I don’t know about other class periods, but my class has been having a lot of debates about whether Meursault is a perfect existentialist who has achieved radical subjectivity and is free from society’s oppressive power structures or is just a bad person. I would like to suggest that the answer is, well, both. Meursault is undoubtedly an existentialist. He has accepted that nothing in life has meaning. However, the answer to the question of what sort of person he is, morally, lies in how he deals with that knowledge.
As a result of the realization that life is meaningless, Meursault is sort of a jerk. He does things that hurt others, such as writing a letter to Raymond’s ex-girlfriend that he knows is going to get her into a bad situation and murdering a guy, under the premise that “nothing matters” and these actions are “meaningless.” However, that’s just wrong. His actions do matter. They matter to the people they affect. Even if Meursault is enlightened and knows that none of our suffering matters in the long run, that doesn’t give him the right to inflict unnecessary suffering upon other people, because that is infringing upon their freedom and subjectivity.
Some might say that Meursault’s complete apathy and disregard for the things and people around him is the only natural response to existentialism. But I disagree. I believe that there is another way to respond: the idea that because there is nothing but this life, we have to spend it making the most positive impact on the world that we can, reducing the small fraction of the suffering of others that it is actually in our control to reduce. We have to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, fight for the rights of the marginalized, et cetera.
While this idea may initially seem counter to existentialism, it actually fits with it perfectly. Because there is no afterlife that people who suffered on earth will get to enjoy after death, we should make sure that they suffer on earth as little as possible so that the entirety of their existence is not miserable. Sure, it’s ultimately meaningless, but it’s nice to do anyway. After all, nobody likes to suffer, and it’s kind of a jerk move to say to someone, “Well, suffering is inevitable, and everyone eventually dies anyway, so I’m not going to help you out from under that fallen tree that is crushing you lifeless.” Because if you were the one suffering, even if you knew it was meaningless, you probably would appreciate if that suffering could be diminished or removed.
What I like about the “helping others” response to existentialism is that it can coexist with mutual recognition. Existentialism, no matter what, allows the existentialist to be a subject. However, if the existentialist realizes that others are subjects as well, their natural response will be to want to help them. In this light, existentialism can be a force for good not only for those who practice it but for the whole world.
Altogether, I would say Meursault offers insight into one way an existentialist life can be lived, but certainly not the only way. Existentialism can make us apathetic, yes, but it also can rouse us to action. After all, life is meaningless, but we have to spend it doing something. Why not spend it doing things that make others a little bit happier?