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The Absurd Heroics of Monsieur Meursault
Alex Holzman asks what a hero is, and if Camus’ infamous character qualifies.
Heroics lie near the heart of both literary and historical culture. Something about the ‘greatness’ of heroes lends context to and brings to vivid life the events in which they took part and often come to represent. They are anchors in the sea of history, often cast by desperate people; and like an anchor, they often alter the course of the vessel.
Heroes, fictional or otherwise, are quite diverse. We revere Odysseus for his guile and tenacity, Atticus Finch for his justness and morality, and Christ for his self-sacrifice; others we exalt for their military exploits, ethical guidance, ideological commitment, civic service, or rebelliousness. Heroes can be controversial – perhaps even necessarily so for non-fictional heroes. Neither Caesar nor Napoleon were without fault, to say the very least, yet they command a place of respect in the annals of history. Why is this the case? What do heroes capture in people’s minds that us historical wallflowers cannot?
The Essence of Heroism
The answer lies perhaps in a deconstruction of the terms ‘heroic’ and ‘heroic deeds’. What does it mean to behave heroically? Self-sacrifice, generosity, piety, humility, and such traits are sometimes considered central to heroics, but that’s certainly not always the case. This is a conflation of moral heroics with heroics of a more general nature. Many historical and fictional heroes were neither unwaveringly moral nor particularly interested in morality. A more Hegelian conception of ‘hero’ might simply be an influential figure in history – a Napoleon or Caesar, a Stalin or Mao: someone who moves the historical process along. The similarities between these barbarous heroes and the more palatable ones (Christ, Gandhi, etc) are scarce, but essential to understanding the nature of heroics.
An existentialist understanding of heroics may indeed dispense with moral considerations altogether. If for the sake of argument we accept the core existentialist idea that morality is self-imposed, so that no one can be objectively more or less moral than anyone else, would it follow that heroism cannot exist? This seems unlikely: existentialists from Kierkegaard to Camus have made reference to heroics despite their preclusion of objective morality. So morality cannot be the basis of heroism, as heroes no doubt exist but morality may not. Justness and moral conscientiousness may be sufficient for heroism, given certain contexts and standards; but from an existentialist perspective, it cannot be necessary. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s greatest hero, Abraham, was but a few heartbeats away from murdering his own son.
If morality is occasionally sufficient for heroism, but not necessary for it, what trait unifies all heroes necessarily? It can be nothing but bravery. Indeed, heroism and bravery are nearly synonymous in the common vernacular. ‘Bravery’ can be understood as performing actions even when one is afraid of either the actions themselves or of their consequences. To some profound extent, then, bravery, and subsequently heroism, is defined largely in response to fear – or, fear is the vacuum into which bravery and heroism flows. Every great hero, fictional or historical, existentialist or moralist, has demonstrated both fear and the equivalent bravery.
If bravery is the necessary trait of heroes, its contrary can aid us in understanding its singularity. What constitutes cowardice, the opposite of bravery? For a soldier, the greatest coward is undoubtedly the deserter – the fellow soldier who abandons his comrades and flees from the battle. Traditionally, captured deserters were executed; in modern times, they are tried to the fullest extent of military law. On one hand, this severity is due to the perceived attack on martial camaraderie that desertion represents. On the other, it is a punishment for cowardice in the face of some conflict.
This situating is absolutely essential. The coalescent theme of all heroics is that they represent the human experience of some conflict or struggle. Heroes can win and heroes can lose; but if there is nothing to win and nothing to lose, then there can be no heroics. One is neither hero nor coward while watching television. And the greatest and most uncontroversial of heroes are those who, in the face of unimaginable opposition and personal terror, overcome and propagate the best qualities of humanity, be they humility, intelligence, compassion, or fortitude.
Sisyphus & The Absurd
Monsieur Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, is surely an intentionally unconventional hero.
The Stranger was first published in 1942, after WWI, and therefore marked by extreme pessimism, and in the midst of WWII, and therefore belonging to a world thoroughly in upheaval. Correspondingly, the philosophy underscoring The Stranger is one of listlessness, dissatisfaction, cynicism, and exhaustion. In short, the novel is consumed wholly by a preoccupation with the absurd. Camus’ conception of heroics inevitably reflects this preoccupation, and subsequently, so does Meursault’s heroism. However, it is in The Myth of Sisyphus (also 1942) that Camus most explicitly describes the heroics of absurdity. There he writes: “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of life.”
Like many legendary heros, Sisyphus struggled (and, if myth is to be believed, continues to struggle) against the will of the gods themselves. Sisyphus sought eternal life by challenging Death and Hades, and so was punished with ceaseless, meaningless toil, by having to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it tumble back down again, for all eternity. This punishment is an attempt by the gods to suppress Sisyphus’s freedom of choice, to make him into a mere object. However, to call it an ‘attempt’ reveals the possibility for heroics for Sisyphus. The primordial authority of the Olympian gods bore down on Sisyphus, and to some extent, he had no power but to submit; but even in the hopelessness of this unending torture, there remains the possibility of transcendence:
“Sisyphus, the proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn… if the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.”
If Sisyphus were but a disembodied soul, there would be no suffering. But we imagine him as an aching and ancient man, toiling in the mud and filth for all eternity. Yet in a great irony, the locus of Sisyphus’s intended suffering is the same as that of his heroics: his embodied consciousness. We imagine him as conscious of his suffering; but if one is conscious of his suffering, surely he can choose to be conscious of something else instead. As Camus says, there is no fate for consciousness that cannot be surmounted by consciousness of something else – by scorn for the gods’ decree, for example. And there is no scorn so cutting and permanent as heroic joy. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus writes.
Marcello Mastroianni as Mersault in Visconti’s adaptation of The Stranger
Let’s return to Meursault. In a world without gods, in which human experience reigns as the sole transcendence, heroism is defined not by a scorn for the will of the gods, but instead by a scorn for the machinations of man and for the contingency of the universe. With this established, Meursault is the realization of an absurd hero. The absurd swirls around Meursault as it does us all, lurking beneath our glib rationalizations. For instance, we grind our noses against the absurd in the nauseatingly alien moments of semantic satiation, where the meaningfulness of the arbitrary structures of grammar and language collapse through the repetition of words. We also face the absurd in those uncomfortably inexplicable but thankfully momentary experiences of disembodiment.
The absurd is similar in operation to Sartre’s nothingness, in that it is first and foremost a function of consciousness. Only consciousness can offer the awareness of the absurd – thereby creating absurdity; and once experienced, it can never be forgotten. The struggle against the absurd is consciousness’s ultimate battle.
Death is the supreme symbol of the absurd, since death represents both the cessation of consciousness and an unknowable phenomenon. It is in the depths of the struggle against absurdist death that we find Meursault at the end of The Stranger. The crime that has led him to the guillotine was pointless, insofar as we can tell: he has murdered an Arab, but not out of passion or spite, nor even bloodlust. The act was contingent upon nothing but the bright sun. It simply happened. It was an absurd act.
Of course, human law cannot comprehend this. For the legal system, crimes must have intent; there must have been a motive. So as a matter of course, Meursault is (justly) condemned by this institutional reaction to the absurd. But in a certain sense, the legal system has become another component of Meursault’s consciousness of absurdity.
He is sentenced to death, the most severe punishment allowable by law. The absurd has ensnared Meursault, just as it did Sisyphus, snatched from the sea and sand to his toilsome stone. Led to his cell, Meursault is expected to either repent and surrender to the whims of man, or suffer in terror until the drop of the blade. This expectation is predicated upon both his consciousness of experiencing imprisonment and an expectation of a consciousness of fear, to be terminated by his death. And for a time it works as intended: Meursault quakes in his bunk each morning, awaiting the heavy footsteps of the guard coming to take him to his end. It is not until after his climactic rage against the prison chaplain that Meursault’s deconstruction of traditional expectations becomes clear.
Meursault was content with the pleasures and passions of his world. He loved and longed for the sea and the bends of the coast, the alluring touch of a young lover, and the other aesthetic joys of a casual life, just as did (or does) Sisyphus. When asked by the chaplain what he’d desire in death, Meursault replies curtly that he desires nothing more or less than his own life again – what else could a man desire at the end?
In the face of religion, Meursault remains unrepentant. And in the face of society, he feels no guilt. He does not suffer the concerns of others, nor does he submit to a fear of the absurd. The absurdity of Meursault’s world – personified and punctuated by his companions, the Arabs, the magistrate, the prosecutor, the judges, and the priest – seeks to collapse him into a choiceless object, whose only remaining transcendence will be his suffering and death. But Meursault, the Algerian Sisyphus, resists this reduction to a choiceless nothingness, and in doing so, affirms his own transcendence. At the sight of his own great stone tumbling down for the final time, Meursault merely shrugs his shoulders and begins his descent.
It is only conscious life that separates us from death, and death can only come at the end of consciousness. Yet we fear it as though it is something to be suffered, like an illness. Rather, death is simply a bracketing of conscious life – no different in function than birth. Fear of death is in actuality an expression of love for life. It is the fear of an unknown that steals our possibilities from us. But it is only while fearful that one can choose instead to be brave; and it is only while brave that one can be a hero. Meursault routinely demonstrates radical bravery in the face of the absurd. He is not a good man; but he attains a level of authenticity that few ever mimic. And he faces death with contentedness, taking responsibility for the man he chose to be. Thus he opens himself to the happiness of Sisyphus. Hades kneels before Chaos, and Meursault awaits the scornful cries, comforted by their familiarity.
© Alex Holzman 2016
Alex Holzman is studying Political Science, Philosophy, and Psychology at The College of New Jersey.