Camus’ L’etranger and Kayne’s ‘Power’: loving the hate, hating the love

Listening to Kanye West’s opening section of his song ‘Power‘, I immediately thought of its similarity with the final words of Camus’ novella, L’etranger (The Outsider). First, from L’etranger:

For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.

No, the opening verse from ‘Power’:

I’m living in the 21st century doin’ something mean to it
Doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

What do these two very different takes have to teach us about hate and about the haters? I’ve written on this subject before but here there seemed a much more complex relationship between L’etranger‘s main protagonist, Mersault and the Kanye-narrator ‘character’ in ‘Power’. Hate, rather than simply a by-product of difference or success, seemed intimately entwined with how to live one’s life, a reflection of a sophisticated relationship with oneself and one’s society.

Mersault explains why he encourages the hate: ‘for the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely.’ The final consummation, the latter meaning complete or finalised, points to the end of his life: he will soon be executed. This echoes his belief that death will be final, without hope of an afterlife. Here it is worth noting its echo of Hamlet’s ‘to die, to sleep / No more […] ‘Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.’: both hope for that finality, that complete and utterly irreversible ending.

Consummation also suggests that the hatred of the crowd will provide some kind of closure, a rise in tempo in the rhythm of the final moments of his life. It summarises a new phase in his understanding of his morality and that of the world in which he lives: that is, he has experienced an epiphany that shows him how one might live, how one might die.

This epiphany is linked to his loneliness and therefore his place in the world, the place for his beliefs and behaviours. When one thinks of Mersault’s loneliness – or more broadly, his relationship with the world – there is a growing irony to the idea at the centre of his desire to be hated.

On the surface, he says shortly before the end of the novel that he experiences a ‘fraternity’ with the universe, since they share a ‘benign indifference’ towards human affairs. Yet such fraternity does not appear to stave off the human, urgent sense of loneliness he feels in his cell, awaiting execution. The baying crowd will permeate that loneliness because they will provide him with ‘attention’, an intense focus on him as an undivided object of their focus, and more – with hatred, that most intense and immediate of emotions. It is, in this sense, a palpable and very human desire.

Yet, the notion of ‘object’, which I use advisedly, should alert us to the problems inherent in the crowd’s reaction, as should the complex irony and duality at the heart of Mersault, especially in the later scenes.

Because Mersault has become an object of derision for the crowd, he understands that they do not fully grasp his particular humanity, his agency. For them, he is merely a vessel into which to pour their malign engagement. The crowd, unlike either Mersault or the ‘benign indifference’ of the universe with which he feels so closely bonded, is intensely aroused and judgemental. They have found a type of meaning in directing their anger towards a person, an idea – even if it is a false one. He, and the universe in which he has finally found a brotherhood, has been fatally misunderstood.

Throughout the novel Mersault has behaved in a way that is at odds with societal norms. This culminates in the powerful subtext, that he is tried and found guilty not for the crime of murder, nor for his lack of regret (although they are central factors) – but that he didn’t love his mother. Morevoer, he does not judge wordily affairs: we’ve already learnt, shortly before the final passage of the novella, that he recognises his mother’s need for a new beginning despite her age and the impossibility of a long-term marriage to her partner. At the end of the novel he understands that his seemingly strange behaviour, even to himself, has found an allay in the fundamental law of the universe.

Mersault will stand ‘alone’ only in the sense that he remains steadfastly outside of human affairs, but at one with the universe. In this respect, their hatred means that he has been right about his fraternity with the benign indifference of the universe: it is, paradoxically, their hatred that makes him feel at home. In short, he has become a friend of his enemies’ enemy, a member of a club that wouldn’t have the crowd as a member.

Kanye West’s ‘Power’ also lingers on hate and the haters that make it possible. On the surface, encouraging such haters (or ‘haterz’, the ‘z’ a strident visual reminder, a blade cutting a zig-zag through cloth, an ending) is bravado: it says ‘I don’t care what you think – I’m better than you and everyone’.(Missy Elliott’s 2003 ‘Gossip Folks’ assumed this sole function memorably.) Here, Kanye tells us that the ‘Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music’. It’s a forceful reaction to the contemporary idea, spread through blog comments, message boards, Twitter and so on, that HGH, or Haterz Gonna Hate. If you’re successful (or increasingly even if you’re not but you just happen to be online) you are a target.

In this sense, like Mersault, Kanye’s endorsement of the haters only serves to show him that what he is doing is right: artistically valuable, morally upright and commercially successful (I use Kanye for shorthand to refer to the ‘narrator’ in ‘Power’, who, given the subject of fame, music and power in the song, is a fair approximation of the song writer himself). In a world of bland uniformity, eliciting a reaction, especially one as powerful as hate, is success. If Kanye feels hated, he feel successful: he is encouraging a reaction in his audience. Like Mersault, on a superficial level, hate at least means you’ve made a difference, an intense one, too: when the haters disappear, so do the lovers.

Of course, it depends on who is hating you, as we’ve seen for Mersault. For Kanye, that sometimes means parts of the establishment. He includes Saturday Night Live in ‘Power’, who have ridiculed his ill-advised interruption at the MTV Video Awards. If those who you don’t respect or value hate you, then you are doing something right. In this case, it’s less profound than Mersault’s epiphany but not less specific: SNL are name-checked and dismissed in brief and vulgar word play. But, as we’ve seen, hate can give way to love in this complex world: when Kanye performed live on SNL, he removed the offending lyrics from ‘Power’.

Two repeated phrases reinforce the complexity of Kanye’s sophisticated relationship with himself and those who love and hate him. The first is the refrain, borrowed from King Crimson’s titular song, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. Like Mersault, who is torn between societal norms and his, albeit largely unexplored, indifference towards the world of human affairs, Kanye is ‘schizoid’, a divided self. The song explores this division as one between the private and the public self, between his natural creativity and the pressures of fame, between his younger more authentic persona and the new one, ostensibly undermined by celebrity. Taken with ‘All of the Lights’, which follows ‘Power’ on the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and forms with it something of a musical diptych, Kanye laments the extent to which fame has changed him and in doing so has driven his family away.

Such divisions create the potential for hate. But it is only when Kanye appears to hate himself, as he does periodically throughout the song, that he can rejoice and endorse the ‘screams’ of the haters. In such instances, when he hates himself, they are right to hate him. The music of their hate chimes a note of ambivalence: when they hate him, they are jealous; when they hate him, they are right – he deserves it.

The second key phrase is: ‘No one man should have all this power’. The obvious identity of the man is Kanye. Again, it is a dual symbol: it reinforces the notion of him being an immensely powerful figure whilst at the same time undermining its legitimacy. For Kanye, that power comes from a complex relationship between those who hate him – including, at some point, himself; and how he might use the notion of those who hate him as a way to understand that he is taking the correct path. If Kanye, in ‘Power’, doesn’t share a direct and entire comparison with Mersault, they do possess a similar duality that means that they both love to hate and hate to love.

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One thought on “Camus’ L’etranger and Kayne’s ‘Power’: loving the hate, hating the love

  1. Pingback: Sending up the trolls – “Thank You Hater! – by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay” [video] | what we've got

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