The novella is widely hailed as a manifesto of existentialism and a polemic against capital punishment. It appeared on a survey of men's "milestone fiction" commissioned by the Orange Prize for Fiction and conducted by Lisa Jardine and Anne Watkins. Interestingly, our book club has now read the top two books on this list (The Catcher in the Rye occupies second place), and five of the top twenty books.
[There are spoilers ahead. Read on if you don't mind]
The Outsider begins memorably with: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know." The protagonist, a young man known only as Meursault, attends his mother's funeral as an unengaged spectator, overwhelmed not by grief but only by torpor and Algeria's heat. He is conscious of being judged by those around him. Meursault, however, does not judge, he merely observes. Over the next few days, he seems like a passenger on a ride, distanced from a sense of responsibility or connectedness to others. Ultimately, he drifts into a dissociative state induced by heat and anxiety, and shoots a nameless Arab armed with a knife, pumping four more lethal shots into his immobile body.
Meursault spends this first half of the story looking outward. Once he is apprehended and imprisoned, trapped in his cell, the scope of the novella changes dramatically, and Meursault is left to look inward, perhaps for the first time in his life. The remainder of the story focuses on Meursault's trial, the flaws of the justice system, and Meursault's epiphany about his insignificance.
The story was quite provocative for our group. We were eventually kicked out of the Bean Scene at closing time three hours after we began our discussion.
Included in the Penguin Modern Classics edition pictured above is an afterword written by Camus. I recoiled at Camus' veneration of Meursault, saying The Outsider is "the story of a man who [...] agrees to die for the truth," because "he doesn't play the game." He goes on to claim "I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve." We tried to tease out what Camus meant by this statement. Did Meursault die for our sins of projecting falsehoods on the truth to suit our social morés? Did Meursault die not for our sins, but only for his own, as it should be?
Camus appears to indict society more than Meursault. Camus lauds Meursault for seeking sensual pleasure, for not judging those around him, and for an unfailing allegiance to fact. In contrast, the justice system distorts fact. The people in the jury box—like people on a tram, like mourners at the mother's funeral—are quick to judge despite their imperfect knowledge of events. Society condemns the taking of life, yet it takes life itself based on the machinations of a faulty system. At one point, the prosecutor proclaims, "I ask you for this man's head, and I do so with an easy mind." Surely such a demand should never be made with an easy mind, if at all.
Meursault comes to recognize his insignificance, and "the benign indifference of the world":
"...everbody knows that life isn't worth living. And when it came down to it, I wasn't unaware of the fact that it doesn't matter very much whether you die at thirty or at seventy since in either case, other men and women will naturally go on living, for thousands of years even." [p 109]I fixed far more responsibility on Meursault than others were prepared to, including Camus. Meursault recognizes, as he approaches the reclining Arab, before either weapon is drawn, that all he has to do is walk away and a lethal escalation could be avoided. He shows no remorse for his action and no regard for his victim. He blames the sun, but never himself. It is he who allied himself with a pimp who beat the Arab's sister; who placed the gun in his pocket as a precaution when returning to where the Arab was seen; who emptied the gun into the Arab after the first shot disabled him. Until Meursault understands that he chose this course—it was not fated—he will never accept his culpability.
Perhaps it is because I too am an Arab, while no one else at the table was (four other ethnicities represented), that I was an outlier in this segment of our discussion. I was less able to abstract Meursault's actions as a logical framework upon which we might examine nihilism, absurdity, existentialism, capital punishment—seeing it instead as a murder. While Meursault could have "played the game" and possibly avoided the guillotine, he does not feign remorse, he does not embrace God and beg forgiveness, he does not claim self-defense or mental anguish, he in no way distorts the facts. The prosecution does play the game, manipulating and distorting the facts, painting a portrait of more than a killer—a sociopath—persuading the jury to decapitate Meursault. Meursault's murder of the Arab is just as capricious, arbitrary, and immoral as his execution.
In his long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus notes:
"The most important question is whether life is worth living. Everything else follows afterward. Galileo's inquiry of whether the Earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the Earth is not a dilemma that causes nearly as much suffering or loss of life as the despair felt by some that their lives are not worth living."As a secular humanist (a label I am sometimes willing to accept), I feel that life is worth living because life is all there is. I don't have an everlasting soul, a nirvana seeking spirit, a karmically-challenged id. This is it. And while I agree with Meursault about the benign indifference of the physical world—the mountains, lakes, deserts and oceans—that indifference does not diminish how precious life is, how jealously we should guard it, and how wrongly we squander it.
It is this sentiment which is challenging to reconcile with the notion of capital punishment. If someone wantonly takes a life, especially repeatedly, remorselessly, and unrepentantly, should their lives be ended as well? I would not be among the throng that greets Meursault at the guillotine with cries of hatred. But I can't decide whether I would want every killer spared.
Technorati tags: Camus, The Outsider, Algeria, Meursault, existentialism