The Murderer and the Priest: Meursault and Chesterton

"But I was sure about me, about everything, surer than he could ever be, sure of my life and sure of the death I had waiting for me. Yes, that was all I had. But at least I had as much of a hold on it as it had on me. I had been right, I was still right, I was always right. I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another ... Couldn't he, couldn't this condemned man see...And that from somewhere deep in my future...All the shouting had me gasping for air. But they were already tearing the chaplain from my grip and the guards were threatening me. He calmed them, though, and looked at me for a moment without saying anything. His eyes were full of tears. Then he turned and disappeared." (122, Camus, The Stranger)
"Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, 'He believes in himself.'" (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

G.K. Chesterton was a British Catholic author and social commentator in the early 20th century. I finished reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton a while ago, and found what he said, even though it was written long before the rise of existentialism to the mainstream, to be applicable to a lot of the themes in The Stranger. The egoist philosophers who Chesterton criticizes, who believe in nothing but themselves, are strikingly similar to the existential philosophers who reject all systems of life but their own, especially including Meursault, of The Stranger, and may even be defined in the same statement.

"For the sake of simplicity, it is easier to state the notion by saying that a man can believe that he is always in a dream. Now, obviously there can be no positive proof given to him that he is not in a dream, for the simple reason that no proof can be offered that might not be offered in a dream. But if the man began to burn down London and say that his housekeeper would soon call him to breakfast, we should take him and put him with other logicians in a place which has often been alluded to in the course of this chapter [the insane asylum]. The man who cannot believe his senses [the egoist], and the man who cannot believe anything else [the materialist], are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even into the health and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a threepenny bit is infinitely circular. ...When [these philosophers] wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal. The eternity of the material fatalists, the eternity of the eastern pessimists, the eternity of the supercilious theosophists and higher scientists of to-day is, indeed, very well presented by a serpent eating his tail, a degraded animal who destroys even himself." (Orthodoxy)

The main argument against this view is of course that there is a vast difference between the egoist and the existentialist, which is true, at least from a sympathetic perspective, but it could certainly be argued that both philosophies view the world in a similar, or at least comparable way. Chesterton’s criticism applies to both, since both philosophies essentially reject all counter-arguments by saying they don’t matter or don’t actually exist. They cannot be reasonably disproven, but this does not mean that they are correct.

I ended up putting the two pieces (The Stranger and Orthodoxy) together after reading the man referring to Meursault as the antichrist, and especially during the climactic final pages with his interaction with the priest, because it contrasts the vastly different realities these two men lived in, and how they were almost like oil and water to each other. For me, the priest seemed to be the human living his life with care and compassion, and Meursault living like a dead man, as if nothing mattered, so it struck me when Meursault himself saw the exact opposite. I don’t mean to push a religious message here, only that it seems like most human beings can probably see Meursault as the antithesis to humanity, if they look hard enough. Since he lives without emotion, morality, or any other basic human connection to reality.

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