Society fears existential truth

By Aristophanes

This article explores Albert Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd by way of his iconic short novel The Stranger, first published in 1942. Spoilers follow for that work, as well as for the existentialist films Blade Runner, The Truman Show and The Big Lebowski. The pilot episode of the HBO television series True Detective is briefly discussed, as well.

Albert Camus’ The Stranger is a rather ambiguous philosophic piece. The work, a fictional tale of a French-Algerian with a flippant disposition, does not easily reveal a singular thesis. Themes of fear, happiness, death and absurdity populate the story’s landscape, yet it is up to an entirely separate book, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, to detail their importance. The explanatory nature of this second, more disciplined treatise — presented in essay format — provides a rationale behind The Stranger’s token ambiguity: Considering himself more artist than philosopher, Camus was a harsh critic of the efficacy of human reason. This might explain why his novel preceded the essay in publication and, by most accounts, surpassed it in popular relevancy. Camus rightly believed his ideas were well-suited to a fictional format — but he published Sisyphus later, anyway.

When read in tandem, these two works shed light on the primary purpose of the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Meursault. With additional insight from an article by fellow Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as a contemporary text, encyclopedic content and a brief afterword from Camus himself, the currents driving The Stranger become much more discernible.

This article maintains three separate claims. First, that Camus believes Meursault, who he deems a “hero,” practices an ideal mode of living worthy of our attention and respect. Second, that Meursault is, indeed, at least partially worthy of such admiration. Lastly, that despite the inner psychological rewards of an attitude like Meursault’s, such a life is an aberration of which society as a whole is right to fear.

Support for these claims will follow a brief overview of The Stranger and a survey of Camus’ formulation of the Absurd through reference to Sisyphus and the aforementioned secondary texts. This notion will be illustrated through the plot and characters of the novel. Then, an examination into each separate claim will highlight where Camus’ philosophy hit the mark and where it clearly overreached. Lastly, this article will conclude with general advice for individuals and societies attempting to cope with the absurdity of the cosmos. In tribute to Camus, these tips are conveyed through references to artistic as opposed to philosophic works.

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A strange man

The Stranger is divided into two halves. The first part’s famous opening line, delivered, as with the rest of the book, in the first person, perfectly highlights the indifference of the main character: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” With this, we are introduced to Meursault as a man who isn’t overly concerned about what would be, for nearly anyone else, a heartbreaking event. This is further evidenced by Meursault’s various exploits following his mother’s death. He attends her funeral, sure, but immediately afterward dives back into his personal and professional lives as if nothing of importance had occurred. Meursault goes back to work. He becomes romantically involved with a girl, visiting the beach and taking her to the theater. He also agrees to go on vacation with a neighbor, a trip that precipitates Meursault’s prosecution in the book’s second half.

There are other indicators of Meursault’s lack of compassion, as well. When asked by his girlfriend Marie if he loves her, there is no hesitation when Meursault replies that he probably doesn’t, qualifying the denial by saying it doesn’t mean anything. At his mother’s vigil, he shares a smoke with the nursing home caretaker while overlooking her casket. During the funeral itself, his inner monologue reveals a concern for the heat that far outweighs any thoughts of grief. In fact, Meursault consistently shows a greater sensitivity to the physical phenomena of the world, such as the sun on the beach in the first part and the heat of the courtroom in the second part, than to the rational human beings who populate it.

But this is not to say Meursault feels nothing; his character is slightly more complicated. While on vacation at the home of Masson and his wife, Meursault, for possibly the first time, contemplates the idea of marriage — despite already being engaged to Marie. When he dodges his boss’ offer for a promotion, he does so despite the fact that he “would rather not have upset him.” Before he himself commits murder, he tries to talk Raymond out of the same act. Meursault does not reject emotion itself, he just has no intention to fake what he cannot feel. As Camus says, Meursault doesn’t play the societal game in that he fundamentally “refuses to lie.” Thus, Meursault is merely expressing the emotions he actually holds, rather than hiding them from the world or conjuring new ones as a method of social tact. He is utterly genuine; when society fears Meursault, it is his honesty they abhor.

While on vacation, Meursault shoots an Arab man on the beach. The victim was one of a group who had been dogging Raymond, a friend of Meursault’s guilty of assaulting his Arabic mistress. Neither Raymond nor his harassers are wholly innocent, but this moral calculation never figures into Meursault’s actions. He kills the Arab less out of spite than out of sheer happenstance, closing the novel’s first half. In the second half, it is this irrational nature of the murder that the judge and jury have difficulty understanding.

During the trial, Meursault is no longer confronted by individuals. Now, he faces authoritative representations of society itself. Several judges preside over the proceedings. A prosecutor attempts to put Meursault away, while a defense attorney pleads his case. Later, with Meursault behind bars awaiting his execution, a chaplain attempts to convert the dead-man-walking during his final hours. Throughout each of these interactions, Meursault maintains his staunch apathy — that is, until the chaplain enters his cell unannounced, attempting to convert him. In a sudden outburst, Meursault asserts his independence, denying the chaplain and, by extension, God himself. Following this, Meursault describes himself as genuinely happy, having opened himself up to the “gentle indifference of the world.” The story closes as Meursault contemplates the guillotine: “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

In the trial, it becomes clear that, if Meursault expresses remorse for his actions, he will be acquitted. But he doesn’t. He expresses something else entirely: annoyance. It is this attitude, much more foreign than murder, that society fears. In continued questioning, the prosecutor reveals that Meursault did not undergo society’s expected mourning practices after his mother’s death. As Camus once remarked, “In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.” This is precisely what happens to Meursault.

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Philosophy of the Absurd

Central to both The Stranger and Sisyphus is Camus’ formulation of the Absurd. Human beings have a deep desire to find the meaning of life, yet life irrefutably has no meaning. The duality of this impasse produces absurdity. The world is not prima facie absurd; our particular outlook produces the conflict. “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world,” Camus says. Unlike many existentialists, Camus claims this philosophic gulf to be insurmountable. One can be happy, however, if the meaninglessness of life is fully accepted and futile attempts at resolution are avoided. For Camus, life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”

The central aim of Sisyphus is to provide an answer for what Camus deems “the fundamental question of philosophy”: What is the point of soldiering on in the face of a meaningless existence? Camus is against logical suicide. As such, he uses Sisyphus to formulate an answer to the fundamental question and he does so, in classic artistic fashion, by way of the actual Sisyphean myth. In the story, Sisyphus was a man engaged in a rather adventurous and unapologetic lifestyle, one that rejected and humiliated the ways of the gods. After death, the gods condemned him to eternal punishment in the underworld. Sisyphus was to roll a large boulder up a hill. When the mundane and difficult task was done, the rock would roll back down the incline, at which point Sisyphus would be forced to repeat his toil, ad infinitum.

In Camus’ mind, each of us is like Sisyphus. We are placed on Earth to complete strenuous work with no inherent meaning. We concoct various methods to fool ourselves into believing that what we do matters, such as appealing to religion or science, but we can never quite overcome the irreconcilable callousness of the universe. Like Sisyphus, we are stuck. We can, however, choose to alter our attitude. We can rebel against the meaningless universe that has brought us into being, choosing to accept our own futility. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus says. Full consciousness and a refusal to submit are our escape. Sisyphus can choose to be happy.

This is the context of The Stranger: Just as we cannot understand Meursault, neither can we fully understand the world. “In spite of all the reader’s efforts to comprehend him, Meursault retains opacity, separated from us both by his attitudes as protagonist and by the chosen form and manner of narration,” Rosemarie Jones says in her 1980 analysis of the book, L’Étranger and La Chute. Toward the end of the novel, Meursault, facing certain death, becomes fully conscious. He accepts his fate and, further, he accepts the world’s indifference. With this decision, the Stranger becomes the Absurd Man.

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To be or not to be (like Meursault)

Camus is an advocate of the Meursault mode of living. In his afterword to The Stranger, Camus replies to those readers who view his protagonist as a simple reject: “Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth.” As Jones says, Meursault’s “persistence in being himself, in opposition to the hypocrisy of society, makes him in this respect a martyr to truth.” At the end of the novel, when Meursault rejects the chaplain’s offer of God-given grace, Camus wrote that his hero, despite the dire circumstances, felt both happy and free. Even Meursault’s most damning action — his murder of the Arab man — has the potential to be morally absolved. As Jones explains, it is possible to make the case of the murder as a form of “self-defense” brought on by hallucinatory delusions linked to Meursault’s severe discomfort from the sun. This defense, if successful, would categorize the character as suffering from a narrow form of misunderstood mental illness.

In many ways, Camus is right; we should aim to be more like Meursault. This rests on the earlier Nietzschean pronouncement of the death of God that triggered much existentialist theorizing. The existentialists began with the assumption that life has no objective meaning, but that through reason, subjective minds can ascribe meaning to it. Subjective meaning, however, has no consensus, devolving into radical relativism unless it chooses to build on some hidden objective maxim. But if a subjective system includes an objective claim, the entire system is polluted — it surrenders its subjectivity. This holds true for all existentialists: Either they follow their premises through to their logical conclusion, that “without God all things are permitted,” or they are covert objectivists masquerading as subjectivist thinkers.

This is why Camus refuses to consider himself an existentialist proper, despite his work’s thematic ties to existentialist thought. “Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable,” he says in Sisyphus. The existentialists fall into the trap of concluding, with inadequate evidence, that which they already want to believe. God is dead and that’s a shame, but if one truly proclaims the death of God, he cannot rise again. He must stay in the tomb.

Why should one behave like Meursault? As previously mentioned, the character is genuine, truth-loving and almost perfectly honest. He focuses on the present. There is no use in stressing over that which cannot be changed and cannot be understood, so why bother? Certainly, as Camus admits, reason has its place, but it is not reason that will ultimately solve the unsolvable — nothing can and nothing will. The Stranger is, as Sartre says, nothing but “a proof in itself of the futility of abstract reasoning.” By abandoning this futile hope that burns within most of humanity, Meursault will never be disappointed. That sounds quite pleasant.

However, there are reasons, too, that we are right to fear this philosophy of the Absurd, and these lie in The Stranger’s central impetus: the Arab’s murder. Jones argues this is the most alienating point of Meursault’s character: “We may have been prepared to take Meursault seriously and try to understand him, but are we to accept a murder? It may not be too fanciful to suggest that in killing the Arab Meursault symbolically kills the reader.”

While it may be psychologically beneficial in the present, it would foretell doom for all of humanity should an absurdist line of thinking ever become widespread. “Society works on the belief that an explanation can be given for an occurrence,” Jones says. Destroy that belief and society will collapse. It seems the prosecutor was right when he described Meursault’s soul as “an abyss threatening to swallow up society.” So we must lie to each other in order to preserve the fable of human cooperation. As the ladies at the nursing home, the restaurateurs at Celeste’s and the jury of Meursault’s trial, we must put on fake faces for the continuation of the species. Everything is permitted, but please don’t tell my neighbor.

The argument can be summarized as follows:

P1.  Existentialists are correct when they say “God is dead” — nothing has objective value

P2.  Attempts at subjective value are a farce — either an attempt at deriving subjective value will fail, or it will rely on an appeal to some objective maxim, thereby destroying its subjectivity

P3.  Based on P1 and P2, life has no meaning and nothing has value

P4.  Knowing the truth of P3 will alleviate the stress of an inevitably futile project, increasing one’s happiness

P5.  One of the strongest human desires is to increase one’s own individual level of happiness

P6.  Based on P4 and P5, if we want to fulfill one of our strongest human desires, we should each individually accept the meaninglessness of life

P7.  If P3, then “everything is permissible”

P8.  Based on P3 and P7, nothing can be morally blameworthy

P9.  In order to function effectively, society requires at minimum the illusion of moral culpability

P10.  Based on P8 and P9, to preserve the effective functioning of society we must, at the societal level, refuse to perpetuate the truth of life’s meaninglessness

C.  Based on P6 and P10, we can accept the truth of life’s meaninglessness individually, but we must avoid this same acceptance in group thinking

Thereby, a man can tell himself the truth, but should lie to all of his companions.

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Absurd advice

Camus would be proud of the accomplishments made in existentialist cinema since his generation. These films can teach us how to question the world in which we live. A proponent of deriving truth through artistic exploration, Camus would no doubt approve of the existentialist themes in many modern films.

In Blade Runner, robotic beings known as replicants become self-aware, questioning the purpose of life for the first time. One crazed replicant is tormented by the meaninglessness he discovers, sharing his crisis in a memorable closing line: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.” This portrays the difficulty of finding a reason to continue living in an absurd world, and the consequences of surrendering oneself to the chaos of nihilism.

The Big Lebowski’s The Dude, a carefree man who, acting like a modern Meursault, just wants to be left alone. Throughout the film, he is assailed by forces out of his control. All he wants to do is bowl and relax in his apartment. He’s never overly bothered by his best friend Walter’s constant value pronouncements, and even when verbally assaulted, has little desire to launch a counterstrike: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,” he says to a foul-mouthed bowling opponent. The Dude abides and is happy for it, despite his rather mediocre placement in society. There is something to admire in The Dude’s complacency and sense of inner contentment.

When The Truman Show’s Creator is asked how he has been able to consistently deceive his imprisoned subject in a false world full of movie sets and paid actors, he replies that “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” But, upon learning the truth, Truman Burbank chooses to escape his facile surroundings in favor of the real world. It’s important we never shut ourselves off from the truth, even when it could be dangerous. As Camus argues in Sisyphus, it is up to us to keep the Absurd alive by bravely carrying on into the unknown future.

True Detective’s Rust Cohle professed a similar, albeit more pessimistic, view of the world in the television show’s pilot episode. Human consciousness and its tendency to ascribe meaning to a meaningless existence was a “tragic misstep in evolution,” he said. Perhaps he’s right — maybe it was a misstep. But why must it be tragic?

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