Meursault’s Deed, Paolo’s Theory

The wind blows through the empty and unreachable lattice window of a studio that no longer delimits an interior from an exterior. Between a ruinous monument and improvised construction is a workplace, but nobody is working—maybe it is break time right now.
      During the absence of the anonymous artist—either by accident, or maybe not—a murder without an identifiable motive occurs on a beach in Northern Africa, close to Tipaza, the ancient city of ruins. Meursault, who commits this murder as the “Stranger” in Albert Camus’s homonymous novella (1942), can only give the light that glinted off the blade of his victim’s knife and accidentally blinded him as a reason for his deed. The indifference and emptiness that he feels towards the world and towards himself seems to find expression in this almost unintentionally committed act, which paradoxically adds to this very indifference an existential pathos that informs the entire novella. The sparse landscape, the southern light, the unrelated coexistence of people endlessly distanced from each other, all this is condensed in an archaic compactness that is evoked almost casually into a revolt against the nihilistic foundation of a life that is, however, only bearable in recognition of this nihilistic foundation.
      REVOLT? Here, a bell rings, not just in the empty studio, but also for Meursault’s creator, who published his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” the same year as his novella “The Stranger.” For him, Sisyphus was the secret role model of all existentially disillusioned nihilists. The useless and hopeless work of Sisyphus as the chosen stuntman of modernity does not lead him to resign himself to his fate, but rather to embrace its absurdity. Suffering must be borne precisely because there is no God and no compensating afterlife beyond it. Meursault’s defiance of death, which makes his indifference before his execution seem like the greatest possible blasphemy, is simultaneously the background motif (charged with pathos) of the eternal labor of Sisyphus, who learned to no longer regard the absurd as the alienation of his illusions.
       Thus, “The Stranger” would not be removed from the world after Meursault’s execution, even though the studio of the supposed scorner—which is as monumental as it is unusable—is still empty: The Stranger appears in a surprising metamorphosis in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema” (1968), this time as a nameless guest in a bourgeois family. He functions here, as it were, as a divinely sent redeemer, breaking open the family’s life, which had been petrified in indifference and lethargy, by entering into a brief love affair with each family member; and then he disappears as suddenly as he came. Once left alone, all the protagonists, hitherto benumbed in their habits, leave their life paths, so that each, on their own, may reach the true foundation of their existence, their calling: the father (Paolo) gives his factory to his workers, the mother prostitutes herself, the son becomes an artist, the maid turns into a saint and ascends to heaven, and so on. As if the blinding light on the knife’s blade had moved for a moment, the motif of indifference seems to reappear here on the other side of Sisyphus’s path: not as a point of departure for the acceptance of a freedom based on absurdity, but as the final result of a life that has grown worthless because of hollow rituals; a life to which an outside savior must bring new sense and illusion—so that the story may begin anew! Meursault’s deed and Paolo’s theory merge here, giving the rock rolling down the mountain its historical and metaphysical necessity: while the indifference before the possible action leads to its historical invalidity, the indifference, that means the end of all these possible deeds, gives the seemingly unplanned act its metaphysical fullness. For this short moment, pathos and apathy touch as the opposite sides of a constitution that is only distinguished by the course of an ever-the-same working day without perspectives.
       Whether the absent artist is following in Meursault’s or Paolo’s footsteps at the moment can be decided by those who must currently follow to a thread on an indifferent path, or hear a rock roll. They can also determine whether the absence of a—perhaps never present—figure should be regarded as especially meaningful or especially meaningless, according to the cliché. At any rate, while they come to a decision, we can already declare that the abandoned room, as the workplace of a self-appointed Sisyphus (or one appointed by a stranger), continues the dungeon visions of Giovanni Battista Piranesi to such an extent that the prisoner can—quasi unknowingly—also spend time outside, without thus questioning the entire link between an infinite interior space, eternal labor, groundless freedom, etc.

Halcyon Days, Cologne 2013, p. 95