Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Stranger in a strange hand

This curious news item appeared mid-August. Obviously, I have been living under a rock since I only found out about it the other night. Lina and I were sitting in her torn-apart living room (she's moving) and going through the latest issue of Vanity Fair.

She says, "Did you see something about Bush reading The Stranger in here?"

She tells me this because she knows The Stranger is my all-time favorite book. Ever since I was 17. It was assigned reading. I told my Honors English teacher I wanted to adapt it into a film. (I think at the time, I mean, it was 1995, I envisioned
Keanu Reeves as Mersault. Come on! I was only 17!)

Obvious, we were enjoying vodka-based beverages so we naturally got sidetracked and began looking up crap on YouTube. The next day, however, I Google-ed the information.

Sure enough, Lena was correct. It may not have appeared in that particular issue of Vanity Fair, but it certainly made the news earlier this month while Bush was on vacation at his Crawford ranch.

Of course such an event would make the news. Bush has said his favorite book is the Bible and his favorite "philosopher" was Jesus. And the only other book I know for certain he has read is The Pet Goat.

Why the hell would Bush be reading the most famous novel by the beloved French author
Albert Camus?

Media outlets like Slate begged for more information regarding the President's vacation read. On The Daily Show,Jon Stewart pointed out, for those who have never had the pleasure of reading The Stranger, "it's a book about a Westerner who kills an Arab and dies with no remorse. Why it would strike a nerve, I don't know."

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said that the President found the book to be an "interesting read" and commented that they had a brief conversation on the origins of French existentialism.

This disbelief that Bush would read such a novel stems not only from the book's ironic subject matter, but because, well, the President reading any deep literature is just amusing in itself. When it became public knowledge that President Clinton (all hail) gifted Monica Lewinsky with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, it didn't seem that odd. In spite of what many may (still) think of Clinton, and all of the coverage surrounding the Lewinsky scandal, the fact that Clinton presented his mistress with a beloved piece of American literature didn't seem completely bizarre. Clinton was a literate intellectual. But President Bush reading The Stranger while on vacation? Absolutely and completely bizarre (er...absurd).

Why the hell would Bush be interested in French extentialism? Granted, over a year ago, he quoted Camus while speaking in Brussels, but we all know he doesn't actually write those speeches. And his use of "freedom is a long-distance race" is quite ironic, mainly because Camus' idea of freedom was one which could only be achieved once society was freed from the restrictions of religious dogma.

Going back to Tony Snow's comment about he and the President's dicussion of "French Existentialism", it is important to note that most Camus historians believe Camus would have rejected his work being classified into the extentialist genre. Many would say that he subscribed to absurdist philosophies, but much of Camus' work questioned how absurdism played into our lives -- can life be meaningful while having no meaning? Subconsciously, could Bush be questioning his motives and the legacy of his politcal career?

During his time, Camus was well-known as a vocal political activist opposed to totalitarian movements. His extentialist contemporary, Sartre, was an ardent Marxist (this supposedly led to the end of their friendship, as Camus opposed totalitarian politics on each side of the spectrum). He was a member of the French resistence to the Nazi Occupation and spoke out against the Soviet Union throughout his life.

There is no doubt in my mind that Bush sees himself as the leader of anti-totalitarianism in today's world, a concept he so frequently contradicts in policy and subsequent action. However, it is obvious he fails to see any of this contradiction, even though the simple statement of being "either with us or against us" reeks of totalitarianism. His blind faith in Evangelical Christian "morality"? Also totalitarianism.

In 1957, in a speech commerating the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the U.S.S.R., Camus made this statement:

But I am not one of those who think that there can be a compromise, even one made with resignation, even provisional, with a regime of terror which has as much right to call itself socialist as the executioners of the Inquisition had to call themselves Christians.

If he were alive today, don't you wonder what Camus would be saying now?

Maybe I should give credit to Bush for reading The Stranger, but I doubt it was done to broaden his horizons. I think he really just read the words, reading...but numb to what the words are acutally saying.

When Mersault killed the Arab, he may have not felt the "remorse" we are trained and conditioned to feel after doing something wrong. But Mersault was not completely immune to the affects of his actions.

Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.

Mr. President, are you knocking on that door of unhappiness?

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