“The Stranger” — does anything matter?

“Mother died today.”

That’s the opening line of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger. When I started reading it, my own mother had died a few days before.

His mother’s death doesn’t matter, is Meursault’s basic stance. Nothing does. This narrator in the novel is seemingly a quite ordinary person, but hollow, resembling a zombie. Yet not exactly; he does have feelings. But only, almost literally, mere bodily sensations. His feelings about his mother’s funeral concern only the heat, his discomfort, his fatigue, food, etc.

His girlfriend suggests marriage, and he casually agrees to it, but when she says it’s an important decision, he answers, “No.” He really does feel that nothing matters.

I was reminded of a repeated refrain in my own novel, Children of the Dragon — “Everything is nothing.” An expression of nihilism. It was faux profundity, a throwaway line, not a deeply considered philosophic stance when I wrote it in my callow twenties.

Nor is it a deep philosophy for Meursault. It’s just the way he is. Not even his nihilistic perspective matters.

Raymond is not really a friend; just a fellow who drags him into his own drama, Meursault merely along for the ride. A moment comes when Raymond may shoot a man, or not. It doesn’t matter, thinks Meursault. Raymond doesn’t shoot. But later on, Meursault himself does — five times, killing the man. Why? No reason. It doesn’t matter.

What does mattering mean? In the great scheme of things — a cosmos of billions of years, trillions of stars — Meursault is right — nothing about our little lives can matter. If the cosmos were conscious, we wouldn’t even register with that monumental consciousness. But that’s not the case. The only sentience is our own. Individually. At every moment of existence we have feelings either positive or negative. And that matters to each of us. Meursault’s sweltering or shivering does matter to him. He says so. And it seems such sensations are all that matter to him.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, argues that all human feelings do resolve down to just physical bodily sensations. That physical pain and mental pain are not ultimately different because the latter is only “felt” in the form of bodily sensations. Thus Meursault is a very Hararian character. But I think Harari actually had it backwards. Indeed, all physical sensations are mediated by the mind; it tells you how to feel about them. Even pain is only painful because the mind deems it so.

I recall one episode (with a girlfriend) when mental anguish did entail literal physical pain. That was an extreme case. But even there it was the mental part — my conceptualization of the situation — that was the most unpleasant part of the experience. The physical sensations paled in significance. This reflects our having minds that think, producing a sense of self — one indeed so powerful that it’s upon that platform, of the immaterial sense of self, that we truly experience our joys and sorrows.

As the book concludes, Meursault is facing execution, and his indifference to everything actually finds its rationale: in the end, we all die, and everything is wiped away. I too am profoundly cognizant of that reality. But to me it makes everything we do, before dying, supremely meaningful. There is nothing else.

5 Responses to ““The Stranger” — does anything matter?”

  1. David Lettau Says:

    What matters is that we assert our will against chance and fate in a meaningless universe and stand in solidarity with our fellow humans as Seneca taught long before Camus.A character from a later work of Camus,Dr Rieux from “The Plague”. Is to me an example of this.Camus also deserves credit for not buying into his friend Sartre’s unquestioning embrace of communism and Sarte’s dismissal of any and all evidence of soviet atrocities.This seems to have been a common theme among lefties in those days (George B, Shaw is a particularly appalling example) I think Camus was becoming less pessimistic as he aged.We will never know.We lost him too soon.The French drive like maniacs

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    Unless we can disprove the findings of Ben Libet & colleagues, then we must admit mind & body are one. Mentation & volition are phantoms. As transient neuro-chemical states, emotions mean nothing. The universe is Bayesian at best: it came, it will go. The kosmos [summation of all universes] is static & endogenous.

    My dottir, CU-Boulder freshwoman, complained diesem morgen that even her honors-class professors can’t seem to grasp Ontogeny-I. Lesbian Puerto Rican bartender may occupy Casa Blanca; atheists like beloved tochter can only aspire to tenure amongst the Ivies [unless GOP vengeful abrogate it].

    We are machines w/pretensions to personhood: conquering the galaxy is dysgermane. Jesters pursue bricolage; the wise pose questions. Brahma stirs…

  3. Don Bronkema Says:

    This ‘gauchiste’ briefly admired the Kolkhozi in June 1941, but redeemed himself w/SP-1957 forecast-demise of USSR w/in 30 years, an idea so fanciful it short-circuited career as Kremlinologist.

  4. Lee Says:

    > But to me it makes everything we do, before dying, supremely meaningful. There is nothing else.

    Even on my deathbed when soon, it would seem, nothing will matter to me, I will care about what is to become of family, friends, and humanity generally. I think that highlights an aspect that you did not emphasize: a fundamental part of why things do matter is the relationships among us. That we have feelings, care about ourselves, etc. is definitely a source of meaning, but that we care about others is also a huge part of it.

    And don’t wait until your deathbed to strengthen those relationships!

  5. Don Bronkema Says:

    Primo: Stop hating–the rest proceeds apace.

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