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The Meaning of Meaninglessness and Trace as Tautology in the Sign: The Case of Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

by Ernest Hemingway and Meursault in “The Stranger” by Albert Camus


Julian Kuci: Engl 216

Julian KuciThere is a famous postulate by Sartre which states: “…existence precedes essence…” (Sartre 5). Here, the idea is that in order for the essence of the subject to come into being, first the subject itself must exist, or come into being. However, if we explore the idea of “existence”, or the subject of existence further, we can ask the question if there is anything more fundamental than the “to be”, or “there-being”, or as Martin Heidegger famously coined it “Dasein”. My contention is that in order for existence to come into being – in other words, in order for the subject to come into being – there must be difference. That is to say, because only difference is information and sameness is not; the subject exists only when it differs (and later we will explore how it defers as well) with its oppositional binary pair and other signs in the chain of signification. This does not mean that difference precedes existence, because in the temporal dimension difference, the production of meaning, and existence come into being conjointly: they cannot emerge into existence separately or one after the other. The event of coming into existence of a new concept or idea is an event of difference, new meaning and a new subject all at the same time. Yes, here I am contending that the production of meaning through relationality constitutes the condition of a new existence (of the subject) to emerge into existence. Bearing in mind the proviso that I am by no means trying to give (a) definitive answer/s or absolute truths, in this essay I will argue that meaninglessness is only a trace of meaningfulness, and thus it is only perceived by both Meursault and Harry in the form of non – meaning, or the absence of meaning.

In this sense, looking for, describing, defining or transforming meaninglessness into the theme of life, being or existence is in fact to look for the absence of meaningfulness or a trace in meaningfulness. In fact, here we should develop a framework for the deconstruction of the sign of meaning. In other words, what does the sign of meaning signify? Starting from the contention that meaning is construal because, as Derrida claims, except for the difference of meaning, Différance entails also a temporal deferral in meaning which is filled from the receiver of meaning, it is therefore important to point out that signification is the application of that construal to something. So signification differs from meaning.  In other words, different people understand the same thing differently – they construe meaning.  Thereby, meaninglessness is a signifier pointing to a construal as its signified. This “universal construal” that the signifier of meaning points at is one that it signifies when it is applied when, in other words, it constitutes an event.

In order to better understand the idea of non-meaning, we have to investigate the concept of “trace”. For Derrida, every sign bears with it that which it is not, or what it does not mean - and that is trace: “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace. . . . In this way the metaphysical text is understood; it is still readable, and remains read” (Derrida 156). In other words, humans cannot think of, for instance man, or darkness, or absence without associating them with woman, light and presence. In this context, the signified of meaninglessness is only a trace of meaningfulness, and because the subject comes into being only within language (or as language) it is always relational. That is to say, the production of meaning is relational, while its presence is absolute. As mentioned above, difference is information, and sameness finds its space in the sign of difference itself as its trace. Analogically, meaninglessness, as an empty signifier – a sign which cannot produce meaning but rather absorb it –absorbs meaning through its oppositional sign of meaningfulness.

The extent to which meaninglessness is identified by the human semiotic logos as only a trace within the sign of meaningfulness is so large, in fact, that it has taken the form of a lexical and philological paradigm. If one checks any vocabulary in the search of the meaning of meaninglessness, the answer that he/she will find is that it means the absence of meaning, or the absence of meaningfulness. In other words, it is a failure of logic and imagination to materialize meaninglessness even in the world of ideas. Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and Meursault in “The Stranger” both share this enormous, omnipresent theme: that of the meaninglessness of life. For instance Meursault during his time in jail portrays the meaninglessness of time: “So, what with long bouts of sleep, my memories, readings of that scrap of newspaper, the tides of light and darkness, the days slipped by. I’d read, of course, that in jail one ends up by losing track of time. But this had never meant anything definite to me. I hadn’t grasped how days could be at once long and short. Long, no doubt, as periods to live through, but so distended that they ended up by overlapping on each other. In fact, I never thought of days as such; only the words “yesterday” and “tomorrow” still kept some meaning” (Camus 50)

However, the Absurd, or the idea of profound non-signification and non-meaning is, again, a trace of meaningfulness. In other words, life or change for Meursault were absurd: “He then asked if a “change of life,” as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another…” (Camus 28). Nonetheless, he and everybody else can only perceive the absurd through meaning because the absurd is merely the absence of logic, or rationality. So, at the moment when he is displaying his views of how absurd life is to the magistrate for instance, Meursault is in fact attributing some sort of meaning to absurdness, by explaining what it is or what it constitutes or what it means to him. And since what it is cannot be without meaning, he is therefore doing nothing else but giving meaning to meaninglessness.
            Another important contention as part of this discourse is that meaning is absolute, while its production is relational. That is to say, in order for the subject and/or object to come into existence it must make some sort of sense; any sort of sense, right or wrong, and this is absolute – whereas the production of this absolute presence comes as a result of relationality. In other words, I am because I am not anybody or anything else. In this sense, the presence of meaninglessness and a meaningless life both for Harry and Meursault can be conceived only through the lenses of the presence of meaning or meaningfulness. A major difference in this context between these two characters is that Harry encounters death through his quest or struggle for the ultimate life and authenticity: “He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook.” (Hemingway, 8) -  while Meursault encounters his death penalty because of a seemingly casual gesture as he describes it, which does not take it out of the routine; an event which was within the margins of his normal daily life. In other words, there is a certain sense of the “extraordinary” in Harry’s life, and it is within this matrix that Harry faces finitude, while Meursault describes the event of killing the Arab as part of his routine of going to the beach to enjoy the sun and the sea.

Following the idea that meaninglessness is nothing but a trace of meaningfulness, and thus it is contained within the sign of meaningfulness, I maintain that there is tautology within this sign. By tautology here I refer to the grammatical concept of the repetition of meaning, or the superposition of meaning. That is to say because we cannot perceive meaninglessness per se, we see it as what it is not, or non-meaning. So in this sense, there is a superposition of meaning in that meanglessness is positioned as non-meaning, thus it derives from meaning. Since one has to go through the idea of meaningfulness to perceive meaninglessness, there is tautology within difference. It is complicated to coin this concept, but one can think of it as the presence of singularity within the oppositional difference, which is the essence of Différance, in that it is only through one sign (meaning) that its oppositional sign (non-meaning) can be perceived. In other words, it is a repetition of meaningfulness, with the only difference that we are perceiving meaninglessness through its absence. Meaning is there, its absence is non-meaning so they are both meaning, but the one is its presence and the second is its absence respectively.

This tautology in the sign is a result of trace. In other words, non-meaning or meaninglessness is a trace which can be found within the sign of meaning or meaningfulness. Here, both Harry and Meursault share this characteristic in that they are both struggling to understand meaninglessness not realizing that they can only see and understand it through what it is meaningfulness. So, the finitude (death) of Harry and the death penalty in the case of Meursault and their lives as described by them are not meaningless; they are both a manifestation of the absence of meaningfulness.


Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books: New York, 1942.

Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs.     Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Heidegger, Martin, John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. Being and Time. Malden, MA:   Blackwell, 1962.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Snows of Kilimanjaro. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1964.


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