They say that art imitates life, but sometimes, it’s the other way around.
It’s been more than half a century since Albert Camus wrote “The Stranger,” but a story played out this summer in a Florida courtroom trial was chillingly reminiscent of the author and philosopher’s 1942 existential novel in which a man standing trial for murder is found guilty largely because of his lack of remorse or guilt over a death he caused – and more importantly, his lack of grief and sorrow earlier in the novel when his own mother died.
The Casey Anthony trial was among the most-followed trials largely because of Ms. Anthony’s actions after her 2-year-old daughter Caylee’s disappearance and ultimately, death. Anthony partied, got a tattoo, hung out with friends, and went shopping and clubbing for a month after her daughter disappeared. Indeed, the prosecution’s central argument in the trial was Anthony’s lack of remorse over her daughter’s death.
Camus’s story also begins with a death followed by joviality.
It starts with a man attending his mother’s funeral.
“Maman died today,” the man, our narrator, explains. “Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
Throughout the funeral he smokes cigarettes, drinks coffee, and shows no emotion, and after which he goes on to drink, cavort, have an affair, and generally enjoy life.
Later in the novel we find the man, a French Algerian, armed with his friend’s pistol, drunk and disoriented with heatstroke. He encounters an Arab on the beach. The Arab flashes a knife at him and for no other apparent reason, the man shoots the Arab and kills him with one shot.
“The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes,” the man says. “That's when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”
At the trial, rather than pursue the actual circumstance of the murder, the prosecuting attorney homes in on the man’s indifference in the courtroom as demonstrative of his apparent lack of remorse over the Arab’s death, and his lack of grief or emotion over his mother’s death, and therefore his guilt.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the day after the death of his mother, this man went swimming, had an affair, and laughed at a comedy film,” the prosecuting attorney said in the novel. “I have nothing more to say.”
Flash forward to 2011 and the similarity is eerie. “Casey Anthony parties after her daughter’s death,” screamed the headlines. Online forums were ablaze with angry trial-followers censuring Anthony for being a bad mother and listing each of the frivolous things she did in the 31 days after her daughter’s death.
Where the stories diverge, however, is the ending.
After a six week-long trial during which much of the media and public seemed certain of Anthony’s guilt, the jury ultimately found Anthony not guilty.
The accused man in "The Stranger" didn’t fare so well. After 11 months of investigation, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by the guillotine.
Says the sentenced man, “Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why.... Throughout the whole absurd life I'd lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate ... ?”
We can’t help but wonder what Camus would have made of Anthony’s story – and how the characters would have reacted had the verdicts been swapped.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.