Albert Camus draws from his own experience in Algeria and the horrors of WWII to lay the framework for Absurdist philosophy and challenge traditional views on morality. by: Thomas Vastine
In the context of world war, Albert Camus’ The Stranger brings to life a manifestation of the jaded spirit that grew among the population out of a grim reality that offered little in the way of vindication for those who suffered it. The protagonist’s callused nature and cold indifference to those around him symbolizes the mindset of many from that era. The people of Europe had suffered under corrupt regimes which lead to a growing detachment with conventional societal notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Religion seemed to offer only false hope to many who viewed the brutality of the 20th century as confirmation that the loving God of the Bible could not exist.
Camus’ writings, including The Stranger, would be linked to existentialist philosophy though more specifically he would come to define the absurdist belief system. Though closely related to existentialism and nihilism, absurdism set itself apart by calling the search for meaning and value to be absurd. In the backdrop of WWII, it is not hard to imagine how many would come to accept this viewpoint when searching for reasons why world war had come to devastate their reality. Out of pure frustration and anger, it becomes apparent why one would reject this search as absurd. There is a point in which many a man can no longer hold onto a conception of right and wrong, and a morally relativistic outlook could become a more attractive option. From my own experience, a view such as this was accompanied by some of the darkest periods in my life.
Camus argues that we construct our own meaning and assign our own value to the things in this world which is made apparent by the interaction at the end of the story between Meursault and the priest. When the priest asks why Meursault had not addressed him as father, the response he receives is quite revealing as to the irritation Meursault feels toward this practice. The priest had earlier expressed disbelief in Meursault’s defiant rejection of the soul, or God, and a complete unwillingness to even consider these in the face of his impending execution. The priest proclaims, “I refuse to believe it. I’m sure you’ve often wished there was an afterlife” in what appears to be frustrated desperation. This mirrors the reaction of the magistrate in Meursault’s murder trial in the face of such clinical disregard for the death of his mother and total lack of remorse in the coldblooded murder of the Arab. It says the magistrate was, “absolutely sure” that all men believe in God and that “if ever he came to doubt it, his life would lose all meaning”. These characters symbolize society’s repellent reaction to such blatant contempt toward accepted moral standards; it was unthinkable. Camus later wrote, “Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.” (Todd, 2000)
How could Meursault rationalize such apathy toward other people? He saw the “benign indifference of the universe” as a sort of vindication for his own outlook on humanity. He says, “To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.” Meursault now felt a kinship with the universe because of this revelation. Instead of looking at external forces for abstract meaning, Camus looked inward to his own life experiences as the only true source of gratification. He saw life experience as a gift to be respected. He says, “Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class.”
When reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger, it would be easy to dismiss the protagonist, Meursault, as a sociopathic amoral being of subhuman status. In reading Meursault’s trial, it is difficult not to be reminded of the BTK killer’s trial where he displayed a level of detached disregard for his victims not seen before by our American culture. In my opinion, it would be arbitrary to link Meursault with such depravity. One cannot simply dismiss the idea that Meursault was more a product, even a cautionary warning, of the darkest period in human history. Being surrounded by hypocritical power structures and perpetual violence can hollow out even the most faithful man’s soul.
Todd, O. (2000). Albert Camus: A Life. Boston: Da Capo Press.