Existentialism, “The Stand”, and Reading

All throughout our discussions of existentialism I’ve also been reading The Stand by Stephen King. The premise for this particular novel is quite indicative of our world’s absurdity: a malfunction at a government research facility caused a deadly virus to be released, and resulted in most of the US population being wiped out. The real story, though, is in the groups of people who come together after the dust settles.

King’s skill in creating worlds and creating characters is unmatched. I feel as though just by reading three quarters of this book I’ve lived the lives of hundreds of people. In this reading, I have found that being detached, and accepting the absurdity of the world that King has created, has made the reading experience very powerful and fun. More fun, certainly, than if I had tried to justify or derive meaning from the absurdity of the world. Allowing myself to just exist in the world, was much more enlightening and gratifying.

A further connection to The Stranger I’ve found in The Stand is the utter prominence of physical and sexual desires. This becomes a more pervasive motif during Part 2 of The Stranger, but in King’s novel it is fairly constant. This focus on sex as an aspect of human nature, rather than love, I feel, is another part of existentialism that Camus touches on, but could be explored further. I would be interested to know whether King’s use of sexual and physical desires, rather than love stories, had any connection to his beliefs about existentialism.

Can One Truly Live an Existentialist Life?

The quote “existence precedes essence” is often referred to as the foundation of existentialism. In just three words it summarizes that our surroundings cannot be changed by the individual, but our existence allows us to create our own values and meaning of life. The basis of existentialism is that human life doesn’t possess any real meaning or value until it is created by an individual. 

Existentialist philosophy appeals to many as it is characterized by individualism and freedom, however, the problem that arises from the lack of foundation is that it overemphasizes a separate sense of self. We live in a society where humans interact with other people and objects, therefore there are certain truths we must abide by. This evokes the question of whether one can truly live an existentialist life in today’s society. The answer to this question is that we can partially abide by the principles of existentialism. Through different experiences and adapting to our circumstances we are able to find everlasting personal meaning in life, nevertheless there will always be constraints that prevent us from living a completely existentialist lifestyle. 

Emotionally Detached or Emotionally Numb?

When Reading The Stranger, I felt as if I was a viewer into the world of Mersault and all the quirky people that interact with him. It feels like I sitting in the corner of the room watching Mersault right before my eyes. The book felt like everything was moving very fast and things often unraveled but tightened up very quickly. The book being wrote in the 1940’s makes a lot of sense for being revolutionary for its time. The content so far is widely talked about today, but I can imagine when this first came out the taboo followed this book around to every book store selling. I am enjoying the book so far but I still have so many questions that have yet to be answered.

The theme or central idea has yet to be revealed, but Mersault’s attitude and the way he looks at life seem to be a recurring idea that circulates. It started with the conversation at the retirement home, where he put his maman. The complete disregard for his mothers death is shocking, the way he is able to emotionally ignore something so heavy is truly frightening for the future of the novel. There is an argument that something so emotional could have such an effect on him, it could be causing this emotional numbness, but not even in Mersault’s thoughts do we see a glimmer of sincerity. We see some forms of emotional reactions later but still none are considered normal or healthy for the situation. One example is when he is invited to Raymond’s apartment for dinner, and he witnesses animal abuse. “i stood their motionless. And in old Salamano’s room, the dog whimpered”(33). The thoughts of disgust are there but the reader still misses the empathy that is necessary to form healthy human emotions.

From what I have read so far it is evident the reader is in for a for an earthquake of tragic experiences as we the reader sit in that corner and gaze at how lightly he takes everything. I am eager to see if something will happen directly happen to him and not the others around him, maybe that will provoke a response out of him. Or maybe something could happen to Marie (the love interest so far), maybe it is the type of love where we will find the sincerity of his feelings for her. Like i said earlier everyone copes differently and this must be his way.

Is Mersault a Stranger or an Outsider?

We know Albert Camus’ book, L’Etranger, by its American translation, The Stranger, but when the book was published in the UK, it was published as The Outsider instead. The word “etranger” in French can be translated into both the outsider and the stranger as well as the foreigner, all of which fit Mersault’s position in the book to varying degrees and for different reasons.

Being a “stranger” is a good way to describe Mersault as not only is he a stranger to many of the most consequential characters in the book, but he is also a stranger to his friends. While he has friends and intimate relationships over the course of the novel, none of the people he is with ever truly understand his seemingly detached nature. Some, like Marie or Raymond accept it or choose to ignore it, but the majority of the people that Mersault meets over the course of the book consider him strange enough to be threatening or simply guilty. In addition, Mersault is a stranger to himself until the last pages of the book. He spends the rest of the story being apathetic and confused, simply reacting the world around him without truly making his own decisions until his confrontation with the priest pushes him toward understanding. In the last paragraphs of the book, he finds the meaning he has been searching for in life, but before that, he is a stranger to himself as well.

Mersault is also an “outsider” in the sense that he is outside of the emotions and constructs that rule the minds of the other characters in the story. From religion to marriage, Mersault does not seem to understand where others derive meaning in these things, to the point that he views them with derision. Not only is he an outsider who is misunderstood by the people around him, but he is where he wants to be. He believes that things like religion and marriage that characters like the priest and Marie care so much for are at best pointless and at worst actively hiding the prospect of a truly meaningful life from them.

While I think the titles are very similar and both very suited for the content of the book, The Outsider is my favorite because I think that it gives a better representation of Mersault’s role in his world and is also the title that he would pick if he could. He is proud of his place outside of the societal constructs that he deems worthless and detrimental and I think that he would rather be though of as a man who willingly pushed himself outside of those things than one who was simply a stranger.