• Literary Criticism: Rebellion and Indifference


    Rebellion and Indifference in

    Albert Camus’

    “The Guest”

    and

     Shani Boianjiu’s

    “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”

    by

    Harold O. Wilson

     

     

    The purpose of this essay is to compare the metaphysics and mythology of two short stories published fifty-three years apart. The similarity of their metaphysics is discussed as well as the profound difference in their mythology: a difference with chilling implications for our relationship to each other and the way we build our future. Metaphysics is defined here as the way in which the world works; a description of the nature of the universe. Myth is the stories we tell ourselves about our place in this universe and our possibilities for the future. The essay argues that Camus’ short story “The Guest” and Shani Boianjiu’s “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” share a common metaphysics. Both see the world as absurd and indifferent to the self-conscious nature of human life. Whereas Camus’ principal character Daru affirms his uniqueness by rebelling against the absurdity of his universe, Boianjiu’s character, Lea is absorbed into her world with the result that she is as unfeeling and indifferent as nature itself.

    An Israeli army officer, Lea is in charge of a checkpoint closing a road to Palestinians in the West Bank. Three Palestinians arrive one evening and announce they are demonstrating against the closing of the road. The two men and a boy ask that their demonstration be disbursed so they can receive publicity in the local press. Lea uses a number of means of suppressing demonstrations available at the checkpoint, but to no avail. Finally, the boy is arrested for picking up a rock. This is done with the understanding that a “press blast” will surly follow his arrest.

    The heart of this story is not found in the politics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, nor in the terrible events Lea reads about in the papers each evening. The core of this story is found in the metaphysics Boianjiu has constructed with her singular literary style and in the mythology of the virtual world she has created. To use Susanne Langer’s language, Shani Boianjiu has given us a work of literary art, “the creation of myth through the imaginative conception of metaphor.”

    Unfortunately many of the comments on “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” published in The New Yorker, June 25, 2012 go directly to an analysis of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as it is depicted by Boianjiu. Her political views on the conflict are then extrapolated from the narrative. The commenter’s focus seems not to be on the story as art or myth but rather as political comment. From one perspective, this is not difficult to understand. Langer reminds us that the normal material of literature is language and “language is, after all, the medium of discourse, it is always possible to look at a literary work as an assertion of facts and opinions, that is as a piece of discursive symbolism functioning in the usual communicative way.”  But what the writer of fiction intends to create, Langer says, “is a virtual experience, wholly formed, and wholly expressive of something more fundamental than any ‘modern’ problem; human feeling, the nature of human life itself.” To focus exclusively on the “modern problem,” the context which carries the story, to the exclusion of its mythology is to miss the more significant gift of Boianjiu’s piece: a view of the nature of the way the world works and the disturbing relationship her character Lea has to it.

    Camus’ story “The Guest” is also set in the midst of a political conflict—the years just prior to the outbreak of the French/Algerian war. Daru, a French school teacher in a remote region of Algeria is faced with a moral decision. A gendarme, Balducci, has arrived at the schoolhouse with an Arab prisoner and tells Daru that he is to deliver the prisoner to the police in the city some distance away. Daru, a man of honor, must decide what to do with the Arab. His conflict is certainly occasioned by the impending French/Algerian war and some scholars focus on this “modern problem.” As a result, Camus’ story is often analyzed as a socio/political statement on his view of the Algerian war and its power as literary art is lost.

    But what Camus has given us is, as Langer says, “a virtual experience, wholly formed, and wholly expressive of something more fundamental than any ‘modern’ problem; human feeling, the nature of human life itself.”  Through his style and literary technique we incorporate this experience to ourselves. Camus has created an illusion: a world, a history that we feel. The texture of the narrative is gritty; we feel the sand, the cold, Balducci’s rough edge, the conflicted indifference of the prisoner, the isolation of each of the characters, and finally the weight of Daru’s choice and his frustration with the Arab.  They are our own.

    At the end of the story, Daru reads, scrawled on the blackboard across the four rivers of France he had sketched earlier, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” Daru looks at the sky, at the plateau, “and beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.”

    The wording of this ending is important: “Dans ce vaste pays, qu’il avait tant aimé, il était seul.” Camus does not write that Daru felt alone. There is no emotion here. He was alone. No visitor can fill this void. Camus has given us a declarative statement of being. It is the crux of his metaphysics. Man is alone in an indifferent universe. It builds on the description of the landscape and Daru’s place in it. “This is the way it was: bare rock covered three-quarters of the region. Towns sprang up, flourished, then disappeared; men came by, loved one another or fought bitterly, then died. No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest mattered. And yet, outside this desert neither of them, Daru knew, could have really lived.”

    This irony here is the essence of Camus’ concept of absurdity. “When all the snow was melted, the sun would take over again and once more would burn the fields of stone. For days, still, the unchanging sky would shed its dry light on the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man.” In an indifferent universe, Daru is an anomaly. As a human being, he is a one off. He is aware, and that self awareness generates within him a moral obligation that he cannot avoid. And with moral obligation comes the specter of choice. Daru is in fact in but not of this world where “nothing had any connection with man; and yet, everywhere else he felt exiled.”

    Boianjiu has given us a similar world: absurd and indifferent to our existence. But here we have a radically different relationship to that world.  Whereas Daru feels everything, Lea feels nothing. Not even her own body. “Lea, the officer, had stopped feeling her own body.”  And this is why the sex is so rough; it is an attempt to feel something. And why she reads the terrible events of war in the paper each evening. But neither bring feeling to her body or into her life. She can move her body, but not feel it. “Her hours, the sands. She passed through them like a ghost she read about in a book she had bought at the supermarket as a teen-ager. The ghost was in a house, but could not open drawers, or pick up a coffee cup. She could not move a thing, and her existence did not matter.”

    We get the sense however, that Daru feels his life does matter. The quality of choice instills in him a moral obligation and that obligation connects him to his world, even though it is a world indifferent to his wishes and desires, and even his life. “That man’s stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor.” There is within Daru’s nature a moral compass that he responds to. Lea, on the other hand, is guided by orders and regulations; the instructions in her manual or that she has heard. “Most of her days involved procedures and orders, going from one dot to the next in what appeared to be the only straight line.” Her choice not to use live fire on the demonstrators, for example, is not a moral choice; it is simply that live fire is not in the instructions. “Use from light to heavy, shock, tear gas, rubber. We must minimize damage when possible.” When she asks the boy to stand aside, it is not from any moral compunction, “She remembered that the instructions said that, no matter what, means of suppressing demonstrations should not be used against children.” Lea tries to break the pattern, to establish some kind of unique identity, “She tried with sex, with pain, with shocking newspaper articles, sometimes, but she did not try too hard.”

    Whereas Camus’s style is gritty and incorporates us in its narrative, Boianjiu’s is smoothed out and flat. We are left outside. Her story is a wonderful literary illusion, a virtual world whose history unfolds before us. But unlike “The Guest,” we are observers here. It is like a drama played out behind a glass partition with all the characters pantomiming their part. There is no sound; not of the shock grenades, the firing of the tear gas canisters or the rubber bullets. We do not even hear their voices—the dialogue is like reading lips with the words resounding in our heads. Our experience here is not the unfolding of the story: as we stand back and watch events play themselves out, what we observe, what we feel, is the essence of the absurd.

    If Daru is rebelling against the absurdity of his world, Lea is indifferent. “She guessed that she must want a family, or to get into a good school, but she guessed this from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.” There is no weight of choice here, only a dull acceptance of the role she has been assigned. While Daru is in but not of his world, Lea is both in and of her world. She is part of the warp and wolf of the fabric that makes up her world. There is no separation, nothing that distinguishes her from the order, the sequence, movement, or form of this virtual world Boianjiu has created.  “And there was that silly question again, the one she had just chased. It came back. She wondered what he (Tomer) would call her that night (while they were having sex), though she knew that whatever word of the words of this world he chose would not matter.” That is to say, what he named her, what identity he gave her would not matter, “It would not shift the pace of the steps of the day, or even the pace of the steps of that night.”

    There is no hope in either of these stories: no belief in a positive outcome. There is possibility however, no matter how remote it might be. The quality of choice gives Daru the capacity to rebel and identify himself as a moral creature in an absurd world indifferent to his existence. Now fifty-three years later in Boianjiu’s bone chilling story there is not even the self-conscious quality of choice in Lea or the moral obligation it engenders. There is only the numbing quality of following procedures and orders; reading the instructions to get it right. It could be argued that Lea’s indifference is in itself a choice. One chooses not to choose in order to escape the responsibility choice brings. But Boianjiu’s story suggests there is something much more insidious at work here: a grinding away of identity and absorption of the self by an indifferent world to the degree that choice itself is no longer possible. One simply falls into line. Lea resisted, “but she did not try too hard.”

    What little possibility there is in this story rests in the spit contacted on a child’s hand. Like a dream or a nightmare, this Lea does feel. Every time she hears her name in the dark, she feels this wetness. Perhaps, just perhaps, this intrusion will rescue her from being completely lost to the procedures, instructions, and orders that mirror the indifferent nature of her world; and us as well.

     

    END

    CODA 

    Synopsis: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”

     

    “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” focuses on Lea, a young Israeli soldier stationed with four men (boys really) at a remote checkpoint blocking Palestinians from a highway on the West Bank. Lea is the officer in command of the checkpoint. Tomer, the only Israeli soldier with an active role in the story, is nineteen and two years younger than Lea. In the evening, Lea reads violent newspaper accounts of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict brought to her each morning by Tomer. Each evening the two engage in violent sex.

    Three Palestinians arrive at the checkpoint one evening, two men (about thirty-years-old) and a thirteen-year-old boy with his fingers in his mouth. They announce that they are demonstrating against the closure of the highway. “Officer, we are here to demonstrate against the restriction of our mobility, which is a collective punishment and against international law,” the Palestinian wearing a Guns N’ Roses T–shirt says.

    Lea comments that the three don’t constitute a very impressive demonstration. They apologize for having so few in their number but explain that there is a wedding in the village that weekend and also that others are not serious. They request to be disbursed so they can get a “press blast, or something,” in the local paper.

     

    Willing to oblige, Lea pursues a number of official demonstration suppression techniques available as standard equipment at the checkpoint. The devices are kept in a box and are to be used “to intimidate, and at most injure, but the purpose is not to kill.” According to instructions found in the box, use of the techniques should be from light to heavy or from shock grenades to tear gas, to rubber bullets. However, when the shock grenades, then tear gas, and finally rubber bullets used over three successive days result in no press coverage the demonstrators ask for live fire. Lea refuses. Tomer suggests that if the demonstrators were to throw a rock they could be arrested. The boy picks up the rock Tomer had used to practice throwing the shock grenades and is promptly arrested. He is lead away by Lea and Tomer and all appear satisfied that the arrest of a child will result in a “press blast.” We don’t know if it does. All we know is that Lea, Tomer, and the boy walk away in silence, their steps synchronized and through the eyes of a villager from a very distant house “could have been a family.”  We also know that Lea is later haunted by the boy and the feel of the spit on his fingers when her hand accidently brushed his.

     

    Synopsis – “The Guest”

     

    The setting for “The Guest” is a schoolhouse on a hillside in a remote area of Algeria. Daru is the schoolmaster. He lives alone in one room of the two-room building. The larger room is a classroom. On the blackboard, sketched in different colors, four rivers of France rush toward their estuaries. Daru’s room is small. It’s cluttered with sacks of grain from France that he portions out to the school’s twenty or so students who come from nearby Arab villages. The villages are scattered on a plateau that slopes away to the south and to the east. As the story opens, a sudden snow fall has kept the children away and Daru is alone. He watches a man on horseback and one on foot approach the school. It is mid-October and it is cold. Daru recognizes the man on horseback as Balducci, a gendarme from El Ameur. The man walking behind the horse has his hands tied with a cord that leads to the gendarme. He is an Arab. We don’t know his name.

    Balducci’s instructions are to deliver the Arab to Daru at the schoolhouse who is to then take him the next day to Tinguit, about twenty kilometers to the east. There Daru is to turn him over to the police. Daru asks what the Arab has done and Balducci says something about his killing his cousin, that he had been hidden by his village, and that the villagers were becoming restless because of his capture. The schoolmaster is to deliver the Arab to the police in Tinguit because the gendarmerie in El Ameur is short handed and war is about to break out. Daru says he will not turn the Arab over to the police. Balducci shrugs, his job was to deliver the Arab to Daru and he has done that. Daru can do with him what he wants after he signs a paper saying he has received the Arab.

    Balducci folds the paper and puts it in his wallet. “I’ll see you off,” Daru says. “No,” says Balducci. “There’s no use being polite.” Balducci is insulted. We’re not sure why but Daru believes it’s because the gendarme felt Daru didn’t want to be associated with him. The subtle play here is that we begin to realize that this story is about choice; the weight of choice, the frustration of choice, the ambiguity of choice, the consequences of choice. Daru has separated himself from Balducci by his decision not to turn in the Arab. And perhaps Balducci feels that Daru is too ambivalent about the French cause in Algeria. “Good-bye son,” Balducci says.

    The ambiguity and frustration of choice weigh heavily on Daru. “He could still hear the gendarme’s farewell, and without knowing why, he felt strangely empty and vulnerable. At that moment, from the other side of the schoolhouse, the prisoner coughed. Daru listened to him almost despite himself and then, furious, threw a pebble that whistled through the air before sinking into the snow. That man’s stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor. Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation. And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away.”

    Daru had untied the Arab when he and Balducci arrived. The Arab eats and passes the night with Daru unrestrained. After breakfast, Daru leads the Arab away from the school toward the east. As during the night, Daru thinks he hears footsteps near the house but there is nothing. They descend to the plateau where Daru stops, gives the prisoner a small package of food and some money. He turns the Arab toward the east and tells him that that is the way to Tinguit and the administration. Then he turns him toward the south and points out a faint path in the distance. That path will take him across the plateau where he will find nomads who, according to their law, will take him in.

    The Arab looks at Daru in panic. “Listen,” he says. “No, be quiet.” Dary says, and leaves the Arab. Twice Daru looks back. The first time the Arab is still standing on the little hill. The second time, he is gone from view. The third time Daru turns, he retraces his steps and can make out the Arab trudging east on his way to Tinguit and prison.

    At the schoolhouse now, Daru reads, scrawled on the blackboard across the four rivers of France, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” Daru looks at the sky, at the plateau, “and beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.”

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