The Outsider by Albert Camus
BACKGROUND: ‘In our society,’ wrote Albert Camus, ‘any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ This may seem a bewilderingly dramatic, almost self-indulgent sort of assertion, but it is one which Camus brought to life in The Outsider, and to frankly devastating effect. The Outsider has become something of a cult classic over the years, especially in undergraduate circles. It inspired The Cure’s ‘Killing an Arab’, a song which attracted a degree of controversy when it was (wrongly) assumed to advocate racial violence. The Outsider itself has also been subject to an array of assumptions and misconceptions, particularly with regards to its philosophical project. In my opinion, however, it is not only one of the great novels of the Twentieth Century, but also one that provides a useful introduction to one of that century’s most compelling philosophical movements, Existentialism.
The Outsider, first published in France as ‘L’Étranger in 1942, is commonly regarded as the greatest example of the Existentialist novel, outshining even Sartre’s La Nausée. This in itself is an extraordinary feat, for, whilst Jean-Paul Sartre was generally regarded as the founding father of Twentieth Century Existentialism, and held an almost unassailable sway over France’s academic elite for several decades, Albert Camus first emerged as a relatively obscure journalist and playwright, who had grown up in poverty in Algiers.
Sartrean Existentialism is a finely wrought thing, the agonising complexities of which were outlined in his heaviest, most earnest tome, Being & Nothingness. In 1945, he described the Existential project as ‘the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism’. If society’s rules are tacitly underpinned by an assumption of the existence of God, to deny His existence necessitates the determination of a new meaning of Life, and a new framework by which to live. In practical terms, this amounted to the avoidance of what Sartre was to term ‘Mauvaise foi’, or Bad Faith. Over-simplifications are unavoidable here, so to summarise; to live in Bad Faith is to exist in a state of intellectual sloth and emotional dishonesty. It is to define oneself, not according to one’s own humanity, autonomy and free will, but according to a role (doctor, waiter, parent, husband) or a collection of roles, or as an object with a prescribed role in the collective, societal machine.
CAMUS’ philosophical position amounts to very much the same thing, but he places particular emphasis upon the notion of the ‘absurd’. He found his ultimate metaphor for the absurdity of the human condition in the myth of Sisyphus, who, according to Greek mythology, was punished by having to roll a stone up a mountain for all eternity, only to have it roll down to the bottom again. Once God is escorted from the equation, human life is revealed in its full absurdity. The only appropriate...