Camus, Gangs of New York, and Hope

Last night, I picked up The Stranger, by Camus, and started re-reading it.  I haven’t read it in six or seven years, and although I remember the plot and main ideas, I remembered little else.  I’ve only moved through five chapters, but let me recommend The Stranger to anyone dissatisfied with much of popular literature.  In fact, if you like Hemingway, you owe it to yourself to pick up Matthew Ward’s translation of this book — I didn’t remember the brilliance of it from a few years back.

The great books of the first half of the 20th century have such social commentary and philosophy to them, and The Stranger is no different.  Reading it again, I find the indifference and detached-ness all the stronger, perhaps because I have lived longer; I have jettisoned some past hopes and traded them in for present realities.  Meursault, the title character, feels the same: “When I was a student, I lot lots of ambitions…But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.”

We’ve all experienced this: the shattering of certain hopes.  Sometimes, those hopes are born from naivete.  Sometimes, they are broken simply because our world is broken: friends cannot get pregnant or people lose their jobs or loved ones die or the simple and awful stresses of life wear us away.  We know what it is to think like Meursault, whether we allow ourselves his level of apathy, or whether we fight against it with our American optimism.

Meursault relates another event, one embodying even more meaninglessness of life, and our indifference toward it:

That evening Marie came by to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her.  I said it didn’t make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her…She just wanted to know if I would have accepted the same proposal from another woman, with whom I was involved in the same way.  I said, “Sure.”

In a paragraph, Camus identifies the tragic indifference of modern man.  Meursault is carried by the currents of life, following the whims of others, barely able to think and act for himself.  This causes, or is caused, or both, a profound indifference to life: events move beyond his control, and he sees no reason to change the (lack of) order in things.  Life happens.

I thought of this as I watched a scene from Gangs of New York today.  It’s a compelling movie, but there is a scene when Amersterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio’s character) is making out with Jenny (Cameron Diaz’s character).  It is after a dance, and Amsterdam sees a scar on Jenny’s stomach.  She asks him if he has scars, and he shows her his chest, littered with scars.  Her reaction is to kiss his chest.

Amsterdam eventually leaves Jenny later in the scene, after learning that she sleeps with Bill the Butcher.  Still, this is not before some kissing, and PG-13 skin.  I could not help but think as I watched: how devoid of meaning this scene was.  Jenny kissing Amsterdam’s scars meant nothing other than titillation — it was not symbolic, and she was not offering healing — it was a vapid and empty scene.  I was not surprised to see it, but sorry to see it in otherwise such a strong movie.

This, however, is the embodiment of Camus’ Meursault.  We take in simply to wake ourselves up momentarily.  Meursault finds enjoyment in sex, and judges others’ words only on whether they are interesting or boring.  Sadly, this is an indictment on 21st century America.

I think of shows I watch that don’t encourage or challenge me, but I watch them because they are interesting.  I think of my desire to find the next thing to capture my attention, especially while surfing the web — there must be some bigger story, funnier photo, more amusing video.  Our attention spans grow shorter.  We judge others on whether they have something interesting to say — not if what they are saying is right or true, but only if it interests us.  Even more, we are told what interests us, because online or on TV we find the same stories, told again and again.  Ours is the century of the interesting, presaged by Camus.

We are all here much more often than we would like to admit.  I am.  You are.

I think of what Meursault said about losing ambition.  He had goals in school.  We all have mighty goals in school.  And, because life does not remain a blank slate, our goals must change.  Some will not be met.  I think of how I wanted to travel after college.  I did.  I moved to Colorado.  I led trips in Costa Rica.  But, I never thought my regular traveling would end so abruptly, that I could not fly to Africa or China or Hungary whenever I wanted, and get by on what I could carry on my back.

I would not trade it, though.  I would not trade all my naive ambitions for one moment with my daughter and wife, for an evening talking with Brooke over glasses of wine, for the moment — which happened yesterday — when I rolled with Ellis on the floor and she stopped to say, “I love playing with you, Daddy.”

This is the tenuous hope.  We realize, like Meursault, that the world is beyond our control.  It is crueler than we imagined it.  Yet, this does not mean that none of our actions have meaning.  Rather, against this cruel and broken world our actions gain meaning: they gain significance and brightness, the faith of them shining against the dark.  Our actions have meaning beyond what is interesting, and we must love things beyond how they make us feel at a given moment.  For then, when we refuse to acquiesce to the world’s assertion of what is good, we assert that at least we can refuse.  At least we won’t play the game.  At least we will find goodness even when dreams are lost, for new and better dreams may fill their place.  I am not foolish enough to say they surely will.  But they have before, and they will again, and sometimes the most faith-filled utterance we can muster is that our actions matter — for today and always — and we dream and even dare to believe in a time when the world will be made right again.

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