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Existentialism seen in The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz and The Stranger by Albert Camus

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“If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur in this life” and “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. ” Both of these quotes are famous quotes, by the existentialist Albert Camus. Existentialism is a concept with no precise definition; it is an idea, with many different ‘levels’ of thinking, that branch off into different theological beliefs.

In its simplest form, existentialism stresses an individual’s existence, and consequently focuses on subjectivity, individual freedom and personal choice. Not all existentialists share the same beliefs and there are many variations amongst existential beliefs; for example, an existentialist can be an atheist or a theist, can be moralistic or amoralistic and can believe in predetermination or free will. In the book The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz, the protagonist, Said, shared a similar sense of alienation from family, friends and society as Mersault the protagonist in The Stranger by Albert Camus.

Their alienation stemmed from their existentialist theologies and their actions and justifications for these actions were similar; they also shared a common fate, death. Albert Camus was a man who could be defined as an atheist, and an absurdist. He was a French man who lived in Algeria, and at that time French people living in Algeria were second class citizens, known as pied noir (‘black feet’); they were at the bottom of the social structure in France, the equivalent of ‘white trash’. Camus worked and got himself through university in Algiers and began working for a newspaper.

Today, he is one of the pre-eminent figures of existentialism and even humanist existentialism. Humanist existentialism is the concept of bringing humanism into existentialist theologies, and Camus developed this concept when he was working alongside other famous existentialists during the Second World War. Mahfouz’s story is in many ways similar to Camus’; however, unlike Camus, Mahfouz’s work and ideology is not by definition existentialist. Throughout his career, Mahfouz went through recognizable stages in his writing techniques and theological beliefs.

He began writing from the perspective of an existentialist in the 1960’s, his first existentialist novel being The Thief and the Dogs. It was at this stage that Mahfouz became more interested in the concept of destiny and different philosophical approaches to life, being especially intrigued by how humanity and an increasing greed for material and abstract objects moves humanity itself farther away from God. He gradually shifted his focus to the inner workings of the human mind and what impact and effects it had on interaction with the social environment, rather than presenting a detailed image of society.

In many of his writings, Mahfouz is strongly influenced by the West and Western ideas, and throughout his career, mostly in his existentialist stage, he has tended to focus on the idea of ‘the little man’ and how he is forced to deal with the changing traditions and temptations of the west. From the range of topics that he chose to write about, it can clearly be seen that he was also influenced by the political situation around him, as Egypt was going through an age of transition (1990s).

His ‘moral code’ in life was that: “man is not meant to spend his life on Earth in a futile search and his only true hope of salvation is the exertion of a positive and responsible effort to better his lot and that of others” (Mahfouz). Both Mersault and Said shared the same feeling of alienation, not only from friends and family, but from society on the whole; they did not attempt to understand the world around them, because to them the world was an absurd place, and this was for the most part a result of their existentialist ideology, which eventually brought them to their dooms.

Mersualt fits most of the criteria governing how an existentialist would view life. He did not believe in God, and this, even to this day, is unacceptable in most societies. Mersualt did not care what other people thought of the fact that he was an atheist. Even when he knew that if he had repented for his sins and showed signs of remorse, or even just said to the magistrate that he did believe in God he could have saved himself, he didn’t. Instead, he said “I don’t have time to waste with God. I’m guilty.

I’m paying for it, nobody can ask more of me… From somewhere deep in my future, throughout the whole of this absurd life I have lived, a dark wind was moving towards me across the years still to come. ” (Camus 84). He knew that if he had just pretended to give in and say that he believed in God and felt bad for killing the Arab and showed the slightest sign of sorrow over his mother’s death, he most probably would have at least been able to save his life – but he did not, for the simple reason that he did not believe that it was worthwhile.

Mersault’s trial on the whole was absurd; he was not being prosecuted for killing the Arab, but for not showing the basic human emotion of sorrow at the death of his mother, and for not acting in an appropriate or ‘acceptable’ way following her death. An existentialist by definition doesn’t really care about what is going on in the world around him; instead, he just watches from a distance so as not to affect anything. Every Sunday Mersault has nothing better to do than to sit on his balcony and just watch the people go to and fro; he is detached from everyone else, he is not a part of the world around him-he is an stranger.

Even with Marie, Mersault’s ‘girl-friend’, it was clear that he did not really care about her one way or the other. When Marie asked him if he wanted to marry her, he replied with “I said I didn’t mind and we could do if she wanted to. She wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I had done once already, that it didn’t mean anything, but that I probably didn’t. ” (Camus 44). Worst of all, when his mother died, he showed absolutely no signs of remorse or sorrow, rather, he sat in the mortuary watching over his mother through the night, decided to have some coffee, and then “…

I wanted a cigarette. But I hesitated because I didn’t know if I could smoke in front of mother. I thought it over, it didn’t really matter. I offered the caretaker a cigarette and we smoked. ” (Camus 14). He could not wait to get back to the city, but upon his arrival the very next day, he decided to go to the beach where he met an old friend of his, Marie. He took her home that night and they went to a movie, all this the day after his mother’s death. One last example of how Mersualt was an existentialist is evident in the moment when he was facing the Arab on the beach with his gun pointed at him.

I realized at that point that you could either shoot or not shoot” (Camus 57), it was that simple to him, he perceived everything as being either just black or white, nothing was ever gray, just as everything else was in his life. He never thought of consequences or the meaning of his actions, and for this he was abandoned by his friends, society and for this, eventually put to death. Said, the protagonist of The Thief and the Dogs, was in many ways similar to Mersualt. Said’s equivalent of Marie was Nur, although she was a prostitute. Even when all Said’s friends and Nabawiyya and Sana, who were his only family, abandoned him.

Nur stood by him. The blame for losing all of these relationships and people in his life must be placed on Said himself. He never thought a plan out thoroughly; he only planned out what it would take to get him what he wanted, but he never thought of the consequences or the impact it would have on others. In psychological terms, his ‘id’ dominated all else; this is what slowly lured him to his doom. An example of this is when Said was pondering “… what the Sheikh would do if he were to point his gun at him. Would his maddening composure be shaken? ” (Mahfouz 209).

He did not think of the consequences that this action could have had. The Sheikh was providing Said with the only place of shelter, the only safe place for him to be, and he would have risked it all. It was also ironic how the Sheikh was attempting to help Said by showing him the light and showing him the right path, all of which was entirely irrelevant to Said. Said lived in a detached frame of mind and saw life from a perspective different from others; this is essentially what made him so disconnected and alienated from his society, where the ways of acting and thinking conformed to the dominant belief, Sufism.

The ultimate objective of Sufism in its purest and simplest form is the perfection of the individual and union with God. This is attained, not so much by following in the footpath of tradition or by pursuing the dictates of reasoning as by emotional experiences, involving love, and by following the guidance of the inner light. Dependence upon God… is a primary step” (Hitti 135). Throughout the course of the novel, Said rejected God, which made it rather ironic that when he was in desperate need of shelter with no where to go but to the Sheikh, he was forced to seek shelter in the house of God, the only place he was welcomed.

Each time the Sheikh would preach to him trying to show him the right way, “… he opened his eyes, and the whole world looked red, empty and meaningless. ” (Mahfouz 208). The Sheikh realized that he was not getting through to Said and very accurately summed up Said’s life when he told him that “The world is unaware of him who is unaware of it,” (Mahfouz 209), which ties in very nicely with the concept of Said being an existentialist character, since he sees the world as being an absurd place and doesn’t make the slightest attempt to conform to the way the world around him works.

Both the protagonists from The Thief and the Dogs and The Stranger view their lives from an existentialist perspective and both are atheists. In The Stranger, the moment where Mersault’s death became inevitable was the moment he shot the Arab on the beach. He himself realized the significance of what he had done; “I realized that I destroyed the balance of the day and the perfect silence of this beach where I’d been happy… it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness. ” (Camus 60).

It is quite ironic that the sun, being a universally known symbol of God and knowledge, is what pushed Mersualt to fire the gun, “… the whole beach was reverberating in the sun and pressing against me from behind. ” (Camus 59). An additional irony is that even though after the first confrontation with the Arabs Raymond returned to the shelter of the chalet, which is symbolic of the lies in our world which we make ourselves believe in order to stay sane, but Mersault instead chooses to go back out into the sun.

It was almost as though he was fighting with the sun and as though he was coming so close to understanding the world and to finding the symbolic truth that it is hurting him. This is a form of self destruction; God is blinding him so that he won’t see the truth, and eventually punishes him by inducing him to carry out the one act which marked the end of his being. The circumstances of Said’s death were very similar to those of Mersault’s.

Just as Mersault saw the end coming, from the moment Said read the newspaper and realized that he had killed the wrong person, he knew his destiny, “Said’s life was finished, spent to no purpose; he was a hunted man and would be to the end of his days; he was alone, and would have to beware of even his own reflection in a mirror- alive but without real life. ” (Mahfouz 211). By the end of the book, Said was wanted by the police for all of the murders that he had committed. In his attempt to escape the police, he ran into the cemetery, which clearly symbolizes death, in an attempt to hide.

That night there was a full moon, and the light shining from the moon illuminated the cemetery allowing the police to see him and eventually shoot him dead. In Islam, the moon is a symbol of God, just as the sun is in Christianity, and it is the moon that brings Said to his doom, the same way the sun brought Mersault to his downfall. It was as though he had angered God and brought His wrath down upon him for not having the faith. The way that existentialists perceive life and the world that we live in makes them unique in the way that they act in society.

They don’t react, feel and think about most things in life the way most ‘normal’ people do, and as a result of this they usually stand out in the community and remain detached and aloof. This was certainly the case with Said and Mersault. In a way they lived in their own worlds; their actions, which were completely unacceptable to the rest of society, were completely logical to them, and through their eyes and the way that they perceived the world around them, their actions were completely justified. It was this very way of thinking and approaching life that brought both protagonists to their doom.

Both Said and Mersault struggled against society’s attempts to understand their actions and to read rational explanations into their actions, and because to society their actions seemed absurd, neither Said nor Mersault could be understood. For this reason they were completely alienated from society and eventually paid with their lives. The irony in this is that Said and Mersault, the same way that society could not see their logic, just could not understand society and the way others perceived the world around them; because of this, they saw society and all of life as absurd.

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