Nihilism And Camus
’ The Stranger Essay, Research Paper
Nihilism is, literally, the belief in nothing. Originally the term was used to attack accused heretics during the middle ages. Over time, however, the term became applied to a particular branch of philosophy, a radical form of skepticism maintaining the nonexistence of any objective basis for truth. From this standpoint they demanded the complete rejection of all established views and institutions, being constructed on a foundation of subjectivity.
Meursault, in Camus’ “The Stranger,” appears to be the quintessential nihilist. A man mentally at odds with the entire universe, he plods through life knowing no certainties and caring for nothing. Despite certain characteristics in common with existentialism, another philosophical school sharing nihilism’s rejection of established views, but placing emphasis on responsibility and participation in life, it must be said that because of Meursault’s denial of objective truth, and rejection of laws and institutions, he is first and foremost a nihilist.
The first and most significant pointer to Meursault’s nihilistic tendencies is his denial of any objective basis for truth. This fairly hard to ascertain, because due to the ambiguous nature of the narrative, very little is actually established as ‘true’. But it is nonetheless an obvious characteristic of Meursault, as can be established through his attitude toward his own life. After all, that life itself exists, and is purposeful, is one thing that nearly everyone considers to be true. But Meursault treats seemingly important decisions with great indifference, and indeed takes little or no interest in anything. If nothing exists and it is impossible to know anything (because anything you think you know is completely subjective), why bother doing anything?
Early in the book , when his mistress Marie asked him about marriage, he said he would marry her, but that he didn’t love her, and more significantly, that “…it didn’t make any difference to me.” He had no emotional attachment to her, or any person for that matter, and he only associated with her because of his physical needs. There is no objectively provable reason to do anything, and people may or may not exist. So why should he care about anyone?
Then, after another, even more serious act, the senseless murder of a friend’s enemy, when asked if he regretted the action, he said merely “I felt kind of annoyed.” People don’t matter, dead or alive. He could have killed someone, or he could have done nothing, or neither of them could have ever existed. There is no reason for him to take any interest in it, from his standpoint. The event was no more than an annoyance. Naturally he takes a similar attitude towards his own life when it is endangered.
“Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew
why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d
lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from
somewhere deep in my future, across years that were
still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever
was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than
the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths
or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the
lives people choose or the fate they think they elect
matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate,
me and billions of privileged people like him who also
called themselves my brothers.”
This is the complete acknowledgment of nihilistic ideas. He totally resigns himself to the irrelevance of his own existence. He says that nothing matters, that life, death, and love are all totally meaningless and potentially nonexistent things.
However, does not this evidence also point to Meursault as an existentialist? Existentialists, at least non-religious ones, maintain that the universe is meaningless, and human existence serves no purpose. From this standpoint would not his actions and attitude towards most things have been roughly similar? He doesn’t care for people because their existence is pointless. He commits murder and then shows no emotion over it, because again the life served no purpose, and furthermore, as an existentialists, he believed in his own absolute free will and rejected all morals. Additionally, in the above quote, Meursault hints about his ideas of fate, as though the universe was behaving as an uncaring, irrational entity, as existentialists believe it does.
Ultimately Meursault cannot be an existentialist, however. Because while existentialists believe that life is meaningless, they also emphasize the responsibility of people for forming their nature, and they emphasize the importance of personal decisions. Furthermore, they do have a morality of sorts, one centered around positive and active participation in life. Meursault took no responsibility for anything. He avoided decisions and did not see them as at all significant. And instead of being a positive, active participant in life, he was merely a bored, disillusioned spectator, and one not above killing a man for no reason. An existentialist would have to care about all of these things. But Meursault did not. As a person totally disinterested in everything he must be considered nihilistic.
Another nihilistic quality demonstrated by Meursault is his total rejection of established laws and institutions. Mostly nihilists tend to refer specifically to two institutions, the church and the state, as being inhibitive. Meursault lashed out at both during the course of “The Stranger.” The religious establishment figured quite prominently in Meursault’s trial and imprisonment, and at every juncture he showed extreme contempt for it. The magistrate who initially questioned him asked him if he believed in god, and Meursault commented that he found religion “…very hard to follow.” Later on the chaplain came to him, after he was condemned, in an effort to help him come to terms with death. Meursault was so annoyed by his persistence that he attacked the man. The church, of course, was an institution founded on silly, unprovable ideas, and no rational person would believe in its dogmas, as Meursault saw it. In reference to the chaplain (and thus all religion), he said “None of his certainties was worth one hair on a woman’s head.” If Meursault was interested in anything, it was physical, tangible reality. Something that didn’t exist was less than the most insignificant thing. He does not take the legal processes surrounding his trial terribly seriously either, remarking at the sight of the interrogation room that it “All seemed like a game to me.”
But existentialism is also opposed to established institutions, as existentialists consider them an impediment to free will. Religion in particular is disliked. Meursault’s contempt for religion can be explained in existentialist terms as well. After all, religion only exists to control people, so the truly free person does not accept established religion. A person involved in organized religion effectively forfeits control over a given aspect of their own thought, and is considered contemptible by existentialists. As for his contempt for the tribunal, he was simply affirming his ultimate freedom, and opposing an attempt to control him and his actions.
By lashing out against religion, and showing contempt for the legal processes surrounding his trial, Meursault was more than expressing his free will. He was completely rejecting the institutions that were constraining him. Meursault may have shown some existentialist tendencies in his defiance of the system, but it is clear he is not doing it for some overriding, symbolic purpose, but for the same reason any nihilist does anything…no reason.
There is a persuasive argument for labeling Meursault as an existentialist. In many of his actions he shows tremendous freedom of thought, and does resist those institutions impeding his freedom. Does the fact that he made one mistake and killed a man necessarily mean he has no morals? Does that fact that he did not cry at his mother’s funeral mean he does not care for any other people? Not necessarily. But is he an existentialist?
The answer, from any perspective, is no. As has been established, Meursault did not merely make a few mistakes. His behavior was indicative of his general attitude toward life. Maybe an existentialist could excuse a few mistakes, but not the complete disinterest in life and society. These are the sole domain of nihilism, and nihilism only.
It could be said that, in the closing moments of the novel, Meursault’s attitude changes. Could he have, at the last moment, made an intellectual transformation? Nietzsche, often called an existentialist, labeled nihilism as a stage in the moral development of mankind, an intermediary between the renunciation of the old views and the creation of the new. Meursault did at the last minute begin to appreciate life. He saw pleasure where there had once been only pain. At the same time he re-affirmed his denial of established views. Did he become an existentialist? At this point such terminology becomes meaningless. When one resigns one’s self to life, but allows themselves to enjoy it, and participate in society, and take responsibility for one’s actions, one can still be a nihilist, but their nihilism is existential. So if Meursault truly believed in his deathbed revelation, he was perhaps everything at once: an opponent of false truths and institutions, but a person willing to live his life and make a difference, rather than descend into disillusioned oblivion.