Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bush and The Stranger

Last week the President was on vacation and doing a little light reading: The Stranger, by Albert Camus. So ... just for fun, and since I was at the beach, I bought the book and read it, too. Just to see what kind of head-space the Prez was getting into.

I had read it in college, y'know I was all full of existentialism, having read Barrett's Irrational Man. Have you ever tried to plough through Being and Nothingness? No, that's not what you want to do right out of the chute. You gotta start somewhere, so I waded in up to my knees with Camus. And now, thirty five or a million years later, I had forgotten nearly everything about the book. So I read it again last week.

The Stranger is a creepy book about a man with no conscience. He thinks without thinking -- Meursault's is the unexamined life Plato warned us about. He helps people do bad things, because, well, why not? His girlfriend asks if he will marry her:
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 last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her.

Sometimes Meursault gives a reason for his behavior, but it always the least insightful reason imaginable. Not an explanation really, just some words to make people quit asking him why he did something. To him the question, why did you do that? is meaningless, boring.

Meursault acts on the way he feels in the moment, with no plan and no principles upon which to base a plan. Somebody wants to do something, and he says, OK, why not? Unless he doesn't feel like doing it, then he gives some lame reason, or just flakes out.

Meursault's vision is stripped down to seeing just what's there, and nothing else. Beauty to him nothing more than pleasure, and other people are evaluated in terms of how he feels when he's around them. Never mind how they feel or what they think of him, it just doesn't matter -- it's not that they don't have feelings, it just isn't enough to concern himself with. If something is interesting he pays attention to it, if not then he thinks about something else. Even at his own trial, he spaces out when the lawyers get boring.

Imagining the President sitting in his ranch-house also reading this, intensified the creepiness of it. Like, it'd be just like Meursault to say something like Bush said about Osama bin Ladin:
I don’t know where he is. Nor — you know, I just don’t spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you. I....I truly am not that concerned about him.

Just stopped thinking about him. Got other things on his mind. Not interesting any more.

Or like the time recently when he had been invited to dinner with the German Chancellor, where the President was going to carve the pork. At a press conference, this exchange:
Q Does it concern you that the Beirut airport has been bombed? And do you see a risk of triggering a wider war?

"And on Iran, they've, so far, refused to respond. Is it now past the deadline, or do they still have more time to respond?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I thought you were going to ask me about the pig.

The examples are innumerable. Really, I could go on with these forever. He comes out with them as fast as I can write.

The question for me, reading Camus last week, was what is the President getting out of this book? Is he recognizing a brother here, a fellow soulless, gutless traveller in time and space who accidentally kills people and mindlessly helps bad people do bad things and then feels that his punishment is unfair because he had no intention to do harm? Or is he reading in horror at the anomie, the emptiness, and swearing to himself never to fall into that abyss of absudity where your own life is like a movie that you are watching and wishing there was more butter on the popcorn? Is he reading Camus and contemplating the dawning of morality in a man who faces execution, living from day to day knowing that it's coming, a man who lives in misery from not knowing when it's coming, who finds good and evil, suffering and the desire for mercy, in the forced uncertainty of it?

C'mon, really, do you think George Bush reads French existentialism?

It was a prop. You know that, I know it. I was just joking about what he was thinking.

He didn't read it.

You know that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It was a prop. You know that, I know it. I was just joking about what he was thinking.

He didn't read it.

You know that."

I don't know that and neither do you. I could see someone on a dull Texas ranch reading it. It doesn't seem like much of a beach book, though. Next time, try "The Ruins".

August 24, 2006 9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember reading The Stranger around the same age as Jim. I think it was in a Philosophy in Literature class. My first reaction was, gee, this book is really short and easy to read compared to all the other books on the syllabus (like Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain). So maybe that is why the book was on the Presidential summer reading list. On the other hand, I recall that the protagonist is a French Algerian awating execution for his murder of an Arab Algerian. Significance there? ...... Nah.

My second reaction was, why is this book such a big deal? I found The Magic Mountain far more interesting and thought-provoking. Perhaps the President could just skip to the end: There, confronted and confused by the competing arguments of the liberal Settembrini and the authoritarian Naphtali,the protagonist leaves the shelter of the TB asylum to join the German army in World War I. But what would the President take from that story, were he to read it?

Anyway, thanks, Jim, for explaining Camus. Your analysis makes sense.

August 24, 2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Hey David, I think that "really short and easy to read" worked in Camus' favor here. You didn't want to just pick up Kierkegaard or Sartre or even Buber and start happily browsing. (Nietzsche maybe, but you never really knew what he was trying to do.) But The Stranger was nice and short, and it was written in an easy, terse style sort of like Hemingway's. And because Meursault was a "hollow man," there wasn't any scary symbolism to sort through, everything was right on the surface.

You might appreciate The Carpetbagger's post on Bush's reading, and the subsequent comments.


August 24, 2006 6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is fascinating! David, do you agree with Jim that George Bush was lying about reading the book?

August 25, 2006 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to Anon's question: Having just heard Brian Williams' interview with President Bush, in which he asked him about it, I am not sure. Bush explained that his wife suggested he read The Stranger. With an opportunity to say more, he said nothing, but instead simply moved into a riff on history books he says he read recently.

I would like to believe that Laura suggested the book, knowing it was an easy read and further hoping that it might lead to a shock of recognition. If he did, in fact, read it, he seems to have missed the point.

August 30, 2006 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sounds reasonable, David

you should tell your buddy Jim to stop jumpimg to slanderous conclusions

August 30, 2006 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is not slanderous to say that someone did not read a book that the putative reader says he or she read. Your attempts to play "gotcha" with Jim are pretty lame.

August 30, 2006 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Your attempts to play "gotcha" with Jim are pretty lame."

Poor Jim. Everyone's trying to play "gotcha" with him. The poor fellow was just trying to let us know how stupid the President is. We can't expect to stick to stuff he "knows".

August 30, 2006 1:26 PM  

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