Living in the same era, Camus and Sartre individually helped to form the school of existentialism. Of course there were others: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, etc. But I have chosen Camus and Sartre because of the closeness in the publication of their first novels. Camus published his first novel, The Stranger, in 1942, while Sartre published his first novel, Nausea, in 1938. I am interested in the way they look at change in The Stranger and Nausea.
In The Stranger, the main character is Mersault. His mother dies and he travels to her home for the burial. The day after the funeral, Mersault gets together with a woman, Marie. He becomes friends with Raymond, a neighbor. Raymond is having an argument with some Arabs. Mersault is then pulled into the dispute between Raymond and the Arabs. Finally, on a sunny afternoon at the beach, Mersault kills one of the Arabs, even though he really has nothing against him. Mersault is put on trial and sentenced to death.
Nausea is the journal of Antoine Roquentin; Nausea is the resulting disorientation Roquentin feels from having his existence revealed. Through a self analysis, Roquentin discovers that his existence is meaningless. He has been living for the past three years in the French town of Bouville and is working on a history book.
Mersault is characterized by an indifference to change. At one time, Mersault gets an invitation to move to Paris by his boss, but he declines. Mersault says that "people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't dissatisfied with mine at all." (Camus, p. 41) Mersault is content with what he got. He has his work, his home and his girl: it's all he needs. He lives, like Roquentin, in solitude, reflecting upon the actions of others. But he never gets involved since it doesn't matter to him. He neither feels happy nor sad. It is as if all emotions were drained from his body. But he is not melancholic: he laughs and enjoys the beauty of the beach, and his girlfriend. He quickly adjusts back to his normal routine after his mother dies and solemnly reflects:
It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed. (Camus, p. 24)
Roquentin starts to discuss change when his friend, the Self-Taught Man, asks Roquentin if he ever had any adventures. Roquentin thinks "I never had any adventures. Things have happened to me, events, incidents, anything you like. But no adventures." (Sartre, p. 37) He then defines that an event happens when there is a landmark, a drastic change.
There must be a beginning for change to occur. "Something is beginning in order to end: adventure does not let itself be drawn out; it only makes sense when dead." (Sartre, p. 37) It's only when he looks at the event afterwards, when it is "dead," that he realizes he has been through an adventure. Each moment is unique, yet fragile. The following day, Roquentin partly rethinks his conception and states that "Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that's all. There are no beginnings....neither is there any end." (Sartre, p. 39) Roquentin denies the possibility of real change. The world around us seems to alter, but the change is just an endless circle leading nowhere. But he seems to change that view when he says "Nothing has changed and yet everything is different. I can't describe it; it's like the Nausea and yet it's just the opposite." (Sartre, p. 54)
In order for Roquentin to even say "Nothing," he must acknowledge the possibility of something-change. It is a rather strong contradiction. He goes on to define this standpoint by stating that we lure our perception into believing that we really see change, when we in fact don't.
You see a woman, you think that one day she'll be old, only you don't see her grow old. But there are moments when you think you see her grow old and feel yourself growing old with her: this is the feeling of adventure. (Sartre, p. 57)
For Roquentin, change is only in our mind. Reality never changes. Could change be defined as stable? If time is broken down infinitely into smaller time frames, change would be so small that it appears as if nothing happens. Take a roll of film and let each frame represent an event. If we run the frames fast enough, a string of event will flash before us, which appears to be change. But if we look at each frame individually, all we would see is static events. Another explanation for Roquentin's position could be that we change internally in symbiosis with external objects. This would explain Roquentin's view: when two things (objects, human mind etc.) change concurrently, nothing seems to happen. If two trees are growing taller at an equal rate, they appear not to have changed relatively to each other.
Roquentin is driven by his anxiety and anguish to believe that change might happen. There is something out there waiting for him. It is his existence. This is so powerful that it scares him.
Sometimes, my heart pounding, I made a sudden right-about-turn: what was happening behind my back? Maybe it would start behind me and when I could turn around, suddenly, it would be too late. As long as I could stare at things nothing would happen. (Sartre, p. 78)
Roquentin is claustrophobic. Is he attempting to equate change to fear? When we are afraid, we expect something bad to happen. We therefore seek adventure because it scares us. This is what Mersault is doing when he kills the Arab. Raymond and him had a couple of hours earlier been in a fight with the Arabs on the beach. The fight had ended with Raymond getting wounded. After taking care of Raymond, Mersault leaves the beach house alone, carrying a gun in his pocket. Even though he is unaware of why he is going back to the beach, he is looking for something. And in the back of the mind, he is looking to regain the feeling he had during their initial fight. Thus, he is seeking, not as much revenge for his friend's wounds, but for his own pleasure. The pleasure would come from the beginning of an adventure, a landmark, change.
For Roquentin, change is impossible, but it exists in our imagination, which is a dilemma for him. This is the synthesis of his thoughts: he is unable to say that change doesn't exist, but at the same time he wants to think that. Roquentin is going through a metamorphosis in which he is discovering his existence. And in doing so, he realizes that something has happened within him. He acknowledges that he isn't the same person anymore, but his mind drifts into memories as to shelter him from the pressing reality, which threatens to force him to accept change. By setting reality apart from himself, his mind can adapt, and he can feel safe.
This feeling of a non-changing world, relates to Mersault sitting in jail and adapting to a life which after a while doesn't seem different from the life outside the prison; but life is different since he is now to be decapitated. It's only during the last few hours of his life that he starts living. He is now finally letting out all his anguish to the priest who has come to see him. The priest is trying to make Mersault perform acts of repentance, but Mersault refuses. He sees no reason to change his view:
What did other people's death or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we are all elected by the same faith, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn't he see, couldn't he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. (Camus, p. 121)
Mersault means that we are all facing the same privileged destiny, death. It's unavoidable. And yet, for some reason, we strive for change. Other people's lives or beliefs doesn't affect Mersault. Nothing matters except death. Everybody is connected to each other in Mersault's world by this absurdity. The feeling of being privileged, to have something in common, brings us closer together. But ultimately we have to face death alone, which make us live in solitude. This is the only moment when Mersault feels something. All the previous events have passed him by: the death of his mother, his girlfriend, killing a man. He lives for one moment. He cares for one moment.
Seeing the painting of a deceased bachelor, Roquentin concludes that he needs to change, otherwise he will die alone, in solitude, just as he lives his life.
This man had lived only for himself. By a harsh and well deserved punishment, no one had come to his beside to close his eyes. This painting gave me a last warning: there was still time, I could retrace my steps. But if I were to turn a deaf ear, I had been forewarned. (Sartre, p.83)
He realizes that his reality is shaped by his actions. Thus, he has the freedom to change his reality. What he does now will determine his future. Thus, he needs to take action now, while there is still time.
Roquentin is changing his attitude towards change. For many years, he was traveling around the world. Then he got bored and moved to Bouville. At that time he seemed to despise change. Now, at the end of the book, he is once again restlessly seeking some kind of change. Roquentin has come full circle.
He is disillusioned: he doesn't know what he wants to achieve with a change. He doesn't think the Nausea will leave him. Maybe he is looking for change to somewhat ease the Nausea, by running away from it, by moving to Paris. He has based his life in Bouville, a city where he has discovered everything, where he knows the people and their behavior, the houses and the city's atmosphere.
The similarity between Roquentin and Mersault is strong. They both lack an understanding of the purpose of change. The difference comes mostly in that Roquentin feels disgust for those who haven't discovered that change isn't real. Mersault just doesn't care. Mersault isn't only despising change, he is indifferent to it.
In the end, both seem to be accepting life and their existence. It seems strange for me to read that they acculturate themselves that easily. They almost contradict themselves. They have previously shown how absurd life is: that what we do doesn't really matter. But now they are both awaiting a change: Mersault will die and Roquentin will leave Bouville. But just as this change will invariably end their lives as they know it, they find resurrection in this fragile event. In the strange and almost happy ending, Mersault even says,
I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself-so like a brother really-I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. (Camus, p. 122)
At first, this seemed to mean that he finally had found the freedom to be happy. But it is more than that: Mersault is feeling that he must have lived a happy life after all. By accepting his memories, he has changed. Roquentin also ends in a happy tone. He starts a new chapter in his life: a chapter of a new book, to be written in a new city. He longs for the future and how the future might make his memories happier. Waiting for the train, Roquentin dreams of what he might one day feel about this moment: "'That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started.' And I might succeed-in the past, nothing but the past-in accepting myself." (Sartre, p. 178) Roquentin runs blindly into the future, in the belief that it will make everything better. And just as Mersault, he accepts the life he has lived.
Albert Camus. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Random House, Inc. 1988.
Jean Paul Sartre. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp. 1964.