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After It’s Finished, Why Does It Matter What I Know?

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“I”
God is not someone I’ve ever met. I suppose I never will meet him. I can’t tell if I’m satisfied with that, but I do know that he won’t change my fate. If I deserve it, I’ll receive it. Nothing more, nothing less. The world is neither for nor against me. I have observed this. What I do, I do. Infinite paths, all equally likely in the eyes of those who watch us from the ungraspable essence. A vivid concept of time is the only force which dictates my rapid interaction. I act. I react. And I act again. Emotion and reason (naturally hand in hand) drive my reaction, and my action, and everything from the earth to the stars.

Meursault
This was every oppressively feverish day under the sun, until I went to prison.

The tides of the ocean only mute my skill for expressing how I cannot feel. When I am away from the ocean, out of the water, I know how I react to the slightest of things. My physical body is freed from all pressure and exposure to sentiment. I am no longer naked to the salt water, the sun, and the brilliance of Marie’s skin under my hands.
My choices are made by the influence of myself alone — the calculation of time and circumstance is everything. I like to think of myself as objective, but the ocean counteracts that belief. Its orbiting substance tells me that humanity is naturally emotional — pure objectivity is impossible. I am impossible.

Holden
I don’t care to believe what I don’t see in their faces. Pale words, constructed ideas, and so many instilled motives. They all kill me. It’s probably the only thing keeping me alive, besides my kid sister. She kills me too — the most. But I barely see her. Instead I'm practically a tropical parrot with the words “‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though” (Salinger 87). Why does it matter who I’ve met? Nobody’s ever changed my life in such a way that I want to go back to college, or put effort into another exam paper.

People don’t even make choices for me… they just leave me hanging with all the worst options, almost on purpose out of their ignorance. Maybe I’m a little inclined to hate people. But they all annoy me, for no good reason. Although when I think about it now, I don’t hate them. I even miss them, sort of. I mean, just sort of.

Mr. Antonlini told me about this stuff, how me being confused and disgusted by the world isn’t a new phenomenon. I’m a natural scholar but I have to apply myself and all. Otherwise, he says, I’m in for a hard scary fall. To be honest I was so tired when we were talking. I could’ve slept standing up without noticing. He likes me though. I think that’s why he said most of that stuff.

Meursault
This was that day, at my apartment. Nothing had changed… Or am I thinking of today? “He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness” (Camus 66).

I watch the street from my window. The people of the city walk in pairs, or groups of three, groups of security. I stand there, and wave to the few who acknowledge me. They do not invite me down from my nest. I find comfort in normalcy and do not give a thought to joining them.
The evening progresses to match the changing colors in the sky. I am alone with the sky, I have always been. It seems I will be for a long time, at least unless something changes. Then would it really be any different? I’d be the same pair of eyes, looking at the same cloudscape, from the same angle. A different vantage point, but nothing much of lasting importance.
On the last day, I can observe what I am certain has always been above me. The routine is not surprising, it creates a continuity which steals my breath. I am truly living at the end, and only then.
I could pretend to start over, as if I had another million years laid to my advantage. They would all mock me (saying I have no reason to, and not enough time). But they did not understand what I felt anyway. I would do what I liked, save my raw emotion for another instant, when it could be released to a proper audience… and I would not have to try to explain myself to the humid, coercive courtroom. What really mattered? If I had gotten married or not — if I had refused that cup of coffee? If I had decided not to go to Céleste’s for dinner? Or if I had made up my mind to finally buy some bread, even though I was tired of seeing the neighbors and tired of receiving their pity for Maman’s death?
Why should I do one thing and not the other? How was I supposed to know which path would make me not kill a man? How did anybody know that sort of stuff?
The trial felt pointless to me, I’ll admit. None of the speeches had anything to do with me. I was so far removed that I was almost a ghost on the defense’s side of the room, occasionally eyeing the commotion (I could never accept that it was meant for me). They were wasting their time anyway. They would certainly forget me and all my troubles and all they thought they knew, in a short period of time after I was sentenced and executed.
What was my life compared to millions? What was my impact if no number of years made any difference? I would be the same person I am, at this moment waiting for the dawn, if I had chosen any one of countless paths… It would all, inevitably, come down to the same ending. I would be executed because I had killed a man. Under emotion or in cold blood, it made no difference. I had still taken a life that was not my own. Consequences are universal, whatever group of intellectual idiots decides to hear (but not listen) to my case. I would receive the execution today, and if not today, maybe in ten years. I would surely receive it for the same crime.

Holden
Everything in my life goes down the sewer drain, but I suppose it is my fault. I just can’t commit to anything when everyone I meet is just so annoying and so phony. I’ve got a million different ideas of what to do. But every time I really think I have it, some guy comes up with a reason why I can’t. It really depresses me. And then Phoebe thinks I don’t know anything that I really like a lot. I swear I do. But she’s just a kid, she’ll probably understand when she grows up and goes to college and all. I thought of joining a monastery at one point, but then Ackley had to mention the fact about being Catholic… he was really sore about that. And I woke him up too. Otherwise I want to go to a ranch in Colorado, but of course Phoebe points out that I can’t ride horses. I didn’t believe her though. Down there they can teach you in about two minutes. I just get so disappointed in everything. Nothing seems to work out the way it’s supposed to. Even when I was ordering that girl up to my hotel room — the feeling just went away and then I felt so bad for her. They even made me pay after she didn’t do anything.

I suppose they’ll get what they deserve, all of them. I just hope I’m not there to see it. I’ll feel just horrible if I had to see anyone again, after so many awkward conversations. I guess because I did all these things, and came back to New York for a while, I probably wouldn’t have took old Phoebe to the carousel in the park. I felt so happy that day and I don’t even know why. “It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all” (Salinger 213).

Anyway, after all this, I’m going to a new college and lots of other stuff that’s honestly pretty boring. I don’t know much of what I’m going to do. How am I supposed to know until I do it? I know the answer to this anyway. There isn’t one. I think a lot, but I never know.

Meursault
This was the only day I tried to tell my story. “I was about to tell him he was wrong to dwell on it, because it didn’t really matter” (Camus 69).

They all know how they feel about me, their eyes say nothing but the rest of the bodies betray at least something. Justice is placed on a marble pedestal, and they don’t dare to crack its foundation. They fear the consequences, and don’t realize that they deserve everything they would get in return.
What’s that? It was because of the sun? I don’t understand, and I can’t tell you that. Take him out of the room for a minute. I’ll converse with my colleagues, which I understand because they don’t say anything that I haven’t already heard before. Safety is conformity.
We are frightened enough to hide our emotions. We are strong enough to suppress them for as long as possible. But not yet brave enough to say what we truly feel when death is upon us. And when it is someone else’s death, when someone else is leaving their life, I feel only nothing.
I have to focus on physical needs. I have to sleep when my body is tired, I have to eat to quiet my stomach. I have to do something, anything to keep myself from thinking too much about what I can’t change. All these actions, don’t you see, I did them so I wouldn’t go truly insane. It’s the right distraction from all the emptiness I can’t avoid encountering.
He won’t save me. I don’t even know where he is. Does he see me? I don’t know what he thinks of me, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make a difference. You’ll accuse me, and I’ll go to prison anyway. I’ll be executed in the name of a supreme being who doesn’t care to lend a hand in confusing and absurd situations.
Everything is true, and nothing is true. It all comes down to perspective. It just so happens, that in this part of the country, with these certain people handpicked by the invisible one — they must hear a story they cannot imagine experiencing. They must decide if my personal decisions have any effect on how I conduct myself in a situation of decision and distress.
It was because of the sun — it was. It was all the sun and the heat and the way the sweat covered my eyes like a silver blindfold. Surely, Monsieur Pèrez, you understand my feelings here. You remember the image of yourself in the red fields outside the village, trying to keep up with the funeral hearse. Your sadness covered you — and, well then, my detachment covered me.
If I had done one thing differently, then I wouldn’t be here at the moment. But I’d be here sooner or later… and why not now? I can’t answer my own question. You’ve given me too many of your own. I don’t want to tell you everything about my personal life. If you can’t understand why I don’t speak just to speak, don’t bother dwelling on it. It might make your head hurt.
And if I had made a different decision, I wouldn’t have killed a man. But I can’t be supervised. How was I, of all people in the world, able to know what would happen later that day? I was only trying to escape the sun. My legs found no other direction but forward. The Arab must have felt threatened, I’m sure, by my thin pale form stumbling over in his direction (I did not have the gun out), with no sense of reality.
Was he afraid that I would take his place at the spring behind the rock? Maybe he felt that I didn't deserve water after our spontaneous fight. So he drew his knife between my eyes, as an action of defense. The sun latched onto the shine of the knife, shattering my eyes in a instant of pain — so intense that I felt as if my forehead was burning.
Maybe I was experiencing a fall into the deep shadows of Hell. Is that what most people believe in these days? Maybe I was close to what I thought was beautiful solace, and the supreme being decided that I wasn’t going to have it.
I retaliated. I drew Raymond’s gun and shot the Arab once. He was instantly dead, and I was closer.
But I would never reach the small spring of cool water behind the rock. The invisible supreme being, who was all around me, had already thought that over, long before I accepted Raymond’s invitation to the beach.
I knew this now. I had already done the inevitable — shot the Arab once. I had fallen into Hell, and now I was standing outside the front gates. Satan lives here, I thought, doesn’t he? Is he any more merciful? I had no way of knowing this, no information to tell. As I have said before, I don’t believe in God. Will I let him save me? No. I cannot. As far as I can tell, it’s already too late for me.
I shot the Arab again, four more times. Judgement may come quicker and more precisely from the divine… whether good or evil. I think my case is simple. If you truly believed, the way I see it, there would be no need for elaborate earthly systems.

Holden
I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been objective. About anything or anybody. Usually I know pretty quick how I feel. But I’m always having to hide it, so I don’t hurt their feelings or get into trouble. I even lie to their faces and nobody notices. “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible” (Salinger 16). It’s not that I’m a bad guy, I just can’t stand anybody. They’re all so phony, and they’ve all got their heads in a bucket or something. They can’t take any hints, especially Ackley. Old Sally too. I got into a whole argument with her because of my stupid ideas. I didn’t know what I was saying. I meant it when I said it, but not a second after. I never should’ve even brought any of it up. I can’t seem to enjoy spending an hour with anybody.

Meursault
This is by far the only day I recall feeling extraordinary pain and peace. “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world” (Camus 122).

I’ve encountered today a place called the divine. It consists of meaninglessly woven and stacked lies, fiery on the oven I no longer inhabit. I now stand in a room made of grey stones. Higher walls than I have ever seen rise toward the sky… I have no reason to believe the glass ceiling, turquoise and pale peach and gold sunflower, hasn’t cracked due to the pressure of a thousand working men. The condemned only sit at the surface, crying along with the stones.
I am one of those sobbing masses, a fine shapeless form crouched on the wooden bed frame. The blanket may have harbored insects, but I couldn’t tell you. I am too focused on the sky, and on the stones. They say a face may be seen in them. But I search and I search, and at last I remember every minuscule detail one could encounter for two lifetimes.
But the face remains distant from my lonely eyes. I have pictured Marie too, in vivid color, so I might find her. I see her pretty face, her bottom lip with its slight pout, her suntanned arms and the striped dress, and her hair so charmingly let loose from a straw hat she carries. I see her movements under my hands. Her laugh surrounds me and I almost rise from the bed, expecting to see her there, at the barred door. I still want her so badly. But the phantom whisks itself from my fingers and I am alone again.
I am, after all, only remembering her before I killed a man.
This is the only face and form I look for. This is the only one I want — and I suppose if I can’t have Marie, then any other girl would be fine with me. If she has kissed a new man in the way she kissed me, then she has moved on. And what is wrong with that? These are only fantasies, after all. I force myself to be rational under all circumstances. I am truly a condemned man, and what would she want with me, the person who she might never see again? What would I want with her, or anyone else, if I am going to die tomorrow? Nothing would be finished, nothing would be worth anything. I could play at beginning again, and it wouldn’t matter the outcome. All of this is quite natural, because I know my fate. I face it, and I face it every day the same way. Rationality even within my daydreams. As all people should know, a section of time and worry is wasted on everything that holds no meaning.

Holden
I’ve had so much stuff to talk about and all. I mean, I guess that means I’m human. All these people were such a waste of my time, after I finally got home and saw Phoebe and took her to the park and watched her ride on the carousel. That was probably the only time I felt really happy, so far. And not even for any goddamn reason. And I think about all this stuff, and I’ve talked about it so long, but I don’t even really know anything. Even Mr. Antolini who was supposed to be all intelligent and give me some insight… I had to leave so fast because I was so embarrassed. Every time that perverty stuff happens I get so nervous and then I have to leave without acting like it. ”About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddamn Maurice. It’s funny” (Salinger 214).

“I”
I am a product of emotion, conceived by moral objectivity and centuries of scientific research. I am human.