“I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.” – The Outsider, Albert Camus
At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Albert Camus’ The Outsider to (finally) experience the world of the French philosopher-novelist I had always heard about, but never entered. As 2016 parades onwards with its generous servings of time, I found it appropriate to spend my spoils of magnanimity by immersing myself in a world other than my own.
The Outsider (L’étranger in the original French), set in French Algeria, follows Mersault as he lives an epicurean life with an indifferent attitude to what exists beyond the present moment. It is truth and the absence of unnecessary, superficial expressions of sentiment or thought that characterizes his outlook on the world, be it towards his girlfriend, his neighbours’ problems, and, most damningly, the death of his mother. One day, in a random chaos of heat and sand, Mersault kills a man on a beach — for no apparent reason. From there unfolds a series of events that attempt to determine Mersault’s innocence or guilt, as Mersault reflects on how, ironically, he means little in the context of his crime, and how the justice system seems to proclaim his indifference to be the truly criminal act.
In his Afterword, Camus states that:
“…the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual.”
Mersault is condemned because he does not abide by the social constructs in which we live our lives. He is condemned for being indifferent — for being honest — when social cues call for us to show remorse, sorrow, frustration and defiance. Ultimately it poses the question that perhaps it is not he who is guilty, but rather society for condemning a man for being ‘other’ than what we see ourselves as being. That as we seek to be ‘better’ people, we unconsciously build a parochial community that exclude those who simply want no labels in their lives.
In this sense, Mersault may very well be the hero; Camus himself writes:
“So one wouldn’t be far wrong in seeing The Outsider as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth. I also once said, and again paradoxically, that I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve.”
…yet proclaiming Mersault to be the hero would miss the point of the book completely. Seeking profound meaning in what otherwise has no meaning is exactly what society does in their condemnation of Mersault.
Reflecting on the story, I can claim that I, myself, am not an Outsider — in fact, I am quite the opposite. I am not the Outsider, and at times I am worse for it.
Reflecting on it now (and recently, in the heavily melancholy month of January), I’ve realized that I’ve lived my entire life gauging my thoughts about myself based on how others view me. I’m a firm believer in the fact that many of what I deem to be ‘successes’ in my life have only been such because they were deemed ‘positive’ by a majority; likewise, the reason I can ‘do well’ is because I function in a way that works in the system I live in. Take academics, for example: the system is toxic, yet the reason I survive is that I’ve learnt to swallow the antidote and get on with it. I spend too much time trying to do things that are ‘objectively’ good, and for that I am at a loss when I think about what ‘good things’ I can truly and unselfishly do for myself. Sometimes, procrastination can be a ‘good thing’ — as one of my closest friends claim, the want to procrastinate might be for reasons beyond escaping work — yet because the overwhelming perception of it is ‘bad’, I chide myself for doing it.
Believe me when I say that that is the saddest thing. That I have grown up to think in a way that I believe is quite irreversible. That if I were to be left in a world void of people but myself, I simply wouldn’t know what to do. I laud the principles of solitude, but I have yet to fully embrace them myself.
I’m not trying to rant about my shortcomings and vow to become the rowdy Outsider — which runs entirely contrary to the purpose of this post. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes, it is a healthy thing to be on the other side of the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ (as Sylvia Plath describes it). That I really need to march to the sound of my own drum — but if the beat happens to coincide with everyone else’s, so be it. It is fine not to be the Outsider (admittedly, sometimes it is better not to be the Outsider), but when a moment calls for me to express what I really think, there is no logical reason for me to hold back. That if I ever end up in a situation where it is an easy choice to condemn someone, I must think about whether it is I who should be condemned, at least to some extent. After all, the world is made more interesting by the sheer variety of us, and as we observe in Orwellian contexts, a homogenous way of being is something we should fear.
Mersault did kill a man — we cannot deny that. For that, he should be unequivocally condemned. But for failing to abide by the rules we impose on ourselves, to restrict our own ways of being?
That is our crime, not his.