‘The Literature of the Absurd’: Meursault

“The Literature of the Absurd” is a reflection on prominent authors in the Absurdist tradition — Beckett, Camus and beyond — and the ways in which their writings can intertwine with life in sometimes surprising ways.

My parents got the name “Doran” from a big book of baby names with storks carrying babies and kittens in baskets on its cover. When I was young, they told me it meant “gift.” Later, when I tried to independently validate this through a Google search of my own, I found out that, although this is the Greek meaning, in Irish, the name means “exile,” or “stranger.” As I have grown, I have come to realize it is this last meaning that I find most true to myself.

The Stranger (L’Étranger in French), Albert Camus’ first novel, is about a man named Meursault. It begins with the death of his mother. He reacts coolly. “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know,” he callously states in the famous opening line. This removed, disconnected attitude remains unchanged throughout most of the novel. When Meursault’s friend Raymond requests that he write an angry letter to Raymond’s girlfriend about her cheating, Meursault does so because “I didn’t have any reason not to please him.” When his lover Marie asks him if he loves her, he responds that “it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.” When he is offered a promotion at work and a chance to move from Algiers to Paris, he tells his boss that “people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another,” and refuses. This attitude eventually culminates in the pivotal moment of the book — when Meursault, after shooting a man who threatens him, fires four more times into the body for no apparent reason.

There have been times when I, too, felt removed, disconnected from the world. I first heard of Camus during my junior year of high school. I don’t remember how. I learned mostly online about his philosophy of absurdism, which posits that human life and existence are inherently meaningless, and that the common struggle to find a greater meaning to life inevitably leads man into conflict with the universe — an existential struggle which he terms “the absurd.”

Although a person can live for an indefinite amount of time without the realization of the absurd, naively going about their days thinking there is some inherent meaning imbued in existence, Camus proposes only three solutions one can choose upon achieving awareness of the absurd. One, to commit suicide and escape existence. Two, to turn to some higher power like God, who can grant life some meaning. Camus, who had lived through the horrors of World War II as a member of the French Resistance, could never accept this, calling it in effect “philosophical suicide.” The third solution, and the only right one according to Camus, is to accept the absurd, but to continue to rail against it anyway. Only by actively revolting against the absurd and continuing to struggle in spite of it can one truly find meaning in life: not from the universe, or from a higher power, but in the act of struggle itself.

Around the time I first discovered Camus’ philosophy, I had just entered into a relationship that would drive me into a protracted, self-destructive downward spiral. While everything seemed wonderful at first between me and my partner, before long we were at each other’s throats constantly, each of us acting out our insecurities and accusing the other of not caring enough, of not doing everything right to avoid stepping on each other’s unseen traps and triggers. It was my first relationship, and while I clung desperately to the hope that somehow, things might someday improve between us, that possibility seemed to slip further out of reach each day.

In Camus’ philosophy, hope represents the ultimate pitfall. The key, he argues, to accepting the absurd and being able to rebel against it, is to first abandon hope. As long as you hope that things might somehow get better — whether it be through some external salvation or your own actions — you will never be able to become truly happy. You will never be able to create your own meaning in the struggle against the absurd.

This proposition seemed ridiculous to me. Abandon hope? Hope seemed to be the only thing keeping me going. I couldn’t live with this relationship as it currently was, but I couldn’t live without it either. If I gave up and ended things between us, I feared I would end up adrift, regretting my decision, forever worrying I had thrown away my best chance of finding real happiness in my life, even if I wasn’t happy at the moment.

The Stranger is a story about hope, though I didn’t quite realize this the first time I read it. To me it was just a story — an interesting one, certainly, and one that I was sure was layered with philosophical complexities that I wasn’t fully comprehending, but still a story nonetheless. Although I empathized at the time with the feeling of being disconnected from the world, of being unable to see beyond my own narrow insecurities and often falling into periods of deep depression in which it seemed nothing concrete mattered, and although I admired Meursault for his ability to disconnect so thoroughly and to stick true to this way of being, I was missing the point. It wasn’t until a couple months later — an eternity, when compared to my painful, tumultuous relationship which had lasted only six months — when I read Camus’ first and most famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, that I began to understand.

The Myth of Sisyphus is Camus’ most complete, literary exposition of his philosophy. Camus begins with the striking declaration: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” He goes on to set up the absurd problem of existence, its potential solutions and advocates for his solution of accepting and rebelling against the absurd. He goes further, providing examples of the lifestyles lived by people who have become the “absurd man,” who have chosen to accept and embrace the absurd and are living most fully for it: the Don Juan, who throws himself constantly into new relationships with the same vigor and intent each time despite knowing they will fail; the Actor, who lives a thousand lives through the stage; the Conqueror, who lives true to his ideals even at the cost of those around him.

Although “Stranger” is not one of Camus’ archetypal absurd characters, Meursault is a man who learns to abandon hope and live without. In the novel’s final few pages, its philosophical climax, Meursault confronts a chaplain who comes to visit him as he awaits execution for his killing of the man earlier. The priest exhorts him to turn to God in his final hour, to free himself from the burden of sin, to believe in the possibility of a different and better life after death. Meursault initially responds with a characteristic cold aloofness, but as the priest continues to push him to embrace God he eventually snaps, grabbing the man’s collar and screaming at the priest that he is “sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me.” At the very end of the novel, in the final few lines, Meursault reflects that “blind rage had washed me clean,” and finally feels ready to open himself to and accept the “gentle indifference of the world.” It is in this moment that Meursault most fully becomes Camus’ absurd man, rejecting the possibility of a higher power beyond what he can be physically sure of in this world, and choosing instead to embrace that surety and death to live his last moments most fully.

Meursault could abandon hope and live for the moment in the face of certain death. Could I do the same in the face of a broken relationship? I certainly struggled to carry out any decisive action. That relationship lasted another four months, becoming ever more frayed, fragmented by multiple breakups and reconciliations, weighted down by an ever-expanding mass of tangled misunderstandings and snarled conflicts that would be dragged up from the mud in every new argument. But I at least found a way to live my life in spite of this. When conflicts flared up like wildfire and I felt completely overwhelmed, paralyzed by a fear that I wouldn’t be able to keep the relationship from going up in flames, I thought about the absurd, and about hope, and reminded myself I didn’t need it. That knowledge kept me grounded. I could deal with things in the moment. There was no need to think about the future, or what might lie in store for me or my partner. As long as I could just get through this next day, that was enough, had to be enough.

Years later, I still don’t pretend to fully understand The Stranger. It’s a book that has been analyzed hundreds and thousands of times, full of nuances that are still being discussed and debated. While Meursault most clearly embraces and rebels against the absurdity of the world after his confrontation with the priest at the end of the novel, for instance, I can’t quite figure out why he seems to care so little about his circumstances prior to this revelation — has he already accepted the absurd and abandoned hope? Does his cold, callous nature make his absurd transformation more likely or plausible? Does Camus mean for him to be a model for our own behavior? Meursault’s character has been subject to endless analysis, and will continue to be for centuries to come. At the end of the day, I feel content that I am able to see a piece of myself in Meursault, whether that be more in his character at the beginning of his journey or at the end.

Camus ends The Myth of Sisyphus with a musing that, in spite of his eternal, hopeless toil, and indeed perhaps because of it, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Perhaps we can also imagine Meursault happy. And perhaps, in doing so, I can find happiness myself.

Originally posted 2023-05-18 06:56:32.