The philosophy of an earring

Fashionable motivations: a dialogue set in ancient Greece

Lysistrata and Hippolytus sit at a small, wooden table outside a narrow café in Athens and chat while they wait for their friend, Philo.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical.

Hippolytus: You think it would look bad.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical because I want to know why.

Hippolytus: Why get an earring? Because I want one.

Lysistrata: If that were enough your ears would be sparkling already. Why the delay?

Hippolytus: No delay, I simply—

Lys: I call your bluff, Hippolytus.

Hipp: By Zeus, fine! I can’t find the Why and it’s killing me. Now, woman, what do you want from me?

Lys: Only to help you find your reason. We should have enough time to do that before Philo arrives.

Hipp (hesitantly): On the condition you don’t push your usual answer.

Lys: I promise to at least investigate the idea first. (Hippolytus frowns, then nods.) So: Is attention the reason?

Hipp: You think higher of me than that, don’t you?

Lys: Tell me honestly, then, that you have not pictured this scene: You enter a room, you feel yourself a new person, you smile at a colleague. He sees you, sees the earring and says, ‘Have I fallen from Olympus or is that Hippolytus? You look positively Spartan! Well done!’

Hipp: Perhaps the thought has breezed through.

Lys: And there is no shame in it. But, and please help me here, why is that reason insufficient? What will happen when all of Piraeus has seen you with your earring?

Hipp: They’d stop mentioning it.

Lys: Or if the majority of feedback you receive is negative—If even 51 of your 100 mates on the docks thought you better off without?

Hipp: It’s my decision, Lysistrata. For all I care, they can—

Lys: I aim merely to follow the logic. If positive attention or approval is your motivation, then a collective Nay from the good Athenian people should be reason enough to remove the earring. If you grant them the power to judge for you, you grant them the power to decide for you as well.

Hipp: And if I just want to see what they think of me? With a surprise you jar some honesty out of people. What do the good Athenian people think of their plain, safe, dependable Hippolytus? Sporting a new look, I could learn that from them…and I could learn something about myself, too.

Lys: That seems an abundance of work. Instead you might ask your friends for their opinions.

Hipp: Don’t be so pious and naïve, Lysistrata. For the sport of it we might play serious when given another’s decision to weigh as our own, but we never consider it with the sincerity of the decider himself. No, the best way to capture their honest opinion is by ambush.

Lys: I think you would find in your ambushes what you expect from them, what you project onto them beforehand. And when, later, you reach for the memories of their reactions, you will only have the feeling; you will lose their words, tone and expression; you will have made the memory beforehand because, initially, you were searching for something.

Hipp: What something?

Lys: You tell me—acceptance, attention, approval? I do wonder, though: why is the earring the trick? Why not a new dye in your robe, or a trim of the beard?

Hipp: Because I want the earring.

Lys: Then—

Hipp: Stop! You said you wouldn’t give your usual advice.

Lys: I am not there, not yet. We have work still to do. So, do you believe your argument so far? Is attention the reason?

Hipp (sighs): No, I don’t think it is. For better or for worse I’m not so shallow as that. Perhaps I laid the reason on the outside world because the inner world is more frightening. After all, why would I want an earring? I’m healthy, young, educated, employed; I understand intellectually that an earring’s meaning, apart from its pure aesthetic value, comes from culture. So why does the idea burn for long hours in my mind? Is it an evolutionary sense of beauty calling for fulfillment, or an attraction between my psyche and the cultural connotation of an earring? Are the mind and body the Gods have given me insufficient without being stuck with a metal thorn?

Lys (thinking, runs a hand through her hair): Remind me what you do down on the docks?

Hipp: I take the accounts for our olive exports to the Isles, you know that. What’s that to do with my dilemma?

Lys: Do you still play the lute?

Hipp: No, I don’t play nearly enough. Thank you for the reminder. Again, what’s this to do with—

Lys: I wonder if this earring idea is not a mistranslated message from the Muses. Perhaps your creative energy is looking for a way out.

Hipp: Are you implying that my creativity is like a boil that needs draining?

Lys: I would never offend the Muses with such a comparison. But maybe you might tighten and tune your strings, or spend a few afternoons with the potters…

Their third, Philo, rounds the corner at the head of the street and saunters toward their table outside the café. Lysistrata and Hippolytus rise and wave, Philo embraces them one by one and sits himself in the remaining wicker chair. Lysistrata and Hippolytus do the same.

Philo: So sorry I’m late, terribly sorry, deep in discussion and then lost in thought. All in a rush. Makes one takes a false turn in this city, you know.

Hipp: Worry not, Philo. We’re glad you found us.

Philo: Then by the Gods, my friends, what did I interrupt? Let us get back to it!

Lys (points to Hippolytus): This one wants an earring but knows not why.

Hipp (points to Lysistrata): This one is trying to talk me out of it!

Lys: I merely suggested that relearning some of the old hymns on his lute might be more productive than an earring and achieve the same results.

Philo: That result being?

Hipp: She thinks I’ve so denied the Muses’ call to action that they’ve resorted to demanding I materially alter my person in order to release my clogged-up creativity. But a few plucked strings and I’ll be back to normal—empty once again! And the idea of an earring will simply fade away.

Lys: It was one theory. What do you say, Philo?

Phil: I’m reminded of a jolly rich aunt of mine.

Hipp: Everything all right with her?

Phil: Stubbornly healthy. A singer, this aunt, and the owner of some of the finest robes I’ve ever seen. Magenta, the blue of Poseidon’s deep, Apollo’s sunny gold—take your pick, my friends. An astonishing collection of robes, astonishing. And what a voice! I cannot remember this aunt without hearing that surprising, stirring baritone, and I also cannot remember her without seeing a dazzling robe wrapped around her enduring figure. I wonder, friends: Are the lute-playing and the earring halves of an either-or?

Lys: We never said they were.

Phil: I mean, my friends, that the luxury of fashion might indeed be a mode of expression, but certainly it doesn’t consume all the air of the creative flame. How could it? A color, an earring—these are passive choices! One actively wears an earring—

Hipp: But one’s earring-wearing is no activity.

Phil: Yes! When my aunt sings, her whole being, her soul engages the task. The Muses flutter invisibly around her neck and shoulders and their together-made music booms jubilantly into the world. Of such expression a dyed robe or an earring is incapable, my friends. I claim the energies are of different class entirely; neither the robe nor the singing discounts the validity of the other.

Lys (to Hippolytus): You ought to just choose one way or the other; either get the earring, or do not. Only regret will come from too long a reflection before the decision. It is only an earring. What I would respect you for, Hippolytus—regardless of how you looked—would be the conviction with which you wore it. With that you convince the good people of Athens, myself included.

Hipp: Finally, out it comes! By Zeus, Lysistrata, always you call on your conviction and decision as though they can be summoned on a whim.

Phil: I agree, Lysistrata. If it were only an earring our Hippolytus wouldn’t spill so much wine over the matter. Clearly it is something more.

Lys: Perhaps I am impatient, but it is a decision, like everything else. What more is there? Reasons always pale to conviction in the moment one decides. Attention, aesthetics, expression—all motivations fade and blend into the lived experience of the decision. We can never truly remember the original Why; we retain only biased and frayed trimmings of that thread. (To Hippolytus) If you chose for the earring, wore it into the next harvest season, then decided it was not for you, should your new decision be made with last season’s information? Not at all! Your new decision should be made anew with new conviction.

Phil: By the Gods, Lysistrata, you may’ve struck the sequence of events, but I fear you miss too much in the process. (To Hippolytus) Would you like an earring?

Hipp: I believe so.

Phil: Can you be indifferent to the idea, my friend? Can you drop it from your thoughts as the overripe olive falls from the tree?

Lys: But no one is indifferent to the idea, Philo. I have opinions on earrings; that’s why I have them.

Phil: Ah, dear Lysistrata! Your indifference is disguised as the ease with which you made your decision. To easy choices we are all indifferent. Our Hippolytus’s difficulty lies in his uncertainty.

Hipp: The wavering has lasted quite a while.

Phil: For me, my friend, the word Wavering doesn’t quite fit. Let’s name it Negotiating. (Hippolytus and Lysistrata wrinkle their brows.) Yes, yes. Earlier we said fashion was a mode of expression; it is however a peculiar mode because, my friends, fashion’s highest goal is to express one’s identity. And while in music, poetry and drama, identity is ever present and inexorably expressed, it is rarely an artwork’s ultimate goal. Even as the teller of an epic describes his hero, the time and technique required to supply a description and realize an identity preclude the immediacy that fashion achieves. To wear an earring, dear friends, is to express one’s identity in real time to the world, under all the pressure of our conventions, culture and the human laws of attraction. So I find our Hippolytus’s hesitance an understandable inner negotiation over the answer to a crucial question: Does an earring bring him closer to or farther from his destination?

Hipp: And where would that be?

Phil: Yourself, of course! In this inner discussion you’ve vaguely recognized the spiritual pairing between what one wears and what one is.

Lys: But Philo, I thought you were anti-material! To claim the spirit can develop out of fashion is lazy, even vulgar. Not ten nights ago we were in agreement: she who has become herself can have everything taken from her and still have everything.

Phil: Surely! But let’s ask—why do they clothe the prisoners all in gray? (To Hippolytus) I support you in your negotiations with this decision. Either way, old friend, it is a stepping stone. And Lysistrata is right: when you make the decision, make it with the greatest conviction you can muster! And try to live detached from your reflection. If you discover that your earring edifies you, that you feel freer and truer without needing to say a word, then you’ll have progressed in your journey toward yourself, and all the anger, doubt and annoyance spurred by the initial glances and commentary will pale to the feeling flowing clean and bright inside of you as you walk through your day. And if not, perhaps the earring was a mirage, and you can leave it behind. But if it edifies you, if it edifies you!

Hipp: But how can I be sure?

Lys: Choose!

Featured photo by Ashithosh U from Pexels

The creation of J.M.W. Turner

Brush strokes, personal growth

Creation, self-actualization—for the Englishman and Romantic-era painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), these two tasks were one. Turner practiced a mode of expression true to his inner nature and purified by choice, and through his practice refined a style capable of realizing his singular perspective. More than the technical mastery of his medium, it is this commitment to himself and to his vision that makes Turner the ideal artist and a timeless model of self-development.

He recognized that between ourselves and honest living and expression stands a field of obstacles; art, as it is for many, served as compass and consolation while he navigated through. With each work in which he committed to himself, Turner practiced his honesty, rid himself of a fear, lie, envy, or nagging criticism, and enriched his knowledge of the forms and flows of his internal and the external world.

The result was a gradual purification. His field of obstacles thinned, and those that remained he embraced, either because he chose them, or because they were inherent to his craft. Always he needed to lay the right brush stroke, to mix pigments on a palette, to sketch despite a biting wind; but these challenges he loved, and he met them as one meets the few friends kept close at the end of a life long with noise. He opened himself to them, enjoyed their influence on him, stayed true to them, and thereby became and stayed true to himself. Turner’s development is this commitment, the repeated choice to pursue his own perspective and choose his own challenges.

Fishermen at Sea exhibited 1796 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Fishermen at Sea (1796, above) exemplifies Turner at an early stage along this journey. Already he has chiseled his talent into skill, identified the elements of English national myth, and equipped himself with the technical and storytelling lessons of his predecessors. In Fishermen he deploys this education with precision: the sea swells into white ridges lucid and crisp, the moon’s focused radiance casts the sailors as protagonists, and save for the sharply framed, orange lantern glowing aboard the central ship, Turner grounds his palette in the solemn emerald of midnight brine. Looking over the scene we shiver in the fishermen’s cold, dread the darkness into which the rightward boat fades, pray their flickering civilization lasts the night. Into this sympathy Turner delivers his simple yet stirring narrative: although home calls, duty remains; port, warmth, and safety must wait.

Fishermen’s emotional accessibility and technical grace earned Turner more than high praise. Three years later at age 24 he was admitted to Britain’s leading cultural institution, the Royal Academy of the Arts. With membership’s accompanying connections and funding, Turner traveled extensively and brought himself into conversation with a diversity of landscapes, cultures, and ideas. But despite the privileges he now had, he avoided the elitist air that often intoxicated his contemporaries and influenced their creative output. As a result, he could keep what he liked in Fishermen and move—stylistically and inwardly—further on.

Sunset in the Rockies exhibited c.1866 Albert Bierstadt 1830-1902

To demonstrate, let’s compare Turner’s Sun Setting Over a Lake (1840, below) with Albert Bierstadt’s Sunset in the Rockies (1866, above). Bierstadt, also a painter of landscape influenced by Romanticism, delivers a style reminiscent of Turner’s in Fishermen. He replicates the natural relationship between light’s source and its reflectors, his brushwork appears deliberate, and the scene glimmers with detail. Bierstadt may dramatize the warm glow of the canyon, but we can still step into it, skip an rock across the sunlit river, pick from a bush or tree a single leaf. With this realism Bierstadt, like Turner, mythologizes: Sunset in the Rockies preaches the glory of the American West in an accessible visual language, one which serves to ingrain or reinforce in its viewers the notion of America as beautiful, the Beautiful. It’s a language we naturally understand, whose precision we can admire, a language that perhaps convinces us to donate to the Sierra Club or rent a cabin in Colorado.

Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sun Setting over a Lake, however, urges a more intuitive interpretation. Turner has seen the embers behind the cold science of sight, and he reaches around the images born to our cameras and corneas to rip the smolder of fading daylight to the fore. Rather than inspecting Sun Setting or accepting the blurb from a tour guide, Turner asks us to stand before his fire until thought dims and feeling ignites, until the passing of time becomes visceral.

This revelation realism struggles to deliver. Conscious of its limitations, Turner chooses a less accurate, more honest mode. He balances his knowledge with his senses, wades through the noise of thought, brings that which was truest in him to the truth always latent in nature, and then deploys his medium to articulate it. The process is relational, an exchange: the scene flows from the external, meets Turner’s spirit in sincere conversation, and flows back out as an molten alloy of movement and light. The visual language realized, however imprecise, feels rawer, reaches deeper, and enables him to express his purest feelings in dialogue with the universe.

Painting this way Turner achieved originality, the reason his work broadened and enlightened Life. Perhaps we receive light less intensely than he did, miss the misty energies of the atmosphere; but because he painted, we can. Turner’s art enables us to see his insights, to wander in his worlds; it provides a space for our creativities to mingle with his and together imagine and build new roads in our minds. This is why we say great figures in history “pave the way.” Their achievements make possible the settling of a yet further stretch of experience, invent language for the indescribable, hang the lantern higher on our cave wall.

And when we name these figures leaders or heroes, we touch a strand of truth. Turner and every such individual, in their commitments to personal perspective and the discipline of their crafts, essentially win a victory for freedom: they articulate new ways of thinking and living, and new ways of thinking and living must be articulated before they can be thought or led. As if squeezing a key between B and C on the piano their original creations add notes to the manifold of existence, thereby creating greater freedom for us all.

Maybe, though, you feel indifferent to Turner’s perspective, unempowered by his originality, and unmoved by his art. That’s fine: there are other Turners. Instead of him, find your own, someone whose story of singularity reaches you, reveals better for you the meaning of development.

Or perhaps, correctly, you point to Mr. Turner’s privileges, to the lack of friction between his potential and its actualization, and say this lack renders him irrelevant to those who face injustices he never had to consider, who are persecuted for being, let alone becoming themselves. His superlative example of development nevertheless stands. It is in harmony with the task of removing these injustices, and it illuminates its ultimate goal: the undertaking of the challenges that remain after the unjust challenges are gone.

Because at its easiest becoming oneself still requires the responsibility of choice—in theory, in action, and in habit. Turner accepted this responsibility and tailored it to his talents and curiosities. He practiced the discipline to master his craft, engaged sincerely with all he sincerely wanted to engage in, and dropped (as much as he could) all the rest. He chose honesty over praise and singularity over conformity. At his core, he chose to choose.

Dallas Buyers Club and the market forces of death

On day zero of Ron Woodruff’s thirty-days-to-live death sentence, he is in two prostitutes in a muddy bullpen at a bullfighting arena. He is a gambling drunkard running from the trouble he makes for himself. He, aside from the zings and whistles granted by cocaine, whiskey, and ejaculation, is as good as dead. Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally dead.

On day one, an on-the-job electrical accident puts Woodruff in the hospital, where he finds, much to his homophobic, 1985 stereotype-informed disbelief, that he has HIV. He’s a straight man, after all. It’s not possible for him to catch HIV. So he storms out. No way, he thinks, I ain’t gay, and I’m living forever.

But Woodruff is dying. It’s impossible for him to ignore the bloody coughs whirring noises splitting open his head. He goes to the library, reads up on the studies and statistics: the disease spreads through unprotected sex between any carrier and noncarrier, gay or not; it also circulates through shared intravenous needles. Woodruff suddenly remembers a girl he once hired who had pinpricks up and down her arm, and accepts he has HIV.

He does not, however, accept the thirty day sentence. Woodruff is a stubborn, sharp cowboy: he researches the drugs that clinics worldwide are trying on the disease; he discovers a Dallas hospital is hosting a 90-day double-blind placebic trial of the newest, latest and greatest drug, AZT; and he bypasses authority in order to obtain it. But his inside man at the hospital quits, and a fainting fit puts him back in the sick house, at the mercy of doctors contractually bound to test AZT on behalf of big pharma.

It is there, alone and inches from death on a hospital gurney, that Woodruff breaks the cliché of the terminally ill bucket lister. He has neither the cash for some tour of Europe, nor the embrace of his own end such a before-I-die trip implies. The immediacy of death instead alights in him anger and determination.

It also purges his prejudices. This is epitomized in an exchange with his hospital roommate, a trans woman named Rayon who is also HIV-positive. Woodruff initially rebuffs her friendliness, but when she offers to play cards—for cash—he agrees to chat. And when his calf cramps, paralyzing him in pain, he allows her to knead it out. Woodruff’s acceptance of Rayon’s physical help—help given by a person from whom he would never, because of his prejudices, ordinarily accept it—represents a larger theme of Dallas Buyers Club: with life on the line, allies are allies regardless of their identities.

After a trip to Mexico to receive un-FDA-approved treatment, Woodruff returns and teams up with Rayon. The medicine given to him there has shored up his immune system in ways AZT could not, and Woodruff, cash-hungry, has struck a deal with his doctor to sell the cocktail of drugs that put him back on his feet. He gets the goods across the border to Dallas, but cannot breach the mostly-gay market: Woodruff neither knows anything of their community nor can leapfrog the friction of his ingrained prejudices. Without anywhere else to turn, he recruits Rayon to be his sales rep.

Their partnership proves successful, and the combination of moneymaking and self-sustaining that ensues places Woodruff in daily proximity with Dallas’s gay community. It composes the majority of the Dallas Buyers Club, i.e. the HIV-positive population willing to flout FDA law and official medical advice to procure what they believe will help them survive. Woodruff, through the vehicle of his new Buyers Club business, learns these people are much like him: desperate in the face of death, inclined to kindness, and prey to their own weaknesses. His prejudice erodes daily under the mounting evidence that Scout Finch’s timeless observation is true: “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

When the FDA cracks down on the Dallas Buyers Club’s under-the-table operation and its members are barred from obtaining their immunological boosters, Woodruff’s façade—that moneymaking is still his primary motivation—shatters. Rayon, now Woodruff’s valued friend, dies, and his anger with the government’s nonsensical regulation and apparent apathy towards the mostly gay HIV-AIDS community transforms the Buyers Club from a business to a crusade. Woodruff, on the implicit behalf of his HIV-AIDS customers, sues the government for the right to medicate himself and fight against his impending death however he likes.

The heart of Woodruff’s story closes with the result of his lawsuit. He loses to the FDA, but upon returning to his home in Dallas receives an ovation from friends in the Buyers Club, who have gathered to congratulate his efforts. Woodruff, homophobe-turned-profiteer-turned-ally, here asks of us an uncomfortable question: What prevents our acceptance of the Other? Why does it take death to illuminate the ignorance of our prejudices?

Why we love Jim Halpert

It’s more than smirking at the camera

The Big Tuna. Paper salesman at Dunder Mifflin, twenty-something college grad. He’s a prankster, old-school romantic, and the everyman in the nine season sitcom, The Office. Jim, played by the handsome-but-just-ordinary-enough John Krasinski, receives as much screen time as several colleagues, but stands out for his relatability. It is through Jim that we see we’re not alone in enduring the small absurdities of the nine-to-five; we are not alone in feeling confused at our choices and where we’ve ended up. Jim is a portrait of the college grad as a twenty-something and a sympathetic shoulder for the viewers entrenched in the daily war of work.

The other protagonists on The Office—for our consideration, Michael, Dwight, and Pam—play roles we can sort into familiar workplace archetypes: Michael is the unqualified and embarrassing boss; Dwight, the alien, annoying colleague; Pam, the one person around whom we can be ourselves. If you know the show, ask yourself: have you labeled one of your colleagues the Dwight of the office? The Pam? Is your boss the Michael Scott type?

If so, notice through which lens you bestow the label—Jim’s. He is the mirror off of which we interpret the other characters, major and minor. Michael’s hatred for Toby, for example, is comic because it is hyperbolic. But it reflects on Michael and not on Toby, who, compared to his boss’s antics, often seems like a voice of reason. Jim’s distaste for him, however, we understand and believe (e.g. it would be frustrating for the legitimacy of your legal and disclosed office relationship to be questioned by HR). Jim is the touchstone; he connects and relates us to the personalities in his world.

A key reason we feel this way is because of how Jim treats the fourth wall. Though The Office is a mockumentary, which means most characters acknowledge or speak to the camera, Jim looks at us more than anyone. He is the thermometer of The Office; his glances, a snapshot of the temperature. It is John Krasinski’s signature talent that with a mere expression he communicates if a situation is serious or surprising, delighting or disgusting or painfully dull. His glances spark a type of catharsis perfected by The Office: confirmation of the banality and absurdity of the everyday. When we are at work and someone says or does something we find ridiculous, we want a friend to share that moment, someone to whom we can say, “Can you believe she said that?” or “Am I crazy for thinking he’s crazy?” Jim’s glances give that to us; they are comfort that we are neither alone nor out of our minds—they bridge our offices to The Office.

Another link is Jim’s disposition towards Dunder Mifflin. In season one he says,

“Right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher in this company, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”

We might be fortunate enough not to have one of those jobs, or perhaps we haven’t yet realized ours is indeed one of them; but the feeling is familiar, and so is Jim’s response: he stays put. He might not like selling reams (on reams on reams) of paper, but he’s unsure what else he would do.

His uncertainty reflects a paradox of career-building: we need experience to discover or create our careers (i.e. what we like to do, credentials), yet to choose a first or second job with a future that appeals to us, we need to already have an outline of the career we’d like. (Not to mention we usually just need a job, period.) Jim’s career confusion and his ambivalence toward Dunder Mifflin reflect the dilemma that unsatisfied twenty-somethings everywhere carry in the back of their minds.

Perhaps these bridges of empathy earn Jim his popularity. Six years after its series finale, The Office remains Netflix’s most-streamed show, accounting for 7% of its 139 million subscribers’ views. For Millennials and Gen Z, The Office may have been a first peek into any workplace, real or fiction. It may have set expectations for the working world, and it might continue to be a coping mechanism for it. Yes, in the course of the show, Michael finds love; Dwight, compassion; Pam, courage; and a host of other characters win our sympathies. We can learn from all of them. But Jim, from pilot till finale, is the rock.

He reminds us we are not alone in our frustration or confusion; he shows us that although we may be faced with boredom and absurdity, little victories can buoy us through the day. While we probably should avoid placing anyone’s office supplies in a vending machine, we can take some helpful cues from Jim: make an effort to find (not necessarily marry) someone with whom we can shoot the breeze, understand when a job is just a job, realize it’s okay to not know yet what we want to do, and try to respond to the weirdness of the working world with humor—maybe with a smirk at an imaginary camera.

The Green Ray: loneliness distilled into film

Summertime, summertime sadness

August arrives, Paris empties. The city deserts for the beach, for the lake, the mountains, abroad. Everyone has somewhere to go and someone to go with—except Delphine, the restless subject of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 The Green Ray. The film resonates as a portrait of solitary sadness because of its selective realism: by juxtaposing Delphine against her plain, happy acquaintances on holiday, Rohmer illuminates the contradictions of loneliness without isolation and depression without apparent cause.

At the holiday’s outset, Delphine’s friend cancels on her to instead trip to Greece with a boyfriend. Recently single after a long engagement, Delphine has an array of replacement vacations offered to her by friends and family, but cannot shake the sense that on them she would be intruding or miserable. While sulking at a friend’s house, she is pressed about her sadness. One girl is frustrated because nothing specific, not even her ex-fiancée, seems to be the source of her angst. The girl provides Delphine with solutions: vacation solo, be more open, initiate new relationships. It takes work to make friends or find a relationship, she says; a lack of effort is no excuse for lacking results. But to Delphine this is all wrong. She feels open to the world—it is the world that does not open itself to her.

Another friend, Françoise, convinces Delphine to accompany her on a family beach trip. Françoise’s family is amicable, and the destination is relaxing; yet instead of enjoying their company, Delphine takes walks alone. Rohmer captures her reluctance to connect in a telling shot on the beach: Françoise’s family plays catch and frolics in the water; then, the camera pans right and finds Delphine shin-deep in the sea, stumbling in the waves. Françoise’s family is out of frame.

Delphine’s listlessness persists and, after a few days, she retreats to Paris. Once there, she decides to try a solo trip and again departs, this time for the Alps. She arrives in the morning; by the afternoon, frustrated with either the tourists or herself, she decides to return to the city. Next, a friend lends Delphine an apartment in the Riviera. On this trip she makes a friend at the beach—a charming Swedish girl who is also traveling alone. The girl picks up two men at a café and plans a night out for the four of them. Finally, it seems, the winds of serendipity favor Delphine.

But while the Swedish girl flirts with the men, Delphine squirms in her seat. She is silent and wears a grim expression. When the girl pushes her to join the conversation and cheer up, Delphine begins to cry and literally flees the scene. Even after one of the men chases her down and professes there is a connection between them, Delphine orders him to buzz off. Alone again, she wanders the boardwalk and overhears an elderly group of beachgoers discuss the green ray, a rare phenomenon in which the last glimmer of the setting sun flashes green. The legend goes that if you see the green ray, you discover your true thoughts and feelings.

It sounds like Delphine’s panacea. Her depression is inexplicable, incurable. When alone, she wants company; when with others, she seeks solitude. Despite the series of excursions taken to remedy her sadness, it refuses to recede; and whenever a bit of happiness seems within reach, she feels the urge to cry. Delphine’s emotions are excruciatingly illogical, and she is desperate to understand them.

Rohmer’s accomplishment is capturing this irrational depression as it really feels. Throughout the film Delphine runs from place to place, person to person, hoping to find a situation that will resolve her feeling of disconnection; but because the problem is in her—is her—she cannot. The anger of her failures to enjoy new acquaintances repeatedly conjures a facial expression that says, simultaneously, “What is wrong with me?” and “What is wrong with everyone?” She is angry at the male expectation that for spending time with her she will sleep with them, angry at herself for denying the relationship advice given by her friends, and angry at fate for refusing her the ideal encounter with the ideal stranger. Delphine’s illogical emotions infuriate her and us: we want to shout, “Pick someone and have a nice time, already!”

Before Delphine boards the Riviera train to Paris, she does. A man sits across from Delphine in the station, their eyes meet, and, after a brief conversation, she asks to accompany him to nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz. There, they chat amicably and walk to an ocean outlook to watch the setting sun. As it sinks, the man asks if she would like to stay with him for a few days. She begins to cry, he holds her, she hushes him. They gaze into the horizon, and at the final gleam the green ray flashes, Delphine gasps, and the film cuts.

Rohmer’s ending is hopeful but resists being a deus ex machina. Delphine finds company with a seemingly kind man and witnesses the green ray—the ingredients of a fateful intervention—but we are left to wonder: was it the universe that delivered her from loneliness, or was it her decision to seize a moment, however imperfect it might be?

Unraveling the real world

Playtime is over

“’Welcome to the real world,’ she said to me / condescendingly,” begins John Mayer’s “No Such Thing.” The song attacks an idea that has been expressed to me all my life, one offered ever more often to my friends and I as we approached high school and then university graduations – the clichéd closes of the supposed best years of our lives.

Mayer’s characterization captures the tone with which people usually speak of the real world. Relatives and neighbors warn kids about it with a sad irony and couple their cautions with advice to savor childhood, high school, or college; or, they lament their own inability to escape. But the common thread uniting those who bemoan the real world is less adulthood or responsibility than it is suppressed yearning. Mayer wonders if parents have “wished for anything better / while in their memories, tiny tragedies.” He hits at the regrets and buried dreams which are the cost of rent in the real world.

Conspicuously absent from this particular strand of unhappy people are artists, entrepreneurs, and those otherwise meaningfully occupied. This is not to say that the pursuit of a passion or meaning or some altruistic end ensures eternal or even sustained happiness, but that doing as Mayer and many others have, deciding that there is “no such thing as the real world,” is a liberation from a false, harmful, and constricting belief – but one that is systemically difficult to beat.

What do real worlders mean when they use the phrase? There are as many definitions as there are users, but the similarities previously mentioned, subdued aspiration and bitterness, and the words themselves, “real” and “world,” make a few key implications.

First, real worlders consciously or unconsciously believe themselves to be confined by some objectively true set of circumstances or rules that are not only real but natural and universal. (Ask yourself if those you hear complain about the real world also overuse the phrase “it is what it is.”) Chief among these circumstances is typically the need to obtain or keep a job which might range in quality from mundane to mind-numbing but is fundamentally characterized by the person wanting, almost always, to be somewhere else instead of at work. Real worlders feel that this need is inherent to their existence: it is a natural circumstance that binds everyone.

The second implication is paradoxical. Real worlders who complain implicitly make the claim that there is at least one other world; however, to them these worlds are somehow invalid. For example, a real worlder may tell a child or student (perhaps with Mayer’s mentioned condescension) that their sorrows are false or meaningless because they do not live in the real world and, therefore, lack real problems.  In this dismissal is the admission that the real world is not all-encompassing: child- and student-hood can lay outside its bounds, along with other, more fulfilling modes of life.

This suggests a boundary between the real and other worlds. Mayer addresses this third implication when he sings “something’s better on the other side.” Graduation might be an instance of such a border, but Mayer is alluding to his own decision to pursue a career in music instead of taking the “so-called right track.” His example demonstrates that the boundary exists and is permeable, even after childhood – Mayer crossed it with a decision.

These implications are made by anyone who refers to the real world as the natural and universal mode of existence that demands they adhere to a set of rules which restricts them from doing what they capital W “Want,” as in “I’ve always Wanted to be a teacher,” or “I Want more than anything to make music.” This restrictive conceptualization of the real world seems to act as a central impediment to self-actualization.

It is also crucially different from the real world’s more literal interpretation as a foil to a fictional or imagined world. This version has utility: in books, television, and movies, happy endings are commonplace, whereas in life they are incredibly rare; and using the real world as a conceptual tool to combat unrealistic expectations about finding a soulmate or saving the world is, if not laudable, at least understandable. But I think the phrase has shifted from this usage to its present, popular, and more pernicious definition, one that serves less as a counterweight to fictional narratives of improbable adventure or love than as a cultural enforcer of the notion that economic security is the primary and natural mandate of existence.

That this is harmful or incorrect might seem laughable. Economic security affords healthcare, shelter, and nutrition, which all are vital and can be painstaking to obtain; but the connotation people now associate with the real world proves something is wrong. If people conceive of the real world as I have described it – and do so contemptuously or dejectedly – they make a fourth implication: the real world is bad, and they would rather live some other way. This is the problem.

How real is it?

Let’s make the assumption that people tell a story to themselves about themselves. Real worlders may or may not believe they do this, but when they lament the rules of the game, they are indeed telling a story, one where they either are a victim or play a victim. I think our situation is more complicated than this – we are somewhere in between.

In Mayer’s “No Such Thing” he tells the story of his victimization by the real world, which, for him, is a contrived narrative of life imposed by cultural expectations and embodied by his parents, teachers, and classmates, who all comply with its demands. But the song is about everyone’s ability to escape such victimization by rising above the real world’s lie. In his idealized story, we are able to break the bounds of the real world by doing what we love instead of what we are expected to do.

We could then assume that there is a process of de-victimization that Mayer and kindred otherworlders followed: they were victims, played victims, then fought their way out of the real world. In the first stage they believed they were victims of the real world, the natural, universal set of circumstances restricting them from doing what they Wanted. Then, via some form of epiphany, they realized that there is no such thing as the real world. In this stage they understand life is not constrained by the real world’s circumstances yet continue to adhere to them. A crucial distinction here is whether they continue to criticize their lives. If they accept the rules and are fulfilled, or do not inwardly or outwardly despair, then this stage is unproblematically satisfactory; but, if they do despair and choose not to change things, they lose victimhood and start playing it. Here is where otherworlders quit playing, summon the courage to accept the risks posed by breaking real world rules (e.g. economic security), and start working towards what they Want.

Because of our predisposition for self-storytelling, I think many of us make it to the second stage and then return to the first. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a hypocrite or a coward, but victimhood requires a kind of heroic endurance. That story, in tandem with consumerism, can sufficiently numb the gnawing thought that there ought to be more to life than economic security.

However, this process is a drastically shortened and simplified side of the story. The risks posed by leaving the real world are not insignificant, and the middle stage – knowing the real world is a lie but not knowing what to do or lacking the courage to change – is messy, arduous, and anxiety-provoking. This is why those stuck in this limbo are not so easily criticized, and why the notion of the real world as fact is problematic.

Yet even if we accept Mayer’s process of de-victimization, why must it and its trials exist at all? Why does it so often feel like we must choose between security or the pursuit of fulfillment? And why, although there are plenty of individuals who achieve both security and fulfillment, do we choose to resent them instead of imitate them?

Partially, it is because what real worlders are feeling is not entirely a fiction. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, believes their perception is accurate, and comes in part from the modern prevalence of what he calls “bullshit jobs.” In an essay that went viral a few years ago, he examines a claim made in 1930 by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes that developed countries, enabled by technological advancements, would have cut the average person’s work week to fifteen hours by 2030. Graeber argues that Keynes was not incorrect – we are capable of meeting his prediction – but that “instead, technology has been marshaled…to make us all work more” at jobs that are, “effectively, pointless.” He cites a study of the U.S. that found between 1910 and 2000 “’professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service [work]…grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment,’” while “productive jobs…[were] largely automated away.”

This leads Graeber to describe the “moral dynamics of our own economy” as a kind of “Hell” comprised of “individuals who [spend] the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” In a later interview with The Economist, he elaborates: “[there] is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others, and remuneration. The result is a toxic political culture of resentment.”

Although the accuracy of Graeber’s arguments are questionable (The New Yorker described his book on the subject, Bullshit Jobs, as informed by “ad-hoc empiricism”), he thinks their validity is proved by their popularity and the way in which people have resonated with them. Like the real world, bullshit jobs are defined more by feeling than objective fact; and it is not the certainty of their existence that makes them problematic, but the prevalence of their perception.

At least in the developed world, it is unclear where on the spectrum between real victim and play victim any worker or most workers reside. There are the John Mayers, those for whom rejecting the lie of the real world turned out to be a lucrative and celebritizing decision; and even though we enjoy what they offer, it is easy to resent them. We wonder what makes them so special, why they have some talent that we lack, how they escaped the real world’s drudgery. It is a cultural habit to think famous and talented people are the superhuman exceptions that prove the real world’s rules, but they are not. “No Such Thing” was recorded when Mayer was 22 and preceded his fame or fortune – his insight about the real world came when the only thing he shared with his present self was his dream and his drive. And beyond Mayer, there are the fulfilled people whose name almost nobody knows: the writers you’ve never read, the teachers you never had, the YouTubers and the podcasters and the many, many other crowdfunded creators. These people liberated their Wants, left the real world, and found or scrounged a way to support themselves and their families.

Yet for all the success stories, those who cannot or will not cross the boundary have justified complaints. Graeber’s bullshit job-holders and real worlders in general face an economy that too often presents the unfair choice between fulfillment and security; and any number of self-help books or inspirational quotes ultimately cannot alleviate the pressures and miseries posed by a decision either way.

This is the sinister brilliance of the “real world.” There are just enough fulfilled people speaking from the TED stage or elsewhere to make it feel distantly possible to become one of them if we work hard enough, even though hard work seems to be frequently misdirected into a black hole of BS euphemized as ladder-climbing or “just the way things are.” To prevent despair we tell ourselves and children that this mode of existence is natural and “it is what it is,” despite it being a relatively recent phenomenon and not at all the way things have to be on the individual or societal scales. Calling this state of affairs the real world is an insidious linguistic trick which stops any thoughts of reform (personal or otherwise) before or soon after they start.

The “real world” loves to go unquestioned: it’s crucial to business-as-usual. So ask yourself what you are doing when you complain about life in the real world. Ask if your job really needs to exist – does it help anyone beyond the shareholders? Do you feel like you are contributing something positive? Something meaningful? What is it that you Want to do instead? And when someone else deplores the real world, ask them what they are really trying to say, what story they are telling. To everything, to yourself, ask why.

The inexorable disaster of L’avenir

Disaster connotes terrible, tragic, and ill-timed events. This expectation makes Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2016 film L’avenir (Things to Come) moving and insightful. For her, disaster is instead the predictable milestones of human life.

Nathalie Chazeaux is a middle-aged philosophy professor working in Paris, mired in an intellectually fulfilling but routine life. When young protesters bar entrance to her school, she pushes through their shouts and quotes Rousseau to her class. Centuries have tested his ideas and still they govern; protesters bicker over details of policy. Nathalie, like Rousseau, is stability.

Until disaster strikes. Barraged by crises – the decline and death of her mother, her children’s departure from home, a cheating husband – Nathalie’s life shatters into unfamiliar territory that is both freeing and depressing. She turns to Fabien, a clever former student, for support. He is an radical intellectual willing to sleep on the Parisian streets to protest, but trades city life to live on a farm nestled below the Alps. Nathalie decides to spend her summer vacation there, and is welcomed by Fabien and a cohort of anarchist writers eager for revolution.

Nathalie’s response to her troubles is unspectacular: she cries frequently, takes solace in a cat, and buries herself in books; however, it is this mundanity that proves her strength. Unlike most midlife-crisis stories, she does nothing drastic like quitting her job or making a splashy purchase. Her coping mechanisms are simple, benign, and harmless. When asked by Fabien if she is going to shake up her life, she replies that her intellectual life is plenty fulfilling.

On the farm Nathalie learns more about her prized student. His friends are working to destroy the notion of authorship; stowed on a bookshelf is a copy of the Unabomber manifesto. The group claims they are committed to revolution, but live contentedly in an Alpine paradise. Fabien and his pals get high, play in mountain streams, and write about changing the world. When asked why she does not want revolution, Nathalie responds that she is too old; not that she is incapable, but that she no longer thinks it the best option. She admits to being a communist for several years in her youth, but is long past that. Fabien is disappointed.

Nathalie and Fabien’s contrasting conceptions of and responses to disaster are barometers for their wisdom and maturity. Nathalie never expounds her personal beliefs, but her philosophy bleeds through her actions. Faced with disaster she prioritizes her children and students, steadily beats away sadness with time and reading, and never lashes out. Fabien’s situation is superb – in addition to the beautiful farm, he has a charming girlfriend and a book deal – yet he is bitter at the world for its flaws. He sees disaster in everything and champions a philosophy of radical revolt, but his life is pleasant and self-centered. Spurred by Nathalie’s rejection of the idea that the cost of radical progress might be human life, Fabien claims she is a hypocrite because she thinks grandly about change but does not act. Nathalie rebuts that her philosophy does not preclude a comfortable lifestyle, and she acts by teaching her students to think for themselves. She refrains from accusing Fabien of anything, although he seems the bigger hypocrite.

Nathalie returns from the mountains to Paris and reenters the grind. She accepts and moves past her disasters and continues teaching what she cares about. The film ends with a demonstration of Nathalie’s strength: her husband’s girlfriend has left him alone on Christmas and he pines to spend it with her and their kids, but she shoos him out of her apartment. She does not need him; she does not sympathize; she is confident in her decisions and her independence.

The film’s brilliance is its simplicity (and its acting). Personal disaster is inevitable and brought on by the steady creep of time. Though it culminates in a single event like death or divorce, it is never truly sudden. Nathalie’s wisdom and strength do not shield her from disaster, but they do not break under its pressure, either. She is a strong character because she allows herself to be sad and suffer, but remains confident about her outlook and her choices. She maintains perspective despite the emotional turmoil, and lets time soothe her wounds.

Through Nathalie and Fabien, Hansen-Løve says that youth is angry when it should be relishing the gifts of health and freedom, and that age and experience are humble, resolved, and a little boring. Changing the world is an everyday process, done by teaching, caring for a sick relative, and raising children. Fabien’s altruism is an illusion: moving to the mountains to plan revolution helps no one. You cannot save up time and energy to make change all at once: you have to make it every day. Disaster will one day strike Fabien like it will everyone, and no grandiose or complex philosophy will guard against the pain. The better option is to keep pushing forward, manifesting benevolence through a consistent, generous, intellectual, and practical life.

Meursault’s indifference in The Stranger

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” These words, when uttered before reading the text, reflected of their orator a different character than displayed throughout the remainder of The Stranger. Monsieur Meursault is strange, yes, but Mr. Indifferent would perhaps be a more fitting title for his story.

The frankness and directness of part one brings an immediacy to his character. It is indicative of his observatory powers, and the sensory absurdity and backwardness with which the world affects him. The bus rattles loudly, he is induced to sleep. The lights are blindingly white, he is induced to sleep. He is given coffee, he is induced to sleep. Again and again Meursault’s environment elicits the reverse of the reaction one might normally expect; the same could be said of the story’s events. His mother dies, and it troubles him only for the logistical reasons: it’s a long trip to her home, he has to pay bus fare, he needs to borrow a suit from a friend. What he does and does not feel are more representative of a trip to the county clerk than a funeral. The reader must admire his authenticity, however, because he does not feign grief where he has none. He does not pretend to know his mother’s age, desire to see her before the burial, or shed a tear at her vigil. The whole affair is a trifle – a bother he apologizes to his boss for missing work over.

Meursault’s indifference is not quite apathy: it is more like extreme clarity. The objectivity of everything is apparent to him, and he treats it as such – including his own thoughts and feelings. If something is agreeable, he agrees. If he has something to say, he speaks, and if not, he is silent. Several characters – Salamano, Celeste, Maria, Raymond – admire his demonstrated simplicity. To them it is manly, mysterious, or calming. Unusual, perhaps, but only by comparison to their emotional amplitudes. It is almost a virtue.

Camus exhibits human absurdity and impossibility with the polar stories of Raymond and Salamano, both centered about Meursault’s own. Raymond tells Meursault he had a lady for a while, gave her more than enough money to live on, treated her well, and was in return asked for more money and less companionship. Upon deciding that she was cheating on him, he beats her senseless and throws her out. Old man Salamano has a diseased dog that he bludgeons and curses daily. He constantly complains about the dog, but when it runs away from him one afternoon he is struck with a deep depression. He mourns over the loss of the dog, wonders where he might find it, and laments the loneliness to which he is condemned. The dog was all he had, and he was a great dog, just old, that’s all. Between these two tales is Meursault’s wooing of Marie, a former colleague. He goes to the beach because he wants to, talks to Marie because he feels like it, sleeps with her because it is desirable, and continues to see her because she appeals to him. But in each interaction he has with Marie, he acts objectively and indifferently. The cause of his want is clear to him, and so he follows it. Marie’s affectionate gestures are almost dismissed: he responds to her confession of love, “it [doesn’t] mean anything but I [don’t] think [I love you].” Again, like his defense about the inconvenience of his mother’s death to his boss, Meursault feels the need to qualify his indifference. He understands that he is not like others, and expresses it not with remorse, but objectivity. And he wins: Raymond treats his girl with surfeit and she cheats on him, Salamano treats his dog with contempt and he runs away, but Meursault treats Maria, the loveliest of all three mates, with indifference, and wins her heart. It is the absurdity of human connection in Goldilocks form, and Meursault’s treatment is just right.

Meursault’s indifferent agreeability leads him to trouble. Raymond, who delights in calling Meursault his “pal”, involves him in a scheme to lure his ex-girl back to his apartment so that he can beat her senseless again. Meursault sees no reason to object, and participates. When the girl arrives and is beaten, he abstains from intervening in the violence. Meursault does not turn himself into a moral arbiter, as we might think we would do. We might do nothing and feel bad about it, or do something and feel good about it; Meursault does what is asked of him because he cannot see why not, and feels nothing about it. His action and then inaction might compare with ours, but it his indifference that marks the contrast. This idea is touched upon several times: the result of an decision may be the same as if a “normally” emotional person did as Meursault, but it is the lack of inner conflict that separates them.

Meursault’s overwhelming objectivity may be representative of his creator’s existential philosophy: things in themselves have no predetermined essence, but are bestowed one by humanity. Meursault strips people and events to the bare – even the warmest of interactions. When he kisses Marie, it does not mean anything, he does it merely because he can and wants to. To her it might mean that he loves her, or that she is the one – all of the things a kiss symbolizes, or its essence.

When Meursault kills a man, it is not an accident, but the reader cannot help feel that is not entirely his fault. He is afflicted with the same sun-induced haze that he experienced during his mother’s funeral. The reader knows it swells his head and makes him fuzzy because of his previous description earlier in the story. The Arab he shoots is dangerous to him, he knows it, and in tandem with the imposing sun causes him to commit the crime. It does not seem to be, as the prosecuting attorney will later state, premeditated. It seems as accidental and unfortunate as a homicide can be. At the same time, the reader can acknowledge that no murder is truly accidental or unlucky; it takes a person a great deal of gall to shoot someone, and the act almost universally demands passion either before or after in the form anger or remorse. Meursault the murderer is neither angry nor remorseful, and it condemns him.

The legal proceedings in part two are written in a different style than the blunt conciseness of part one. Here Camus allows Meursault to muse in addition to observe. The writing is at points lyrical, though what this indicates about Meursault’s altered or non-altered character is unclear. Physically he is in a jail; this gives him more time to think than act, and perhaps that is all the reader should observe. In a life of acting, objectivity is best. When time becomes a burden, so too does thought, and the brain responds by entertaining itself.

Meursault’s indifference is at first met with hostility. The attending magistrate and his lawyer both are somewhat appalled and disgusted at his lack of remorse. Soon, however, they move on. Meursault acknowledges that his routine questionings become quite pleasant; the magistrate even pats him on the back as he exits. Here again Meursault’s agreeability, even as a committed criminal, endears him to others.

He notes that while his loss of freedom is painful, it is not unendurable. A guard who takes to Meursault’s personality converses with him on the purpose of jail. The stripping of choice and freedom – that is the punishment. Jail would mean nothing if its inhabitants could act freely, but it would also mean nothing if they did not desire to do so. The reader may dwell on Meursault’s previous life – one of habit and demand – and compare it to his jailed existence, or to their own, habitual lives. Camus asks that we examine our daily lives and how insignificant they truly are. What is a day, really? Meursault’s experience is the vehicle in which we might find objective truth. There is no meaning to what we eat for breakfast, who we speak with, what we learn; WE give all of these things meaning, and WE provide life a meaning. It may be constructed consciously or subconsciously, but it is constructed all the same.

An absurd exchange occurs when Marie visits Meursault in jail. All around the visiting room inmates are conversing. Many of them are shouting so that their interlocutor can hear, but he notes that some Arabs are squatting low to the ground and speaking in hushed voices, and that they can hear each other fine. In one conversation stall beside Meursault, a boy and his mother do not talk at all: they instead stare at each other. In the other stall next to Meursault, a man and woman shout at each other at the top of their lungs about groceries and other trifles. Camus again displays the absurdity of humanity: to be heard one need not shout, to shout does not mean to speak, and the most meaningful of all interaction may be plain silence.

Meursault’s murder trial is a spectacle that gets worked up by the press because of a lack of other headlines. He admits guilt outright, and the battle between defense and prosecution becomes over his character. The prosecution excessively delves into Meursault’s apathy while at his mother’s funeral, calls his frivolous activity with Marie the day after the funeral inhuman, and says his involvement in Raymond’s beating of the girl was malicious. His defense rebukes each event with the opposite sentiment, and remarks about the prosecutor’s argument that “everything is true and nothing is true.” Meursault thinks to himself several times that the whole ordeal seems no longer to be about him, the murderer; it is instead a battle between two men to instill a different meaning into reality.

The prosecution rests his case by asserting that Meursault is an unfeeling monster who deserves decapitation because he is a threat to society. The defense rebuts that he is as unlucky as a murderer can be given the circumstances, and that all the talk of his soullessness is rubbish. Meursault is committed to the guillotine by the judges and jury. Camus shows the weakness of the human mind in this indictment. Meursault is monstrous and foreign because he is, in a way, superior. He is indifferent and objective; he does not lump meaning into every detail of life. He goes about his business as he sees fit and judges nothing to be this or that if it is not. By condemning Meursault to death, the people have shown they are susceptible to spectacle, to fear, and to unreality. They are weak – we are weak – and are willing to be given meaning by the most convincing orator in the vicinity.

Meursault’s knowledge of his impending death inspires a final surge of emotion in him. His previous indifference and objectivity gives way to longing. He acknowledges his happiness outside jail, his joy on the beach, and Marie’s loveliness. He allows certainty and hope to alternate in his mind: first that his appeal will be denied and that he will die, then that he will be granted a second chance. There is no reality in these thoughts – he is imbuing it – but still it affects him. His new sentimentality ruptures in a confrontation with a chaplain. The chaplain condescends to him about the existence of God and heaven, but Meursault does not budge. He defends his nonbelief, and asserts in exasperation that death will come to all, that nothing matters, and that “everybody is privileged.” Camus’s word choice – privilege – is powerful. We are condemned not to live but to die; and life, while it lasts, is a privilege. Despite the final condemnation, despite the meaninglessness of it all, life is a privilege.

The chaplain leaves with tears in his eyes; perhaps he believes Meursault has found God. In a way, he has. Meursault casts aside his hope and surrenders to the “gentle indifference” of the world. Life is not vengeful, lucky, cruel, sacred, or wondrous: it is indifferent. Emotions and feelings come indiscriminately, or we conjure them ourselves. Meursault finishes his story with an objective and absurd observation: for him not to feel lonely at the execution he need only hope there are people there crying out at him in hate.