Meursault and Plume

Meursault and Plume

Henri Michaux. 1936. Photo by Giselle Freund.

As mentioned before, I once wrote an incredibly brilliant essay about Camus’s Meursault and Michaux’s Plume. Lost it. Nothing as tragic as a car crash. Nothing as dramatic as getting it stolen in Paris. It’s just gone.

So, anyway. Thinking about Camus and Michaux and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom made me think about the connections between the characters. Yet again. Along comes Charlie Chaplin into the mix, and another memory. Of seeing his statue in Ireland, in Waterville by the sea. County Kerry. The Ring of Kerry. One of the most beautiful places on earth. This picture doesn’t speak to that beauty, of course. Only to Chaplin’s presence there.

So the characters are the same and wildly different. There is a sense of indifference in common. In Camus’s great novel, The Stranger, that indifference (with Meursault) is generally misread and may not be the case at all. With Michaux’s Plume, since the character is largely an absurd manifestation of the unconscious, we can’t be sure about anything. But we can speculate.

Statue of Charles Chaplin. Waterville, Ireland. Photo by Alan Hall

Plume is an everyman like Leopold Bloom, but he’s also extraordinarily disinclined to care about most of what goes on around him. Bloom did care, especially about Molly, and later Stephen. But was absent-minded about this and that. Plume, on the other hand, does what we all wish we could do a thousand times a day. He captures the relief and release we all feel when we can just say, “to hell with it all, I’m going back to bed.” It’s one of the most satisfying feelings on record. Of course, some of us might use different words to express that relief.

Plume is often involved in violent things, crazy things, tragic, heart breaking things, and doesn’t seem to care. Perhaps a caricature of existentialism before its day. At least before its day in France. Perhaps a caricature of nihilism, which some mistake for existentialism, at least its effects.

Did Meursault care about killing the Arab? Did he care about his mother’s death? And in one poem, A Tractable Man, did Plume care that his house was stolen, that his wife berated him for letting it happen, that the train obliterated his wife, that the judge condemned him for not caring about that? Did he care that the execution was set for the morrow? No. He wanted to sleep, just to sleep, perchance to dream his way out of the book, out of Michaux’s mind. Perhaps to rebel like the characters in Flann O’Brien’s great novel, At Swim-Two-Birds.

Irony is violent in certain writers. They are violently ironic. There is also often a massive split between their own persona and their characters. It is generally not a good idea to think of the author as writing about himself or herself necessarily, autobiographically, in most cases. For instance, even though Michaux has a character whose main traits are his compliance, obsequiousness, sleepiness, goofiness and indifference to his fate, he (Michaux) actually led a very active, vigorously productive life. And Camus? Though Meursault kills without reason, Camus was a champion of justice, for the oppressed, a fighter for humanity his entire life.

It’s absurd that I’m writing about two fictional characters while Rome burns, implodes, explodes. But I really, really don’t care.


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