The Language of Metaphysics in Der Proceß and l’Etranger
Before their premature deaths, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus both wrote three novels, each conveying the authors’ views or philosophical ideas, whilst remaining true works of art. Often too much emphasis is put on the philosophies of the authors’, to the point where it detracts from the literary merits of the texts. These two novels in particular are hailed for portraying central characters with economy and skill; which in turn allows the reader to fully experience the mental transformations of the characters as they travel unknowingly between reality and dream. It is through the techniques used to convey these journeys that the writers display so much of their flair; in particular the narrative used in the texts, the authors’ dealing with the concept of time, and the vocabulary used is also of central importance. Both texts’ main characters are young men experiencing life through sensory pleasures, and both young men are condemned; one for an act of law breaking, and the other for a more obscure, moral wrong. Both characters are judged by society and the law, and both ultimately are executed. The novels also share the guise of being works on society and judgement, whereas they each have deeper meanings linked through metaphor to the surface layer of action. In their respective years of publication (Der Proceß – 1925 and l’Etranger – 1942) the novels were immediately acclaimed for having original ideas and being masterfully written in both form and language.
When looking at Der Proceß it is easy to be drawn towards the judgement of Joseph K. by a complex bureaucracy – the sensually driven, hedonistic main character – whereas if the German title is interpreted properly (instead of the English version “The Trial”) it can be seen that judgement is not the central concern of the novel. It is not surprising that the route of Proceß is synonymous with our word process, and if the word is looked at in both verb and noun form, it becomes apparent that the process mentioned is one of the mind. This explanation is aided in the fact that Kafka explicitly stated that, as a writer, he was not interested in politics. The complex bureaucracy K. battles against is merely an external layer on the outskirts of the realm of meaning. Where this aspect is comparable with l’Etranger is through the miscalculation of the significance of judgement. It is often perceived that Meursault depicts what would happen to someone who breaks normal and habitual ways of acting – a present theme in another of Camus’ novels, La Peste – which is not entirely incorrect, but certainly is not the overall message Camus wished to convey. After several readings of l’Etranger, it becomes clear that the main purpose of the novel is to depict a character who undergoes a mental process in reaction to accepting the absurdity of his experience – which can be observed through Camus’ use and treatment of time: for instance, in the first half of the novel, Meursault is like Joseph K. in that he leads a physically rich but mentally distant life, but in the second half his mind goes through various processes when contemplating his impending death. He differs from K. in that he is consciously aware of this change far earlier than K., and is therefore not at odds with his fate. This change coincides with Camus’ differing references to time: in the first half, Meursault is very aware of the days of the week, and, in fact, the first half takes place over only six days. He is meticulous in his planning of the coming days:
“I’ll catch the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. Then I can keep the virgil and I’ll come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and he couldn’t refuse under the circumstances. But he didn’t seem pleased. I even said, ‘It’s not my fault.”
This extract, taken from the first page of the l’Etranger, displays Meursault’s simplistic way of thinking,...
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