Creativity comes through individuals but no one successfully creates alone. It is mysterious only to outsiders who can't see how it is done and mystify it further by calling it genius. No one has it all life through; their creativity takes off when they find their distinctive technique and their niche in the world of rivals, audiences, and downstream followers. And one learns it by getting deep inside a network of intellectual and artistic life, recombining and flipping techniques to produce something resoundingly new. Creativity via Sociology shows how they do it.

Friday, December 16, 2016


Jack Kerouac in 1960 was fleeing from being famous. On the Road, published 3 years before, has reporters knocking on his door and pursuing him for interviews wherever he goes. Everyone in the literary bookshops in San Francisco recognizes him, and his secret visit to the bars and skid row hangouts is no secret at all, and ladies come in wanting a real beatnik for her party, so there is no way to deal with it except be rude and drink more and more, and finally he gets a cheap bus ticket to Big Sur where a hip friend has a cabin he can use.

(I will pause for breath even though Kerouac rarely does, just a nonstop stream of words in the present tense.)  Jack digs the ocean and having no people around and he is going to get down to writing another novel but first he will have a drink. Then he is walking in the canyon where the wind roars and the ocean has a voice and then the bottle is empty and he goes to bed. He wakes up in the morning without any food, but first he would rather have a drink but the bottle is empty. So he hitch-hikes up the mountain to the nearest tavern, where he has several drinks including a Manhattan with a cherry in it for nutrition, and he starts feeling like writing again, but this time makes sure he brings a couple of bottles back to the cabin. After three weeks of this, he can’t stand it any more, so he goes back to San Francisco, where everything is just like it was last time. So he rides 50 miles down to the farm country to see his old buddy Cody who drove back and forth across the country with him stoned in his last book and they do some drinking and driving around. Then it’s back to San Francisco and then Cody and a bunch from Los Gatos all pile in a car and go to the cabin at Big Sur where they get in each other’s way. Jack gets into a really long binge which goes like this: every day he drinks until he feels sick. Then he gets up in the morning and starts drinking to ease the hangover. He doesn’t feel like eating so when he’s hungry he drinks to get some energy in his body. This does something to his metabolism so after a while he can’t sleep. So he is hallucinating and wandering around and quarreling with people until something happens that pulls the plug on him and he sobers up for a while--

There’s more. We haven’t touched on the Zen/ beat theme and the literary movement and their drop-out trip and why the beats are different than the hippies that came after them. The point here is only that a writer has to have something to write about and a style in which to write it, and Kerouac got both of them by seeking intoxication. He’s not the only one, which is why Kerouac is a good entry-point for a whole movement. For another pointer-reading, take Norman Mailer.

Mailer and Kerouac are about the same age, in fact Mailer was born a year later (in 1923), but he became a best-selling author in 1948 for his war novel, The Naked and the Dead, while Kerouac was still trying to get his book published about bumming his way across America. The theme of intoxication is not important in Mailer’s earliest novels, but it looms more centrally into the 1960s when Mailer is a celebrity, a self-appointed political guru, an obnoxious drunk, and one of the most extreme self-promoters of that counter-culture decade. Mailer also happened to be a writer with flashes of excellence-- clear and easy to follow, a sharp eye for how things look and an ear for the way people talk, energetic writing that moves you forward on the page. For the sociology of creativity, it is very worth explaining how one acquires these skills, and the fact that Mailer is good at some aspects of writing and fails at others makes him useful for dissecting what makes a writer tick.

Here is Mailer in one of his most successful books, The Armies of the Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The topic is a big anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C. to shut down the Pentagon, or at least dramatize opposition to the Vietnam War by the tactic of non-violent resistance and getting arrested. Mailer puts himself in the center of the narrative, which is legitimate enough since he was one of the celebrity intellectuals invited by the organizers to make speeches and draw attention to their cause by their willingness to emulate Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Mailer is both participant and observer, and he uses his tell-it-like-it-is style to include backstage preparation for speeches in leftist political meetings and what it is like to be thrown into a police van. Mailer thus acquired literary acclaim for breaking down the boundaries between novel-writing and news reporting, becoming known as an exemplar of “the new journalism” along with Tom Wolfe and (on the heavily drugged-out side) Hunter Thompson.

Armies of the Night is Mailer’s breakthrough performance. He is very self-conscious about his rank in the American literary pantheon; thus he is pleased to write about himself marching next to “America’s best poet?” (Robert Lowell) as “America’s best novelist??” But not to follow traditional decorum.  He gets roaring drunk the night before the demonstration, when the big names are supposed to make inspiring speeches at a rally. Just before going on stage, Mailer urgently has to take a piss, but he can’t find the light switch in the bathroom so he pisses on the floor. This gives him the idea of confessing he’s the one who did it so the hostile press can’t accuse the demonstrators of being slobs. He loves the idea because it will bring existential reality into the artificiality of public speech-making, and when he finally gets on stage he makes it the main point of his obscenity-laden speech. This tells you something about Mailer’s judgment, and how his worst ideas come from his belief that intoxication is writer’s satori.

The other side of Mailer’s method gets his book back on track. Once the march starts moving, he delivers perceptive details of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon (mostly small-town boys, like those he knew in the Army) and the demonstrators (mostly urban and educated) who clash with them.  Mailer continues his own preoccupations. He had planned to attend an exclusive party in New York that evening, and he grows impatient that the march is taking so long. So he makes himself one of the first to cross the open grass, accosting a military guard to arrest him; then he mingles details about being held in the same paddy wagon as right-wing counter-demonstrators, with his urgent need to get booked, bailed out, back on the plane and on the way to his Manhattan soirée. Honesty, egotism, political relevance, mix with not a little drunken recklessness to power the book to its conclusion. (Which is that he has indeed succeeded in writing The Novel as History, plus a sermon on how America lost its mojo.)

Intoxication as topic or as method

Intoxication is writer’s capital in two senses:  a topic for a writer to write about;  or intoxication as a method of writing, writing while drunk or stoned.

Intoxication as topic was explored by naturalistic writers like James Joyce describing the taverns of Dublin (later he did a riff on drunkenness as stream of consciousness). Hemingway had his impotent narrator watch his companion exiles from Prohibition America drinking and coupling in 1920s Paris. The genre goes back at least to De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and medieval student-monks wrote Latin poem/songs about drinking.

Intoxication as writing method has been extolled since antiquity, but it clashes with the general pattern that most writers are disciplined and at least partly methodical, using notebooks, outlining, drafts, revising, putting in long months or years to see projects to completion. Historically some writers were heavy drinkers (and more recently, drug-users) but many were not;  some carousing authors alternated respites of intoxication with long hours of literary concentration. If and where intoxication was actually a creative method needs ferreting out in the details of how authors spent their time while writing.

The Cult of Intoxication

What makes intoxication important for a particular ecology of writers is that both kinds of capital overlap in a cult of intoxication. The writer is inspired: by the sheer act of creativity, of words in flight through one’s head and one’s pen, by the lyrical desire to sing what is in your heart, by  echoes of  pagan incantation in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Zen monks in medieval Japan had to produce as evidence of Enlightenment a poem that conveyed their experience. Baudelaire epitomizes the modern cult of the writer, simultaneously the free spirit unchained from social convention, the aristocrat of taste and perception, and the energized professional who can meet journal deadlines with a music review, an art exhibit criticism, or a serialized novel. Those were the social conditions for the writer’s cult of the 1850s; Baudelaire’s expression of it was the artist as magician in a world of bored readers.

Balzac contributed to the emerging cult by fueling himself through all-nighters with 50 cups of café noir, as he penned endless revisions directly on printer’s proofs. (He produced 85 novels in a spurt of 20 years, before dying, not too surprisingly, at age 50.) Downstream from  Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud deliberately engaged in “a reasoned derangement of the senses” by means of absinthe, hashish, whatever was available; and succeeded in writing memorably gnomic poems: 

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
            Golfes d’ombres; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’umbelles;

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I will tell some day your latent births:
A, black corset hairy with brilliant flies
That bulge around cruel stenches,
             Gulfs of shadow; E, artlessness of vapours and booths,
Launched by proud ices, white kings, thrills of umbrella-shapes;

I, poupres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;
            U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

I, crimson, spit-up blood, laugh of beautiful lips
In anger or drunken penitence;
            U, cycles, divine vibrations of heaving seas,
Peace of meadows scattered with animals, peace of wrinkles
That alchemy prints on great studious foreheads;

            O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:
--O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!

O, supreme bugle full of strange shrillness,
Silences traversed by Worlds and Angels
-- O the Omega, violet ray of His Eyes!

Rimbaud still writes formally conventional verse, rhythm and rhyme; the stylistic break is in the shock of word associations. Does it have a meaning? It was not written to express a preconceived idea; the method itself creates striking phrases that readers must parse for themselves. Much in the same way rock bands of the 1960s gave themselves names like Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Where can you go after this, if you are a writer at the beginning of the 20th century?  Several places. Balzac was a caffeine freak but his method was naturalistic word-pictures of all corners of French society, propelled by melodramatic plots. These genres prospered for another century in novels of society and popular adventure, the invention of the detective story, and several other niches where an abundance of writers could find work.  Not everybody took the Fleurs du mal / Bateau ivre route.  Why then does the cult of intoxication come back so strongly in the 20th century, from the 1920s through the 60s?

The Partying Scene of the 1920s

The obvious thing would be Prohibition. The underground drinking scene of speak-easies and bootleggers gave American writers something new to write about, and they could be ironic or moralizing about what the change in American manners meant. But it wasn’t just an American phenomenon. American writers flocked to Paris where they wrote about the easy drinking and easy sex among the expatriots. But the expats were also British and other nationalities, who had no Prohibition but were mixing in the same scene, which they variously interpreted as loss of values, disillusionment from WWI, but also attraction to the center of action in literature, painting, and modernism generally.

In fact there was a new social phenomenon in the Roaring Twenties. Superficially it was the wild and crazy parties of the younger generation, thumbing their nose at the stiff formality of the older generation-- which, they could add, had disgraced themselves with their stupidity in promoting a devastating and pointless war. Fitzgerald became famous for writing about the partying scene in the U.S., but  the same kind of scene provides the materials for Evelyn Waugh’s and Aldous Huxley’s early novels of youthful high society in England. Germany has it too, reflected in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf  (the name of a Berlin bar that is the entrance to an alternative reality, more drug-flavored than alcoholic). Underneath the ideological blaming was a structural change: the breakdown of the traditional marriage market controlled by adults, and its replacement by a courtship scene where young people picked their own partners in affairs that began in fun parties. Love used to be sentimental but led to socially sound matches; now love is fun and excitement, leading to marrying the really fun guy or gal. If you were rich enough on your parents’ money, or had a good job in the booming Twenties, you could keep up the partying scene after you were married, full of fun couples like Scott and Zelda and the hilarious stunts they were always cooking up. (Evelyn Waugh gives a more sardonic picture of this than Fitzgerald, who is always sentimentalizing his alter-ego heroes, then bringing them down with a romantic/tragic crash like his bootlegger hero Gatsby who can’t get the rich girl after all, even though he does give better parties.) The sexual revolution isn’t yet full scale, compared to what happens later in the century, but the partying scene of the 20s is not only flirtation for the young but adulterous affairs later on and the growing acceptance of divorce (reaching even the King of England in 1936); in short, on the way to modern serial monogamy.

All this was great material for novelists, who at their best are sociologists of the moving social frontier. It also fed the modern cult of intoxication. Fun parties and zany antics were best engineered with a heavy dose of alcohol, but mixed with the excitements of flirtation, and a mild amount of sex (the real sexual outburst, as Kinsey, Laumann and others have shown, came decades later). Above all, making the scene, being present at the really cool party is more important than anything else. (Not for nothing does Norman Mailer waver between stopping the Vietnam War and attending a high-status party in New York.)

As further proof that Prohibition (repealed in 1933) was not the cause, the partying cult continued into the WWII years and after. Drinking was a big part of seeing it through, especially in London during the blitz, along with singing and rolling home in the arms of your buddies. This was mass-participation drinking, with nothing specific to intellectuals. Why does there emerge a full-scale intellectual cult of intoxication in the postwar era? This time the U.S. is the center, already in the late 1940s, when Jack Kerouac is trying to hitch-hike his way out of New York City (although the term Beats does not catch on until the late 50s). The timing is a puzzle, since this is the period of postwar economic boom, and America has vaulted to Top Nation in world geopolitics. But the intellectuals are bailing out, not just ideologically (they aren’t as far Left as they were in the 30s), but in lifestyle; just when everyone seems to be becoming middle-class, the beats are going in for lumberjack shirts and fisherman’s dungarees, trying to find their soul downward and outward as far as possible from the upscale world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The crucial development is a new form of intoxication, a scene, a philosophy and a status that trumps everything anyone else can do.

Heroin-fueled jazz and the hipster

Syncopated popular music, AKA jazz, had existed since the ragtime of the early 1900s. In the late 1940s it morphed into an esoteric version, modern/cool/jazz/bebop. The social scene was different. Instead of  loud audiences and dancing, it was more cerebral, dim-lit clubs where you concentrated on the music, and clapping or snapping your fingers showed you were not with it. Just being able to follow the way-out sounds was a secret code, and drugs unlocked the code. Booze made you sloppy, but the musician on heroin felt they could concentrate on the intellectual patterns of the music, creating new riffs for hours on end. A woman described a jab of the heroin needle in her leg as “an incredible exhilaration, as if an electric current flashed through her body, leaving her detached yet connected to the music and everyone in the room.” (Schneider, 31).  The cult of musicians and jazz fans were a secret society, with their own clothing, gestures, their own rhythm of walking and their own talk. (“I ain’t hep, to that step, but I dig it.”-- song lyrics from the 40s) They were cool and hip; everyone else was square.

Heroin wasn’t the only drug, and it had its problems. Hipsters also used morphine, cocaine, anything you could get your hands on if you were addicted enough. Marijuana was popular in the same circles, although advanced musicians looked down on it as “for kids,” too light to get the really far-out insights (that would come a dozen years later with LSD). But heroin addicts became unreliable band members, easily forgetting to show up for a gig. Teenage gangs, which appeared in New York around the same time, had the same problem; heroin was popular (as was bebop) but the really heavy users were useless in fights and  tended to wander away from the gang looking for a fix, so that after a few years the tough gangs became antagonistic to junkies.  William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) gives a brilliantly surrealistic picture of the junkie’s life and fantasies. (Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg helped get it in shape and find it a publisher.)

Music and popular culture continued to evolve in the 50s and 60s. More up-beat music became easier to understand, dancing and partying came back in, youth gangs expanded and created a fringe of wannabees and look-alikes, youth movements both black and white became more political. Through it all one basic marker continued: the distinction between the hip/cool and the square. This was the essence of literary movements like the Beats (who tried to make their poetry readings sound like jazz), non-literary movements like the hippies, and celebrity writers like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.

Intoxicated by writing vs. writing while intoxicated

The cult of intoxication is one way of capturing the high point of a writer’s life. As the image of the writer as a higher being spread in the 19th century, even very straight-laced writers like Emily Dickinson could express it:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

If you get into Emily Dickinson there is no pitying her solitude; she is genuinely turned-on, tripping out on her own word-play and the shadows angling across the lawn.

Intoxicated writers, full of the lyric impulse, are not necessarily users of intoxicants. Walt Whitman, drunk on words as anyone could be, was more of a teetotaler. Ezra Pound, at his best in summoning up the spirit of tripped-out writers from the galleries of world history, conveys the downside of addiction to writing:

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
                        piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragrant cavendish
                        and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
                        loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
                        or install me in any profession
Save this damn’d profession of writing,
                        where one needs one’s brains all the time.

Getting intoxicated from writing can be an antidote to heavy drinking or doping, since one is competitor to the other.

Nevertheless, there have been great writers who were intoxicated most of the time. Some of them, like Scott Fitzgerald, made drunkenness their writer’s capital throughout their career. All his novels, from The Beautiful and Damned to Tender is the Night,  follow somebody like himself and Zelda, giving it a high-tragedy seriousness by making the pursuit of intoxication into a noble flaw, the hubris of the modern age. In his personal life, Fitzgerald’s drinking in pursuit of gay-zany episodes mostly alienated his friends, and kept him from getting his work done until he was no longer in fashion. Kerouac  was pretty much a one-note writer but he kept himself going by reporting each segment of his life in a new novel. Unlike Allen Ginsberg, he made no transition to the upbeat 60s, and died in 1969 at age 47. Other writers who drank themselves to death at an early age were Dylan Thomas -- an intoxicated poet in every sense-- and Flann O’Brien, who was an inventively good-humored drunk and a tremendous mimic of the voices of Dublin saloons and newspaper writers. For some of these, their topic and their style was so close to the world of drinking that they couldn’t avoid it; they lived in the groove that killed them.

In vino veritas?

The phrase goes back to folk proverbs, meaning no more than a drunk cannot keep a secret. If taken to mean anything deeper,  why would anyone believe it? Drunks mostly are sloppy, clichéd talkers, repetitive and boring. A good analogy is the way Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan-era occultist, summed up his life of magic calling up spirits:  I have heard their voices for forty years, he said, but never learned anything from them but gibberish.

In vino there is little veritas, although a group of like-minded drunks may convince themselves that the only worthwhile truth is their happy solidarity. Intoxication works best when it is social, producing collective effervescence in the group, and thereby the feeling of deep, uninhibited bonding. One of the literary expressions of this is in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (another cult-of-intoxication book from the 1940s, published in 1951). The book’s two protagonists, tough Sgt. Warden and soulful bugle-player Pvt. Pruitt, get falling-down drunk outside the Enlisted Men’s Club, and play out their comradeship in a parody of saluting each other. Alcohol encourages expressing deeper masculine bonds than anything else; and these are two soldiers in love with the Army, with Pearl Harbor about to happen.

Shared intoxication is good for temporary solidarity, but bad for action, planning, or self-control. Shakespeare depicts drunks as low-comedy buffoons. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus seeks the devil’s path of intoxication but he ends up selling his soul for little more than drunken hi-jinks, and the plot peters out without any great breakthrough on the wisdom front. Other drugs, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop heroin, are more cerebral but their creativity is short-lived and self-liquidating. The only one who kept up a long career along this route was Burroughs, who would break his heroin habit from time to time by taking a cure, but then let himself get back on heroin for his next book; he knew he was on a life-long cycle. It helped that he was the heir of a big business fortune, always had an income, and could flee to foreign countries when things got bad, such as when he accidentally killed his wife while playing William Tell with a pistol in Mexico City in 1951.

And this brings us back to--

Mailer’s method of literary intoxication

Mailer’s pissing incident at the Pentagon rally is ludicrous, except from his own point of view. Mailer is no humorist, and he explains very seriously the key to his own creativity, as he sees it: 

“He was fond of speaking in public because it was close to writing... a good half of writing consists of being sufficiently sensitive to the moment to reach for the next promise which is usually hidden in some word or phrase just a shift to the side of one’s conscious intent. (Consciousness, that blunt tool, bucks in the general direction of the truth; instinct plucks the feather.) ... speaking-in-public (as Mailer liked to describe any speech that was more or less improvised, impromptu, or dangerously written) was an activity like writing; one had to trick or seize or submit to the grace of each moment, which were usually occasions of some mystery. The pleasure of speaking in public was the sensitivity it offered: with every phrase one was better or worse, close or less close to the existential promise of truth, it feels true, which hovers on good occasions like a presence between speaker and audience. Sometimes one was better, and worse, at the same moment; so strategic choices on the continuation of the attack would soon have to be decided, a moment to know the blood of the gambler in oneself.” [Armies of the Night, 28-29]

Mailer then describes what went through his mind while he decides that he will make the pissing incident the high point of his speech; later he describes how he tried to play the audience, getting a combination of laughs, hostile jeers, and embarrassed silence. Nothing fazed, Mailer both acutely reports his own stream of consciousness, and concludes that it was a great speech.

He has behaved far worse. Back in 1960, he stabbed his wife with a knife and almost killed her. Mailer had decided to run for mayor of New York, on a third-party ticket of hipsterism and existentialism. The idea seems to have come from petition campaigns that Mailer was involved in to change local cabaret licensing laws that prohibited drug-convicted musicians from performing. It was also a time when liberals and lefties were coming together to support the Civil Rights movement growing in the South. After John F. Kennedy got the Democratic nomination for president, Mailer wrote an Esquire magazine article called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” extolling Kennedy as a hipster, like Mailer himself. The article was successful in the literary world, and Mailer got a thank-you letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, whereupon he replied that when they next met he would explain his ideas about rehabilitating the Marquis de Sade. Mrs. Kennedy did not write back nor invite him again, but after the election Mailer started claiming partial credit for Kennedy’s victory. He began to drum up support among his lefty and celebrity friends for his campaign for mayor. His wife, sister, and friends mostly think the idea is bonkers, but Mailer is running around to meetings, doing literary readings, and writing letters to famous people. A big party is planned for his apartment two weeks after Kennedy won, where Mailer plans to announce his candidacy.

On the big evening, Mailer is hyper. He has a couple of hundred guests, but enthusiasm for his candidacy is mixed, and as the evening goes on Mailer becomes more and more pugnacious. He follows departing guests into the street and gets into scuffles and fist-fights. Mailer has been drinking steadily. Around 4 a.m., the party is down to a handful. Mailer comes back in with a black eye, and his wife taunts him; he stabs her in the back and chest with a knife, narrowly missing her heart.

Mailer beats the rap. His friends arrange for a psychiatrist to admit him to Bellevue mental hospital. His wife survives and withdraws charges against him; a sympathetic judge gives him a suspended sentence and probation. During his two weeks in the mental ward, Mailer uses his time to gather material from the patients that will go into his next book; particularly interesting to him is one of the criminally insane who stabbed his brother. Mailer is developing his philosophy of violence. A year later, Mailer tells an interviewer that the death camp commander Adolf Eichmann had bureaucratically murdered thousands of people, but that if he had killed them with his bare hands, “he would have worn the scar of his own moral wound” and gained “our unconscious respect.” [Lennon 2013: 303]  Such is the existential viewpoint of the hipster philosophy.

Enough. Mailer had terrible judgment in the kinds of things he would say-- and apparently believe-- in his own hipster intuition. It is sometimes said that genius is personality; thank God it isn’t. You don’t have to like someone’s personality to get the best out of their writing. How could he be so good at some things and so ridiculously bad at others? Here is an example of what Mailer is good at, from his 1955 novel about Hollywood:

            “Seated on two couches which faced each other were half a dozen women. They were all dressed expensively, and their make-up to make up for such faults as thin mouths, small eyes, and mouse-colored hair, had curved their lips, slimmed their cheeks, and given golden or chestnut tints to their coiffures. Like warriors behind their painted shields, they sat stiffly, three and three, staring at one another, talking with apathy. These were the wives of important men and men who wanted to be important, the husbands in chase of one another through the Laguna Room while the women were left behind.
            “When a man went by, they tried to take no notice. They either walked by without a look, or stopped for a brief but wild gallantry which went something like:
            “Carolyn!” the man would say, as if he could not believe he saw the woman here and was simply overcome.
            “Mickey!” one of the six women would say.
            “My favorite girl,” the man would say, holding her hand.
            “The only real man I know,” the deserted wife would say.
            Mickey would smile. He would shake his head, he would hold her hand. “If I didn’t know you were kidding, I could give you a tumble.”
            “Don’t be too sure I’m kidding,” the wife would say.
            Mickey would straighten up, he would release her hand. There would be a silence until Mickey murmured, “What a woman.” Then, in the businesslike tone which ends a conversation, he would say, “How are the kids, Carolyn?”
            “They’re fine.”
            “That’s great, that’s great.” He would start to move away, and give a smile to all the women. “We have to have a long talk, you and me,” Mickey would say.
            “You know where to find me.”
            “Great kidder, Carolyn,” Mickey would announce to nobody in particular, and disappear into the party.
            “All through the Laguna Room, wherever there was a couch, three wives were sitting in much that way. Since a lot of the men had come without women, the result was that men got together with men, standing near the pool, off the dance floor, at the café tables or in a crowd near the bar. I picked up a drink and wandered through the party looking for a girl to talk to. But all the attractive girls were surrounded, though by far  fewer men than squeezed up to listen to a film director or a studio executive. Most of the girls seemed to like the conversation of fat middle-aged men and bony middle-aged men. Actually I wasn’t that eager [to join a conversation]. Being stone sober, the fact was that it was easier to drift from one circle of men to another.”   [The Deer Park, 69-70.]

This is Mailer being a micro-sociologist, walking around stone sober making mental notes on the ways people behave. He was in Hollywood for the filming of The Naked and the Dead, and accumulated enough material for a no-holds-barred portrait of the Biz. It also gave him the idea he was as fit as anybody to be a film producer, director, writer and actor, all of which he tried back in New York with his friends. Nothing much came of it; Mailer’s roll-with-your-intuitions approach did not work in an enterprise that requires a lot of coordination and planning.

Totting up his strengths and weaknesses, on the plus side we can put his vivid, realistic observations, his capacity to make the reader feel like you are there, and his quality of always being interesting. On the negative side, his characters tend to be off-putting, especially those based on himself. The narrator of The Deer Park is an ace fighter pilot, a near-professional boxer, great poker player, big-handsome-sexy irresistible to women who resemble Marilyn Monroe, and of course a great writer-in-the-making.  This adolescent fantasy check-list does nothing to advance the plot, but Mailer uses it for the main characters in most of his works of fiction. For his new journalism, he himself is the observation post, but this is his strong point and these are his best works.

He intrudes too much of his opinions, which he thinks are brilliant existential psychology but mostly come down to asserting that what the world needs is more of his spontaneously macho risk-taking and violence. He admires Hemingway and has some of his descriptive skill but none of his restraint. He regards himself as a high-intellectual leader but his ideas are too wacky to influence anybody; and as we have seen, his practical judgment is terrible.

His strength is social ethnography, vivid portrayals of cutting-edge scenes in America. Where does he get his skills? He trained himself to be a writer, already as a high-school student in New York and an undergraduate at Harvard. He went into the army near the end of the Pacific war, hoping to get near enough to the front to write a great war novel. (He had one combat patrol, but everything he observed went into a convincing picture of the military machine, especially the previously little-discussed class conflict between officers and enlisted men.) He has an excellent memory for detail and the sounds of people’s voices. Some of this is the memory component of high intelligence. One remembers best what one deliberately sets out to observe, and Mailer trained his mind to see what messages people are giving off while claiming to be something else. This is a Freudian-inspired mode of observation, that Mailer shared with his exact contemporary, Erving Goffman, when the Freudian vogue of the 1940s and 50s shifted away from deep childhood traumas to the fronts people are acting out all around us. In action Mailer was usually a jerk, but as an observer he was focused and on target.

What makes his writing so energetic? His sentences have flow; often they are long and strung-together, but without complex grammar or subordinate clauses, the whole thing rushing forward without a hitch. Whatever he is saying, you get it; you don’t have to figure it out. Like him or not, he keeps you awake; and except when he is sounding off on his own trips, his descriptions have the feel of reality.

With Mailer and Kerouac alike, the cliché is right, trust the writer’s reports, not the writer’s ego. Ironically, these are writers who believe the cult of intoxication gives them their true voice, but it gets in the way of the idea part of writing, which requires a lot of reflection. For all his claims to be writing philosophical novels, Mailer’s philosophy is the least impressive thing about it. Writers who truly have something to say (as distinguished from something to report), like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Proust, have a calmer tone; and their writing practice is the opposite of a frenzied rush.

What, then, does the cult of intoxication really deliver? As a method, it has its Kubla Khan peaks of poetry, but novels are made for the long perspective, passion recollected in tranquility. There are not a lot of successfully intoxicated novels. Its successes are all on the other fork, the cult of intoxication as a topic. It has been increasingly a central part of modern history, and one whose allure we have yet to fully understand.


Jack Kerouac. 1962. Big Sur.
J. Michael Lennon. 2013. Norman Mailer: A Double Life.
Norman Mailer. 1955. The Deer Park.
Norman Mailer. 1968. The Armies of the Night. History as a Novel, the Novel as History.
Bill Morgan. 2011. The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation.
Eric C. Schneider. 2008. Smack: Heroin and the American City.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


The plot of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, builds on realistic micro-observations of violence and the emotions leading up to it. This is inserted into a pre-conceived plan to write a philosophical novel, dramatizing Camus’s central argument.

Violence is shrouded in myths, and Camus creates a shock by describing it accurately. What he sees, however, is subordinated to the clash of philosophies in the later part of the book. Camus is not really interested in developing a sociological theory of violence; that would come 50 years later once we started getting videos and close reports on violent experiences. Most good writers are intuitively good sociologists; but it is adding something else that makes it literature.

Low life in French Algeria

Meursault, Camus’s anti-hero, is a low-paid clerk who lives on the fringes of the Algerian underworld. A neighbour in his cheap apartment house wants to make him his “pal.” Raymond is known as a pimp, talks like a lower-class tough guy, looks like a boxer, and wears snappy cool clothes. Raymond takes him drinking, and fills his ears with stories about beating up his girl friend because he thinks she’s cheating on him. This sounds like the kind of drinking talk that Americans would call bullshitting, and Meursault doesn’t take it seriously, but Raymond gets him to write a letter luring the woman to his apartment so he can talk some sense into her. Meursault is surprised that the woman is an Arab, but he lets that pass too. Next evening there is screaming in Raymond’s apartment. Everyone spills out into the hall, and the police come. The woman accuses him of being a pimp, and he says he will report her to the police as a whore. Next day Raymond phones Meursault to tell him that some Arabs are shadowing him because one of them is the girl’s brother. He wants Meursault to be on the lookout, and to come to the police station to testify that the girl was false to him. Meursault does so, and the case is dropped. Raymond then invites Meursault to a weekend party with one of his pals at the beach.

Camus’s text describes four incidents between the antagonists.

Incident #1
            Just as we were starting for the bus stop, Raymond plucked my sleeve and told me to look across the street. I saw some Arabs lounging against the tabacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have-- as if we were blocks of stone or dead trees. Raymond whispered that the second Arab from the left was “his man,” and I thought he looked rather worried. However, he assured me that all that was ancient history. Marie, who hadn’t followed his remarks, asked, “What is it?”
            I explained that those Arabs across the way had a grudge against Raymond. She insisted on our going at once. Then Raymond laughed, and squared his shoulders. The young lady was quite right, he said. There was no point in hanging about here. Halfway to the bus stop he glanced back over his shoulder and said the Arabs weren’t following. I, too, looked back. They were exactly as before, gazing in the same vague way at the spot where we had been.

 [The first confrontation comes to nothing except hostile staring and growing tension. Initially there are 3 French colonials and about 4 Arabs. They are fairly evenly matched and not ready to fight. Confrontational tension is an unconscious barrier that is breached only when one side feels a palpable advantage over the other.]

[At the beach they meet Raymond’s older friend Masson (“tall, broad-shouldered, and thick-set”), who has a bungalow on the beach, with his plump wife. After swimming and eating lunch, drinking several glasses of wine, the women clean up and the three men go for a walk in the noon-day sun.]

Incident #2
            Just then Raymond said something to Masson that I didn’t quite catch. But at the same moment I noticed two Arabs in dungarees a long way down the beach, coming in our direction. I gave Raymond a look and he nodded, saying, “That’s him.” We walked steadily on. Masson wondered how they’d managed to track us here. My impression was that they had seen us taking the bus and noticed Marie’s oilcloth bathing bag; but I didn’t say anything.
            Though the Arabs were walking quite slowly, they were much nearer already. We didn’t change our pace, but Raymond said:
            “Listen! If there’s a roughhouse, you, Masson, take on the second one. I’ll tackle the fellow who’s after me. And you, Meursault, stand by to help if another one comes up, and lay him out.”
            I said, “Right,” and Masson put his hands in his pocket.
            The sand was hot as fire, and I could have sworn it was glowing red. The distance between us and the Arabs was steadily decreasing. When we were only a few steps away the Arabs halted, Masson and I slowed down, and Raymond went straight up to his man. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw the native lowering his head, as if butt him in the chest. Raymond lashed out promptly and shouted for Masson to come. Masson went up to the man he had been marking and struck him twice with all his might. The fellow fell flat into the water and stayed there some seconds with bubbles coming up to the surface round his head. Meanwhile, Raymond had been slogging the other man, whose face was streaming with blood. He glanced at me over his shoulder and shouted:
            “Just you watch! I ain’t finished with him yet!”
            “Look out!” I cried. “He’s got a knife.”
            I spoke too late. The man had gashed Raymond’s arm and his mouth as well.
            Masson sprang forward. The other Arab got up from the water and placed himself behind the fellow with the knife. We didn’t dare to move. The two natives backed away slowly, keeping us at bay with the knife and never taking their eyes off us. When they were a safe distance they swung round and took to their heels. We stood stock-still, with the sunlight beaming down on us. Blood was dripping from Raymond’s wounded arm, which he was squeezing hard above the elbow.

[The details of the fight are realistic. It is 3 against 2, starting as a pair of fist-fights. The big Frenchman knocks out his Arab in two punches. Raymond takes the initiative and pummels his Arab, but when he glances back over his shoulder the Arab slashes him with a knife. At this point, the weaker Arab hides behind the knife-wielder--- an alignment often seen in photos of small-scale fights. Like most fights where we have micro-interactional detail, they reach a standoff, literally stock still, then one side backs away slowly, then runs.]

[Masson says there is a doctor at the beach on weekends, and they take Raymond to get his wounds patched up, which turn out to be are not very deep. Back at the the bungalow, the women are upset.]

Incident #3
            Presently Raymond said he was going for a stroll on the beach. I asked him where he proposed to go, and he mumbled something about “wanting to take the air.” We-- Masson and I-- then said we’d go with him, but he flew into a rage and told us to mind our own business.  However, when he went out, I followed him.

            At the end of the beach we came to a small stream that had cut a channel in the sand, after coming out from behind a biggish rock. There we found our two Arabs again, lying on the sand in their blue dungarees. They looked harmless enough, as if they didn’t bear any malice, and neither made any move as we approached. The man who had slashed Raymond stared at him without speaking. The other man was blowing down a little reed and extracting from it three notes of the scale, which he played over and over again, while he watched us from the corner of an eye.
            For a while nobody moved; it was all sunlight and silence except for the tinkle of the stream and those three little lonely sounds. Then Raymond put his hand to his revolver pocket, but the Arabs still didn’t move. I noticed the man playing on the reed had his big toes splayed out almost at right angles to his feet.

[The monotonous flute-playing is a version of fuck-you jiving, contemptuous of the other side as generally happens in confrontations among groups of tough guys.]

            Still keeping his eyes on his man, Raymond said to me: “Shall I plug him one?”
            I thought quickly. If I told him not to, considering the mood he was in, he might very well fly into a temper and use his gun. So I said the first thing that came into my head.
            “He hasn’t spoken to you yet. It would be a low-down trick to shoot him like that, in cold blood.”
            Again, for some moments one heard nothing but the tinkle of the stream and the flute notes weaving through the hot, still air.
            “Well,” Raymond said at last, “if that’s how you feel, I’d better say something insulting, and if he answers back I’ll loose off.”
            “Right,” I said. “Only, if he doesn’t get out his knife you’ve no business to fire.”
            Raymond was beginning to fidget. The Arab with the reed went on playing, and both of them watched all our movements.
            “Listen,” I said to Raymond. “You take on the fellow on the right, and give me your revolver. If the other one starts making trouble or gets out his knife, I’ll shoot.”
            The sun glinted on Raymond’s revolver as he handed it to me. But nobody made a move yet; it was just as if everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill on this little strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea, the twofold silence of the reed and the stream. And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire-- and it would come to absolutely the same thing.
            Then, all of a sudden, the Arabs vanished; they’d slipped like lizards under cover of the rock. So Raymond and I turned and walked back. He seemed happier, and began talking about the bus to catch for our return.

[It begins as a 2-on-2 standoff. They are full of confrontational tension, and locked in on their mutual threats. “... everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill.”  Interviews with police who have been in deadly shootouts also shows the tendency to tunnel-vision, seeing nothing but the enemy; time-distortions are typical. There is already time-distortion in Incident #2: “Though the Arabs were walking quite slowly, they were much nearer already.”
 Underlying these perceptual distortions are heightened adrenaline, manifested in a very rapid heart beat: “thudding in my head...”  Showing the gun changes the balance, and the weaker side retreats.]

            When we reached the bungalow Raymond promptly went up the wooden steps, but I halted on the bottom one. The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women. But the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under that flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move-- it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.
[Two paragraphs omitted describing feeling befuddled by the heat, and thinking about reaching the stream.]

Incident #4
            I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on... Anything to be rid of the glare, the sight of women in tears, the strain and effort-- and to retrieve the pool of shadow by the rock and its cool silence!
            But when I came nearer I saw that Raymond’s Arab had returned. He was by himself this time, lying on his back, his hands behind his head, his face shaded by the rock while the sun beat on the rest of his body. One could see his dungarees steaming in the heat. I was rather taken aback; my impression had been that the incident was closed, and I hadn’t given a thought to it on my way here.
            On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat. Then the Arab let himself sink back again, but without taking his hand from his pocket. I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpses of his eyes glowing between half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding as fiercely as even on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress, becalmed in a sea of molten steel. Far out on the horizon a steamer was passing; I could just make out from the corner of an eye the small black moving patch, while I kept my gaze fixed on the Arab.
            It struck me that all I had to do was turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. I took some steps toward the stream. The Arab didn’t move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.
            I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations-- especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.
            A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinct, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scattering my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
            Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace.

[Now it’s down to 1-on-1, both sides armed, again locked into confrontational tension. Time distortions get worse -- “For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress.” Meursault’s heart beat is pulsing in his forehead, although he attributes it to the sun-- “the whole beach pulsing with heat” -- “cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull.”  The tension intensifies as one side moves forward a step, the other draws his knife. The flashing blade fills the narrator’s consciousness-- the acute tunnel vision on the enemy’s weapon that police often experience before they  fire.]

[The last paragraph turns metaphorical, away from the narrator’s usual matter-of-fact delivery. “Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.” But it does convey the acute perceptual distortions shooters can experience at the moment of firing.]

            And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

[I have clipped off this final sentence of the first part of the book, since it shifts to dramatic comment uncharacteristic of Meursault.]

Where did Camus get his materials?

He had spent several years as a newspaper reporter, covering the crime news and court trials in an Algerian city. Incidents #2 and #3 are partly real: a tough guy Camus knew told him about a couple renting a villa on the beach. The wife was accosted by an Arab, the husband intervened and got knifed in the mouth. Husband went back to get the tough guy, who brought his revolver and the two men went looking for the Arab. They found him, but no shot was fired-- the confrontation wound down, as most such incidents do. [Lottman p. 221] 

Camus said that three people in the book are real: himself (Meursault), his tough friend (Masson), and Mersault/Camus’s sexy girl friend. Mersault is depicted as a nobody, but he has friends, and women are attracted to him. He resembles Camus, who was very good looking, tall and slender, an actor who always played the lead roles and hooked up with a series of hot women. Camus was also athletic, liked to swim, and was a star on a local soccer team. Meursault has some of these qualities (in solitary confinement, he passes the time imagining the details of all the sex he’s had sex with  women); but his personality is very different. Camus was the engagé intellectual, a political activist; member of the Communist Party until expelled over his rejection of Communist political expediency. Mersault is completely apolitical. He is the opposite of intellectual; he is not curious about anything; untalkative, feeling that he has nothing to say. (Camus’s original title was L’Indifférent.) Mersault goes along with everything that happens around him. He advises his tough pals on the side of caution and moderation, but always concludes that it doesn’t matter, go ahead and whatever. Mersault just wants to live in the physical world, enjoying swimming, the beach, sexy women, the Mediterranean evenings. If this sounds like southern California 30 years later, that is no accident: there was an ethos of French colonial Algerians who rejected cold rainy France for life’s a beach. In the late 1930s when the story is set, Algeria like L.A. was la-la land.

In writing L’Etranger, Camus had two good reasons to make the hero unlike himself. One was that by the time the novel was finished in 1941, France had been occupied by the German blitzkrieg for a year; and to get anything published it had to be completely apolitical. The other reason was more central: Camus wanted to write a novel about a person who believes in nothing-- it is a thought experiment, a philosophical exercise. Mersault is not a Byronic anti-hero who rebels magnificently against conventions; that old Romantic stereotype was outdated, and the avant-garde had moved on to characters like Kafka’s anonymous victims or Sartre’s bummed-out alter ego in Nausea (published a few years earlier in 1938).  Mersault is not alienated or even unhappy. He is deliberately pared down to a man who believes in nothing but his senses.

The colonial situation

One aspect that seems strange from our 21st century point of view is Raymond’s Arab girl friend. She lives in a Frenchman’s apartment; she wears western clothes and makeup. But this is a time before the nationalist uprisings of the 1950s and 60s; before the neo-Islamist radicalism of the late 20th century. In fact she is a rather typical figure of colonial regimes, the native woman who plays the sex market with colonial men. The same pattern is in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, set in French-occupied Vietnam; the hero has a live-in Vietnamese girl friend who works at a pick-up bar, and her shifting loyalties among men drives much of the plot. Camus and Greene see the situation from the western side. But Camus’ plot is implicitly driven by the sexual tension of Arab men resentful of the colonials treatment of their women. The outburst of resentment can be seen on screen in the realistic 1967 Italian film, The Battle of Algiers. Its central figure, Ali La Pointe, is an Arab street hustler denounced to the police by respectable French women who don’t want him in their neighbourhood; in prison he becomes a terrorist bomber. Ali La Pointe is Camus’s knife-wielding Arab 20 years later.

The next step in the intellectual chain

Camus by the late 1930s had linked up with the network of avant-garde French intellectuals in Paris, notably the journal Nouvelle Revue Française and the Gallimard publishing house, who published Sartre and translated Kafka into French. They were inclined to see L’Etranger as a combination of Sartre’s Nausea and Kafka’s The Trial, which does describe the niche in intellectual space Camus was moving into. But Camus had a further agenda, and he added another stylistic element. He didn’t need Kafka’s surrealistic vision of a man summoned to trial without knowing the charge against himself. Camus knew plenty about murder trials, and he wanted to make the story completely realistic. That is why it starts out as a kind of “hard-boiled” crime novel (soon to become film noir); and Camus adopted the newly famous American style of Hemingway and his followers. This required the author to be completely self-effacing, avoiding all explanatory comments, and letting the story speak for itself.

Moreover, Camus had decided to write a trio of works that would establish his oeuvre in the lineage of great writers. Simultaneously, he worked on L’Etranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and his play Caligula. *  Sisyphus develops the philosophy that Camus called “absurdist”-- life is without any meaning given by religion or anything else. Any truths had to be developed anew, like Descartes doubting the existence of everything until he could deduce new principles from cogito ergo sum. But Sisyphus was to be no abstract treatise. Rejecting all previous philosophical themes, Camus begins: “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Instead of cogito, it is death that serves as the starting point for everything else. (Yes, this also had been said in 1927 by Heidegger, Dasein is being-towards-death; but Camus was writing no heavy German tome.)  Because human life-vs.-death is philosophically the one necessary value, Camus is anti-death-penalty.

* Caligula was historically a flighty, spoiled brat Roman emperor, but Camus transforms his fooleries and murders into philosophical gestures against the Absurd. Camus had already acted and adapted scripts for avant-garde theatre.

So Camus’s novel, to drive home the theme of Sisyphus, has to center on a character who is condemned to death. But he can’t be an innocent victim, a maudlin cliché. The plot needs to contain a murder that occurs naturally. To get a sympathetic reading, the murderer can’t be a really bad guy, but he is not going to repent like the philosophically-driven killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (where a wise cop and a prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold are the rescuers).  So Meursault is made into an ordinary guy who accidentally falls in with criminals and their guns. To complete the set of substitutions, Camus makes the dramatic bad guy the State Prosecutor-- a devout Christian who is outraged that Meursault feels indifferent about his crime; and who builds his death penalty case on evidence that Meursault did not grieve at his mother’s funeral. The plot is a combination of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, but with the philosophical implications upended.

The other villain in the plot is a priest who intrudes into Meursault’s cell to try for a last-minute conversion. (There was a long tradition of Catholic priests boasting of converting atheists on their deathbeds.) But Mersault ends up as the Voltairean hero, bursting out of his silence in the last few pages to denounce the priest and affirm that he will not give up his truthfulness in the face of death, since death constitutes humanity because everyone eventually faces it. The novel, largely naturalistic and non-preachy all the way through, turns into a philosophical fable at the end.

Camus as micro-sociologist

Camus is an excellent observer of the small details of how people interact in particular situations, especially what consciousness feels or looks like at each moment in one’s body.

Notice:  After drinking with Raymond and agreeing to be his pal and help punish his girlfriend, Mersault stands alone in the hallway, unthinking but hearing “nothing but the blood throbbing in my ears, and for a while I stood still, listening to it.”

When the police come to Raymond’s apartment after he is heard beating his girl friend, the policeman knocks the cigarette out of his mouth. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” the policeman added,  “getting so tight you can’t stand steady. Why, you’re shaking all over!”  “I’m not tight,” Raymond explained. “Only when I see you standing there are looking at me, I can’t help trembling. That’s only natural.”

Raymond is right; his adrenaline, the fight-or-fight hormone, has shot upwards, his heart is racing; but he has to stand still and do nothing because the cop has the upper hand. These are exactly the circumstances when someone goes into trembling.

Mersault’s actions, which seem inexplicable when examined as acts of deliberate reasoning, make sense when seen as how he reacts to the Goffmanian micro-rituals of everyday life. At his mother’s funeral, he is not only tired out by a long bus ride and the vigil of sitting up all night with the dead body; he dislikes the social pressure from these conservative Catholics to follow their rituals, including the ostentatious mourning they expect everyone to perform. And just before Incident #4,  it is Mersault’s rejection of the burden of social politeness that sends him back down the beach: “I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women.”

Back again to the most famous line in the novel:
            “And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.”

Camus has Mersault speak out of character, to create a dramatic tag line. But it is also the chief mystery of the novel: why, after shooting his antagonist once, does he deliberately pump four more shots into the body? The prosecutor makes a big deal out of this, and Mersault never explains it. It is just a fact, and he tells the truth about facts. OK, that makes him an existentialist hero. But micro-sociology adds something further.

With the advent of videos, police cameras, and today’s news scrutiny, we have seen many cases where the police end a confrontation with suspect, not just by shooting once, but unleashing a whole barrage of shots-- emptying their gun’s magazine. This looks like what Mersault is doing. He shows all the acute symptoms of perceptual distortion -- time slowing down, tunnel vision, flashes in his eyes. His heart beat is racing; he feels it pounding in his temples. It is the phenomenology of losing control in a violent confrontation, what I have elsewhere described as a “forward panic.”

Camus is a better micro-sociological observer than analyst of his observations. The four superfluous shots are real. We understand now what causes such things. Camus implies it is the pressure of the sun-- although here he verges into the metaphorical-- and more basically, just one of those God-damned accidents that rule human life, and that makes a reasonable thinker reject God. Camus has taken a little-noticed reality of violence, and adds a philosophical twist to it.

I am not suggesting it would be a better novel if an omniscient author intruded, at some point, and explained it as I did. Great literature is great, in part, because it builds on acute observations of real life. But it has a drama and a symbolic resonance that goes beyond sociology. Literary success is a combination of such ingredients.


Albert Camus. 1942.  The Stranger. Paris: Gallimard.
Herbert Lottman. 1997. Albert Camus. A Biography.
Dave Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone: A Copy’s Eye View of Deadly Force. 
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2016. “Cool-headed Cops Needed: Heart-rate Monitors can Help"