I must’ve been in my late teens when I first started asking questions of meaning and philosophy. The one school of thought that appealed to me then was nihilism. But it wasn’t an all-encompassing philosophy and failed to answer many of my questions. I would say I aligned myself more with absurdist philosophies in my 20’s and it was absurdism that brought me to Albert Camus.
L’Étranger is a fairly important book and it’s surprising how small it is, just 117 pages. I don’t know how to say this without coming across as a sexist, but it also feels like a book written by a man. There’s a lot of anger in it, there are knife fights and a murder. The main character Meursault seems to care very little about anyone, including himself. He almost always unapologetically says what’s on his mind. To put it in another way, it seemed like a book that I could write and that’s why I really liked it. I wasn’t intimidated by its genius as I am when I read a lot of other books.
In essence, it’s a simple short book that says very little of importance until the very end. Most of the book is spent setting up Meursault as a cold and overtly rational character. Infact , it’s his extreme rationalism, devoid of anything other than pure logic, that gives way to his absurdist mindset. When you think about things rationally for a long enough time, eventually you come across the question “what is the point of anything” and that’s where rationalism fails to answer you. According to Camus’s absurdist philosophy, there are 3 things you can do in such a situation:
- Kill Yourself: Since there are no answers and nothing really matters, might as well call it a day and switch everything off.
- Belief in God: You can choose to believe in a God and that will answers all important questions about meaning and purpose.
- Exist Regardless: Continue living your life with the knowledge that life is absurd and there’s no decipherable/useful meaning to it. Try to get as much out of it as possible with whatever it is that tickles your fancy.
The journey from rationalism to absurdism is inevitable when one follows a certain chain of thought. Except for religion or spirituality, what other way is there to answer questions of meaning and purpose? To a rational person, the world is going to seem quite absurd, futile and in essence a zero-sum game. And that’s the mindset we eventually find our protagonist Meursault in.
He starts off being an extremely rational person, disregarding societies views and using his own logic to make his decisions. For example, his decision to leave his mother at a retirement home is something his contemporary society berates him for, but to him it’s a purely rational decision stemming from his inability to adequately care for her or provide her with decent company.
Things get a little more grim after his mother’s demise. Death of a parent can be a trigger, although never explicitly acknowledged in the book. There’s a subtle change, he is starting to realize the absurdity and meaninglessness of it all. His decisions are not as rational as they used to be and he is reacting to situations in an absurdist way. For example, when his girlfriend asks him about marriage he says “yes”. When she asks him if he loves her “no”. It’s not particularly logical to say yes to marriage and no to love. It’s a typically absurdist response. You can read that whole conversation between Marie and Meursault: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1501063-marie-came-that-evening-and-asked-me-if-i-d-marry
and it will give you a telling insight into his mind.
All this is just set up for the final showdown between the prison chaplain and Meursault. The debate between rationalism and religion is all but settled now but it was an important one during Camus’s time. If there’s one thing that will stay with you after reading the novel, it will be Meursault’s final burst at the chaplain.
“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 Albert Camus’s The Stranger, we get to see how a rational man would react to the absurdity of life. To go through life the way Meursault does is difficult, harsh, requires a lot of courage but none can say whether it’s right or wrong. It’s merely rationalism taken to his logical conclusion, which renders life meaningless.