An Absurdist and an Existentialist Walk Into a Bar

Albert Camus, The Stranger, originally published in French in 1942, English translation by Stuart Gilbert published by Vintage Books, New York in 1946

Kamil Daoud, The Mersault Investigation, originally published in French in 2013, English translation by John Cullen published by Other Press, New York in 2015

This month’s book discussion of The Stranger provided a nostalgic trip down memory lane, a chance to re-read a book I first encountered as a young person, probably while still in High School or perhaps in college, too many years ago to remember. Our bookclub combined discussion of this classic with a recent book, The Meursault Investigation, that offers a retelling and reanalysis of the same story. The narrator of The Meursault Investigation, named Harun, informs us early on that he assumes we have already read The Stranger.

“I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it.” p. 2

The “man who wrote it” was of course the French intellectual, Albert Camus, and in interviews the author of The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud, has described his novel as being a dialogue with Camus. A large part of the intellectual appeal of Daoud’s book for me is the way its narrator, Harun, is able to simultaneously offer sophisticated intellectual critiques of some of the philosophical ideas implicit in The Stranger while at the same time embracing many of the same ideas. Compare for example the following two statements Harun makes about The Stranger.

“Judging from your enthusiasm, the book’s success is still undiminished, but I repeat, I think it’s an awful swindle.” p. 64

“It was a perfect joke. I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double. … [The last lines of the book] overwhelmed me. A masterpiece, my friend. A mirror held up to my soul and to what would become of me in this country, between Allah and ennui.” p. 131

In this commentary I am going to argue that the philosophical ideas that are embraced by both books have to do with the concept of The Absurd, and that where the two books part ways has to do with questions about how individual humans should react to The Absurd.

It would be silly to attribute to Camus philosophical positions inferred based solely on reading this fictional novel. However, Camus has provided us with a clear presentation of his own philosophical ideas in his non-fictional essays. In the following discussion of his ideas I draw on:

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, English translation from the French by Justin O’Brien published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 1967

Camus did not invent the concept of The Absurd. It was alluded to and discussed in various forms by a diverse group of writers that includes Dostoevsky, Jaspers, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Husserl and Sartre. However, Camus embraced and magnified the concept into what is sometimes referred to as a Philosophy of The Absurd. In his writings, Camus states that the concept of The Absurd is born of the confrontation between the “human need for happiness and reason” and “the unreasonable silence of the world.” For example, we all have nostalgic longings that our relationships with our loved ones will last forever, that justice should prevail, and that the universe in which we live is rational. However, Camus asserts that in reality each of us will only exist in this universe for a short time before returning to nothingness, and the universe does not know or care – There is no ‘meaning’ to life. Being aware of this, and yet choosing to continue living rather than committing suicide is what Camus means by The Absurd. In the preface to his book of essays, he explains what he is trying to accomplish with his overall Philosophy of The Absurd  — He wants to make a declaration “that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.”

Technically, Camus might perhaps be characterized as an agnostic instead of an absolute atheist based on some of his statements, such as:

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.” p. 51

But, he is adamant that,

“I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and that alone.” p 40

Camus’ Philosophy of The Absurd can be contrasted with two other general philosophical approaches to trying to understand the meaning of human existence. First are philosophical approaches that would argue Camus was simply mistaken – meaning and rationality are properties of the universe, either inherently or because they are imbued by a nonphysical entity, commonly referred to as ‘God’. Thus, these approaches would argue, the most important task humans should be engaged in is trying to discover the meaning that is present in the universe. I will not discuss those philosophical approaches further here since they are not promoted in either of the novels under discussion.

The second major class of alternatives to Camus’ Philosophy of the Absurd are the various forms of Existentialism. These Existential Philosophies accept the basic concept of The Absurd that there is no meaning that exists independently of us in the universe and is just waiting to be discovered. However, existentialists argue that humans have the capacity to create meaning and then, by an irrational (absurd) leap, live our lives as though that meaning we have created is true. Asking whether or not what we have created is ‘really true’ is considered to be an irrelevant question; both unknowable and ‘meaningless’. For existentialists such as Kierkegaard, an absurd leap of faith creates a belief in God. For other philosophers, such as Sartre, the absurd leap is used to create a form of Secular Humanism.

Camus in his essays rejects all forms of Existentialism:

“I am taking the liberty at this point of calling the existential attitude philosophical suicide. But this does not imply a judgment. It is a convenient way of indicating the movement by which a thought negates itself and tends to transcend itself in its very negation. For the existentials negation is their god.” p. 41

“The theme of the irrational, as it is conceived by the existentials, is reason becoming confused and escaping by negating itself. [In contrast, the Philosophy of the Absurd] is lucid reason noting its limits.” p. 49

The philosophical position taken, implicitly, in the novel The Meursault Investigation in its critique of The Stranger is a form of existentialism. The main character, Harun, refuses to accept Camus’ Philosophy of The Absurd implication that the murder of his brother, Musa, was meaningless. The act of murder itself might have very well been absurd, but that does not stop Harun from wanting to create meaning regarding his brother’s life:

“I needed Musa to have had an excuse and a reason. Without realizing it, and years before I learned to read, I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud.” p. 21

Harun uses sarcasm and a mocking tone to describe the descriptions of the murderer’s psychological states as portrayed in The Stranger.

“[my brother was] killed by a bullet fired by a Frenchman who just didn’t know what to do with his day and with the rest of the world, which he carried on his back.” p. 3

“So the Frenchman plays the dead man and goes on and on about how he lost his mother, and then about how he lost his body in the sun, and then about how he lost a girlfriend’s body, and then about how he went to church and discovered that his God had deserted the human body, and then about how he sat up with his mother’s corpse and his own, et cetera. Good God.” p. 3

“Did you understand? No? I’ll explain it to you. After his mother dies, this man, this murderer, fnds himself without a country and falls into idleness and absurdity. … and starts banging on like a self-indulgent parrot. ‘Poor Meursault, where are you?’ Shout out those words a few times and they’ll seem less ridiculous …” p. 4

And he chides Camus’s novel for the fact that,

“what in fact was never anything other than a banal score-settling that got out of hand was elevated to a philosophical crime.” p. 19

and that issues of sociopolitical justice were never addressed,

“Maybe the proper question, after all, is the following: What was your hero doing on that beach? And not only that day but every day, going a long way back! A century, to be frank. No, believe me, I’m not one of those. It doesn’t matter that he was French and I’m Algerian, except that Musa was on the beach first, and it was your hero who came looking for him.” p. 63

and finally, that in all these sterile philosophical discussions, the humanity of the characters whose lives were impacted and affected by the crime, got left out.

“I had the feeling I was pressing my face against the window of a big room where a party was going on that neither my mother nor I had been invited to. Everything happened without us. There’s not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward.” p. 64

One key tenet of Camus’ philosophy is his refusal to make any moral judgments. He makes this point explicit in his essays.

“[I] do not propose moral codes and involve no judgments … It is enough to know and to mask nothing. In Italian museums are sometimes found little painted screens that the priest used to hold in front of the face of condemned men to hide the scaffold from them. The leap in all of its forms, rushing into the divine or the eternal, surrendering to the illusions of the everyday or of the idea – all of these screens hide the absurd.” p. 90

Camus realizes that this is a potential Achilles heel for his Philosophy of the Absurd, and writes, somewhat defensively, about the issue in his essays.

“[My Philosophy of the Absurd] does not authorize all actions. … It merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for that would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all consequences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim… “ p. 67

All of this might be true, but what is left out here is what is unsaid; if all consequences are indifferent, that of a murderer is also as legitimate as any other, or a child molester, or a sadistic torturer, etc . Furthermore, a feeling of remorse on the part of a murderer might be futile, but an act of murder can also leave other psychological scars behind. After Harun himself commits an act of murder in The Meursault Investigation he reflects back on his own feelings about what he has done.

“after I’d killed a man, it wasn’t my innocence I missed the most, it was the border that had existed until then between my life and crime. That’s a line that’s hard to redraw later. The Other is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill. Afterward [I had thoughts of] somehow resolving everything – at least in my daydreams – by committing murder. The list of my victims was long. I’d start with one of our neighbors, a self-proclaimed ‘veteran mujahid,’ whereas everyone knows hes a crook … then comes an insomniac dog …, next up, a maternal uncle …” p. 90

“What’s the point of putting up with adversity, suffering, or even an enemy’s hatred if you can resolve everything with a few simple gunshots? The unpunished murderer develops a certain inclination to laziness. … The crime forever compromises both love and the possibility of loving. I killed a man, and since then, life is no longer sacred in my eyes.” p. 91

Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Meursault, has no interest in trying to discover truths in the universe that are proposed by organized religions,

“I abhor religions. All of them!” p. 69

But he does sometimes at least entertain taking on an existentialist perspective of trying to create a kind of religion in the form of secular humanism,

“Maybe at one time, way back, I was able to catch a glimpse of the divine order. The face I saw was as bright as the sun and the flame of desire — and it belonged to [a woman I fell in love with].” p. 140

and even gives some thought to what it might mean to create a humanist moral code.

“What would I do if I had an appointment with God and on the way I met a man who needed help fixing his car? I don’t know.” p. 70

Harun remains ambivalent about his own true feelings and beliefs right up to the end, musing philosophically sometimes,

“I beg you to forgive this old man I’ve become. Which is itself a great mystery, by the way. … It shocks me, this disproportion between my insignificance and the vastness of the cosmos. I often think there must be something all the same, something in the middle between my triviality and the universe!” p. 137

and shouting in a bellicose manner the next.

“[On the day of my death if the religious fanatics are there, what I will shout to them is] a single sentence nobody understands: ‘There’s no one here! There has never been anyone! The mosque is empty … Maybe your hero was right from the beginning.” p. 142

In the end, Harun comes down firmly on the side of an existential approach to meaning. He is creating meaning with his story, and whether Camus (‘El-Merssoul’) or you, or I, or anyone else thinks his story is true is totally irrelevant.

“Do you find my story suitable? It’s all I can offer you. It’s my word. I’m Musa’s brother or nobody’s. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks … It’s your choice, my friend. It’s like the biography of God. Ha, ha! No one has ever met him, not even Musa, and no one knows if his story is true or not. The Arab’s the Arab, God’s God. No name, no initials. Blue overalls and blue sky. Two unknown persons on an endless beach. Which is truer? An intimate question. It’s up to you to decide. El-Merssoul! Ha, ha.” p. 144

Harun also leaves us with a question.

“What would you call a story that puts four characters around a table: a Kabyle waiter the size of a giant, an apparently tubercular deaf-mute, a young graduate student with a skeptical eye, and an old wine bibber who makes assertions but offers no proofs?” p.136

My own answer would be, “A darn good read – enjoyed it a lot!”

Ron Boothe

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2015 Selections, The Meursault Investigation, The Stranger and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Absurdist and an Existentialist Walk Into a Bar

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    Based on reading his novel I had surmised that Daoud himself must be a secular humanist existentialist. He confirms that in an op-ed in today’s NYC.

    • Mohsen Mirghanbari says:

      Daoud Camus was raised in France and not Algeria, thus it would be understandable to see a greater French (religion diversity) cultural influence on his thinking values rather so than Algerian, however in Meursault Investigations he clearly describes, Zujj’s mother reaching out for comfort through religious divine, whether a Moslem or otherwise.

      Humans in their self fascination assume obligation to somehow describe their life values, one needs not to look to France for such answers as right here in this land we live in, there are continuos battles for self identification, regardless of one’s belief, including the rejectionist, atheist, singular supreme being believers or evolutionary theorists. Humans possess some level of spiritual finding as a way of self guidance.

      And then, one must also understand that nature bonds all humans together, one way or another, it’s our survival kit. And that there is a bit of Humanist (Existentialists) in us all, one can claim absurdism only if he/she can maintain their life totally and absolutely without the need and use of nature, which is impossible.

      Ron, you did not specify the NYT op-ed reasoning, Mohsen.

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