The courtroom scene in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, in which a particular reporter stood out among his colleagues, staring directly at Meursault as if to reflect his image, raised a question that I have been asking for a while now: what is objectivity? By analyzing Meursault’s character, I have come to the conclusion that objectivity is not achieved by the means of indifference or neutrality; it is instead reached in two ways: one, by careful observance, and two, by detachment from the biases of a ‘normal’ society.
Some may argue he is ordinary or emotionless, but, in truth, Meursault is simply an observer. He frequently speaks of his “memory,” as it is what gives him peace and happiness, and it is what is ultimately robbed from him upon his death (104). Memory, according to past readings, is comprised of events which selectively shape the individual’s experience, or their story. Note, though, the word “selectively.” In many cases, individuals may deliberately erase memories that are harmful or that they wish to forget; this erasure, then, clouds what was once a clear story of the individual’s life and, by omission of detail, introduces the issue of cognitive bias. Meursault, even after his crime, is able to recount the details of the day (although he is not necessarily able to provide reason for his actions). He constructs his story through his memories, a method which is foreshadowed early on in the book when he steps onto his patio to observe daily passersby (21-24). Because he has made habit this meditative practice of observance, Meursault sees the world through the same lens as the reporter, stopping to look and to remember those around him before he begins to editorialize what is raw and what is true: the facts of his life. In his own journalistic fashion, Meursault reveals both in his narrative and in the court what can be viewed simply as an objective account of his life or of his crime.
Meursault’s dedication to truth, though, leaves no room for formalities. For this reason, Meursault is cast as an outsider in what is commonly viewed as a ‘normal’ society. He does not cry at his mother’s funeral. He does not subscribe to the conventional, organized religion that most likely guided the lives of the French. And, among many other things that set Meursault apart from his peers, he does not fear death. Each of these things work together to detach Meursault from the fabric of a world stitched together by convention and religion and shared cultures – an act similar to the simple, yet pivotal gesture of the reporter, in which he separates himself from his colleagues by merely looking and observing. The act of detachment, then, works to catalyze one’s pursuit of truth, as the observer rids themselves of the fundamental biases that shape society: convention, religion, and culture – among others. In studying and thinking critically about bias (and about why and how the word is often misused to protest facts that may appear to support a particular, arguably correct, school of thought), I have determined that it is these fundamental biases that ultimately distort truth – bias is not determined simply by Left vs. Right; we have to dig deeper.
Meursault’s pursuit of objective truth intrigues me not only because I am interested in the art of storytelling, but because I, in my own personal pursuit of truth, strive to carefully observe my surroundings in order to add context and color to the narrative of my life. Also, by hypothesizing a better, or different, world than the one in which we live, I attempt to dismantle the fundamental biases which are our culture and our religion and our brands of nationalism and imperialism and capitalism that so quietly shape the way we tell our stories. It through this method, I believe, that objectivity is achieved.