Christ-figures, in literature and cinema, are always going to be problematic. The theological tail of the Jesus-comet is long and dense: attempts at transferring its energies to Christ-like creatures with exclusively human natures are always going to come up short. The trick to avoiding this artistic fate is, I think, to make it clear that allusions to Jesus Christ — redeemer, divine and incarnate Logos, God-Man, sacrificial lamb — are at best immanent allegories of a presumptively transcendent event. Whether one is Christian or not, it’s clear that there isn’t anyone quite like Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one. But perhaps there are people “like” Him. The scare-quotes indicate that the analogies and allegories go only so far, certainly not far enough. The scare quotes mean our efforts at seeing similarities between the divine and the human are inadequate when they are not outright failures. Any artistic imitatio Christi that does not fail will have a Christ-figure who is mostly not like Christus Victor, and where he or she is Christ-like it will be in an attenuated, highly distorted way.
I think this has to be kept in mind when joining the chorus singing “Meursault, in Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, is a Christ-figure!” who dies for our sins — in this case, the sins of bourgeois smugness and superficiality. There is, of course, something to this reading which, after all, was endorsed, in a highly qualified manner, by the author himself:
One would therefore not be much mistaken to read The Stranger as the story of a man who, without any heroics, agrees to die for the truth. I also happened to say, again paradoxically, that I had tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve. It will be understood, after my explanations, that I said this with no blasphemous intent, and only with the slightly ironic affection an artist has the right to feel for the characters he has created.
Camus was responding to the complaints of conservative, usually Catholic, critics of L’Etranger who viewed Meursault as “a schizophrenic” or “a piece of social wreckage” and chastised the author for turning Meursault into something beyond a hero, into an atoning savior of sorts. Meursault, Camus retorted, was a marginal figure, not a wraith but one who valued “a sun that leaves no shadows,” a desert sun that illuminates a passion for a negative truth, “the truth of what we are and what we feel.”
Why is this truth a negative truth? Because it subsists in a refusal, the refusal to lie, to say and display feelings that Meursault does not actually feel. He is honest because he refuses to be dishonest. Crying at his mother’s funeral is something that he will not do, because it would be fake, not aligned with what he actually feels. But in the eyes of the jury that condemns him, crying at one’s mother’s funeral is simply something one does — they are Heidegger’s das Man with a punitive vengeance. Meursault thus dies not just for the sins of bourgeois complacency and conformity: he dies because of their fear of honesty. They cannot deal with his refusal to be dishonest, his refusal to “play the game.” He is thus akind of scapegoat analogous to that which René Girard viewed as the centerpiece of the Christian drama, the crucified one.
But Meursault is, to say the least, an odd kind of scapegoat, a peculiar Christ. He is more of an outsider, un etranger, than an outcast, a throw-away generated by the violence occasioned by human mimesis, the imitation of the other’s wants and desires and the relentless competition that follows in its wake. Meursault is indeed sacrificed to bring order back to the sick community — after all, “one” cannot have stoicism at funerals, can one? — but his threat does not consist in embodying all that is hateful in a society consumed by its violence and hate. He is instead made a scapegoat because he is so weird. He is not a substitute focus for the violence that is brewing in a community suppressing its rage and in dire need of a pressure-valve. He is a scapegoat because he refuses to be with others, to make nice with das Man. He is passionate about honesty, as Camus claims. But his honesty points to his lack of care or concern about much of anything else, apart from not being dishonest and living in the calm pleasantness of sun and sea. Otherwise, Meursault is passionately indifferent.
“Passionate indifference” is not as oxymoronic as it seems. Meursault lives in a violent world, one torn by war and French Algerian colonialism. “Not caring” is an effective form of caring, of coping, of being involved in such a world. If one gives a Heideggerian spin to this reading of The Stranger, the minimalist temperament of Meursault’s Dasein becomes intelligible: his “thrown project” is limited by his stark worldly circumstances and bare-bones personality. Nothing makes much sense in his world, so it makes sense not to make much of the senselessness. He drifts and floats along wherever life nudges him. When he kills the Arab, it makes as much sense to blame it on the heat of the sun as anything else in this absurd world. “Teach us to care and not to care” says T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday: Meursault has been taught, and has taught himself, to take care not to care.
This sheds a different kind of light on Camus’s quite plausible claim that Meursault is “the only Christ we deserve.” He seems to be a straightforward Christ-figure if he is construed as a challenge to bourgeois respectability and the corrupt “Christendom” that Kierkegaard railed against. This is the conventional reading of The Stranger as a narrative of scapegoating. The alternative I am proposing is: Meursault is the Christ we deserve because he is a very, very feeble and strange imitation of Christ, a Christ fit for a world of “normal nihilism.” He is a Christ for a null world where hope is not only impossible but repellent. A Christ-figure for a world that does not just appear, but really is, absurd.
Jesus of Nazareth cared maximally; Meursault cares minimally. In Heideggerese, he is resolute only about not being resolute, which means the only thing that matters to him, the only thing he gives a damn about, is his minimal indifferent self. His is a lonely existence, and he is hell-bent on owning this loneliness. His minimalist existence is his eigentlichkeit, his authenticity. He is honest, but honest is all he is. He is a negativity that stays put, which does not project itself into a richly-involved Being-in-the-world. He is an empty Christ for an empty time, an aeon as empty as Kierkegaard’s “present age” of self-satisfied 19th century Danish complacency. He is a scapegoat who can be dispatched with ease, and after a day or two completely forgotten.
If Meursault is the suitable Christ-figure that 1940s French Algeria deserves, Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a. “The Dude” is the appropriate atonement figure for Los Angeles, CA, USA in 1993. Like Meursault, he is an outsider and minimalist, but with the crucial difference that The Dude’s existential minimalism is considerably more upbeat. The Dude cares about being true to himself just as does Meursault, but he also cares about bowling, his friends Walter and Donny, his eccentric lover Maude, weed, white Russians, and “wheat soda”. He cares about Tai Chi, he cares about his bathtub and apartment, he cares about his rickety car and Creedence tapes, he cares about his rug that ties the room together. His self has more to be true about than Meursault, so The Dude is able, when the situation demands it, to not tell the truth. His “thrown project” is not just to be there, but to abide. And the point of the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is to point out the difference between the two.
The Dude is also a different kind of scapegoat from Meursault. He is not overtly hated by society-at-large for being weird: it pretty much ignores him, which perhaps indicates differences between mid-20th-century French and late-20th-century American bourgeoisies, the former being obsessed with a fraudulent “respectability”, the latter being quite satisfied with inconspicuous conformity and conspicuous consumption. The Dude has no interest whatsoever in the blandishments of money or achievement. He has “potential scapegoat” written all over him.
The Dude is made a scapegoat not by L.A. society per se but by someone who goes proxy for it: the other, “big” Jeff Lebowski, a self-congratulatory wealthy windbag who sets The Dude up for a fall in noir-ish fashion. The big Lebowski is analogous to the High Priest of the Sanhedrin, or Pontius Pilate, who have ulterior motives for picking Jesus as the ideal scapegoat. Big Lebowski is pathetic, obsessed with his own respectability in a world for whom money-as-such has filled the vacuum left by respectability’s demise. His wife Bunny, the victim of an apparent kidnapping, certainly does not care about bourgeois propriety (“I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars”), nor do her nihilist hangers-on, nor does the pornographer Jackie Treehorn. The big Lebowski’s world doesn’t give a damn about anything but monetary success and the expensive pleasures that go along with it, all things whose charms utterly escape The Dude. So The Dude is set up as an ideal fall guy by big Lebowski, and limps along on his own via dolorosa, enduring dire threats by the nihilists to “cut off his johnson”, by big Lebowski and Brandt to make him pay for the missing money, by Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, by Malibu police to get out of town or else, and so on. The Dude does not die for the avaricious sins of Southern California, but he does suffer mightily for them.
Meursault redeems himself in his final encounter with the priest, where he refuses absolution and excoriates Christians for devaluing both the world of sun and sand he loves and for insisting on a dishonest conventional piety. But The Dude’s redemptive circle is much wider, just as his cares are more varied and robust. He bears his cross — the relentless pursuit of his persecutors — but he does not perish on a SoCal Calvary: he jumps straight from the harrowing of his hell to a kind of redemptive act. He figures out that the big Lebowski was not rich from his own efforts but by siphoning off assets from the charity funded by his late first wife. With the help of his dense St. Peter, the paranoid ex-veteran Walter Kobchak, he casts the Satan-figure — remember the Hebrew etymology of “Satan” is “accuser” and “adversary” — down from his wheelchair throne. A substitute scapegoat — the hapless, witless Donny — dies in the Dude’s place, and after the farcical last rites, Walter and The Dude repair to the bowling alley, their Emmaus. The Dude’s story is a gospel, or good-news narrative of how it is always possible to endure and renew one’s life if that life is livable, if not particularly admirable. The Dude is a holy fool who enables us to recognize how foolish we all are, and gives us the ability to live with that.
Meursault died for his sins alone; The Dude lives and abides for the sins of all us acquisitive Americans. Maybe not the Christ we deserve, actually, but perhaps the Christ we need.