Written by: The_manchild
It has been said that the eyes are the windows to a person’s soul. It can be reasonably stated, therefore, by reasons of logic, that what one perceives is an indication as to what type of soul one has. In The Stranger, Monsieur Meursault is vivid in his descriptions of the sensations provided him by his five physical directories. In explicit details he describes the feel of the heat of the sun on his bare skin, the sights and sounds of the night as he sat on his balcony, undoubtedly the taste of Marie’s kiss, and even the physiological response to her embrace. Note, however, the earlier statement: it is what one perceives that indicates what type of soul one has.
Perception is not seeing, feeling, tasting, nor is it any function of the extemporaneous senses. Perception is the conclusion that one comes to based upon the stimulation of those senses. It is not merely knowing what is going on in the universe, but attempting to understand the actions and counteractions of the universe. Meursault is very much aware of his surroundings and the actions therein, yet is not aware of their importance. The very first words from Meursault are indicative of the fact that he sees, but does not perceive.
“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Though it is true that the telegram he received was vague, it is evident that he was not concerned with the particular time her life ceased at that time nor did he enquire details from anyone of the home where she had died when he arrived there for the funeral. This is contrary to the actions of nearly all men. Perchance one does not have a strong relationship with his or her mother, oft times that person will still desire to know, in the least, “When and how did the old bat die?”
It becomes evident at his trial that Meursault’s response to his mother’s passing was contrary to what was expected from one in his situation. Both the warden of the nursing home at which his mother had been placed and the doorman of that same establishment testified on behalf of the prosecution (though he was being tried for the murder of an Arab, not for anything concerning his mother), suggesting that the actions of Meursault during that time were less than human. As far as that goes, the testimony of those two became a cornerstone for the prosecutor’s case against Meursault.
Meursault’s attitude toward life could be summed up in the saying, “c’est la vie” (“that’s life”). I have always been keen to the sarcastic statement, “This is my island, and you are just living on it.” Meursault, though he may not have admitted or realized it, more or less lived by this philosophy. Often, he was unaware of the results of his actions and often was not concerned with such. Meursault is munificent in providing details of what is occurring on his island, yet he is lacking in understanding… in perception.
All beasts are endowed with certain… instincts, if that term may be used. For example, all living creatures have the inherent instinct to be able to find its way home from a particular orientation (even humans). All creatures, likewise, have the instinctual ability to interpret the things occurring about them. For animals, this function of the brain is somewhat primal as it is dependent upon repetition of events and a trial-and-error process. For humans, it is a more abstract process. Still, the interpretive function of the human brain has its origins in what one observes. Observation is not limited to sight. One can easily make observations based upon any physical sense. After observation, the sensation passes through the intermediate function of interpretation before terminating in memory. Meursault’s brain seems to skip that intermediate process --the interpretation (or perception) process.
It is only when he becomes aware of his mortality that that interpretive ability of his brain begins to work. After his sentencing, Meursault sat in his jail cell… thinking. He dwelt upon things that, at any other point in time in his life, he was completely oblivious to. Thoughts of Marie, his mother, things of the world that were just part of “la vie” now festered in his mind. Oddly enough, it takes the unwanted visit of the chaplain (a detail of Meursault’s story that is in itself worth much critique) to consummate Meursault’s conversion from a mere observer, to one who also interprets (perceives) what is observed. Nearly all of mankind is of the latter description. And, as Meursault’s story draws to a conclusion, that same latter group is increased in population by one.
Note some of Meursault’s final words: “…for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.” For mostly all men, such a realization would have been made at the time of happiness. Emotion is a direct result of interpretation of sensations. Contrarily, it was only when Meursault became aware of his own mortality, did he become aware of his emotions toward particular peoples and events.
The human learns via interpretation --that is, “perception”-- whether correct or incorrect, of observations and sensations caused by any of several stimuli. The importance of that interpretive function of the brain is illustrated in The Stranger by the outcome of Meursault’s life. It is not enough to merely be aware of the happenings of the universe but must also at least attempt to make sense of it. When the sun is setting on temporal beings, then it is too late to make sense of it all.