible.  Why cries of hate? 

Wouldn’t we all like to know.  I wish I did know.  I don’t.  And that is, obviously, Camus intent.  We know, of course, that Meursault always felt like an outsider.  He always thought nothing mattered, not even him.  But now he knows he’s wrong.  It’s not that he thinks he matters now because I don’t think he does, but he does feel pride at not succumbing to suicide of any kind.  He can be himself all the way out the door, and the larger the crowd, the better.  If we read the companion piece, “The Myth of Sisyphus” he ends that essay with this, Garry will you read it? 

 

 “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain!  One always finds one’s burden again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises the rocks.  He too concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that. Night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle. Itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 

The Stranger is not just a book for atheists struggling with nihilism, although obviously it is clearly that.  The Stranger is about confronting the realities of your existence with intellectual honesty- the futule rocks of life that we pick up and carry up the hill just to watch them fall and must be picked up all over again.  Confront the absurd.  Doing this is not the ending point; it’s the starting point.  Don’t lie about your speckness- don’t inflate your significance, your role, resist the demagogues and don’t commit violence, …be honest at least with yourself and take courage.  Build if you want; enjoy morning coffee when you want, walk in the sun.  Take the pressure off, be honest at least with yourself... and last but not least- imagine yourself happy.   

 

And so there we conclude not in the dark but in the light, perhaps we can even imagine the beautiful and bright Algerian sun.  Thank you for listening.  It’s been a difficult book to navigate, but we hope you’ve enjoyed our perspective. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 2 - The Consequences Of Meaninglessness!

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 2 - The Consequences Of Meaninglessness!

April 2, 2022

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 2 - The Consequences Of Meaninglessness!

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.   

 

And I am Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  This is episode 2 in our three part series in the first work of Albert Camus’ great cycle of Absurdity- the novella, l”etranger or the Stranger also called The Outsider.  Last week we began discussing Camus’ life, his homeland Algeria, and the events- both political and personal that made him in many ways his own outsider.  We also introduced the idea that is forever associated with Camus in literary as well as philosophical circles and that is concept of the absurd.  We tried to flesh out a little bit of what that feels like,  the world the way Camus would have us understand it.  We tried to introduce it as a feeling more than an idea- although obviously it is both.  We started with famous first line, “Maman died today.  Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”   

 

It’s absurd!!  Today..maybe yesterday!!! It’s absurd! 

 

And the even more important idea…”I don’t know”.  This itself launches us into a world from which some of us may never return- the world of the absurd, the world of Meursault, our absurd hero.   

 

Ha!  Hopefully we will fare slightly better than Meursault who I’ll tell you right now, is not famous because of the awesomeness of his outcome.  He is NOT Forrest Gump who by no design of his own winds up in the White House or making millions in the shrimp industry- although, I will say, there is something absurd about Forrest Gump. 

 

Christy, this is an absurd tangent   

 

I KNOW!!  Absurd is a thread I could keeping pulling, but I won’t.  Instead we will pull back into the rational world because today we want to start by giving a shout out to a friend of the podcast, a man who lives far from the world of the absurd (most days, anyway), Mr. Matt Francev.  Matt teaches AP Lit and Honors English at Whittier High School in Whittier California.  His brother Dr. Peter Francev is editor of the Albert Camus Society, and a true scholar whose body of academic work focuses on the entirety of Camus’ writings- of which the cycle of the absurd is just the beginning.  Anyway, Matt reached out to us a couple of months ago, gosh I guess it was right before Christmas and asked us to feature Camus and the familiar classic The Stranger, and so we have.  Matt, this series is for you. We hope we do right by an old friend of the Francev family as we do what Camus himself might not like for us to do- paradoxically- and that is attempt to break down into manageable bite-sized pieces this overwhelming experience of living the absurd.   

 

Christy, before we do that, I do want to point out something cool about where Matt is investing his life and career.  Whittier, California,  is only about fifteen miles south of LA.  That area itself is an incredibly diverse working class community- but what is unusual about the high school there is that it has - an eclectic yet notable list of alumni.  Two names on that list many recognize is Former President Richard Nixon, but also, totally outside the world of politics, John Lasseter, the creator of Pixar.  And if that wasn’t interesting enough for your average high school,  perhaps even more notably is that the school itself was the setting for Hill Valley High School – that would be the high school Michael J Fox’s parents attended in his breakout movie, Back to the Future.   How fun is that? 

 

So fun, I wonder how many times they’ve played Johnny B Good on the stage in the auditorium!!!   

 

HA!  I wonder what the real auditorium even looks like.  Anyway, Thanks Matt, for reaching out and sharing a little of your world with us.  Today, our goal is to finish out our discussion of part 1 of this novel.  Christy, last week you told us we should very wait in anxious expectation for an episode filled with boredom and meaninglessness- and especially there at the beginning we meet that expectation. Chapter 2 is not filled with action that could be described as riveting.   

 

No, not a whole lot happens in chapter 2, if you’re looking for plot, and not a whole lot happens if you’re looking for deep character or thematic development.  Basically…Not a whole lot happens.   

 

NO, it starts with the day after Maman’s funeral, and We meet Marie- who will become something of a girlfriend to Meursault. Camus descriptions draw particular attention to Marie’s breasts, but these descriptions are vulgar not suggestive really.  This is not your typical romantic description from a harlequin romance, not that I’ve ever read any of those.  It clearly ends with sex but not with passion.  Sex, of course, at its minimum is an expression of excitement- even crude sit-coms go that far.   Many times, when stories feature sex, authors are expressing deep emotions.  Relationship sex is the ultimate expression of intimacy and something,  we, as humans, attach deep meaning to- but not for our absurd hero, Meursault.  For Meursault, he meets a woman, has sex with her, she goes home before he wakes, up, he smokes cigarettes in bed until 11am, he gets up to eat eggs out of a pan, and then expresses boredom with zero reflection on all that has happened over the last 48 hours to him.  Instead of reflection, his thoughts turn to the size of his apartment where he concludes it’s too big for just one person.  Again, is this guy a psychopath or a nut job? 

 

And yet, by now, we most likely have decided that he is not.  He’s apathetic for sure, but in a way we somehow understand.  Meursault has understood a few truths in this world and now he’s stuck- he’s gotten far enough into exploring the meaning of existence to arrive at this point of lostness.  Very intuitively, he’s hit upon this notion that human reasoning is insufficient in fulfilling the very human but fundamental desire to find unity in our world.  We want things to connect, to make sense.  The universe should mean something- there should be a plan.  And yet, there are needs in our hearts that aren’t reasonable. Logic- the things we know for sure about the world- these things are not enough to satisfy us.  Meursault keeps voicing this with the refrain, it doesn’t matter.  When he puts things in his cosmic order- he understands His mother’s death doesn’t matter- not in the grand scheme of things.  This relationship he has with this woman- it doesn’t matter.  His job-it doesn’t matter- and so his response is to detach himself from all of it.  Why should he attach himself to things that don’t matter?   What’s the point?  And yet, pointlessness is leaving him bored.  It’s also leaving him inert.  He doesn’t go anywhere or make decisions.  Why should he, nothing matters.  Camus writes, “I said the world is absurd but I was too hasty.  This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said.  But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational world and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.  The absurd depends as much on man as it does on the world.”  In other words, it’s not that nothing matters that’s the problem.  The fact, that we keep looking for things TO matter- that’s where the craziness happens. 

 

In the preface of the English edition, Camus describes Meursault.  Really, he’s not describing him as much as he’s defending him.  Let me read what Camus has told us about his protagonist: 

 

The hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game.  In this sense he is a stranger to the society in which he lives; he drifts in the margin, in the suburb of private, solitary, sensual life.  This is why some readers are tempted to consider him as a waif.  You will have a more precise idea of this character, or one at all events in closer conformity with the intentions of the author, if you 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 is not true, and as far as the human heart is concerned, saying more than one feels.  This is what we all do every day to simplify life.  Meursault, despite appearances does not wish to simplify life.  He says what is true.  He refuses to disguise his feelings, and immediately society feels threatened….” There’s more and we don’t have time to read it all, but Camus goes on to say that Meursault is a man who and again I quote, “is poor and naked, in love with the sun which leaves no shadows.  Far from its being true that he lacks all sensibility, a deep, tenacious passion animates him, a passion for the absolute and for truth.  It is still negative truth, that truth of being and of feeling, but one without which no victory over oneself and over the world will ever be possible”.   

 

Again, and this is still recapping the general idea of last week.   Meursault refuses to do what Camus calls “philosophical suicide” in his companion piece, “the myth of Sisyphus”.   He won’t buy into an easy answer that will keep him from facing reality.  Meurseualt wants to really see life with clarity- this is what Camus is calling honest- not because he doesn’t tell lies. He will lie for Raymond, as we see and likely find despicable.  But he won’t lie to Marie about loving her or to the nursing home people about wanting to see his mother.   Camus said this, and I know we’re quoting Camus’ other writings a lot, but I think they help tell his story.  He says this, “I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time.  They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone.”  So, in other words, when explain or simplify the world to ourselves through religious terms, economic terms, political terms, whatever terms we want to, maybe we numb the burden of suffering to some degree, but the cost of that is personal honesty.  And that might not be something we should do.  The best way for me to understand this is to think in terms of The Matrix, as in the movie.  In that movie, some people didn’t know they were basically vegtables in a machine’s concoction.  But there were others that did know, but then just decided they didn’t care- they plugged themselves back in.  For Camus, that is a no-go.  You must face your own reality- knowing that it is absurd.  You just have to.   

 

The Matrix is a great example.  When Camus says Meursault doesn’t lie, he means it.  Meusault won’t live in the Matrix, and just like in the movie,  this is a threat.  It makes everyone uncomfortable.  Having said that in his defense, it is not possible to read this and not be uncomfortable with Meursault, with his choices, with his inertia, with his inability to exercise any agency of any kind- especially when he witnesses and even participates in some pretty horrific things culminating in an actual death.   

 

Yes- and now we have finally reached the theme for this episode.  Last week, we laid down the premise of the absurdity of life, which we’ve just revisited, we laid down the premise that we’re all just specks in the universe which creates this absurdity of life- life goes on with or without us and we eventually disappear completely-  another big point- but what bothers Camus the most, and we see it bothering Meursault- is not just those two things- it’s this third idea- if all this is true then why the heck, can I not shake this burden of guilt that the universe has laid upon me?  That is the piece that doesn’t make sense.  It’s the question that threads the narrative from beginning to end, and although it’s subtle, as guilt often is, it bears down mercilessly like the cruel and penetrating sun.   

 

We pointed it out last week when it showed up on page 1 when Mersault asks off work and immediately feels compelled to justify his absence with the line, “it’s not my fault.”.  Although we didn’t point it out in the podcast, as you read chapter 1, we saw Mersault  feeling the need to defend his choice of putting his mother in the home, as if someone were judging him for that- and indeed, this week he finds out from Salomanno that people were actually judging him behind his back for that.  He feels judged for his decision not to see her dead body.  He feels guilty for drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette with the caretaker.  When his mother’s friends come in he actually says this, “For a second I had the ridiculous feeling that they were there to judge me.”   He doesn’t know his mother’s exact age.  That is highlighted- something to feel guilty about.  I point these things out because they all come back as reasons to judge him when he actually in a literal trial.  At the funeral procession, with the sun glaring down, he is confronted with a woman who says this, to him, “if you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke.  But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.”  To which Meursault thinks this thought.. “she was right.  There is no way out.”   

 

One of those statements that true on various levels- an epiphany in a way.   

 

 

Yeah, I think it’s something like that.  Now we’re in chapter two, Meursault tells Marie that his mom has died.  She looks at him, as if to judge him, and he wants to again justify himself with the same line he told his boss- that it wasn’t his fault, but he decides not to.  Because now, he’s acknowledging something a little deeper- there’s been a progression here that we should follow through the story.  He says this, “you always feel a little guilty.”   

 

What do you think that means?  Of course, it’s true and extremely normal to feel guilt when someone dies, especially when someone you love dies, and Meursault did love his mother.  I think that’s absolutely true, so in this case you just can’t help but feel responsible and guilty.   

 

Why do you say with such assurance that Meaursault loved his mother?  He claims that they were bored with each other, and lots of people later on are going to accuse him for exactly the opposite.  

 

Because I’m a big believer in ignoring what people say and paying attention to what people do.  We can see from Meursault’s behaviors that he did love his mother. And not just because he calls her maman.  But he provided for her.  The reason he sent her to the home was because he didn’t want her sitting in that house by herself.  His concern was that she was bored- he wanted what was best.  He’s clearly a man with a modest income, and yet he is her sole provider.  He provides faithfully- and there is no expression of resentment in him towards her.  He seems happy to do it.  His guilt originates in love- and I think we are going to see that there is evidence he loves Marie too, to some degree.  Meursault’s problem is not that he can’t feel.  Meursault definitely can feel.  He just can’t get his mind to wrap around what his feelings mean.  Feelings obviously aren’t rational.  That don’t have a point, and for Meursault, that’s a huge problem.   

 

Honestly, Camus expressing here this idea of not conforming to society’s expectations of how you express yourself is again something that resonates with so many teenagers- all of us really- but especially teenagers.  This idea of appearing apathetic when in reality, it’s not apathy but numbness that you’re experiencing gets people in all kinds of problems.  In my world, it manifests itself with flunking grades.  How many boys, and they usually are boys- are made to sit in a chair with their teachers, their guidance counselors, and their parents- sometimes all in the same room at the same time- and the general theme of the meeting is that they are there to tell the student he simply don’t care about his learning.  They are there because they care, and they want him to understand how bad it is that he doesn’t care about his education; his family, his life- all of which can be seen through a general apathy towards school, skipping, perhaps drugs, trouble-making of one sort or another.  The student sits in agreement with the behaviors, but often the point that is incorrect is the diagnosis of apathy as the culprint- it’s simple  to say that the student just doesn’t care. But more often than not,  the problem- paradoxically,  is the opposite.  It’s the caring that causes the  jam with failing grades and the other self-sabotaging behaviors.   

 

I’ve been in hundreds of those meetings myself.  And the irony is in the pointlessness of it all.  The student feels guilty.  That’s never the problem.  We can see that they feel guilty.  Sometimes they may even cry.  Often they feel badly for making their mothers come up to school at 6:30 in the morning (in Memphis that’s when these meetings are always held).  They feel badly for not being able to make themselves do the work.  They feel badly for the bad grades, the school skipping, the vaping in the bathroom, whatever it is.  They feel badly for the shame of the confrontation.  The feeling of guilt is definitely overwhelming, but what does that do?  When has guilt ever been a good motivator for success?  As with Meursault, guilt, especially generalized guilt, usually escalates into other things. 

 

Camus makes our absurd hero wrestle with this absurd problem.  And if I were a character in the story, I’d be fussing at Meursault non-stop, although, I already know it would be futile.  I can already hear myself, “Treat that girl better.  Take that promotion.  Stop hanging out with that garbage of a human.”    But, in my estimation, Meursault runs hard in the wrong direction- or at least not the direction, I would want him to go if I were his mother.  He runs straight into his feelings of guilt and pushes them to their most extreme point.  Let’s watch how this happens with each engagement.   

 

Well, the next engagement of note for me is Meursault running into his old neighbor Salamano and his dog.  The relationship Salamano has with his dog is one Camus is strangely interested in>. He describes the man and his dog almost like a miserable old married couple.   

 

Page 26-27 

 

Christy, what are we supposed to make of this? 

 

Well, that’s always the question with Camus, isn’t it?  What are we supposed to make of it.  I find myself judging this man because he’s cruel to his dog.  But Meursault won’t do that.  He doesn’t want to be judged, so he doesn’t judge Salamano- just like he won’t judge Raymond- and Raymond is absolutely one of the most terrible people in all of literature.  I would stack him up against Katherine Earnshaw, or Napoleon the Pig, or Jack from Lord of the flies.   

 

OH my, that is a lovely cast of characters.  Yes, he’s a terrible person.  He’s a pimp, or at least seems to be.  He beats the woman he lives with to the point that she bleeds- and yet Meursault won’t judge him.  In fact, later on he helps him.  

 

Yes, that irks me. He writes a letter for him.  He lies for him.  At one point Raymond asks Meursault what he thinks about all the horrible things he’s done and plans on doing to the Moorish girl he’s abusing, and Meursault flat out refuses to make any moral judgements.  He has no empathy for the girl, either.  He said he didn’t think anything but thought it was interesting.  Talk about what comes across to the reader as absurd- his reaction to me is absurd.  But after all of this, Camus only observes- at the end of chapter 3, we read only this, “All I could hear was the pounding in my ears.  I stood there, motionless.  And in old Salamano’s room, the dog whimpering softly.”   

 

As Meursault absorbs what I would consider to be two very obvious expressions of evil in the world- Camus creates what he calls a “divorce between the world as it is and man’s conception of the world as it ought to be”.  What he’s describing here is the world as it is, and not the world as I want it to be where pets and women are held in places of tenderness- where respect for life itself is highly regarded and where raw power isn’t exercised so mercilessly.   

 

 

And yet, if life doesn’t matter, as Meursault understands that it doesn’t, if speckness is a reality, as it clearly is, if we feel guilt for things we aren’t really guilty for because of some irrational force from the universe, then what difference does it make if a man abuses his dog and beats a woman he’s had sex with mercilessly and violently? It just doesn’t matter.   Moral distinctives don’t matter. 

 

Yikes- this is deeply negative stuff.   

 

Oh yes, and the offense doesn’t end there.  In chapter 4, we circle back to Marie.  The romance between these two is every bit as absurd as the violence we saw in chapter 3.  Meursault, wants Marie, as in the sexual sense, when he see her in a red and white dress (make of those colors what you will); he notes her breasts again, btw- and I’m not sure how to understand all of that. But anyway,  They spend the day and night together; it’s all very sensual.  The next morning, instead of cutting out before Meursault wakes up, Marie sticks around.  Meursault goes out to get some meat for them and then we have an odd juxtaposition of observations.  Let’s read these: 

 

Page 35-36 

 

I agree with Marie.  It IS terrible.  But Meursault doesn’t make judgements.  He doesn’t say anything.  He is an outsider.  He is a stranger.  For Meursault, he couldn’t see that any of it mattered to him.  Why should it? 

 

 I think he believes that is the rational thing to believe, but I think there is something about this absurdity that refuses to let him find peace.  In chapter 6 his boss basically offers him a big promotion.  He is offered an opportunity to work in Paris, to travel, to do all the things, we would ascribe as being important.  Meursault’s reaction to this offer is as apathetic as his reaction to Raymond beating the pulp out of his mistress.  He says to his boss that he isn’t interested in a change of life.  He says One life is as good as another.  He’s not dissatisfied with his life there in Algiers.  But here’s the crux of it.  It just doesn’t matter.  None of it mattered.  For the absurd hero, that’s where you get to with everything.  He says this same thing when Marie revisits their relationship.   

 

Page 41-42 

 

It’s turning into a refrain- nothing matters- nothing matters- nothing matters.  Meursault dwells in a lot of silence- for the very reason that nothing matters.  He explains nothing because there’s nothing to explain.  He expresses almost no feelings to us, his readers, but ironically, as we will see during his trial, everyone that he knows defends him as being a pretty decent human being.  Fpr the most part, he does right by the people in his life: his mother, Marie, Raymond, Salomano, even Celeste the lady from the diner.  That is not the problem.  For Meaursalt, the  problem is not that whether he loved or didn’t love his mother- the problem is that it doesn’t matter if he did or didn.t.  He doesn’t matter if he loves Marie.  He’s happy to marry her if she wants, but really the fact they they love or don’t love, marry or don’t marry- it just doesn’t matter.  And on and on he goes with everything in the world. For Camus, this reality, that can make you dizzy if you go around and around about it – has to be where you start if you want to break out of the cycle of the absurd.  You have to start at this point of being rationally honest.  The problem is, once you find yourself at this basic existential understanding that life doesn’t care about you- now you have the problems Meurault is facing?  At that point, How do you prevent total boredom?  How do you even make decisions?  The outcomes don’t matter.   And these are tje two constant realities we see in Meursault’s life and which I find incredibly annoying.  He can’t care, and he can’t decide anything for himself.  He lets everyone else in the world make the decisions seemingly because he doesn’t see any difference between one course of action versus another.  He feels just as guilty at every point.  He figures if I don’t care, and you do, we’ll just do what you want.   Why not? His goal is to escape that guilty feeling, but the universe won’t let him.   

 

This is the Meursault of part 1, and this is the Meursault that arrives on a beach, shoots a man, and then allows us to walk away from the passage, wondering if it was his fault that he just killed a man who he likely didn’t know his name or hold anything againt. 

   

Ironically, for me, the day of the murder is really the happiest day in the entire story, so much so that out of no where we see Meursault having the thought and I quote, “for the first time, maybe, I really thought I was going to get married.”  He’s thinking in the future and not in the exact present moment only. 

 

If we think about it in terms of guilt, which I think we should do, we can see this book being about three deaths for which Meursault considers in regard to his own guilt.  In the first instance, Meursault is connected to and held responsible for the death of a woman he did not kill, a woman he loved.  That is sentence one.   The second death is the death of a person that Maursault is 100% responsible for killing but for whose death he did not wish nor even intend.  In this case,  we are made to question the degree to which he is responsible for what he did.  There’s no question, he pulled the trigger.   There is no question he was not provoked.  Meursault is at fault.  The final death will be his own in part two, and it is in facing this final death that Meursault finds some semblance of happiness, peace- and incredibly absolution of guilty.. and it’s not because he has a secret death wish- he absolutely does not commit suicide- but he’d rather face the guillotine than live dishonestly- and it is in facing hopelessness that he finds some sort of higher calling- although, again, if I’d been his mother, I’d say, I’m glad for your higher calling, son, but play the game a little bit.  Because honestly, it seems obvious, if he had just played the game a little bit, he could have gotten out of the string events that lead to the guillotine.   

 

For sure, as we know from history, in the context of colonialism, the murder of an Arab by a Frenchman would not have been considered a serious crime.  Again, if you read Things Fall Apart with us, we saw that play out in that book as well.  In most cases, something like this, with just a little cooperation from the defendant, would have been handled to ensure minimal penalty….but Camus won’t let Meursault play the game.  He seems to want us to look at the culpability of this crime in a strange way.  We are not meant to feel sympathy for the Arab and his family- that is for sure- they don’t even play into our understanding of events at all.  We are interested in only the forces at play in Meursault.  This is not a story about a man versus man conflict.  We are dealing with forces that are greater than just a man.  So why do we have a baseless and senseless murder?   

 

Yeah, this is where I feel like I’m wading into the philosophical weeds that could get me in trouble with scholars who have so many different opinions on how to answer that question.  Dang Camus, with his description style leaves so much ambiguity.  He plays around with symbols and forces us to draw some very personal conclusions.  There is room to argue, but I will have a go at it this murder scene- because it is here that we are arrive at the fullness of absurdity.  Nothing is more absurd than death- in fact that is what defines absurdity- we yearn for life but we eventually get death.  So, let’s look at this one.  For, the murderer- the name Meursaultis interesting as to how it breaks down when we translate it into English.  It literally could be translated two ways mer- means sea- salt is salt- so this name could mean sea-salt- or it could mean it could mean mer- as in the present tesne of I die.  And  salt if it doesn’t meant salt as in what we put on fries could mean salt- as in I leap.  This name coule be translated “die leap”- let me just throw that at you- is the absurd hero Meursault a man who is taking a leap towards the ultimate absurdity itself- death.   

 

Okay- let’s say he is.  But why?  Why do that?  One thing you can say about Meursault is that he’s not really an unhappy person.  He’s not dissatisfied.  He’s not greedy.  He actually expresses a great deal of satisfaction and even happiness.   

 

True- all of that is true- but think of the first sentence of the myth of sysyphys- what does Camus think is the only question really worth asking.  Should I commit suicide?  Meursault is all those things, but at the same time,  he can’t escape are guilt, boredom and inertia.  That’s the trifecta.  He probably could handle a lot of suffering, people do- but they have a hard time handling guilt, boredome and inertia.  If we want to put it in terms that a Christian might understand, you might say that Camus is trying to understand, explain and overcome what Christians call “original sin”- I am guilty by my nature- not by my behavior.  This is irrational and for for Meursault it’s an impasse.  He wants out of that conundrum.  It makes him extremely uncomfortable.  The scenes on the beach are full of sun and are incredible uncomfortable from the moment Raymond pulls out the gun – the sun stops the world- there is the sea, the sand, the sun, silence.  There is intense heat.   

 

Let’s read it 

 

Page 58/59 

 

The sun made him do it.  What does that mean? 

 

Isn’t that the million dollar question?  Camus makes Meursault innocent here.  He doesn’t hold him responsible.  The sun’s responsible.  And yet, he’s not innocent, obviously.  He’s guilty by choice.  He shoots the Arab once, then he pauses then he shoots him four more times.  Camus carefully creates a separation between the arguable involuntary shot and then the four that were absolutely on purpose.  Meursault actually stopped after the first shot and then starts up again.  This is about assuming guilt.  Meursault wants something with this.   He wants to be guilty- to understand himself as being guilty.  Where before nothing meant anything- as he said over and over again- he has now committed a specific offense for which there is a concrete association with guilt.  Meursault had not wanted to look at his mother’s dead body- he didn’t understand why he felt that generalized guilt, but here Meursault understands.  He looks and to use his words, He knows he has broken the equilibrium of the day.  He has come to feel responsible.   

 

And I know I’m getting ahead, but my mind goes here, to Camus’ later writing, in The Rebel, he says “Conscience comes to light with revolt.”  This feels like revolt against the universe.  Against, God, if you will.   

 

Definitely.  It is, and it is rebellion and revolt.  These will be the themed for episode 3 as we try to break down part 2 of the book- which IS the optimistic side- and we will find one.  At the end of part one, Meursault will not say anything.  He reacts in silence. Shooting the Arab four more times was like “knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”   

 

Well, I guess he’s not happy about killing the Arab.  There was no vengeance; no thrill or blood thirst.  Just the door of unhappiness on a day that had been actually pretty happy. 

 

Yeah, I think so.  Some say there will always have to wade through unhappiness to get to consciousness and the peace on the other side.  I think Camus leans this way.  The sun, if we cannot figure out or agree on what it symbolizes- if nothing else expresses something that is subjugating our hero and from which he finally feels an overwhelming compulsion to revolt.  He knows it won’t help.  He knows he can’t escape the sun, but this metaphysical need to fight back is the sentiment.   

 

 

And so we see, for the first time our apathetic character that can never do anything on his own accord- finally act upon the world.  It’s a negative act to be sure.   

 

A terrible act…and one which will come at a cost…but for Camus…that’s the beauty of art.  Meursault’s act is necessary- and not just for him, but for us as well.  We cannot confront the absurdity of our lives without assistance.  In some ways, Meursault’s murder of the Arab is the act of conscious for us too, and if we can arrive at it with the aid of art, perhaps we can also push through the door into consciousness without the four condemning knocks of unhappiness-or at least without their stinging consequences. 

 

Goodness, Christy, that is really living vicariously…I think I just heard you say, if we feel the need to murder the universe, read this book and let Camus do it for us, to avoid all the messy clean up of an Agatha Christie style detective story.   

 

Yes, I think maybe it’s something like that. 

 

Well, there you go.  Next week, we will walk with Meursault through the long and claustrophobic trial scene and watch his world play out in yet another set of strange metaphysical contradictions.   

 

The absurd conclusion to the absurd!!!   

 

So, thanks for listening….yadayayada 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We cannot confront the absurd without assistance.  This is what art is designed to do.”In this universe the work of art is then the sole change of keeping this consciousness and of fixing its adventures.”  Art succeeds where reason fails. Art succeeds because it does not explain or sovle.  It just experiences and describes.”  It is inductive.   

 

“the novel creates destintiy to suit any eventuality.  In this way it competes with creation and p, provisionally, conquers death…  “It expresses a metaphysical need.”  Art provides a sense of unity.  That’s why symbols are important.  They are ambigiuous.  Camus believes we can only think in images.   

 

In the human condition  “there is a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility.”  Symbols oscillate between the natural and the extraordinary- the individual and the universal.   The image as a parable: the attempt to express the undefineable nature of feeling by what is obvius and undefinable in concrete things.” 

 

What characterizies our century is not so much the need to rebuild the world as to rethink it.” 

 

Camus was concerned that language had become estranged from reality- like Orwell.  He quoted Isaiah from the Bible and said this, “the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence- through a curious transposition peculiar to our times- it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself”.    He wanted authentic social and political communities to have the lucity to call good and evil by their right names.    Revolt is a reaction against human suffering and injustice.  It begins in solitude but progresses into an act of solidarity in the name of all men and women.  Rebellion is constitutive of human nature.  “In order to exist, man must rebel,”.  “When rebellion, in rage or intoxication, adopts the attitude of ‘all or nothing’ and the negation of all existence and all human nature, it is at this point that it denies itself…rebellion’s demand is unity.” 

 

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 1 -Introduction To Absurdity!

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 1 -Introduction To Absurdity!

March 26, 2022

 

 

Albert Camus - The Stranger - Episode 1 -Introduction To Absurdity!I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  Today we begin a three part series on Albert Camus’ mostly widely translated and perhaps even read book, “L’Estranger”- which in English has been translated “The Outsider” as well as “The Stranger”- both apply and apply well, which we’ll talk about more in episode three.  The initial critical reception to the novel was mixed but after WW2 as well as an aggressive marketing campaign for its first English translation, the book took off.  It was a critical success as well as a commercial one.  Camus’ book today is translated in over 60 languages and has sold over 6 million copies.    

 

It's a favorite with teenagers as well, although, I will say, most wouldn’t care to tell you all about the absurdism or existentialism in the text.  They just relate to it.  It’s easy to read.  In fact, a lot of high school French students will read it in the original French for the very obvious reason that they can- the language is itself deliberately simplified to the most basic of verb tenses.  Camus wrote for everyone not just for everyone to read but to express the condition of every individual who engages the world, and although the language is simple, the book is not…in fact, it’s intimidating.   

 

Well, it is intimidating not just because it asks questions that are difficult, but because it doesn’t allow you to answer questions with anything like a cliché or a simple answer- in fact, for Camus to do so is to commit philosophical suicide- it is to give up on life itself- to become the Meursault of part one- to not be the protagonist of our own lives- so to speak.  But in all of its grimness on the surface, Camus is not a dark guy.  Literally or metaphorically- his favorite symbol, at least in this book, is ironically, the sun.  He wouldn’t like the word “hopeful” because that goes against his world view, but he might like the phrase- defiant against darkness. 

 

I agree with that, but before we get into the paradox which is the thinking and writing of Camus, let’s talk a little about this man who managed to be the second youngest man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that was in 1957.   

 

As an aside, who was the youngest. 

 

Rudyard Kipling did it in 1907 at the age of 41.  Camus was 44 years old, and seems to me, was more surprised than anybody that he won.  He comes across as embarrassed to have earned it, and very humbly said if he’d had a vote as to who got the award, he wouldn’t even have given it to himself.  He would have given it to a different writer.  I love the fact, that He also immediately wrote a letter to one of his elementary school teacher sback in Algeria, with this to say, “ 

“When I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you,” The name of the teacher, by the way, by way of a shout out was Monsieur Germain. “Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.”  As a teacher I find that so very endearing.  It’s what every teacher would love to hear some day from a student who made good, not just one that won the Nobel prize for literature. 

 

Well, of course. 

 

Anyway, I mention he was from Algeria because that is an important detail in understanding him as a person, and although arguable in many critical circles, we contend is something helpful to know when understanding a person’s worldview and work.   

 

Some would call that rhetorical context.  

 

Yes, I think they would.  Anyway, Algeria is the largest country in Africa, if you go by total area.   

 

 True, but it’s large by world standards as well.  It’s the tenth largest country in the world.  It’s the world’s largest Arab country.  It’s in North Africa.  Tunisia (where part of Star Wars was filmed) is on one side and (Morocco where Casablanca was set) is on the other side.  

 

Let me add that “Casablanca” was released two years after Camus published The Stranger if that gives you any visual context. Garry, tell us a little bit about the place Camus called home, where The Stranger is set, and the place that held Camus’ heart his entire life. 

 

Of course, Algeria, historically, has an extremely long and rich history dating remarkably to 200,000 bc, but I’m guessing you’re not interested that far back. 

 

Yeah, I’d say that would pretty much eclipse Camus, Homer, Sophocles or pretty much anything we’ve ever featured, let’s go with modern history. 

 

Of course.  As you would expect, as with every other part of Africa, Algeria experienced European colonialism.  By 1848, nearly all of Algeria was French.  And just like we saw with the American experience, many Europeans who were having trouble in Europe or looking for a place to find upward mobility looked to migrate to this new colony- and why not, if you were a struggling French man or woman.  Algeria is beautiful; it’s warm, has beaches- there was much allure.  Camus’ great grandparents were part of this movement.  These French Europeans who came to Algeria in search of a better life were called “pied Noirs” or black feet.  But just as we saw in our series “Things Fall Apart”, colonialism takes a toll on indigenous populations.  European colonial governments did  not treat local peoples equally or even respectfully, although they were technically French citizens.  In the colonial system, pied noirs dominated government as well as the wealth of Algeria.  This of course, went on during Camus life and obviously he had ample opportunity from his earliest days to watch the abuses of this system from all sorts of angles.  His views on how these inequalities should be solved eventually made him antagonistic to both the far right as well as the far left. 

 

You know, I’ve read his views and what people thought of them, and at first pass, I agreed with the accusation that his “peace first- never violence” approach was naïve and something only a pie in the sky philosopher could afford to indulge, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to me.  His idea was ahead of his time in some ways.  During his day 15% of the population was of European origin, that’s a minority and one that was imported, obviously, but they were indeed still Algerian and a significant number of individuals.  In his case, he was born there.  Yes, he wasn’t of the same skin tone as people whose ancestors had been there more than two generations, but it was still his home.  His idea was, find a way- make peace- live together.  The idea of the indigenous people was something like everyone of a different skin tone needs to get out.  And the French approach was, dominate and subjugate all local peoples of different ethnic origins.   

 

Which of course is not a peaceful attitude on anyone’s part.  After the end of WW2, which by the way, over a million soldiers from all over Africa but mostly north Africa, fought on the European front of that conflict, including many Algerians.  But after the war, Algerian Muslims demanded and eventually won their independence.  However, independence wasn’t simple.  The Algerian war was bloody, deadly and long.  Algerian independence did not come until 1962.  Almost 1,000,000 pied noirs fled back to Europe, France sent 100s of thousands of soldiers to Algeria to fight against the insurrections.  Tens of thousands of young men on both sides died.  Terrorist tactics were used on both sides.  Napalm was even employed- if you recall that was the toxin of choice Americans associate with the war in Vietnam.  There were horrible internment camps. But the death count isn’t the only measure of devastation. By the time Algeria finally proclaimed its independence, 70% of the workforce in Algeria was unemployed, businesses that had been run by European descendants had been confiscated by the state, but many were not being administrated productively.  Independence created a power vacuum internally.  Political factions vied for control.   For average people, life was a real struggle.   

 

 

So, this was Algeria during Camus’ lifetime.  He died in 1960 right before its independence.  

 

Yes, and let me add, even into the 1990s and the early 2000s Algeria has experienced incredible internal violence and civil strife.  It does make Camus’s call for peaceful resolution seem more and more reasonable- at least less costly for average people, which of course was his upbringing, and who he cared about protecting.   

 

Yes, and it is Camus’ understanding of Algeria that shaped his personal story, his politics, his philosophy and his art.  As you mentioned, Camus was a pied noir, but he certainly couldn’t be described as being a member of any ruling class.   He was born in Algeria to a very low-income working-class household, and passionately loved his homeland.  I think it’s important to understand, he was not European; however, he was, in many ways, an outsider in Algeria.  He was born there, but his people were not indigenous- think the title of his book- the Stranger.  There is so many ways this title could be the subtitle to the author, as well.  Let me be clear, I’m certainly not suggesting the novel I autobiographical because it is not in any overt sense- but I will suggest that his experiences did him an heightened understanding of feelings that are, of course,  universal.  Mersault, the name of our title character, by the way, was a pen name Camus had used before in other writings- so do with that what you will.  But the experiences of his life that left him an outsider are not just about his geo-political situation.  Camus’ father died in one of the first battles of WW1 when Camus was one year old, and as a result, the family had to move in with Camus’ uncle and their grandmother.   He has fatherless which is itself a handicap, but as you might expect, this situation wasn’t awesome financially.  The family was left left in poverty.  Here, little Camus experiences another version of being an outsider.  He’s the poor kid with no dad. His mother worked in factories, she was also a maid, all the things poor single moms do to make ends meet, but nothing that inspires a child with pride.  She was illiterate, was mostly deaf and suffered from a serious speech impediment.  The deafness and speech problems were a result of a childhood illness that went untreated.  Camus deeply loved his mother, but I’ve also read she was a distant person emotionally- we can only speculate perhaps it was because of the circumstances of her life, maybe she just was- I don’t know, but I can imagine that those challenges created barriers in building relationship and intimacy.  Camus said this about his mom later in life, “"When my mother's eyes were not resting on me, I have never been able to look at her without tears springing into my eyes." 

 

I also read, although this is getting farther along in Camus’ personal story, that he commented when he received the Nobel Prize, that his mother was one woman who would never be able to read his speech.  

 

True, and I think it’s important to bring his relationship with his mother out because of his famous first line in The Stranger, but we’ll get to that in a minute.  Camus, without any privilege of birth or education was still a brilliant student who managed to stand out to the point that he received scholarships to attend a very fancy high school there in Algiers- let me add, another way to be an outsider- the poor kid in the rich kid school.   

 

 

True, but he was successful there- and more than just academically.  He played soccer, and in fact; was good at it. 

 

He was a first string goalie, and perhaps might have had a shot at sports on a bigger level, except…at age 17 he contracted tuberculosis- yet another set back- one more way to be an outsider.   His disease shocked him, as you can imagine.  NO 17 year expects to be confronted with potential death, and especially not an athlete.   He had to drop out of sports, out of school, out of everything.  So, I hope you are seeing some trends here. I am.  He can’t cut a break. 

 

Yeah, Camus is definitely not the cliched spoiled rich kid privileged “thinker” who attends elite universities then sits around Parisienne cafes or salons discussing personal omniscient theories about existence and nature of the universe.   

 

No, his buddy Jean Paul Sartre is much closer to that description than Camus, although, Sartre’s ideas are actually interesting and not cliches- in fact, his explication of The Stranger is fantastic.  But before we get the Sartre/Camus drama-  and they are often associated together although not always on good terms, but before any of that, sweet Camus is getting his butt kicked by life itself in every imaginable way.  When he does show up in Paris, he’s got an edge to him that’s sexy to the upper crust. He’s this brilliant, good-looking bad boy from the provinces, if you want to think in cliches- the James Dean of Algeria.  But before that, he recovers his health and returns to school in 1933, marries a girl named Simone Hile- a beautiful girl apparently but one with a bad drug habit.  The marriage was not good- another set back.  In 1936, he graduates from school and gets involved in supporting the Algerian Muslims and other workers in Algeria.  He joins the Communist party and even creates a theater group trying to bring the arts to the working class people of his community.    

 

 

This is interesting, Camus joins the Communist party precisely because he doesn’t believe in how the French are treating local people in Algieria.  He believes in fairness, equal opportunity, and sees that the power in Algeria is disproportional.  It’s obvious to everyone that the  French are abusing the local populations.  He wants to be part of the solution, and he wants a peaceful solution. He wants maximum freedom for the maximum number of people.  All the things the Communists were espousing with their words.  However, through the war, he eventually changes his attitude towards the communists. 

 

At first I thought that meant he moved towards the right.  But he doesn’t really.  He will always be a leftist- he just has this very consistent view of equality- and the Communists when they got in charge did not live out the message that got them his support.  

 

Exactly, and we see that as a problem in politics for all times- from antiquity and it’s a problem today.  Camus finds Stalin and the Communists to be as awful as Hitler and the fascists.  He does NOT believe the ends ever justifies the means, and so he eventually be became disenfranchised and despised by both the right and the left.   

 

I would say that is to his credit especially in 1940.  But speaking of that year, that’s the year he divorced Simone and moved to Paris- which in retrospect, wasn’t the best time to be moving to Paris. 

 

Ah, no I would say not.  France falls to Germany in June of 1940.  There are famous pictures that most of us have seen of Nazi soldiers marching through the Arche de Triomphe.   

 

 

Camus gets trapped.  He tries to get home, but he’s stuck in occupied Paris.  And so, he does what he can.  He takes an active role in the resistance.  He literally risks his life through his journalism. He inspires the people of France to not give in to the Nazis; to hold on to the resistance- his essays from their period are actually published and people still find them inspirational. (One example would be “The Almond Trees” if you are going to try to Google them).  But more interesting for us, tt’s also during this period that he writes the three works that would change his life.  First there is novella, if we’re going to call it anything, The Stranger, but there is also and the philosophical companion piece published four months later titled, the myth of Sisyphus, as well as the play Caligula.  Camus called these three works, “The Cycle of the Absurd”.  The Stranger, which is where we want to focus, expresses the feelings of the absurd, but obviously, we can’t avoid reading it without the lens of The Myth of Sisyphus  but the essay is designed to help explain the impressions or the experience we should have when reading the story.  

 

You know, in some ways it makes total sense that Camus would write about the meaningless of life in the backdrop of WW2, but in other ways, it’s a total paradox.  He doesn’t advocate rolling over and surrendering to the Nazis.  His political writings instill hope, but while encouraging people to resist fascism, ironically he’s writing a great philosophical work on the idea that there is no hope. 

 

Exactly, and Camus IS a paradox.  But, in many ways, he’s the most relatable philosopher most high schoolers or maybe just many of us, will ever read.  I actually love his stuff, and I’m not even an atheist, to be honest.  

 

And I do think we need to point that Camus is an atheist, or at least an agnostic and this thinking is predicated on exactly that.  He said this, “I do not know whether this world has a meaning that is beyond me.  But I do know that I am unaware of this meaning and that, for the time being, it is impossible for me to know it.  What can a meaning beyond my condition mean to me?  I can understand only in human terms.  I understand the things I touch, things that offer me resistance.” 

 

And of course, that is a completely rational position to hold and easy to understand.  He’s one of the few philosophers I would have loved to have met, and I think it’s a real loss that he died so young.  We may talk about his untimely death towards the end of the series, but I think this is a good spot to break from biography and open the book.  It’s time to read that famous first line- and make no mistake about it…it’s very famous and recognizable.  Garry, in your best Camus voice…would you mind.   

 

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know.” 

 

It is the sentence that shocked the world.  In a sentence that feels so cold, he uses the personal way of saying mama- he doesn’t open with “Mother died”.  He doesn’t call his mother by her first name.  In French, Maman would be like us saying mom, mum or mommy or mummy- it’s the term kids use to call their mothers.  And yet…look at the rest of this phrase- she died today or yesterday.  I don’t know.  What do you mean you don’t know?  Are you a psychopath?  Are you a monster?  Why would you seeming blow off the death of your mom.  Except Meursault isn’t a psychopath.  He’s not a monster.  He’s lost.   

 

If we keep reading the next sentence, we see that maybe he’s not a monster, maybe the nursing home is.  The nursing home sent him this telegram.  

I got a telegram from the home: "Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours." That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.  

it’s not cruel it just feels cruel. just because it’s a telegram and they have to be short.   Or, another idea, maybe it’s the culture of the area to be so short, or maybe, or maybe…it’s absurd. 

 

And now we got down to the point.  Camus is introducing to us through these very short phrases a feeling we get from our world.  At this point, he’s not telling us what to think, he’s showing us how we fee.    Camus’ world is not theistic at all, it’s not deistic.  So that’s important to understand.  Camus doesn’t believe in God nor does he believe it’s rational to believe in God.   But he’s also not naturalistic or deterministic either- he’s not like Steinbeck who will say, there are forces in the world and we are just victims of nature and the laws that govern it.  Camus would not even claim to be existential, although today we would say he most definitely falls in this broad category.  But he didn’t call himself that- he saw existentialists like Kierkegaard, Nietche, or even Sartre, or Kafka as different, but for our purposes we don’t need to really go there.  The point Camus is making here, and it’s a point so many of us understand, is that the world is really an absurd place to live, and although we can go through the routine of our daily lives, making ourselves busy, doing things we think are important, there will be moments in our lives, if we are lucky (he would suggest) where we are absolutely hit in the face with an undeniable truth that the world is one heck of an absurdity.   And as a young man in his twenties, there is anger here.   

So once again the author tells the whole story in the very beginning-  

Yes, but let me add- this is a book that will with all intentionality will offer almost NO commentary or NO explanation about anything at all for anything that will happen in the story, but here we will receive some of the only words of explanation- and let me remind you we will see in a lot of scandal later on but here’s the explanation- that doesn’t mean anything”. 

Well, in context doesn’t he mean that it doesn’t mean enough for him to know when she died? 

Well, of course, but what, I think, we’re seeing is beyond that.  His mother’s death sets off events that will define events, if we’re looking for meaning which, of course, we shouldn’t because we can’t find- although we will still try, even subconsciously as we go through each event in the story.  Our brains will try to find a  correlation as we see Camus take as many pains as he possibly can to clearly disconnect every single action in the story.  It will be a futile hunt for meaning in a book that is meant on teaching us that there is no connection between events- it is the nature of our existence and this we will express with this term “the absurd”.   

 

And as soon as we read these first lines, if we are honest, we intuitively identify with them…especially if we have lived more than five minutes in this world.  We know exactly how this feels – this book describes the feeling of not being able to feel, or to feel an unidentified guilt, or to feel impulses that are even self-sabotaging.  It’s acknowledging feelings that are fair and indeed human to feel.  There is a moment in everyone’s life, hopefully, if you’re not a sociopath or narcissist, when we realize things just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and Meursault is experiencing this at the death of his mother.  He describes asking off from work and being made to feel guilty to the point where he literally says “it’s not my fault.”   This guilt feeling is an abstract guilt, he’s aware it’s coming from somewhere outside of him- he’s not important enough to matter that his mom is dead.  He goes on to describe his bus ride to the old people’s home- and its remarkably plain.  The world is the same.  His mother is dead and as he says to himself before he catches the bus, “it’s almost as if Maman weren’t dead.  After the funeral, though, the case will be closed, and everything will have a more official feel to it.”  There is a sense he understands the universe but just doesn’t care. 

 

I want to go back to something you mentioned. The word “fault” is used on the first page and in this book where the main character seems so detached from everything, it’s strange that his boss is to make him feel guilty for something that is entirely NOT his fault.  This is something to take note of.   We will see him revisit  next episode we will discuss this idea of guilt, in full, because it is the most important idea in the text- Meursault does commit an action that IS his fault, at least we think it is, but then we’re made to question whether it is or isn’t .  Camus is interested in guilt and wants to solve the problem of guilt.  So there is something to look forward to. 

But on to your important point- as we read Meursault’s recollection of the death and then funeral of his mother, there’s much to relate with.   

 

 

For one thing, Meursault’’s mother’s death  is reduced to a telegram without even a definitive point of time.  Both she and he are specks in the universe and the death of a speck is of no consequence whatsoever. 

 

 

I totally remember the moment I understood this about myself.  When I graduated from high school, my parents sent me back to America, are you know, I grew up in Brazil.  As a child, I thought I was the center of the world, but for me, I went in one day from being a somebody in a community to being a nobody from nowhere- a speck. I  remember showing up at college in Arkansas.  I went to a dance the first week on campus.  I drove myself to a skating rink, that’s where the dance was held hoping to make friends.  I walked it, was greeted by no one.  I tried to go up to a couple of people, but it seemed strange.  They all knew eath other.  I was invisible.  I was unwanted.  I was a speck.  I remember the overwhelming nature of that realization.   

 

Every one has those moments- and there will be more than one.  At some point, many of us will all of a sudden become keenly aware of a certain level of pointlessness to almost every human enterprise- hence the myth of Sisyphus which Camus thinks is the perfect metaphor for our everyday existence.   

 

Yeah- we didn’t have time to really talk about Sisyphus, but he’s a guy Odysseus meets in the underworld.  Garry, read for us the paragraph about this guy.  Now, he’s in trouble with Zeus so he has a punishment.  Let’s read it. 

 

When I witnessed the torture of Sisyphus, as he wrestled with a huge rock with both hands. Bracing himself and thrusting with hands and feet he pushed the boulder uphill to the top. But every time, as he was about to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and once again towards the plain the pitiless rock rolled down. So once more he had to wrestle with the thing and push it up, while the sweat poured from his limbs and the dust rose high above his head. (Odyssey, Book 11:593) 

 

 For Camus, this is a metaphor for our everyday routines- a pointless sameness over and over.  To use Camus’ words it’s the, “getting up, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, in the same routine.”  And for Camus, after a while, it all just seems absurd.  So, it’s not just in the big moments where we recognize the absurd, but it is in the routine of our daily life-  

 

Indeed, but here in the Stranger, it’ feels a little overwhelming  here at the start of a novel.  “Maman died today.  Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”- if I read it this way, it reminds me that it really doesn’t matter.   Her life doesn’t matter.  Her death doesn’t matter.  The fact that I loved her doesn’t matter.  The fact that we’re here doesn’t matter.   It’s pretty depressing.  It’s an expression of lostness.  

 

And that’s where Camus starts his philosophical treatise which he titles and wrote to explain the Stranger, “The Myth of Sisyphus”.  Let me read the first line of that famous essay.  It reads, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”   Camus goes on to say that “the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”  We’re to feel like we’re being slapped in the face by Meursault’s sense of absurdity.   And I think it’s important to understand as Camus clearly differentiates that the feeling of the absurd isn’t the same as the idea of the absurd.”   

 

That kind of makes me confused pretty much immediately and tired and depressed if I think about it too long.  Sartre calls it “hopeless lucidity”. It’s a tiresome feeling- and we see Mersault just wanting to sleep basically all the time.  The idea being that there will come a moent when we become lucid or aware of a certain hopelessness- and that is our beginning point.  If you’re reading this book and feel disoriented- that’s a good thing.  You’re supposed to.  If the next feeling is one of boredom- you’re getting the point.   

Such irony there- so we’re supposed to be bored by reading- I guess every student can identify with that.  In fact, I think that’s happened to me in lots of books that are not about existential meaning of life! 

HA!  So true.  The scene Camus goes on to describe in chapter 1 is described in as brief a way as humanly possible.  When you read the book at first, you think it’s going to be about a mom and a son, but that’s really only 12% of the book.  In reality it has nothing to do with anything else and making arbitrary connections between the funeral and the events that follow is an obvious point of absurdity.   

 

Here are a few of the sentences as Camus writes them.  They sound like a journal someone is keeping for themselves when they have to document their actions for some court case or something.   “It was very hot.  I ate at the restaurant, at Celeste’s, as usual. Everybody felt very sorry for me…I ran so as not to miss the bus.  I slept almost the whole way.  The home is two kilometers from the village.  I walked them.    

 

Exactly, All these short isolated sentences that have no connection with anything.  No connection is made between them.  They do no explain each other like you would expect in plot progression.   They are just declarative observations,  and somehow we arrive at a feeling of  “lucid hopelessness”.   

Another feature of the text that I want to point out because it’s going to become incredibly important next episode is this emphasis on the sun.  When I read this book, I got the impression that Algiers must be this incredibly hot place with a boiling sun- like Memphis, btw, but then I looked it up.  It turns out the weather in Algiers is pretty much perfect.  It rarely gets excessively cold in the winter or mercilessly hot in the summer.  But in this book, we feel an intensity of heat that is stifling.  The sun is oppressive.  In fact to use Meursault’s exact words he says this, “but today, with the sun bearing down, making the whole landscape shimer with heat it was inhuman and oppressive.”  It is a presence during the procession.  It makes sweat pour down Mersault’s face.   

And so we walk with hand in hand with our narrator this absurd man, Meursault.  And Meursault undeniably is the absurd man- and, as Sartre tells us, the absurd man does not explain, he describes.  He doesn’t prove anything.  And so with no reason, he experiences th sun.  It bears down.  The glare from the sky is unbearable.  It gets to the point where it makes Mersault feel lost.  He literally says that.  Here’s another description. Let’s read it. 

“All of it- the sun, the smell of leather and horse dung from the hearse, the smell of varnish and incense, and my fatigue after a night without sleep- was making it hard for me to see or think straight.” 

And this is where reading the Myth of Sisyphus is helpful.  For Camus, the absurdity of life comes from realizing a few undeniable things about the world- and this is regardless of worldview.  1) There is something in the heart of man that seeks to find meaning. We are not absurd.  We are wired to NOT be absurd.  We as non-absurd people look to find meaning.  We’re wired like that. But then there’s this second reality.  2) There is something in the arbitrary nature of the way life works that defeats us. We will lose and we know it.  We desire immortality but we will die.  Life is rigged against us.  Nature wins.  The absurdity of life will absolutely win.  Good things will happen for bad people. Bad things will happen to good people?  These are truths, and certainly obvious during Camus days in occupied France.  

  

To use his words, “The world itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said.”  So, this is our beginning point.  Now what do we do.  

 In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus talks about suicide, and he does mean physical suicide for sure, but physical suicide is not such a simple thing to understand.   And it’s not the only way to kill yourself.  He uses the term “philosophical suicide”.  And this is something that Camus is really against.  But he thinks that most of us will actually commit philosophical suicide.  Benjamin Franklin thought so too.  Franklin said it this way, “ 

“Many people die at twenty five and aren't buried until they are seventy five.” 

In other words, in order to not face the reality that life is absurd, they choose to live dishonest lives.  We lie to ourselves about almost everything.  We can use God as philosophical suicide- if you can’t explain it put it on God- I’m doing  this because it is the will of God.  It is a simple answer to a complicated question, but if you can just chalk everything up to god, than it’s an easy answer- a way to stop asking the question that reminds us we’re absurd.  Camus focuses on religion quite a bit, but religion certainly isn’t that only thing in this world that can bring meaningless for the absurd man.  I would suggest that in the year 2022, we literally use drugs- . We use entertainment.  In a rich country like the United States, we use the pursuit of wealth to find meaning.  More recently, we’ve used morality- not religious morality, but secular morality.  We parade it over social media, proclaiming this platform or this other one- but in reality, it’s all pretty absurd.  Camus says we have a mind that desires meaning and a world that disappoints.   

 

And so we walk on with Mersault.  We experience with him the very basic feelings of life with Meursault- Maman’s death SHOULD mean something, but it doesn’t.  It’s an inconvenience and it’s uncomfortable.  It makes him hot; it makes him tired.  We experience the absurd.  With Meursault we experience what we glean from our senses, but not a lot more than that.  In chapter one, we feel a lot of physical discomfort, but we will see next episode that sex, food and cigarettes are strong physical sensations as well.  We will watch Meursault be pushed around and do things that I find morally repulsive.  He’s not a part of anything really.  He’a into nothing- he’s not a soccer fan, a company man, or even a film buff.   

 

He’s quite an outsider in almost every way.  Although, I will say, he doesn’t have any trouble getting a girlfriend, but even Marie seems attracted to him because he’s a wierdo.  He’s a stranger.  He’s l’estranger.   

  

Christy, at this point, you’re not leaving us a lot to look forward to.  This seems like we’re heading toward nihilism and a foregone conclusion that we know the answer to the suicide question and it’s not a good one. 

 

True, but we’re really only in chapter one.  Although, I will admit, there’s a lot more boredom and a whole lot more poor decision-making or lack of decision-making in Meursault’s immediate future.  But let me end with this, if this was all Camus had to say, he would not be interesting.  I had a friend in high school from France, ironically.  His name was Laurent.  Laurent was nihilistic, by 18.  He had this saying that he would go around saying all the time.  To this day, I can hear him say it in my head as I can see him put three cigarettes in his mouth at one time.  He loved to smoke, and I would fuss at him for it.  He would say, “You die. You’re dead. So what.”   

 

But that is not Camus.  Camus never lost faith in justice, the life of the spirit, the power of truth.  He rejected nihilism completely.  He said this, “All of us, among the ruins, are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism.”  At another point he says this, “No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity.  We know this.  But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation had encountered and what we must take into account.”   

 

And so we begin…with the uncomfortable sun glaring down from the sun making us hot, sweaty, sleepy and reminding us that nature always wins.   

 

Yeah- that’s the idea- the absurd reality Starts with honesty- that is opposite of philosophical suicide.  

 

Negation and absurdity are just the beginning.  It takes a certain amount of courage to do what he’s asking, but of course, I agree.  The alternative is the Meursault of part 1- the absurd man- and as you said, he’s not really that likeable. 

 

Thanks for listening…… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agatha Christie - The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Episode 2 - Agatha Christies Masterpiece of Whodunit!

Agatha Christie - The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Episode 2 - Agatha Christies Masterpiece of Whodunit!

March 19, 2022

Agatha Christie - The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Episode 2 - Agatha Christies Masterpiece of Whodunit!

 

HI, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver, and this is the How to Love lit podcast.  This is our second and final episode discussing Christie’s breakout novel, the one critics claim is her very best, The Murder or Roger Ackroyd.  Last week, we talked about the book in terms of it being a formal detective novel- a murder of manners as I read one critic describe the genre.  We discussed the conventions of the style.  We also introduced her most famous and beloved character, Hercule Poirot, and you left us, Christy, with a teaser saying you wanted to get back to the story of Christie, as in Agatha Christie and Poirot’s relationship before we finish by spoiling for everyone who hasn’t read it yet, who did kill Roger Ackroyd.  So, Christy, and it is slightly confusing- calling you Christy and then her being Dame Christie.  But even still,, here’s the question to start with, Did Christie really hate Poirot?  He made Christie quite a bit of money over the years.  How could she hate  a character that had been so good to her? 

 

Yes, I truly think she came to.  The first reason I feel confident making this claim is that she wrote an essay titled “Why I got Fed up with Poirot”- 

 

Well, that certainly conveys at minimum a slight frustration.   

 

Yes- the title is a little catchy.  I read the essay, and the first reason is simple, makes a lot of sense if you thnk about it.  She was just saddled with him- she didn’t know when she made him up that she was going to closer to him than most husbands and she made him deliberately annoying to be around.  Some of her final words in that essay were advice to future writers and she says this, “I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers: be very careful what central character you create- you may have him with you’re a very long time.”   

 

HA!  So basically, his eccentricities the ones people find hilariously annoying just got on her last nerves over time.  She said once that he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”.   Which is, of course, a nasty way of saying some of the same things she’s said about him in her books, but often in her books she uses gentler terms.  He IS annoying- that’s part of the schtick.  He DOES brag and constantly reminds his suspects that he always uncovers their lies.  Even in this book, up to the very end, he gloats and brags on himself from the beginning to end.   

 

Oh for sure!  And since she wrote him in 33 novels, two plays and over 50 short stories. I can only imagine he was with her, at least in the back of her mind, always.  If he’s not like a husband, he’s certainly like her child, maybe that’s the right metaphor.  But I do think it went even beyond her being annoyed with him, as a character.  Poirot, in very obvious ways,  limited her as a writer.  In that same essay she also said this, “ 

My own Hercule Poirot is often somewhat of an embarrassment to me – not in himself, but in the calling of his life. Would anyone go and ‘consult’ him? One feels not. 

 

So, it seems as if it bothered her that he wasn’t as realistic as she would have written him, maybe later in life? 

 

I think it’s something along those lines.  He was a great schtick, but there was schtick element to it, in many ways.   He didn’t allow her to develop her writing or even her thematic ideas-  he was just too silly.   Her great- grandson, James Pritchard spoke to this to the BBC.  He said that in her own words she wanted to “exorcise herself of him” but he was her- and again in her own words- “bread and butter”.  He was of immense commercial importance to her, if not of great creative importance in some ways.   According to Pritchard she had so many other ideas for books that weren’t appropriate for Poirot, but her agents and publishers would come back and remind her he was his most popular character. And so, there was the conundrum…although I have to admit, I’d love to have a problem like that.   

Yes, I think many of us would, although I can kind of see where she’s coming from.  We hear actors from time to time express ideas similar that.  Famously, I remember George Reeves, who was the original Superman, complained all the way until his strange and mysterious suicide that he just hated always being Superman.  Or more recently, one example that comes to mind might be Daniel Ratcliffe who noticeably has worked incredibly hard to demonstrate that he is not just Harry Potter, but a versatile actor.  What I find interesting about Christie’s relationship with Poirot is that she was loyal or maybe even jealous of him.   

Explain that. 

 

She took great pains not to let anyone else have him.  During WW2, Christie, like many patriotic British celebrities chose to stay was in London during the Blitz.  In other words, not taking advantage of the privilege of wealth and fame to ride the war out in America or some other safe destination.  If you remember, the Blitz is what we call the eight months during 1940-1941 when the Nazis sieged London as well as other large and important British cities with constant bombings. But choosing to stick it out during the bombings is not the same as not being concerned that the decision might cost you your life.   Fearing she might not survive the attacks, she wrote two stories that killed off each of her most famous detectives – Poirot and Miss Marple. She included a provision in her will that the stories would be published if she were to die in the war. But fortunately for us, she didn’t die in the war and Poirot hung around to annoy his creator for three more decades.   

True, and it wasn’t until 1975, when her own health began to fail that , she finally published Curtain, the novel she wrote during World War II, which killed off Poirot. It wasn’t but a few months later, in 1976, that Christie herself died- so you can see, she kept him around her entire adult life.  I would tell you how Poirot dies, but you never want to give too much away about Christie novels- the surprises are the fun part- but it is a really great conclusion.  Oh and one more thing- and this is really to Poirot’s credit, maybe more than Christie’s, the public reaction to what Christie did in her final novel was so tremendous that Hercule Poirot was the first ever fictional character to get a front page obituary in the New York Times. On August 6, 1975, a headline ran announcing, “Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective; Hercule Poirot, the Detective, Dies”.  

 

Incredible!  Truly, so back to our story.  Last week, we talked about all the ways, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd fits the bill for a traditional formal detective novel: the setting, the characters, the weapon, the investigative style, all of it cul minating in a happily ever after ending where the world is left back in an orderly fashion- where justice is served- you even brought up the mah jong game, and even suggested that Christie may even be constructing a subtle argument that life is better in community playing by the rules.  Where life is better lived when and where people interact and engage each other deliberately- where people organize and live according to commonly agreed-upon rules of engagement…or something like that…And now this week, we are going to see that all that talk about rules is just a cruel joke to seduce us into a game where she is NOT going to follow the rules of the game.  And here’s the spoiler, so if you haven’t read the book, unplug now…fair warning….drum roll for the reveal….. the narrator is the murderer!!!  That’s unfair!!!  Even according to Christie’s own set of rules. 

 

And yet is it? and I assume, by rules you are referring to the rules of the Detection Club.   In 1930, a group of mystery writers, Agatha Christie, among them but also others one example being, interestingly enough, the  AA Milne who’s most famous for giving us Winnie the Poo.  The Detection Club actually still exists, btw.  You have to be formally invited, and obviously it’s prestigious.   But, to be a member, you swear an oath- and of course, it’s a bit tongue in check but you are asked to foreswear any of the bad practices of mystery writing.  Garry, read for us the oath. 

 

 “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God? 

 

It’s awesome, and gives you a distinct impression that this is  a fun bunch to be associated with.  The Detection Club hosts formal dinners and other social things, but also The members collaborate with ideas, encourage each other with their individual works and even at times have co-written  books together.  Beyond the oath though, they also have what they call the “fair play rules” of detective novels.  There are ten of them.  One rule is that the detective himself will not commit the murder.  But here’s the one that people claim Christie broke with Dr. Shepperd.  Rule number 9- let’s read that one  

 

And I quote- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader. 

 

What we have to recognize, and what is so awesome about how Christie wrote the book is that Dr. Shepperd, the narrator who is actually our murderer never lies tp us.  He never conceals anything that happens during the investigation at all really- the facts are the facts.  He faithfully relays what is going on.  In one sense of the word, he is faithful to us, but, of course, as we reread the book knowing that he’s the murderer- we can see that we are deliberately misled at every point.  Here’s one example of what I’m talking about.  On the night that Ackroyd is murdered, Shepperd is the ONLY one with him.  He’s the last one to see him.  Naturally, that should make him the first and perhaps most important suspect.  Everyone knows that, but in our minds we dismiss the obvious…until we know than it jumps out on the page.  Let’s read the actual murder scene as we know it no in retrospect. 

 

Page 43 

 

So, from the first read, we think Shepperd walked out before Ackroyd read the letter.  Shepperd intends for us to read it exactly like that.  And of course- everything here is true- 

 

Well, there are only a few omissions literally accounting for only give minutes of narrative- he left out the small detail that he murdered Roger Ackroyd, ran down to the summerhouse, took Ralph Patton’s shoes out of a bag, slipped them on, walked through mud, left prints on the window ledge, climbed in the same window, changed back into his own shoes and raced down to the gate.   

 

 HA!!!  Well, it turns out a lot can happen in five minutes.  But it’s also not inaccurate to say, as he did say in summary- he left with nothing left undone- meaning he staged the murder exactly as he wanted- nothing undone.  

 

And yet, Christie gets everyone to just blow right pass that omission- which when I read the book the second time jumped out at me as being obvious.  

 

How does she make us dismiss him?   I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind that Shepperd should be a suspect.  There were things that were odd, but I ended up quickly dismissing anything that would make me even question him.  

 

Exactly, for one thing, we have been conditioned by Sherlock Holmes and Watson, and Christie plays with this.  We expect the sidekick to be naïve and overconfident- look at the rules of fairplay- of being of slightly lower intelligence than us.  Watson always is. Also, if you have read any other Poirot story, you would really be at a disadvantage because even Poirot has a sidekick- one he references in this book- Captain Hastings.  What Christie has done is make a parody of the old model.  She used our own experience of reading other detective novels against us.  She’s kind of mocking the model, is some sense.  

 

 

In other words, She’s toying with our prejudices and previously held assumptions- encouraging us to entertain our own unconscious biases- to use a term we would use for this default judgement nowadays.  We don’t even realize we’re doing it- it’s unconscious.   

 

I think so, we don’t even know we’re doing it, and yet we do- and she does this while clearly and making the most important clues the most obvious- with one exception- the dictophone.  There’s only one reference to that and it is a passing reference, and some people have said that’s not fair, but I think that’s just sour grapes- to use a reference to Aesop’s fables.   The other clues are very prominent.  Poirot is quick to point out that the arm chair is out of place.  This is a very important clue.  In fact, it’s obvious to the reader the Christie wants us to know it’s important, but we don’t know what to do with it. 

 

That’s how I felt about the telephone call. Poirot references it multiple times, and literally says if we could make sense of the phone call, we would solve the mystery.  We know the phone call is the most important thing, but that didn’t help me solve it.  I never did understand it until Poirot explained it. 

 

And Shepperd’s double-talk is really everywhere.  Look back at what Shepperd said about the last time he spoke with MRs. Ferrars before her suicide.  He said, “Her manner then had been normal enough considering-well-considering everything.”  We think he means considering the fact that she’d killed her husband, but what he actually means, considering everything- considering that she killed her husband AND that he was blackmailing her.   

 

Well, my favorite deception is the one where Dr. Shepperd hollers at Ackroyd, while knowing he’s dead.  He breaks down the door then states this to us the reader and let me quote him directly, “Ackroyd was sitting as I had left him in the armchair before the fire.  His head had fallen sideways, and clearly visible, just below the collar of his coat, was a shining piece of twisted metalwork.”  That IS EXACTLY how he left him, but we are left to assume he meant- except for the knife in his neck, but he doesn’t actually say that.  WE think it on our own. We construct the rest of the statement with our own unconscious biases.  Of course, the knife wasn’t in his neck, that would mean Dr. Shepperd killed him which of course he couldn’t have.  He’s the narrator, so we unconsciously add something to the narrative that is not there.  

 

 

It’s very clever wording.  Changing directlions just a little bit.  I want to talk about a trick that Poirot does over and over again  that I didn’t catch on to until Poirot’s revelation at the very end.  Poirot gives out quite a few  false stories.  We really shouldn’t believe eveyrthing he says at all.   Had I understood he did that, I might have had a fighting chance at following Poirot’s line of reasoning, although likely not.  Poirot is the one with a habit of fabricating stories, or little false lies, not Shepperd.    There was the fake experiment with Flora the one where he was trying to see if Flora had actually gone in the study, or if she had just gone in front of the study to get to the stairs that led to Ackroyd’s bedroom.  But that’s not the only one, and we’re at least told about that one.  And In that case,  Poirot regularly lets Shepperd into his confidence about his lying, which made me think Poirot trusted Shepperd.  He admitted to Shepperd the truth about the ring when that lie was told as well as the fake newspaper storyChristie misleads us to the assumption that Poirot implicitedly trusts Shepperd because he was telling Shepperd some things.  We assume he is telling Shepperd everything, if not explaining any line of reasoning. But he wasn’t, we find out later that Poirot had fabricated an entire family member.   

 

 

Another point that becomes clear in the all important chapter 23, that’s the chapter about little reunion, is that even Poirot agrees with Shepperd’s retelling of the investigation.  Poirot even compliments Shepperd for his faithful retelling of the investigation.   

 

It’s kind of an interesting section once you understand Poirot knows Shepperd is the murderer.  Poirot doesn’t let on anything.   Shepperd confesses to Poirot that he has been writing the account of the murder in book form and had 20 chapters already written.  Poirot asks to read it, referencing his old friend Hastings.  After he finishes reading Shepperd’s account- ironically while sitting in Shepperd’s own workshop where he built the contraption he was going to use in the murder, Shepperd asks Poirot what he thinks.   

 

Let’s read Poirot’s carefully chosen comments- knowing that we now know on the second read that Poirot knows he’s talking to the murderer. 

 

Page 255  

 

Such irony- Poirot is deceiving the deceiver. And when we get to the little reunion, it becomes obvious that Poirot had been concealing a LOT of things from Shepperd including the fact that he had hidden Ralph Patton the whole time while letting Shepperd frame him or at least appear guilty to everyone.  Another really ironic line from Dr. Shepperd is what he says to us the readers the moment Ralph Patton walks out.  It’s the first sentence of chapter 24, Shepperd sees Ralph coming in and he says, “It was a very uncomfortable minute for me.” 

 

I imagine it really was.  And yet, even at this point with that kind of comment in our faces, we still don’t suspect the doctor of being the murderer.  But we definitely should. Shepperd confesses that he secretly went to Ralph Patton, talked him into abandoning his wife and then stashed him in a hospital.  When Poirot brings out Patton, it’s uncomflrtable because Shepperd was the one that had hid Patton.  Poirot wasn’t supposed to know where he was at all.  When Patton walks out, what’s uncomfortable for Shepperd is realizing that Poirot has known for a long time where Patton was hidden, and if Poirot knew where he was hidden, he knew who was responsible for hiding him.  Awkward. 

 

True, but maybe Christie’s biggest deception as far as what she’s concealed from us the readers and that kept us from suspecting Shepperd is that we really didn’t see him as having a motive.  Why kill his friend?  And he and Ackroyd were clearly friends.  What made Dr. Shepperd commit this heartless crime?   

 

Part of the fun of reading a detective novel is understanding how someone committed a crime.  That is more fun than understanding they why of why they did it.  We know from real life that people kill for so endless reasons some of them terribly meaningless, we don’t need a lot by way of justification.  But in this case, Dr. Shepperd doesn’t seem the type to commit a random murder.  He didn’t have a clear personal issue with Ackroyd, either.  They don’t seem in love with the same woman, so we have to rule- crime of passion-  out.  It’s hard to imagine Shepperd would do it for the money either, although doctors weren’t necessarily rich in those days, they were employed and Shepperd expresses no real habits that would be high-dollar like gambling or traveling or anything like.  But maybe more importantly, doctors just normally seem committed to saving lives rather than ending them- and he’s seeing patients all the way to the end of the book. There’s no obvious motive really.   

 

Poirot answers this for us very subtextually in chapter.  He has come back from Cranchester, knows Shepperd is the murderer, and tells Caroline and Shepperd as well as us, the readers, why he did it- of course Caroline thinks he’s talking about Ralph Patton.   

 

 

Page 202 

 

 

Christie speaks about weakness several times and has Caroline call her brother weak several times.  It’s not necessarily evil, as we generally define evil, which I find very interesting- but of course is absolutely IS evil in this case because it leads to the taking of life.   

 

Yes, and from a historical perspective, this is where I find that knowing something about the author’s background changes my understanding of what she is saying.  We know Christie publishes this novel in 1926.  She was a nurse during WW1.  No one in Europe was untouched by evil.  Everyone was trying to understand it and confront it, but most were unsuccessul.    It is out of this kind of madness that we get great thinking and writing of a different kind, writers like Kafka, Sartre, Dostoyesky, Camus were all talking about the purpose of life, the cause of evil, the ability to keep from committing physical and/or mental suicide- of finding purpose in meaningless tragedy- that sort of thing.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald even Steinbeck on this side of the Atlantic were doing the same thing.  In fact, in our next book we’re going to get neck deep in Camus’ ideas of the absurd as expressed in the Stranger.   Knowing this was what people were dealing with and writing about makes it  safe to infer that Christie was not oblivious to the thoughts of the age and  certainly not above making her own commentary on the essence of evil.  

 

Evil, embedded in the heart of every man, is an ancient idea- not an original one.  It’s even a Biblical idea.   But she situates it in a claustrophobic, safe enclosed environment- not a chaotic warzone.   There are no outside forces forcing people into impossible moral compromises.  She illustrates something different.  There is weakness from within regardless of the environment- it is in a single, seemingly simple but brilliant country doctor, a man who is a community icon- the bastion of propriety and virtue in his world.   

 

Which of course, makes him invisible to everyone, even us the readers.  Are you suggesting Shepperd embodies her ironic social commentary?    She’s engaging her postwar countrymen while appearing to NOT engage them- it’s very Hercule Poirot-like. 

 

I kind of see it that way- I can only imagine what she saw in those patient beds during the war days.  If it is anything close to what Walt Whitman talked about it must have supported the idea of a deeply embedded weakness in every human being- good people showing up maybe even confessing to having committed horrible atrocities to themselves and others.   There were easy opportunities for exploitation too, beyond just the obvious war zones. 

 

Exactly the source of PTSD in a lot of people.   

 

Which brings us to the solution of our murder. So, at the very end, chapter 20, it finally occurs to Shepperd that Poirot may not be so easily fooled as he originally thought…and I quote, “it occurred to me that there was not much which escaped Hercule Poirot”.  Poirot invites all of the suspects over to his house for, as he called it “a little conference”.  This conference will even include the notorious Ralph Patton, although no one knows that until he reveals himself.  But of course, in typical detective book fashion, they all go to the meeting.   

 

Before we get there, though, I do pause for one more funny aside and bring up a comment Caroline makes about men,  

 

Oh dear. 

 

I know, right,  in chapter 22, Ursula is making a confessional to Caroline basically admitting that she had said some very nasty things to Ralph Patton that she regrets saying to which Caroline responds with this deep and insightful life lesson for us all, “Never worry about what you say to a man. They’re so conceited that they never believe you mean it if it’s unflattering.”  So, Garry, what do you think about that little comment…is it true? 

 

Well, all I have to say is that Caroline has been wrong about everything else.  I don’t know why you’d start taking life lessons from her now?  This is the same woman that is trying to fake being a vegetarian to a world-class detective.   

 

True, but funny.  Which us brings us back to chapter 23.  This is where Dr. Shepperd gives over to Poirot his narrative of the events of the murder investigation.  It’s also where Poirot collects all the suspects in a single room. 

 

Dr. Shepperd should have been worried when Caroline tries to maneuver an invitation to the activity and is rebuffed with this comment, “I should much like to have had you present, mademoiselle, but at this juncture it would not be wise. See, all these people tonight are suspects.  Amongst them, I shall find the person who killed Mr. Ackroyd.”   

 

 That should have tipped off not only Dr. Shepperd but the reader as well.  Why does Dr. Shepperd get to go, unless of course, he’s a suspect?  

 

It’s a fun chapter to read really.  Part of the fun of the detective story is reconstructing the thought processes that led to the discovery- we get to identify with the detective as well as the murderer.  In this chapter, we do both- and we get to identify creatively with all of the little crimes of all the secret- keepers, Ursula, Mrs. Russell, Flora.  He discloses everyone’s secrets one by one, and so far everyone is getting a happy ending.   

 

After everyone leaves, we are left alone with Dr. Shepperd and Poirot and hence we have our confrontation.  Dr. Shepperd reveals all the details of the murder, and we, as readers, are shocked and confused as to how we missed it up to that point.  Ironically, Shepperd’s book that he wrote with the idea of monetizing Poirot’s greatest failure as a detective, ironically has turned out to be something of a confession.   Let’s read the final interaction between Poirot and Dr. Shepperd. 

 

Page 282 

 

 The final chapter, the Apologia is positioned as if it were Dr. Shepperd’s suicide note- except Dr. Shepperd just told us that above all, he is no fool.  And this is where the story gets ambiguous- are we to believe that this guy committed suicide?  Poirot tells him to. He tells him to rewrite his book and confess to the murder- which I guess he does since that’s what we’re reading.  But does he?  The apologia in many ways is him boasting about how far along he actually got.  He doesn’t express remorse, and I quote, “I suppose I must have meant to murder him all along.”  He goes on to say, “I am rather pleased with myself as a writer.”  He literally quotes himself bragging about how he concealed the murder in the pages of the book we just read.    We now see in this very confessional that not only is he a flat out deceiver, but the object was not necessarily to deceive Poirot as it was to deceive the readers of this narrative.  So….does he do it again….are we deceived in thinking he’s killed himself and taken the Veronal…or does Dr. Shepperd get away? 

 

 

Ha!  Clearly Christie doesn’t live within the world of perpetual sequels or telenovelas or she just might have written, to be continued.   

 

Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed our discussion on one of the world’s favorite mystery writers and her stand out crime story- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  IT certainly has been fun for me.  And speaking of fun, please don’t overlook our merchandise- if you’re interesting in supporting the podcast or just need a fun happy for someone…we’ve got you covered..stickers, mugs, tshirts…all the things…they are there with our teaching materials on our website www.howtolovelitpodcast. Also, always feel free to connect with on social media- fb, insta, twitter, linked in- or simply via email. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agatha Christie - The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Episode 1 - Meet The Author That Made The Whodunit What It Is Today!

Agatha Christie - The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Episode 1 - Meet The Author That Made The Whodunit What It Is Today!

March 12, 2022

Agatha Christie - The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Episode 1 - Meet The Author That Made The Whodunit What It Is Today!

 

I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast.  For the next two episodes, we are going to discuss an author who for me flies under the radar when we think of literary icons.  When you look at the lists of the world’s greatest writers and/or novels, she’s never on then.  Yet, she has sold more books than any other novelist in the world- bar none.  Her books collectively in terms of sales rank only after The Holy Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, totally over 2.3 billion copies sold.  Those kinds of numbers we only talk about when we’re talking about Amazon, Google or the National Debt of entire countries.   

 

HA! So true. 

 

She is also the author of the single longest running play ever to play in London’s West End.  The name of that play, The Mousetrap,  opened in London's West End in 1952 and ran continuously until 16 March 2020, when all stage performances were discontinued due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Performances of The Mousetrap restarted on March 17, 2021, as soon as state restrictions were lifted.  In case, you haven’t figured out who we’re talking about yet, today we’re discussing the Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie. 

 

It really and truly is impressive how enormous of a body of work that Mrs. Christie has AND how influential her work has become.  For clarification, why do we say Dame Agatha Christie.  

 

Of course, Dame is the feminine equivalent of Sir, it’s a honorific title, in her case, she received an Order of Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1971 from Queen Elizabeth II. 

 Oh wow, that sounds very impressive however, at the same time, people, far less successful- non-recipients of Commander titles from Queen Elizabeth I might add, scoff at her and her work.  Many claim she’s not to be taken seriously, her work isn’t sophisticated, it’s clichéd, yada-yada-yada…They say this in spite of all the big numbers.  Garry, beyond the big 2.3 billion in sales, quantify for us in other ways what the data reveals about Dame Christie.  

 

Sure, first there’s the amount of works she produced.  She famously wrote 66 detective novels, 14 collections of short stories (that’s 150 short stories) as well as over 30 plays.  The most famous, we already mentioned, The Mousetrap.  But there are other numbers to consider, beyond just how much she produced.  Because of the long running status of The Mousetrap, her name has been in the newspapers of the West End every day without fail with the exception of 2020 since 1952 (btw, just in case you are doing the math on the performances, that number is over 25,000 of the Mousetrap- and that is just in London’s West End). .  

She tried to retire at the age of 75, but her books were selling so well, she said she’d give it five more years.  She actually wrote until one year before her death at age 86.   Less famously she wrote six semi-autobiographical, bitter-sweet novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.   Interestingly enough, it took 20 years for the world to uncover the identity of Mary Westmacott as being the detective icon Agatha Christie.   

 

That is a funny fact to me, I guess she thought it would ruin her reputation to write sappy books?.  I haven’t read them, but her daughter Rosalind Hicks had this to say about her mother’s romantic books. "They are not ‘love stories’ in the general sense of the term, and they certainly have no happy endings. They are, I believe, about love in some of its most powerful and destructive forms."  They were moderately successful in their own right , even without her name of the cover, and Christie was said to be proud of that accomplishment, but obviously romance wasn’t her forte.  

Beyond just the quantity of work she produced, the amount of it we’ve consumed as a planet is also incredible.  Today her books are translated in over 100 languages, 48 million, at least have watched her movies, including I might add the one that is out right now, Death on the Nile Here's a. numbers fun-fact, in 1948 she became. the first crime writer to have 100,000 copies of ten of her titles published by Penguin on the same day in what is called - A Penguin Million  

Oh wow- I guess that’s like going platinum of something in the music industry.  

I’d say that’s a platinum in a day- usually the term going platinum refers to selling a million over the course of a life time- a single day is crazy..  In terms of dollars, I tried to find a good figure, but I don’t really know.  At the time of her death, it’s estimated she was worth $600 million, but she had incorporated her work in a business, of course, which of course lives on chaired and managed by Agatha Christie's great grandson James Prichard. 

 

To me, it’s an amazing resume, and I’m not a literary person, so obviously I’m looking at this differently, but I don’t see how anyone could realistically contest that she’s a good writer.  It sounds laughable in the face of so much success- if that’s not good writing, how could we possibly measure it? 

HA!  It shows how much you know- you’d make a perfectly horrible literary snob.  Everyone who’s anyone knows, you can’t go by the views of the lowly general population aka, the box-office!!!   

Oh, well there is that.  But, just for those of us, who don’t know, in all seriousness how can you explain her success away? 

Well, no one is going to do that.  Obviously, but it does boil down to how you define your fiction.  In one sense, we can divide fiction into two broad categories- there’s literary fiction and commercial fiction.  Obviously, commercial fiction is written to be sold.  It’s the reason there are more Marvel movies than I can count on both my hands and toes.  They sell well and are enjoyable to consue.  It’s why there are multiple versions of basically the same Spiderman movie, or double-digit sequels to Star Wars.  Now, there is nothing wrong with any of that that- we love it.  Every bit of that is fun and defines the culture of the world in some sense.   But there is a sense, and this is the English teacher nerd, that some of us find those pieces unsatisfying over the long term- and not worth teaching as a work of art in school.  There are many books we just don’t care to read more than once.  There are many movies and songs we feel the same way about.  They are good but not considered of literary merit because there is no enduring quality to them.  On the flip side, there are other books that speak to man’s condition., that expresses universal truths, that reflect something about the world that resonates inside of us- which is why we can read, watch or listen to them over and over again and still love it.  I would suggest that The Scarlet Letter or Hamlet are examples of that.  When we read them agin, we find something else that perhaps we didn’t see before, of even if we did see it beflre, it satisfies something eternal inside of us to hear it once again.  The knock on Agatha Christie is that they say she’s full-on commercial fiction and there is just nothing universally true about what she has to say.  The critique is that her characters are flat and underdeveloped, even the main ones.   The main character in our book is Hercule Poirot but her other main reoccurring character is a woman named Miss Marple – both are sort of shallow, honestly, featureless except for maybe being kind of annoying.  Christie investigates crime, but she doesn’t really seem all that interested in any of the existential or moral questions surrounding crime-  like what social causes lead people to these actions.  She doesn’t explore any social, psychological or moral issues of any kind in any real obvious way?  

And do you agree with that? 

Well, honestly, a little.  You can’t deny that the characters are flat, and, it’s absolutely true, she doesn’t get into any deep discussions about the nature of man.  But having acknowledged that, I cannot discount the numbers, and so I feel compelled to think about it more deeply.  

Well, and just to add to the confusion, we’ve been poking fun at the hoi polloi here, but from what I read, Christie is popular primarily with higher educated audiences.  She is a preferred writer of the world’s academic elites.   

I know, and she has been since she started writing a far more accomplished litearary critic than myself was a ardent fan of Agatha Christie, the Nobel Prize winner, TS Eliot.  Eliot actually loved all crime fiction, especially Agatha Christie.  He even wrote about it from a critical standpoint.  For TS Eliot, good crime fiction had to follow five basic rules.  Let me read these to you: 

(1) The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises. 

(2) The character and motives of the criminal should be normal. In the ideal detective story we should feel that we have a sporting chance to solve the mystery ourselves; if the criminal is highly abnormal an irrational element is introduced which offends us. 

(3) The story must not rely either upon occult phenomena, or, what comes to the same thing, upon mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists. 

(4) Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance. 

(5) The detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him. 

 

I think I must agree with the Nobel- prize winner.  We do intuitively feel that way about a good crime novel.  So, taking Elliot’s list as the standard or rubric for crime novels, should that have different standards than other books or rather- No insight to life or theme necessary? 

Oh, I don’t know about that.  I think anything that lasts 100 years, as does the book we’re going to discuss- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,  it turns 100 in June of 2026, - anything people are reading for that long-  must be saying something.  So the mystery the mystery novel is what resonates with our souls in these works? 

HA!  A little irony.  

Yes, but before we get into the nitty, gritty about what makes this book great, oh and make no mistake, it IS considered great. The 2013  The Crime Writers Association claimed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to be the greatest crime novel of all times- so there you go for a shout out- I haven’t read enough crime novels to contest them.- but before we talk about this particular book- let’s talk about Christie’ life, for just a bit, and bring us up to speed on how this book came about.  She has a bit of a mystery embedded in her life story as well. 

Indeed- but I will say, one thing I do enjoy about the books is that, at least the ones I’ve read, are often set in this very English very Victorian setting.  There’s some fun in that. 

True, you can’t say that Christie didn’t write about what she knew.  She was born in Torquay in 1890..  Torquay is a seaside town on the Southeastern side of the UIK.  I saw one article that called it the. English Riviera.  It’s a resort town, and once even Elizabeth Barrett Browning was sent there to help recover her health.  Her family was an upper-middle class family,  In other words, they were financially well-enough but not limitlessly wealthy.  One interesting to note is that that family did not approve of her learning and didn’t want her to read until she was eight.  It seems the general attitude of the time is that smart girls had trouble finding reliable husbands that wanted them (I’m not going to speak to that thought). 

Oh dear, I would like to say that I find smart women immeasurably attractive.   

Well, thank you, darling.  In her case, there was no holding even little Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (that’s her maiden name), back.  Apparently, she just picked it up on her own, and eventually her nurse had to confess that Agatha had taught herself to read. 

HA!  Oh my, there’s a rebel.  Well, did they relinquish ahd let her go to school at that point. 

Well, it depends on what you mean by school.  When she turned 15, they sent her to Paris to attend finishing school.  I probably could have used that kind of support myself, honestly.  At Mrs. Dryden’s finishing school she studied singing and piano playing.  This is what Christie herself said about it years later, “I am hazy now as to how long I remained at Miss Dryden’s – a year, perhaps eighteen months, I do not think as long as two years.” 

 

So, not reading Voltaire or Flaubert.  

Well, maybe she did, but not because she was forced to.  But, reading was not her only rebellious streak.  In 1914, Agatha met, fell in love with and became engaged  on Christmas Eve to the man of her dreams,  A very handsome war pilot named Archie Christie.  Unfortunately, this was not the match her mother had in mind for her.   

What was wrong with him? 

Well, not his looks or personality,  He seemed to have that covered.  His problem was that He had no money.  But they married and a few months later Rosalind, her only daughter was born.  During WW1 Archie went off to war.  Agatha stayed home, trained and worked as a nurse at the local Red Cross hospital in Torquay- and let me add here, this is where she got her start learning so much about drugs- something she became very knowledgeable of and used successfully during her entire career.  In 56 of her novels there are over 200 references to specific, individual drugs.   

So, can we expect that a large number of her characters will get poisoned? 

No, not necessarily,although that IS a thing.  The most commonly dispensed drugs by Mrs. Christie were sedatives.  As you might expect, if someone is always being murdered, you may need to have a supply on hand to calm down or even put to sleep your cast of suspects.  But there are pain relievers, stimulants, blood pressure medicines, barbituates and even antidotes to other poisons.  

 

 Of course, our book, The Murder of Roger Ackrod has three drugs: liniment for a knee problem, tonic as a stimulant and of course, veronal which is the cause of a lethal overdose early in the story.   

Yes, so after the war,  In 1920, after six rejections, her first real novel finally got published for $25 (pounds),- not a big risk on the part of the publisher. The title of that book was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and it introduced the world to a 5’4 Belgian refugee who would charm and annoy readers for over 100 years, Hercule Poirot.  It did well, but her breakthrough novel would be her third novel.  It came out in the summer of 1926.  It became a best seller and launched her into a stardom from which she would never return, which is remarkable, but honestly, it’s not the most interesting to happen to her that year.  

I’m not sure how you top becoming a best seller. 

I know, right, but it can be bested!  So, the story goes that the year 1926, in general, starts out a little rough.  Agatha’s mother, who was very dependent on her daughter, died in April- and this was devastating for Agatha.  But, while she was at her mother’s estate with their seven year old daughter, Rosalind, Archie revealed that he had fallen in love with another woman by the name of Nancy Neele, and he wanted a divorce.  Agatha said no.  She was deeply in love with him, and she wasn’t willing to give him up.  Well on December 3 of that same year, Archie informed Agatha that he did not want to be married to her and he wasn’t going to be married to her.  To somewhat reinforce this idea, he told her he was going off for the weekend with Ms. Neele.- which he did.  Apparently, Agatha did not receive this news well..and this is where the mystery begins…..and it does sound quite a bit like a story she would write.  So at 9:45pm, we know that Agatha left the house in her car after having written three letters- one to her secretary Charlotte Fisher, one to Archie and one to Archie’s brother Campbell.  

So far, I feel like I listening to an explanation by Piorot.   

Exactly, and here is where it gets very strange.  Agatha does not return home.  In fact, she will be missing for 11 days.  The next day they find her car crashed in a tree above a local quarry with the head lights still on.  Her fur coat was in the car as well as  a small suitcase and an expired driver’s license.  There was no blood anywhere in the car.   There were no skid marks on the road like you might have expected if she had been driving too fast and there had been an accident.  Finally the gearshift was in neutral, the way it would be if you had been pushing the car and not driving it.   It makes no sense, but Agatha was gone.    Well, the world went nuts.  Numbers very but possibly up to a 1000 police officers were dispatched on four countinents looking for her.  15,000 volunteers, fans, amateur detectives and so forth, joined the hunt. They used airplanes and diving equipment.  Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle joined in- remember that’s Sherlock Holmes.  He took Christie’s glove to his medium for a consultation to see if she could find her. 

 

I’m guessing no. 

No.  She wasn’t in the afterlife. Everyone around the world was looking for this mystery writer.  When Archie got back from his weekend activity- which quite likely was an engagement party a friend threw for him and Nancy, he found a very different world- than just the unpleasantness of fighting again with Agatha; , now he was a potential murder suspect.  He also found his letter, which curiously he and burned immediately- to this day,  no one has any idea what she wrote in that letter.  His brother, Campbell, got his later, and strangely again, his letter was postmarked on Saturday AFTER Agatha went missing, 

This does sound like Hercule Poirot and I’m starting to need to employ my little gray cells just to keep up.   

Exactly, what secret did Campbell carry that also caused him to dispose of his letter as well.  Everything seemed to indicate that Archie had murdered her.  The police dragged the ponds, searched everywhere, it was in every newspaper on earth… until on December 14th, two musicians report seeing Mrs. Christie at a luxury spa called the Harrogate Hydro.  She had checked into the hotel days before under the name, get this- Mrs. Theresa Neele (Archie’s girlfriend’s last name). 

This honestly sounds exactly like something she would right.  Was she play-acting?. 

We will never know, this mystery, I’m sorry to say, is unsolved.  Christie had told the people at the spa that she had arrived from South Africa. She played pool, she danced, she read mystery novels in the hotel library.  She seemed undisturbed.  And here’s an even stranger turn of events, Archie covered for his wife afer she was busted.  She was immediately accused of abusing an entire country’s police resources over a publicity stunt, but Archie helped dispel this criticism.   He called in two doctors, they interview Agatha, and arrived at the conclusion that Agatha Christie suffered an episode of temporary amnesia.  She stress of her mother’s death, the success of new book and the divorce from her husband led to a nervous breakdown.  The only thing she ever admitted to was havin been in a car crash, but even that is suspect since although she said she bruised her head, no one ever saw any bruises. 

Well, after the bitterness of paying all those police overtime, can we say, all’s well that ends well.? 

For Agatha, yes, but not Archie.  The scandal sold gobs of books, and basically cemented her celebrity, but it also portrayed Archie as a terrible person.  How terrible for a man to do such a thing to his wife and cause the Queen of Crime to have a nervous breakdown.  He got to be the world’s biggest schmuck.  Nancy Neele’s family were so embarrassed they sent her on an around the world trip for ten months trying to get her away from Archie.  It didn’t work though.  Archie and Nancy did get married two years later.  But so did, Agatha.  And her second marriage was to a man who adored her.  They were amazingly compatible and had a wonderful marriage.  He was an archeologist, and they spent time all over the world- hence the setting of several of her books including Murder on the Orient Express.   

So, do you buy Agatha had amnesia. 

Personally, not at all.  I think she got angry, ran off and then things got crazy.  I did read that she was shocked at how the story blew up.  She never imagined that that many police would come looking for her. Do you think it was legit? 

It does seem a little far-fetched.  And to be the world’s most famous detective novelist- I’d say, there’s room to doubt.  But I’m keeping an open-mind- isn’t that what Hercule Poirot would tell us to do.  The question I have is what were in those letters she left Archie and Campbell. 

We need Hercule Poirot, as he would remind us, nothing is ever concealed to him..  He would have gotten to the bottom of it..   

Oh, no doubt- so are we ready to meet Hercule Poirot and open the Murder of Roger Ackroyd?.  

I think so, so let me make an important disclaimer- we are NOT going to spoil the book this episode by telling you who the murderer is, but we will next episode.  So, if you are starting the book now and are listening to this in real time, you have one week…. But you do have a week.  This week we are going to look at the book from the perspective of understanding how Christie was adhering very cleverly to the conventions of what we call a “formal detective. Novel” - otherwise known as the “whodunit”.  Edgar Alan Poe is credited of creating the detective story,  but of course most of us think of Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his side-kick Watson as being kind of the iconic example of what this looks like. Agatha Christie basically follows their pattern but takes it from the short story to the longer novel form.  As we might expert per the conventions of the trade, we are going to open up our story in an English country house- think of every clue like movie you have ever seen.   But in this case, there has already been a murder, but not the one from the title.  Let’s read the opening couple of paragraphs. 

Page 1 

We also meet the narrator who is going to walk us through the story, Dr. James Shepperd and his meddling sister Caroline (Caroline, by the way is going to by the prototype for Mrs. Marple, Christie’s other detective.). But since the opening murder isn’t the murder from the title of the book, so we know this isn’t the right murder. 

I want to say that another characteristic of these formal detective stories is that we don’t have emotional connections to any of the characters of the story.  We are not made to feel upset in the least that there has been a murder.  At no point in the story at all are we to feel sad about anything- not when victims die,or get falsely accused or anything.  We don’t feel angry either, in fact, there are no negative emotions at all.  We aren’t even led to find the perpetrator necessarily an evil person.   

You know, I think that may be one of the appeals.  We feel enough anger, guilt or sadness in real life. These books may be relaxing  BECAUSE we don’t have to be emotionally stressed out about anything.  We can just enjoy the process of the puzzle..  We know the murder will get solved, and all will be set aright in the world.  So, it’s just a matter of watching everything unfold. 

True, and although there is fun in trying to guess who did it and following the clues, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t figure out who the murderer was, and I basically never do when I read these thing. I barely even try.  And I don’t think most people do either, or even care to try.   

I know, kind of like when someone tells you a riddle, you’re likely to give it about 30 seconds, then you want them to tell you what the riddle is. 

Exactly.   

Funny, by chapter 2, we meet the man who will be murdered, Roger Ackroyd. King’s Abbot, which is the name of this village, apparently has several very wealthy people- one of which is already dead, Mrs. Ferrars; the other is getting ready to die, Roger Ackroyd- and the crime scene will be Mr. Ackroyd’s house, Fernly Park, of course.  For me, one of the hardest parts of this book is keeping straight in. my mind all of the characters that will necessarily become the suspects. 

That IS the hard part, but that’s one of the most important elements of the entire game.  We have to know who each of these suspects will be, so we can focus not only on whether they have opportunity and means, but if they also have motive.   

And we meet the cast of suspects here at the beginning.  There’s Mrs. Russell, the housekeeper.  There’s the two female relatives, a sister-in-law and her beautiful daughter, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd and Flora.  We don’t meet but we find out about Ralph Paton, Mr. Ackroyd’s adopted son who seems to have a reputation for being irresponsible with money and women but who will be the heir to the fortune.  When our narrator, Dr. Shepperd, meets Roger Ackroyd on the road, Ackroyd is extremely upset.   

Let’s read that encounter. 

Page 11 

And that is an example of Christie’s writing style that I find so charming.  The narrator takes us into his confidences and these little aside comments to us, as readers, are charming and endearing.  We find ourselves as we read the story trusting Dr. Shepperd’s understanding of the murder, for one reason precisely because he takes us into his confidence  

True, although I will say, another reason we trust him is because the detective Hercule Poirot takes him so often into his confidence.  Dr. Shepperd goes everywhere and helps with the investigation from start to finish.  He’s kind of like Watson to Sherlock Holmes.   

True, and we see that this cast of characters looks remarkably like a lot of them from this Golden Age and in fact, they are the stock characters from many a Clue game.  We will have the damsel in distress, (who we have already met with Flora).  We’ll have the house staff who are always keeping secrets thus making them suspicious. Besides Miss Russell, who we’ve met there’s also Geofrey Raymond, who is Roger Ackroyd’s secretary, Ursula Bourne who is a house maid, and John Parker, the Butler. 

Of course- the Butler in the library with the Candle-sticks.  HA!! To which we say, is that your guess.  For those of you who don’t know, that’s how you play the game of Clue. 

So true.  And so when we get to chapter five and Dr. Shepperd gets the call to come over to the house go inspect the body because there has been a murder, we already have all of suspects lined up and ready to go. 

Well, and although this next feature isn’t in a game of Clue, We can’t overlook the buffoon policemen who will be foils to our eccentric but brilliant detective.  Inspector Davis who comes over initially and then later on Inspector Raglan our of members of the law enforcement community..   

Oh, and let’s not fail to mention the silent almost brooding Major Hector Blunt- our visiting military man, who although never is a suspect in this particular murder, has an important role in the story, none the less, because he’s secretly in love with Flora, and this would not be a classic detective story without a romantic interest somewhere. 

You know, it’s almost like we’re not reading a drama at all.  In some ways these books feel like sit-coms.   

That is it exactly.  And I want to make this point, a formal detective novel of this tradition, is not a tragedy at all, but in fact, meets the criteria of what we would call a comedy.  If you remember from our series on Romeo and Juliet, we talked about the difference between a comedy and a tragedy. A comedy ends in marriage and a tragedy in death.  From a literary stand point, an Agatha Christie novel, and those that are modeled after hers, are popular precisely because they are comedies of manners cloaked as tragedies (it’s a trick).  The characters serve comedic purposes- not thematic ones.  That’s why it’s okay that they are pretty much the same stock characters in every story.  The story would be totally different and if fact would be a completely different genre, if we did not have every assurance, life would end well.  Let me explain what I mean,  Recently, Lizzy and I watched together the Netflix movie, The Woman in the. Window.  Lizzy had just finished reading the book  by AJ Finn and had really liked it.  It’s also a murder mystery, but totally different in purpose and genre.  In The Woman in the Window,, the characters are serious, They struggle with anxiety and depression.  The characters themselves are meant to be deeply analyzed- that’s the entire point of it.  Finn is commenting on issues regarding mental health.  That is not Christie’s purpose at all.   It would take away from the fun really if she went that direction.  In comedies, only the unlikeable characters ever really suffer anything terrible.  And Roger Ackroyd,, although we don’t get to know him very well, is not a likeable person.  He’s selfish, stingy and is forcing his son Ralph and Flora to get married against their wills (in fact, we find out towards the end, that Ralph is actually already secretly married to the parlormaid) and this makes Ackroyd lose his mind.  In chapter six, Dr. Shepperd describes Ackroyd of having a “choleric temper”- and although it’s never good to murder people because they are disagreeable, it’s worth pointing out that Christie doesn’t go to any trouble to make Ackroyd likeable in any way.  The point being, we don’t really care that Ackroyd’s been murdered really.  There’s nothing tragic about it.   

And so the fun of every chapter is following Hercule Poirot around, interviewing all the witnesses and seeing if we can figure out before he does who the murderer is.  Who has the most compelling reason to do it, and it will turn out that almost everyone stands to gain something from his death. 

Exactly, except we don’t figure it out- and if Christie’s success is any indication I don’t think almost anyone in the last 100 years figured it out before Poirot.  During my second reading of the book, the one where I read it after already knowing who killed Roger Ackrod, I realized that Poirot had the murder solved well before- well, at least before chapter 17.   

I want to revisit that, but before we do, let’s flesh out a little our heroic detective.  This isn’t the first book where she introduces Poirot, but I was surprised to see that he was retired.  I didn’t expect that precisely because I knew she wrote 66 novels, and I had heard of this funny little man, as he is described.   

And he IS a funny little man- obnoxious and ridiculous.  And the way Christie introduces him is funny too.  Hercule moves into the house next door to Dr. Shepperd and his sister Caroline live.  They are both unmarried.  James is a doctor, and Caroline’s main occupation is local purveyor of gossip- something she seems to conduct through a very sophisticated network of servants and friends.  Dr. Shepperd acts annoyed by it, but he also seems very impressed with her mad-dog skills.  Before we meet Poirot, we are led to believe by Dr. Shepperd that the mysterious neighbor next door must a hairdresser as evidenced by his perfectly groomed mustache.   

That mustache is what he is most famous for- that and his egg-shaped head- whatever that is.  According to Christie, he was inspired by a Belgian refugee she saw coming off of a bus after the first World War.  Of course, all of the inspiration was external, and she never met the gentleman personally, but she took that inspiration and created a short man, with a distinguished mustache, a solid head of black hair and an egg-shaped head.  She wanted him to have as she called it a “grandiloquent name”- hence Hercule and she wanted him to be very orderly, brilliant but vain.  After a while, she says she came to be resentful that she was stuck with him since she didn’t like him very much. 

Well, and funny enough, at one point in her career, she killed him off, but her publishers didn’t let her publish that book. 

What, she killed Hercule? Did it ever get published? 

Oh, it eventually did, of course, we’ll save that story for next week.   

Oh okay, something to look forward to, but back to our book, if you are a Christie fan, you’ll know immediately that the mysterious hairdresser is none other than our sleuth.  If this is your first Christie book, you may not but it doesn’t matter.  By chapter 8, he’s in the mix having been hired by Flora to figure out who killed her uncle.  

By chapter 6, we’ve also introduced a rogue stranger with a mysterious accent, who we know from years of experience with other detective novels and movies, cannot possibly be the murderer- he’s too much of a ruffian.  We all know that our criminal, although technically a criminal by virtue of having murdered someonw, will have no actual noticeable criminal behaviors.  In fact, he likely will have impeccable manners, just like everyone else in the story.We won’t experience any bloody murder scenes; there will no harsh language, the investigation will be polite and the world “unpleasantness” will be the euphemism of choice to describe anything from the dagger in the neck to the awkward questioning  

Well, speaking of the daggar to the neck, I’m assuming that a spectacular weapon of choice is also a characteristic of the formal detective story. 

OH, it absolutely is. 

And ours, does not disappoint- we have a Tunisian one of a kind dagger.  Let’s read about it.  

Page 64-65 

And of course, the details are the glorious part.  In fact, that’s one reason I never even attempt to solve these murders.  It tires me out to weed through all of the details.  There is a diagram of the study, the specifics of when Dr. Shepperd left, when he was called back, when Flora last heard from her uncle, where everyone was at exactly the time of the murder, the phone call, the foot print, the in and out of the garden house over and over again- all of it laid out before us with consummate British precision.  The pieces of the puzzle are completely spread on the table ready to be ordered again.  The universe that Christie creates, some have called claustrophobic because it’s small and contained, but that’s what’s great about it.  It’s knowable, ordered, and most importantly benevolent.  These people are good- likely even the murderer.  Of course, they are trying to get away with little lies and deceptions because Victorian society is very demanding, but even the murderer is not going to want to leave willingly.  He or she will only leave as a final resort.  This world is rational and sensible and one where even we as readers find comfort.   

Well, from a historical perspective, I find that extremely important.  If you recall, England or rather Europe in general was nothing ljke what you described.  It was not predictable or benevolent.  People were being exiled; wars were raging, governments were in upheaval; poverty was rampant- what a wonderful escape and promise of possibility- a well ordered upper class environment where the rules apply and if you break them- you get exiled.  I would say the rigid formality came across as comforting and peaceful- not boring and predictable.   

I guess you’re right.  The book is really best read twice, if you want my opinion.  At least it was for me.    It’s a very carefully crafted puzzle, so when you read it the first time, you can enjoy it as a it’s a straightforward whodunnit- but when you read it the second time knowing who the murderer is, it’s even more interesting to watch how she deceived you.  Nothing is every hidden, but her duplicitous way of writing deceives us from start to finish, and it’s delightful to watch her do it.   

So, Christy, getting us back to the difference between commercial fiction versus literary fiction, you said you think there is a theme in her work?  Without giving away the murderer can we speak to it this episode? 

Yeah, I think we can- there are several, but one I think does speak to this idea of finding value in a well-ordered world.   One of the most memorable scenes in the entire book is chapter 16.  When I read it the first time, I had no idea why it was included.  For most of the book, we’re following Poirot around, looking at clues, interrogating witnesses, but chapter 16 is different. Also, it’s pretty much the center physically of the book.  Sheppard and his sister Caroline and spend an evening playing Mah jong with local friends (a retired Army officer, Colonel Carter and a Mrs. Gannett)- neither of which have anything to do with anything, at least as far as I can tell.  They enjoy coffee, cake, sandwiches and tea and then sit down to play. The main purpose of the evening really is to collect gossip, but sitting around and doing that would be vulgar.  And no one in King’s Abbot is vulgar, so an exotic game from the Far East is a wonderful excuse.  As they go through the hand, we realize in some ways playing this game is a lot like living life.  They talk about how each person expresses something about themselves by how they play.  They can express weakness or strength, an ability to perceive, an ability to make decisions.  Sometimes the hand you are giving is a wreck; sometimes you get a winning hand effortlessly.  At one point, Caroline very astutely yet unconsciously comments that Miss Gannett isn’t playing like she thinks she should.   “   Garry, do you know how to play mah jong? 

NO, I really don’t.  It looks fascinating and of course I’ve seen it featured in several movies, just from looking at the external features it appears to be a little bit like rummy except with tiles. 

I don’t know either.  But at this point in the game, Caroline points out that Miss Gannett’s hand wasn’t worth going mah Jong over.  Miss. Gannett responds to Caroline’s criticism by saying, “Yes, dear, I know what you mean, but it rather depends on what kind of hand you have to start with, doesn’t it? Caroline replies, “You’ll never get the big hands if you don’t go for them.”  To which Miss Gannet replies, “Well, we must all play our own way, mustn’t we? After all, I’m up so far.”  

This goes on and on for an entire chapter- the women gossiping, attention going in and out.  Let’s read the part where the finally get to the end of the game and someone wins.  

The situation became more strained. It was annoyance at Miss Gannett’s going Mah Jong for the third time running which prompted Caroline to say to me as we built a fresh wall: ‘You are too tiresome, James. You sit there like a deadhead, and say nothing at all!’ ‘But, my dear,’ I protested, ‘I have really nothing to say that is, of the kind you mean.’ ‘Nonsense,’ said Caroline, as she sorted her hand. ‘You must know something interesting.’ I did not answer for a moment. I was overwhelmed and intoxicated. I had read of there being such a thing as The Perfect Winning – going Mah Jong on one’s original hand. I had never hoped to hold the hand myself. With suppressed triumph I laid my hand face upwards on the table. ‘As they say in the Shanghai Club,’ I remarked – Tin-ho – the Perfect Winning!’ The colonel’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. 

And so there you have it, Dr. Shepperd has been tight-lipped the entire book which for us as his partners sometimes can get frustrating.  He always knows more than he says, but he’s a medical man and feels compelled to keep people’s confidences until this night.  Right after his big win, he is so exhilarated, he blurts out to everyone everything Poirot had told him the previous day about the ring- a specific ring Poirot had kept entirely out of the sight but had revealed only to Dr. Sheppherd now Dr. Shepperd is getting the world’s biggest gossips and the news will for sure spread all over town.   

 

And so, where’s the theme?  I don’t see it.   

Well, I’m not English, so I’m going to make a disclaimer that this could be a very American interpretation, but it seems to me that Christie is making a commentary on how society functions best- Mah Jong is a communal game with strict rules- but it is indeed about community- very much like the society she has built for us her readers.  Although Shepperd claims all they do in King’s Abbot is gossip, we see through every chapter that that is not true.  There is a very active local pub that everyone goes to.  They garden; they visit.  They have true community.  And yet there are indeed winners and losers, Miss Gannett isn’t good at mah jong because she’s too independent or impulsive. Shepperd has a bit of good luck, but he also lets  it get to his head and blurts things out at the end that he probably shouldn’t have.  At least he regrets it at the beginning of the next chapter.   I don’t know, I just think she may be advocating to the rest of us who may find rules stifling, the traditional ways boring, or the conventions cumbersome, that there just might be something of value in the vintage- something comforting and enjoyable in a well-ordered and fair universe.  

But like I said, that’s just one thought.  And it is most definitely arguable.  

Okay- thanks for listening…

Abraham Lincoln - The Gettysburg Address - The Great Task Remaining Before Us.

Abraham Lincoln - The Gettysburg Address - The Great Task Remaining Before Us.

March 5, 2022

Abraham Lincoln - The Gettysburg Address - The Great Task Remaining Before Us.

 

Hi, I’m Christy Shriver, and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us. 

 

I am Garry Shriver, and this is the How to. Love Lit Podcast.  This episode we will focus on one more American document very much connected to the Letter from Birmingham jail, but in a very special way.  This document is memorized every year by students all across the United States. It’s a two minute, ten sentence speech of only 272 words.  In fact, it wasn’t called a speech at all, but instead it a “few appropriate remarks” given at the conclusion of a  full day of ceremony dedicating America’s first national cemetery.  Today it is called the Gettysburg Address given by the 16th American president, President Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln, very unusually accepted the invitation extended to him by a young lawyer by the name of David Wills who had been tasked with organizing the event.  One unusual thing was that on the day of the speech, although he diidn’t know it yet, he had an early stage of small pox and was sick. His speech wasn’t even the highlight of the event.  That honor would go to former governor and renowned orator Edward Everett.  It was received by the press with typical reviews- the democratic press denounced it, the republican papers praised it- as Lincoln was a Republican, that was to be expected.  However, today the Gettysburg Addressed is engraved inside the Lincoln Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial has become the most visited location in the United States Nation’s capital.  Over 7 million people from around the world are expected to visit it next year.  It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and everyone who visits it will read the words spoken on that day.   

 

The question we want consider today is why?  Is it because it’s such a brilliant example of sophisticated parallelism- it is that, btw- containing ten sentences of complex structure organizing and juxtaposing complicated idea after idea- in simplified single syllable prose that was both easy to listen to and highly understandable.   

 

Christy, as interesting as that is for an English teacher, I’m sure that’s not that reason.   

 

True- a second idea I’ve heard thrown away is that it’s famous just because it is short and we like Lincoln.  It was easily printed that day, and newspapers carried it in its entirety around the world.  It’s something easy to make kids memorize in school, and we’ve just gotten used to memorizing it.   

 

Well, of course that’s true too, and in that case, and by that logic, it elevatates this speech to the level of Shakespeare.  Many of us were forced to learn, “But soft what light through yonder window breaks” from Romeo or Juliet or the the lines I’ve seen you force on students from Julius Caesar, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ear”.  But, of course, as a historian, I just don’t think the literary reasons are enough to account for its enduring and even transcendental appeal.   

 

Okay, well, we could look at the history.  Of course, there are historical reasons that it’s famous.  The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest engagement in the entire Civil War.  The statistics speak for themselves, after only three days of fighting, over 170,000 casualities- of those 53,000 soldiers lay dead on the ground.  It’s unimaginable the level of death.   

And, I guess, even I must adeit,  that’s more compelling than parallelism.  But of course, that really is only interesting to those of us who are American.  Those are signicant to the history of this country, and of course that matters, but we would like to suggest that the reasons for reading and thinking about the Gettysburg Addres are much more transcendental.- This document, although an American one is belongs not only to the American continent.  The words are universal and it is because of their universality are worthy of our attention and analysis.  The Gettysburg address, although over 150 years old, resonates with practicality even in regard to today’s political and philosophical discourse.  So Garry, before we address the transcendent qualities of these two paragraphs, let’s begin by putting the Gettysburg address in its original historical context.  

 

For sure, and, of course, I agree completely that it is very much transcendental in its appeal- and I want to to suggest that from the moment it was uttered, the audience knew immediately that it was important and perhaps even immortal.  There are many myths surrounding the origins of this address.  There’s one that says he composed it on the train on a napkin; another that he wrote it on an envelope- both totally untrue.  Lincoln likely started writing it not long after the battle ended in July.  There’s also stories that no one cared about it at the time or recognized its greatness.  That’s also not true.  On November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered these words, he got up to speak, and began to read his two minute speech very slowly.  However, he was interrupted five times by spontaneous applause. (by most accounts, the number of interruptions is still in dispute), but regardless- he’s literally being stopped as people considered each idea.  

 

Well, if that’s the case, I don’t understand why anyone would suggest, he wasn’t good or well-received.   

 

The first reason is because it’s generally believed that when Lincoln finished speaking, in typical Lincoln fashion,  he turned to Marshal Lamon, a US marshal there, and said,: "Lamon, that speech won't scour! It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed."    

 

That sounds brutal 

 

Well, it does but if you study Lincoln, you quickly see that self-depricating comments like that are normal for him.  He was always underselling his rhetoric, even though he was extremely skilled at it, to the point that he had famously took down the more educated more renowned Stephen Douglass in their famous debates ..  So, you can’t go by Lincoln.  Instead of going by Lincoln’s off handed remark, a better judge would be the opinion of the key note speaker of the event, Edward Everett- the man man universally considered the undisputed greatest orator of his generation.  Everett had been center stage for the entire day and had been given two hours to speak., but his opinion of Lincoln’s appropriate remarks could be summarized by a comment Everett himself made to Lincoln a bit later, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."- and yes- Everett’s speech was all of two hours.   

 

 

Wow. Clearly, Lincoln made an impression on his immediate audience.  So, let’s remember who that audience was,- obviously there were politicians, dignitaries and journalists- this was the first time in the United States that the federal government had built a cemetery, so that was a big deal.  But beyond the VIP guests, there were thousands of Union soldiers, relatives of soldiers, and regular people who lived in the town of Gettysburg- which was actually a bustling county seat, even if only 2000 residents today seems small.  There were people there whose friends and family members were literally buried in the dirt before them. Of the 15,000 people in attendance that day, none would escape the personal pain of loss represented by that cemetery.  For many of us today, it’s strange to think of 15,000 people coming out to a cemetery dedication, even an important one, even one where the president would be at.  In fact, the American Civil War itself is difficult to understand.  Of course, we know it was about slavery, we also know that most of it was fought in the South, but realistically, and almost all of the casualities were white men.  This is not an uprising of people liberating themselves at all- it's not a revolution or a rebellion.   

 

No, there had been a few slave rebellions, notably Nat Turner, but he’d had no weapons. More recently and more realistically and more frightening to the South was the one John Brown almost pulled one off at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.   

 

But those events were before and  not part of Civil War  It was the South that succeeded, not the North.  Lincoln was in favor of preserving the Union, not splitting it up, and although he was against slavery,  he was willing, at least in the beginning to be satisfied by just keeping it from expanding.  

 

 True, he was also in favor of compensated emancipation.  His idea was to emancipate the slaves by buying them from slave owners for $400 a person- but this was something the Southern States rejected.  

 

 Well and because Gettysburg isn’t even in the South; you’d image that slavery would feel far away.- the way slave labor feels today.  We don’t actually see it, so we tend to dismiss it.  There were no slaves in Gettysburg.  And finally, a  fact, I learned when moving to the the South but interesting to understand, even to this day many in the South don’t claim that the Civil War was a war over slavery. 

 

True- there is a lot to be confused about the Civil War in general and the Battle of Gettysburg particularly.  Let’s go with the easy stuff than get to the most complicated.  First of all- location- Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania, if you look on a map is between Maryland to the South and New York to the North.  It’s 82 north of Washington DC.   BTW, just for a reference Washington DC, which of course is the capital of the North is basically halfway between Gettysburg and Richmond, the capital of the South is in Virginia- Gettyburg is a little under a two hour drive to DC and Richmond a little over two hours- depending on the traffic, of course.    

 

So if DC is halfway between Richmond and Gettysburg, it seems kind of out of the way for the. South to be invading it.   

 

Well, that’s true too, but let’s go back to  the issue of why they were fighting to begin with.  For a Long time, on both sides of the Atlantic that was up for debate.  

 

On December 20, 1860, a special convention in South Carolina unanimously voted to succeed. Now remember, the Gettysburg address isn’t until 1863, but even after 1863, the US will fight for two more years.  Not long after that, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana left and eventually a total of 11 Southern states seceded from the United States.   

 

If you had asked any Southern farm boy fighting on the ground why he was fighting, he would have likely told you he was fighting for “States Rights”- and of course that was true.    Most of the young men fighting in the field were not Slave holders, nor would ever be.  But the aristocratic Southern leaders who did own slaves and who controlled all of the money, the media, and the assets wanted the right  to control their way of life.  They preached that democracy itself- was under siege because of the election of the radical Republican anti-slavery Mid-western uneducated redneck lawyer Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln’s election marked the first time that a president had been elected without the vote of a single Southern State, and it was foreseeable that the South would never again be represented as they had been in the past- after all there were more states now and that trend was growing.   

 

So, Lincoln was the threat to slavery.   

 

Yes- but it went beyond that really, if you can believe that.  We can’t just look at the Civil War from an American perspective- the entire world was watching- and monarchies across the ocean were watching nervously.  And this is where our arrogance of the presence really has a difficult time conceptualizing a world 150 years.  In 1860, there weren’t democracies around world, and in fact, the whole idea  of democracy seemed ridiculous for most of the world.  It is true that African-Americans could not vote in America, nor could women, but most American men were given a voice as to their future- and America was the only place this had happened up to this point.  Otto von Bismarck who led the great nation of Germany during their reunification days and beyond voiced the general opinion of many leaders on the continent when he said that in his early life his tendencies were all toward republicanism, but he had discovered when you have governed men for several years , that a liberal will be transformed from a Republican to a monarchist.”  He, along with most on planet earth on that time, believed you could not build a great nation or build prosperity without authority.  Leaders had to be authoritarian to be successful- and many great leaders who had built great kingdoms around the world over the course of human history- had proven that to be true.  The generally accepted idea, of the inhabitants on our planet,  to quote Orwell is that some people really are are more equal than others, and those who are the most equal are entitled to commensurate wealth and power.  The reason I reference Bismarck and European history is that the European experience of the 1840s seemed to confirm this.  Democratic uprising after uprising faltered. - Of course, most of us are familiar with the French Revolution which sadly descended into chaos and then tyranny with Napoleon.  That’s a predominant example, but it’s not the only one.  Spain and Russia had both had democratic uprisings come and fail.  The Revolutions of 1848 had seen Republican uprisings all over the continent, but they all failed.  Monarchs held the authority- monarchs knew what was best.  Regular people were not smart enough, not informed enough, nor disciplined enough to rule themselves.  Average people needed to be told what to do and what to think- and most importantly they needed to stay in their place.  And so…The European monarchs were filled with schadenfreude to watch the red-neck, ill mannered, uncouth average under-educated Americans blow up their entire democratic experiment with war not even 100 years after Thomas Jefferson arrogantly pronounced to the European aristocracy the new idea that all men were created equal and they were going to build a country on that principle.  The Spanish ambassador wrote back to Queen Isabella, “The Union is in agony and Our mission is not to delay its death.” 

 

 

And the very idea that President Lincoln, would risk the entire experiment  under the banner of equality and the equality of African-Americans- slaves- no less- was absurd to consider, and to watch the ship wreck would be a relief.  For most of the world, the Southern model of aristocratic control of resources, the authority and rule of those who know better was the proven model- and even though most European countries did not support slavery up until the Emancipation Proclamation and then the Gettysburg address, they didn’t see the Civil War as entirely about that.  The south was very much an oligarchy that was directly descended from European style feudalism.  

 

So, by States rights, we mean more than slavery but including slavery.   

 

For sure at the beginning of the war, but by 1863, and really through the rhetoric of the Gettysburg Address- Lincoln shifted the war from being about states rights.  He made the central issue one of human equality.  If America was to be a land of liberty, it would be about every man’s God-given right to be who can make himself to be before a just and omniscient God.  It made no sense for half of it to own slaves.  It’s not about the states at all- it’s about the people- the people who inhabited the land of liberty.  

 

And had this always been Lincoln’s personal belief- in the equality of every human before God? 

 

That’s always been the question, although, I don’t even know if it’s a fair question.  When we think about Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence, for example, we think about his personal inconsistency of owning slaves.  But, I think, and I recommend going back and listening to our episode on the Declaration of Independence, that even Jefferson’s ideals evolved and though he never fully realized them in his personal life, he did believe them, If Jefferson and Washington can be called the Founding Fathers of the American experiment, which they are, Lincoln  led the country to make the personal sacrifices to establish it.   

 

  In 1861, Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States.  If we look at his ideas on slavery and equality from those early years, we can see that he always hated the idea of owning people, and he always believed in economic equality.   

 

 

What we can’t see for sure is that he believed in social equality like we understand it today. But. he always hated human bondage.  He believed that African-Americans should be allowed to work and have financial freedom to build their own lives.  He spoke of African-Americans as citizens and as humans.  But, at the same time, as president, Lincoln did not believe, he had the authority to simply abolish slavery simply based on his personal convictions.  It was protected by the US constitution.  For Lincoln, it would take a constitutional amendment to free them-  

 

Which is what eventually happened.  

 

 Yes, but by 1863, we can see through Lincoln’s public statements, that he was willing to walk back the idea that he couldn’t single-handedly free slaves.  He had given African-Americans equality under military law- they had the right to serve the country- and over 200,000 of them would do so by the end of the war.  The. Southern States were in rebellion, and because of that, the North had the right to seize property as a wartime concession.  If slaves were property, he would seize them and free them.  And, so he did.  In September of 1862, five days after the battle of Antietam- the first Union non-loss and the single deadliest day of the Civil War, Lincoln makes the statement that as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."  It is called the Emancipation Proclamation. The language was charged , but in reality, it had no real authority.  It only applied to the states in rebellion, and there wasn’t any real way of enforcing it besides the war they were already waging,  But what it did do, was signal what was coming, should the South fail to succeed things would change drastically.  

 

And so we finally get to Gettysburg.  The Battle of Gettysburg would come in July after the Emancipation Proclamation.  So, how  and why does the Southern Army get all the way to Pennsylvania?.   

 

 General Robert E Lee, who was the most important leader of the South, the leader of the notorious Southern Army decided time was not on the side of the South  They needed the people in the North to feel the pain of the war;  they needed to face the North on Northern soil.   

 

And, an election year was coming up. There was northern opposition to the war called the copperhead movement. Lee believed a quick strike victory in northern territory would fuel the anti-war copperheaad movement, so there was a political motivation as well. 

 

The Southern Army had better leadership and their troops were more skilled.  The problem was that the North had more of everything- else more men, more guns, more food, more resources.  The war was going on too long.  Lee felt he must bring the war to the homes of the people in the North, so they would demand that Lincoln relinquish.  It was a gamble, but he marched his army of 75,000 well-trained battle hardened soldiers onto Pennsylvania soil.  General George Meade was Lincoln’s choice to lead the Union Army of the Potomac to confront them- although they didn’t really know for sure they would be meeting in Gettysburg, they knew there was going to be a clash.  The Union Army had around 85,000 soldiers.   

 

After three days of fighting, the confederates lost 23,000 men; the Union lost 28,000- but the confederate army was forced to retreat out of Pennsylvania.  So, in theory Gettysburg was Union victory, but in reality who wins with so much death- it was a pyrrhic victory at best. 

 

Exactly, and we must understand that the losses were felt.  12 Southern states and 18 northern states sent troops to Gettysburg.  Every family at this point in the war had experienced personal loss to some degree.  In fact, just to put the entire Civil War in perspective, more Americans died in the Civil war than in World War 1, 2, Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan combined.  At the time there was an estimated 620,000 deaths out of a population of 31 million, modern day historians, however, looking back at the historical record claim that number is likely closer to 820,000- in other words 1 out of every 10 white American males was dead within those four years.  

 

And so standing at that cemetery dedication in November of 1863 looking out at the ones who had survived was the man mostly responsible for the carnage- and not just the carnage of Gettysburg, but for all of it and for the more that was to come.  Lincoln wanted to be at that cemetery dedication and he felt compelled to put in words the WHY.  He had been thinking on what to say for a while.  How could he ever explain what was worth so much death?  For an answer like that, one must think transcendentallym and so what he began to speech, he uttered familiar words,  words  easily recognizable  as coming from the diction and speech patterns of the commonly read and understood King James version of the Bible.  

 

“Four Score and Seven Years ago, our Fathers brought forth on This Continent a New nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”   

 

Psalm 90:10 in the Bible reads “ The days of our years are threescore years and ten; 
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,”  

 

The subtext may be lost on us, most who have never even opened the King James Version of the Bible, but in 1863, there is no one who would have not immediately recognized the phrase “score” meaning 20 years- that’s how the bible talked.  The allusion and subtext is obvious. 

 

Our lives our short- counted in scores—the life of our country is too- four score- a human life- but when we came to this country, when our fathers came here, they came here on a Biblical principle that every man was created by God and by virtue of God’s creation we are all of equal value.  I am of value- and therefore- so are you.  It’s about African-American slaves- yes- but it’s about all of us- if they are not equal- than no one is.  That’s the subtext. 

 

And let me add this, it wasn’t just the founding fathers that came to America.  Immigration to America during the Civil War years was in full throttle, which is strange if you think about it.  1 out of every 4 Union soldier was a first generation immigrant.  Think about that, thousands came to America, got off the boat,  picked up a gun, and fought for a country they had barely met.  Why do that? Why did they leave Europe?  Was it because of that very promise of equality?  I think it’s likely. Many came because of a promise- this promise. 

 

Now we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.  

 

See, he’s addressing the idea of republicanism or democracy in general.  They told us it wasn’t possible.  Is it true that a bunch of under-educated rednecks carving out their own lives on their own terms- on the terms that every one is truly equal, is it true that such a group of people can exist?   

 

We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is all together fitting and proper that we should do this. 

 

Let me add, this, if you go to the Gettysburg Cemetery today, you will see there is the official cemetery where all the soldiers are buried, but near it, still in the park, is another cemetery- a normal one.  This cemetery at the time of the dedication was called Citizens Cemetery.  Like most cemeteries, it has beautiful headmarkers of every shape and size- some big because the deceased is an important person, some smaller- we’ve all seen a cemetery- but if you look across from Citizens cemetery to the one Lincoln was dedicating,  the military one- you will see that every burial marker is the same.  The men that are buried there are not distinguished by class, status or anything- no one is more equal than the other- the 15,000 there on that inaugural day would have seen this distinction.   They would have understood that those markers represented the idea for which their loved ones died. 

 

But, in a larger, sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.  The Brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.   

 

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 

 

And of course, those are the most ironic lines of the entire speech.  After Lincolns’ assassination in April 1865, Senator CharlesSumner of Massachusetts wrote of the Gettysburg address, “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg…and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.” 

 

And of course, it is at this point that he changes directions in the speech.  It is not about looking back anymore.  It’s not about honoring anymore- it’s about moving forward.  What is this war about?  What is worth so much carnage and personal loss.  Here is the answer.  

 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

 

We must not quit.  We must not quit.  We must not quit.   

 

You know, the words “under God” were not in the manuscript Lincoln used on the day.  It wasn’t part of the prepared remarks.  We know he said under God because it was in the transcripts and in the copies made later, but it was not in the original version of the text.  It was spontaneious but it was not casually uttered.  In fact here at the end there are other intentional phrases that a Biblical church-goer would recognize- the idea of a new Birth is a New Testament idea from the words of Jesus Christ- the promise that every sinner can have a second chance- a redemptive moment to start again.  The phrases “resting place” , “might life”, “in vain”, “shall not perish from the earth”, are all taken from different parts of Biblical text that were recognizable.  So, why do that?  Why harken to Biblical language.  I think it’s because of that last phrase- the one where he repeated the same word three times- three different way’ of the people, by the people, for the people- it is about the dignity and worth of every human- you plus I.  It is the shared belief of the crowd that day, that life, liberty, freedom- it was one thing- and it was a gift from God- something the state or no person- no matter how great or powerful- had the right to take from another.  There IS something greater than any great man or human institution- and that is a creator God.  For the monotheistic audience of that day, in that crowd, Lincoln was declaring that it was not by his authority, but it was by virtue of God’s authority that they gave their lives.  They had a fighting chance, if they would defend it, that their children, their neighbors and all the people of this land would indeed be free.   

 

And of course, it is for the transcendency of this reason that when Dr. King got up to give his I Have a Dream Speech 100 years later, he would start with his own reference to that Biblical language  

 

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. 

 

Yes, and when President Barak Obama got up to give his first inaugural address in 2009, he references Gettysburg, and ends his speech with these words, and I quote President Obama, “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”  

 

And of course, it is transcendent; this is not just an American ideal or even just a Christian one- although that was the exigence of Lincoln’s moment .  Today, almost half the countries of the world are democracies of some sort.  Today, only a little over half of the residents of the United States claim to be Christian.  But the ideal of a government of the people, by the people and for the people- resonates in the human heart.  The proposition that all men are created equal- as limited as we have understood it at times, is still the heartbeat of many human souls.   

 

Christy, you’re starting to sound like a preacher. 

 

HA!!  If I can sound like Lincoln, that would be a compliment. 

 

Indeed, it would be- thank you for listening.  ladeedadeeda 

 

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