I see characteristics of the brave Iranian protesters in two characters in Albert Camus’s novels.
Meursault (the protagonist of The Stranger ) and Dr. Rieux (the protagonist of The Plague ) are both possessed of admirable heroic qualities. Rieux is brave and committed to solidarity, but Meursault also has a virtue that he practices to the limit: honesty. He does not accept social pressure to pretend concerning his feelings and ideas. If he feels no emotion toward his girlfriend, he tells her so. If he does not cry at his mother’s funeral, he does not cry. Indeed, at trial his “emperor has no clothes” honesty is what gets him into especially hot water, for he seems, by not crying at his mother’s funeral, to have displayed a criminal’s heart. But what he is doing is cutting through the layers of social hypocrisy and all its lying about expressions of emotion and socially “correct” motivation. He is a Christ-figure putting the society trying him on trial itself.
Both The Plague and The Stranger are novels that relentlessly lay bare the lies that individuals and societies erect between themselves and reality. They are literary denial-shattering sledgehammers. First answers never hold. The truths of existence and human motives are slowly but surely made naked, and put under pressure to their limits. What we get by the time we arrive at the end of these novels is a clearing for honesty, air, and sunlight. The world is painfully laid bare, both in its truths and horrors. But they also show that at least some people do not compromise their inner integrity for convenience or to save their own skins. Both Meursault and Dr. Rieux are willing to die in the face of enormous pressures to either conform or simply cut and run. But they will not conform and will hold their positions. They both encounter absurd situations and struggle to stand up under the assault of them. They are men who are more than a match for what they, by curious contingencies, find themselves in.
Think Rocky in the ring, the NY firemen on 9/11, and, of course, the Iranians protesters on the streets these past two weeks. With regard to each individual protester, each moment is a new and taxing encounter with the questions:
- How much truth and horror in your society are you willing to confront and lay bare?
- When will you break ranks and disengage?
- Will you stand to the death?
- Will you hold?
Each day that the protesters hold on, a new layer of lies is shed from the “emperor has no clothes” Iranian regime. Day by day, we see that government ever more in its nakedness. Its mystifications are laid bare. As if each day were the turning of a page on a Camus novel, a little more truth and sunlight breaks through dark clouds. Things are clarified, and the powerful and terrifying nature of the human spirit is brought into the sunlight.
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