“Mais Personne Ne Paraissait Comprendre” (“But no one Seemed to Understand”): Atheism, Nihilism, and Hermeneutics in Albert Camus’ L’étranger/The Stranger
Meursault, the protagonist in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, is a peculiar man with provocative views that invite intense philosophical debate. On the one hand, he believes that the reflective life is not worth pursuing, he rejects the sacrifice of Jesus, he denies the existence of God, and he asserts that life is not worth the trouble of living it. On the other hand, as a condemned murderer awaiting execution, he seems to find the inner peace to accept the alleged indifference of things. In doing so, Meursault becomes for some readers not only a literary protagonist but also an existentialist hero, that is, someone whose thoughts and actions are deemed worthy of admiration and emulation: a modern Sisyphus, a rebel with a cause, a courageous man who lives a meaningless life and dies a happy death. With Meursault, thus the reading, Camus has created a figure whose firm view that ‘life is absurd’ gets established as philosophically defensible and even as intellectually respectable. In this paper, I challenge this interpretation by suggesting that there is a sustainable reading of The Stranger according to which, far from endorsing Meursault’s absurdist worldview, Camus inspires the readers to rise to a level of reflection higher than that of Meursault, from which his views can be critically regarded, judiciously examined, and ultimately rejected as philosophically inadequate. More precisely, I suggest that there is a tenable explication of The Stranger according to which Camus is not defending Meursault’s absurdist worldview but reducing it to the absurd. Yet, in proposing that it is possible to understand Meursault differently from how he does himself, I am not speculating that understanding The Stranger depends on understanding Camus better than he did himself, for example, by retrieving his original intent in creating his chief character. To the contrary, my focus is on the possible hermeneutical effect of the text on the readers and on their potential hermeneutical responses to it. Yet I do concede that my reading also amounts to an attempt to understand Meursault differently from the way in which Camus apparently did.