The Red and the Black & The Stranger?

Did Albert Camus find inspiration for his most famous character, Meursault, in the figure of that errant nincompoop Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black? 1 I cannot be the first to notice this genealogical line of descent, but I can’t remember ever having seen it remarked upon. (Not that I am anything like a scholar of the French novel.) Camus wrote in 1955, “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” 2 Julien’s problem is that he sees the nature of the game but cannot keep himself from being caught up in it. In any case, both characters face execution by the guillotine with courage, both have been read as modern Christ figures (Sorel is the son of a carpenter!) Both commit their crimes with a pistol & in a state of what we would now I think call derealization.

Pragmatists and Existentialists

The pragmatists’ emphasis on human agency, even in realms of epistemology, melds pretty easily with the existentialists’ emphasis — thinking mostly of Camus here — on individual moral choice. Both philosophies might at first appear to put all the emphasis on the individual, but that’s not in fact true when one looks more closely. For the pragmatists, the world is built up from many individuals’ experience; for the existentialists, individual moral choice must serve the general good: What we wish for ourselves we must wish for others, Camus tells us.