Nihilism: Why care about anything? A review of 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus
"Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters, nothing really matters…to me."
Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
I have always wondered whether this lyric really represents what it suggests - that Freddie Mercury didn’t give a flying fudge about anything. It reminds me of the philosophical position known as nihilism, which is broadly the idea that there is no god, life is meaningless, and morality is non-existent. Ironically, a decade later, Mercury contracted HIV which inevitably led to his death. Yet before this, he was a young, eccentric, hugely successful singer. The song in question is actually one of my all-time favourites; its uniqueness lies in the variety of several melodic styles, as well as the famous “mama-mia” line. But why the pessimism at the song’s final hurdle - had Mercury been bitten by the nihilism bug?
Traits of nihilism can be discovered in film as well as song. The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) doesn’t care much about anything, even money; he just loves to watch it burn! O-Dog in Menace II Society (1993) displays a complete lack of morals, rejecting religion and shooting a shopping clerk for ‘dissing’ his mom. The Purge (2013) is an interesting take on whether goodness can withstand without law, as one day a year all emergency services are removed and anything is permitted. Would you do something ‘bad’ if you knew you could get away with it?
Nihilism is ugly. A middle finger up attitude is hardly one that anybody wants to embrace. Yet secretly we are all guilty of it from time to time. Why? Because deep down we might believe there is no judge and jury in the sky watching us, which then permits us to reject morality. Since non-fiction consumes most of my reading, I decided to try something different and read a novel, of the absurd kind. After the first few pages of Albert Camus' The Stranger (1942) I was hooked. The length isn’t too daunting either. The story is narrated by the protagonist, Meursault, who is brutally honest about everything and believes the choices he makes in life are ultimately meaningless. Thus, his attitude and demeanor on everything is brilliantly bold, cut-throat, and consequently entertaining.
It all begins with Meursault informing us his mother just died, yet his thoughts hardly yield remorse. His strange character is apparent right from the offset as he describes the minute observations in his life as all random and pointless. He doesn’t tend to overthink because to Meursault, in the end, it’s all meaningless. He likes some things, and dislikes other things. He meets a girl named Marie, enjoys her company, she asks him to marry her, to which he replies “I don’t mind”. Love to Meursault is meaningless, empty, along with everything else. We are eventually going to die anyway, whether you live life one way or another. It really doesn’t matter. This is the mind of Meursault. Hence, the title of the book refers to him being a stranger to society, not conforming to social rules, and telling the world exactly what he thinks of it. His atheistic confrontation with various religious people is also rivetingly powerful.
What I find most interesting is the fact that we can relate to Meursault and even sympathise with him after he commits murder. Why are the audience so sympathetic towards a character who has killed someone for no real reason? He is the pinnacle of the antihero. We could dispute whether there was any real reason for the murder. One could argue he was avenging an attack which was made on his friend (the story is quite interesting, it wasn’t as though Meursault had set out to kill anyone, it really is just an unfortunate set of circumstances). But when questioned by the police, he shows no remorse and thinks that it’s all meaningless.
As we are entertained by Meursault’s thoughts, we can’t help but relate to the meaninglessness of our own decisions. If we really were to live life as meaningless, then what kind of life would we lead?
Meursault's perspective reminds me of the atheist Woody Allen. Once declaring in a Cannes interview that life is simply meaningless, Allen describes how every century or so all the people on the planet are wiped out (he uses the analogy of a giant toilet flushing everybody away), and indifferently a whole new set come in. This cycle continues repeatedly, again and again, with no apparent meaning. Everything in the world is going nowhere. We die, and eventually the universe will cease to exist (actually the sun will inevitably explode and take out earth before this happens anyway). Therefore, in essence, everything brilliant (the works of Shakespeare, Mozart, Justin Bieber) will all be eradicated, as though it never existed.
But in real life, we’re not tailored to think this way. We crave some kind of meaning and attribute it to our lives. We ignore the inevitability of death and follow rules which allow society to function and survive. As the philosopher David Hume once said, “it is because of pain and pleasure, and the interdependence of our relationships that we are bound by moral requirements at all”. In order for the human species to flourish, we have to work together and treat each other fairly. The future is all we have, even if it does eventually look bleak. Yes, there are some who simply do not want to sign the social code of conduct and slump into a meaningless attitude. So what do we say to them? Nothing. We lock them up if they get out of hand.