Thursday, February 24, 2011

Beloved


The essential journey in Beloved seems to be Sethe's journey to find validation. A quotation that stuck out to me as a reflection of this journey is "Freeing yourself is one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self is another"(95). Sethe's past as a slave stripped her of validation. Her validation was external, it was the validation others gave to her as a maid, a worker, a machine to create more slaves, etc. So after becoming free in name and action, Sethe is in a position where she no longer has someone else telling her what validates her existence. And yet, I think that Sethe doesn't fully realize her power to find her own validation until the end of the novel. Her owners are supplanted by her family. She looks to them to validate her. Her children make her validation mother, Baby Suggs makes her validation daughter. But Sethe is still unaware that there is any greater validation. It is this blindness that leads to her "thick love." Since her children define her most important validation, she can't help but love them wildly. In losing them, she would not only have to bear their torture and hers, she would have to bear separation from her validation. And in the face of this separation, in the face of this purposeless existence, Sethe decides that she might as well stop existing altogether.
This external validation continues when Beloved and Paul D. show up. She is yet to take possession of her own existence and this allows for Beloved to suck the life out of Sethe. Baby Suggs tried to teach Sethe to validate herself. Baby Suggs had noticed "'These hands belong to me. These my hands'"(141). She had realized that she could find her own validation and she tried to pass on that knowledge to everyone, including Sethe, in the clearing. But it didn't stick with Sethe, it didn't strike her. It seems as if Paul D. also tried to teach Sethe to validate herself. He "dug it up, gave her back her body, kissed her divided back, stirred her rememory and brought her more news: of clabber, or iron, of roosters' smiling, but when he heard her news, he counted her feet and didn't even say goodbye"(189). Sethe was on the brink of validation, but Paul D. leaving, Paul D. being repulsed by Sethe and scorning her decisions and her love alienated her from him and from what he was trying to teach, leaving her at the mercy of the vindictive Beloved.
Sethe's triumph in this novel is not leaving her past behind, it is not being free of Beloved, it is not accepting Paul D.'s love, it is finding her own validation for her existence. "He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. 'You your best thing, Sethe. You are.' His holding fingers are holding hers. 'Me? Me?'"(273). Sethe is her own best thing, she is her own reason for existing, not anyone else, and it is that knowledge that brings her back to life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

L'√Čtranger

"The search for truth is more precious than its possession." - Albert Einstein


This quote does not describe, in any way, The Stranger. For Camus and for Mersault, there is no searching for the truth, there is merely the truth - that human life is essentially meaningless, negated by death. It is a stagnant truth, a simple truth lacking the complexities of spirituality or the afterlife. Therefore, the search for truth, or for that matter, anything else, is not a validation for Mersault's existence. Unlike Razkolnikov, redemption, love, faith, or even salvation don't count as validations. For Mersault, the only validation for existence is, essentially, existence.



Mersault's truth:


"To lie is not only to say what isn't true. It is to say more than is true." - Preface, Camus

"My mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow." - 100

"... the simplest and most lasting joys: the smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie's dresses and the way she laughed." - 104

"... there was nothing more important than an execution, and that when you come right down to it, it was the only thing a man could truly be interested in [.]" - 110

"But everybody knows life isn't worth living." - 114

"'I know that at one time or another you've wished for another life.' I said of course I had, but it didn't mean any more than wishing to be rich, to be able to swim faster, or to have a more nicely shaped mouth. It was all the same." - 119-120

What do these quotes tell me about Mersault? They tell me that just because life is meaningless doesn't mean a man can't be happy. They tell me that Mersault's knowledge of his own complete mortality does not lead to depression or even pessimism, it leads to simple joys and a largely happy life. Mersault refuses to tell "more than is true," which first and foremost means believing in a higher power, which he considers to be beyond the truth. In living with this knowledge, Mersault lives very much in the moment, unable to dwell in the past like many of the people around him. When he swims in the sea with Marie or drinks his coffee at Celeste's he is, in his own way, happy. He even admitted to his lawyer that he worries more about his physical existence than his emotions (65) which partially explains his reactions to his environment, especially the sun.

So why does Mersault start talking about the importance of seeing an execution? In my opinion, it is because he finally realizes, on the verge of his own execution, that maybe if he had known the ease with which his own life could end, he would have realized that as meaningless as life may be, it is still worth living. As he faces the imminence of death head on, he finds himself longing for twenty more years (114). He tries to tell himself that life "isn't worth living," but his heart still jumps at the thought of those extra years.

At the beginning of this novel, Mersault existed to exist. By the end, he realized that he could also exist to enjoy life. Unfortunately, by the time he has come to this realization, life is no longer an option.