Meursault, Sisyphus, and Happiness: What Albert Camus Tells Us About Life
I have an unhealthy bias toward Albert Camus and this started the first time I read The Stranger when I was in the 9th grade. I was naïve and I couldn't properly comprehend the gravity of the novella, but the character of Meursault seemed intriguing to me. It was probably the simple and declarative way of Camus that made me understand Meursault, if not entirely, but to a certain degree.
Two years later, reading The Stranger gave me a novel insight. I realized how well organized and detailed this piece really is. Camus wrote his ideas so clearly that even after translations, his voice articulates through a different language. Undeniably, the translator has a role to play here too. For example, Mathew Ward preserves the originality of The Stranger better than Stewart Gilbert. But either way, if Camus wasn't so cautious and sure about what he was trying to say, his ideas wouldn't have reached us with such clarity.
Thanks to his brilliant proficiency in writing, Camus could deliver his philosophy of absurdism to us, the philosophy that comforts minds that are in distress, confusion, and devoured by hopelessness.
However, many of Camus's peers questioned his ideas. Jean-Paul Sartre, was rather harsh when he pointed out that the characters of Camus have failed in life. In "Reply to Albert Camus," published on Les Temps modernes, Sartre asked, "Where is Meursault, Camus? Where is Sisyphus?... Murdered, no doubt, or in exile."
I feel Camus is being unnecessarily charged for something he didn't claim to say. Camus never thought that the definition of happy life is marked by a happy ending. Rather his idea was more comforting, honest, and consistent in his creative works.
Camus believed it is pointless to ignore the fact that life has no meaning. Similarly, it is absurd to try to escape the meaninglessness of existence through suicide. Apparently, this may seem like a dead-end, but here Camus proposes a simple solution. He asks us to embrace the meaninglessness of life. Camus believed this is where one starts to live properly, like one should. In "Review of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre" published on Alger républicain, Camus wrote, "The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning."
Camus believed that one can truly live by accepting the harsh truth of the pointless and futile life. This acceptance relieves us from the torment of living with an uncertain promise of meaning. According to Camus, this is the way to be happy and content. He strongly implemented this idea in two of his masterpieces, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. From a broader perspective, both the texts conclude with the acceptance of life's absurdity and a presentation of how it makes one satisfied.
The Myth of Sisyphus ends with the sentence, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
Why must one imagine Sisyphus happy? Because he accepts that there is no point in pushing up the boulder forever and yet he chooses to do it anyway.
Similarly, Meursault's final words in The Stranger reads, "I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they would greet me with cries of hatred."
Although this may appear to be a sentence full of regret, but the tone is actually a positive one. The previous passage provides the context that clarifies Meursault's true emotion. He says,
"…I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself…. I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again."
What is he happy about? He is happy, or at least satisfied, because he accepts the pointlessness of his life. He knows he will be hanged within a few days but he chooses to live despite everything. Still living on after accepting the meaninglessness of life is what puts Meursault and Sisyphus in the same frame. In a sense, they are revolting against the uncertain, incomprehensible, and the oppressive prospect of life's futility and this is what providing them the force to keep living. This similar notion can also be found in The Plague as well. Overall, Camus presents the struggle itself as a meaning.
Now, if we go back to our initial point, we can see that Meursault and Sisyphus didn't live in vain. Their life had experienced that glimpse of contentment because of their acceptance of the absurd. So, it is apparent that what Sartre tried to impose on Camus is not valid.
The solution Camus offers to the meaninglessness of existence is one of the many reasons I admire him so dearly. His appreciation to living life feels calmingly assuring to me. Camus promises that "life is meaningless, but worth living, provided you recognize it's meaningless."
Camus doesn't lie to us. He points out the brutal truth and through this harsh honesty, he comforts us with notion of how embracing the absurd can set us free from the responsibility of finding values. This thought has at least consoled me when my consciousness struggled with the notion of failure or whenever I felt helpless in life. During those difficult hours, I fortunately found Camus's hand on my shoulder, telling me nothing matters as long as I choose to accept and appreciate whatever life offers.
Camus's philosophy is not difficult to comprehend, nor are his literature. His reader-friendly way of penning down his thoughts, and cleverly planned structure of compositions merges into a style that makes his writings so appealingly convincing. This later proved to be a great help in my endeavor to find my own voice as a writer as well.
Nonetheless, the greatest contribution of Camus to the world is drawing the path leading to a pure, uncontaminated contentment that is not marked by any fake hope or false knowledge. Camus teaches us what organic happiness is and how one can attain it.
Abdullah Rayhan is a student of English literature, Jahangirnagar University.