Friday, December 08, 2006


The Stranger: a novel of depression

A couple of months back I re-read Camus' The Stranger, the first time since college. I started because I heard president Bush Jr. had read it, but I finished it because I had seen something in this book I have never heard discussed: the presence of clinical depression in this novel.

Perhaps no one has seen it due to the scafolding of Existenitalism that usually is erected around this work. (Re-reading the novel, I found it hard to find any sign of Existentialism in it; it appeared to me to be a case of a meaning read into the work, much like a Christian message in Shakespeare's King Lear.) Yet from the opening page, its presence leaps out to any reader who has struggled with this disability: the flat affect, the hyperawareness of things around him, the growing boredom with the inactivity this condition imposes on the subject -- which far too often leads to an impulsive choice that, in the end, is harmful. A depressed person would not only more likely notice such things as Mersault's neighbor with the dog and the robotic woman at the restaurant. The first would only confirm the feeling that all relationships are ineffective and useless, while the second confirms the sense that we humans are burdened by our awareness and that we would not only be happier but more free if we could retreat from our humanity. If Mersault had believed that relationships have meaning, would he have so readily accepted the friendship of a shady character like Raymond?

The final scene, where Mersault is confronted by an incompetent priest who demands that he ask God for forgiveness, repeats those two common perceptions of a depressed mind. At this point what Mersault needs is not a banal evangelical speech, but someone to break through to him and explain his mental state. Then again, had someone communicated this information to Mersault far earlier in the book, it would have prevented its fatal outcomes. As the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates first observed, even the diagnosis of an illness alone can help the patient, for knowledge of the illness's course gives some control to the patient of what will happen to her or him.

Then again, perhaps the example of undiagnosed clinical depression is an example of Bad Faith: is it not the responsibility of a person to realize that something is wrong with him, and to understand its nature? Many mental illnesses, especially those which are not severe, remain undiagnosed due to willful denial, either by the individual who has the illness or by the people around him. Even in those days, before depression was recognized as a valid medical condition, it was known that the death of a parent would lead to a sadness that impared the child's abilities. And that we all express our sadness in our own, individual ways.


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