I recently finished re-reading The Stranger, a novel which, judging by the MBTA pass I found folded in the pages, I last read in 2006. Like much of Camus’ work I could read the novel again and again. Every time I find something new.
The story is told from the detached prospective of Meursault, a passive hero who one day shoots and kills an unnamed Arab. Why he does this he could not say. It just all plays out, between the sky and the sea.
Meursault is sentenced to death. He does not repent, but he does find peace, having laid his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” In the end, he declares, “all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
No matter how many times I read The Stranger, I’m not quite sure what to make of Meursault.
He is not a good person, to be sure, but – he’s not quite the bad person the story condemns him for.
That is to say – Meursault killed a man. Without cause or reason. That is almost certainly immoral. But his victim is never named, only referred to generally: “the Arab.” Throughout The Stranger the racism of French Algiers is clear – characters who are described as “Arab” or “moorish” are consistently belittled by their aristocratic French peers.
No one in the book seems to care that much that a man has died.
Indeed, rather than focus on the crime of a life that was taken, Meursault’s trial focuses the natural death of his mother. He is derided as a monster not because he committed murder, but because he didn’t love his mother – or perhaps, more plainly, because he didn’t display the expected affection for his mother.
Most of the characters in The Stranger are not good people. But unlike Meursault, they know their place in society and play their part well.
Ultimately, The Stranger is an exercise in a seeming problem of absurdism: if nothing matters, if there is no God, and we are each free agents of our own will – what’s to stop anyone from committing murder? Can there be morality under such a regime?
This is a challenge that comes from nihilism – as Nietzsche quotes in On the Genealogy of Morals, “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus rejects the common interpretation of that statement, arguing: “Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden.”
One can interpret that on entirely practical grounds. While perhaps we don’t have standing to sit in moral judgement over Meursault, we still ought to have laws forbidding murder. If a society permitted murder, moral or not, it would be chaos.
I’m not convinced that’s what Camus means, and I’m not convinced he intends for readers to pardon Meursault.
Again in the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus quotes Dostoevsky’s Kirilov saying, “everything is permitted.”
Camus counters: “The essential impulse of the absurd mind is to ask: ‘what does that prove?'”
Camus goes on to write: “All is well, everything is permitted, and nothing is hateful – these are absurd judgements. But what an amazing creating in which those creatures of fire and ice seem so familiar to us. The passionate world of indifference that rumbles in their hearts does not seem at all monstrous to us.”
Passionate indifference. Fire and ice. Camus’ writing is full of such seemingly conflicting metaphors. He describes Sisyphus as “powerless and rebellious.”
These things may seeem to be contradictions, but to Camus they are not. These seemingly contradictory sentiments are at the heart of absurdism.
Thus Camus disparages Man’s right to sit in judgement of man – Meursault imagines his jurors as passengers on a bus. Camus disparages God’s ability to sit in judgement of man – Meursault yells at the chaplain that he has committed no ‘sin’, only a criminal offense. All men are condemned, he argues.
While the logical conclusion of this seems to indicate that Meursault has committed no wrong, I’m not convinced that’s what he meant. Even if he did nothing wrong, that doesn’t mean he was right.
Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden. We are free to live and act however we choose, with neither god nor man sitting in judgement of us. But there is still a certain morality, contradictory and ephemeral, that tells us Meursault is wrong. We can not prove it, we cannot define it, but we know that what he did was wrong.
Thus despite the absurdity of life, despite the seeming contradictions, Camus can conclude that “all is well.” And, as he writes, that remark is sacred.