Hopeless?: Existentialism and Absurdism in Albert Camus’ L’Étranger
Albert Camus’ philosophical novel, L’Étranger, involves a careless individual by the name of Mersault who seems to stand idly by as events persistently occur around him. His attitude towards life is devoid of all meaning and ultimately leads to his execution, which he remains indifferent toward and instead only seems to show agitation or any emotional response when unable to perform the most primal of activities, such as sex. Mersault’s display of detachment from humanity personifies the philosophical school of thought dubbed absurdism. Absurdist thought is unlike nihilism or existentialism in that instead of creating a meaning that is not inherent in life, absurdist find that truly accepting and embracing that nothing has meaning is the only way to go in life. Many, such as Camus himself, critique life and claim it is so boring and pointless that suicide is the only logical response. These ideas are reflecting in the central character’s apparent outburst in the story’s most critical moments, where Mersault claims that the human condition is absurd and God is a waste his time. These sentiments detail the primary notions of absurdism: that trying to find meaning in human existence is hopeless so long as the unknown can never be revealed.
This essay explores the philosophical concept of absurdism in the context of French novelist Albert Camus’ writings, namely L’Étranger, published in 1942. There exists wide controversy on the subject of absurdism among critics, some believing the idea to be arrogant and some agreeing with Camus’ own belief that a lack of purpose presents humankind with a true sense of freedom. By analyzing the text, L’Étranger, and Mersault’s own conclusions about life due to his ambivalence toward his own actions, I hope to find more insight about not only the philosophy itself, but the social implications that bring people to this conclusion about human existence in the post-modern age and the effect it has on the individual once implemented to offer an account of how this philosophical notion impacts humanity and whether its affects are truly positive, negative, or indifferent to the individual.
While the novella proposes what seems to be a very negative, doom-filled existential ideology, the concept of absurdity may actually be interpreted as a very liberating idea, as its primary focus is of the individual in this life rather than theories about the next that often constrain one’s life. Many theists condemn the imperiousness of absurdity, but a critical analysis of not only the history and origin of the philosophy but of the general wellbeing of those who tend to side with it will posit the fact that absurdism actually grants a person more freedom to excel in this life without the weariness and guilt that often comes with the fear or preoccupation with the afterlife. This thesis is reaffirmed by Mersault as he accepts the inevitability of death along with the pointlessness of his life and the problems he had caused.
Similar to the findings of Porz’ and Widdershoven’s study, Mersault does not turn to absurdism strictly to detest religion or as an excuse for immoral behavior. In fact, the entire novel displays the projection of immorality onto Mersault by witnesses while in actuality, Mersault is incredibly indifferent. These ideas are reaffirmed by Sleasman who explains that absurdity does not attack God and reason but merely explains how a focus or reliance on the afterlife may negatively impact an individuals ability to perform in this life. Many would subject Mersault to a characterization of depression (Ucan 69), and therefore the notion of absurdism to be borne of depressed and deeply illogical figures. However, the character of Mersault acts as a paradox, unconsciously subscribing to absurdism without being fully aware of and accepting it (Hanna 39). Because of his incongruence, Mersault is not the absurd hero many picture him to be, at least not until this expository scene when he embraces this idea of meaninglessness and ambivalence. It is in this scene that Mersault finally operates as our absurd hero, revolting against the illusion of moral absolutism through his acceptance of ambivalence. His revolt criticizes not the absurdity of this unjust world but the human attitudes in response to it (Hanna 48). Camus main critique in L’Étranger therefore is on the general public – the reader – and not the actions of protagonist, Mersault, who only exists in order for Camus to provide a clear example of the way people may create their own implications of immorality on an otherwise entirely detached figure.
Though thoroughly criticized, absurd philosophy is no more than skepticism toward the world and its subjects. It is Mersault’s acceptance, not execution, that grants him his freedom. Although grim, the awareness of our own limitations and meaninglessness that absurdism entails that allows us to maintain total free will. An ambivalent nature ultimately leads to a potential space for true moral action based on a conscious response to humanity instead of the promise of eternal pleasure of a fear of damnation. With these ideas in mind, Camus creates a space that personifies the implications of a universal moral path and how this imagined path provokes negative and immoral outcomes far more often that an ambivalent acceptance to existence that led Mersault to his execution.