Albert Camus' The Outsider

On July 7, the Pharos Book Club met at the Bean Scene to discuss Albert Camus' The Outsider.

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.

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Anonymous said...

Forty years ago, my first impression of Camus was how can someone write so much on the subject of "meaninglessness?"


Anonymous said...

"He goes on to claim 'I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve.'"

How is that a claim? Is Camus also in the dock?


The Oracle said...

I find your comments interesting. The Outsider is my favourite book, but I have always felt slightly uneasy about the extent of Mersault's alienation (i.e. that he can kill another man and merely find it irritating). But I think that this is essential to the book.

What I find interesting about Mersault is that he does not try to control his feelings, filtering them through the moral lense. He didn't feel upset about his mother's death, so he didn't cry at her funeral; he swam in the sea and made love with Marie because it felt nice; he killed a man because he felt hot and frustrated.

Camus is clearly not recommending that we behave like this; but he does use Mersault to point out how alienating our social and moral conventions can be.

The life and death of Christ is supposed to save us from these inhuman conventions, but Christ is superhuman - a model of compassion and forgiveness, despite being our scapegoat. I think Camus' idea is that Mersault is a much more human saviour - he exposes the sham that is human society and morality (if we pay attention to him), but through his human failings rather than through his superhuman grace. This is provocative, because it leaves us wanting to find answers - we find Mersault's integrity appealing and can identify with his emotional experiences, but we reject his alienation from others.

So, perhaps the idea behind Camus' comparison is that because of his superhumanity we cannot really identify with Christ, we can merely revere him and corrupt his message. But we can, somewhat unsettlingly,identify with Mersault, and this raises questions about how we are to rediscover our integrity and our capacity for following our genuine feelings without us too becoming outsiders - it leads us to ask how we are to become more human.

What is even more interesting is that perhaps as a result Mersault brings out the Jesus in us. If we can understand and forgive Mersault (and others like him) because of our capacity to empathise with him, rather than being prepared to condemn him to death, then perhaps we are doing OK.

At the end of your piece you ask whether we should spare every killer - my response is that this is the only human thing to do.

Anonymous said...

I do not really understand The Outsider as a 'polemic against capital punishment,' as Mersault ultimately accepts that all living things die. I do not find it a very positive book. Although there is a sense that life is precious for its own sake, and that there is nothing else but existence / experience, Camus renders it all rather flat through Mersault's eyes. The impersonal. Fraternal with the indifference of the universe. If true, then our humanity is indeed tragic.

igm said...

to The Oracle:
"At the end of your piece you ask whether we should spare every killer - my response is that this is the only human thing to do."

'Human' or 'humane'?

How is it humane to allow a killer as I describe—one who kills repeatedly, remorselessly, and unrepentantly—to go on living? How can all those around him be sufficiently protected from his threat? Lock him up in solitary? How humane. Extend a hand in kindness? Perhaps til he rips it off.

If what you meant to say was human: Our forebears have a long history of retributive justice. In a smaller group, barely subsisting, the emergence of such a system must have occurred very readily.

to KristaC:
As I mention in the post, Camus indicts society for sitting in judgment despite an imperfect knowledge of events, and despite the manipulation afforded by a faulty justice system. It is for this reason that The Outsider can be regarded as a criticism of capital punishment.

The book certainly does not reassure me that life is precious for its own sake. On the contrary, it suggests that life is utterly inconsequential, ephemeral, meaningless, and expendable, whether it's the life of the Arab or Meursault's.

The Oracle said...

I meant human. This may seem a little odd, given human beings' tendency to seek revenge. However, for me the greatest human capacity is empathy - it is this which marks us out as a species of social beings. My claim is that if we are truly human, we can empathise even with the worst people, and empathy leads to forgiveness.

In terms of what is humane - we should allow the (serial) killer to choose their own fate (within the parameters of what is safe for the community). If they want to be imprisoned, they should be imprisoned. If they want to die, we should allow them to die.

Re: what Krista C said, I think that the book does give some sense that life is precious for its own sake. Yes, the universe is indifferent, but we are not. Even Mersault is not indifferent to his own life - he wants to live.

igm said...

@ Brok
A belated response to your comment. Camus made the comment about the "only Christ we deserve" in an afterword, not in the text of the novel.

Anonymous said...

Having just re-read The Outsider/ Stranger after an interval of more than 10 years, I still find it disturbing/racist that the Arabs are described just as nameless Arabs. Based on one picture, I had assumed - ridiculous though it may seem - that Camus was an Algerian, not a Pied-Noir and have only now found out the reality. Either way, it seems impossible that Camus did not realise the effect.