I’ve been meaning to read Albert Camus’ THE OUTSIDER since I was fifteen. Which sounds more dramatic than it is. A friend of mine with a kinda photographic memory for narrative once sat on my floor — when we were 15 — and told me the story of the outsider. A man, she said, who just really doesn’t care, commits a crime and stands trial and receives a proposal from his girlfriend and so on and all through this he just doesn’t care. He also doesn’t care about his mother’s death. And as fifteen year old girls, this at once marked him as one of our own.
(There is much to be said about the death of the mother, but let’s not say that here…)
We considered him, the man, to be someone who’d risen above his emotions. Someone who’d sublimated that overwhelming, chaotic, unbearable reaction to the world that we were experiencing. A man who did not feel victimised by the world or even by his own hormones, his body. We figured him for self-reliant, impenetrable. Liberated.
We wanted to be that man.
But when I found THE OUTSIDER (aka THE STRANGER) on my shelf a couple months back, I didn’t realise this was that book. Not until I started reading. And then I remembered being fifteen and on fire and I remembered the longing I’d felt to be someone who just — seriously — didn’t care.
I’m over twice that age now & I still felt that twinge of longing to overcome the self.
But I didn’t find that man, the one I was expecting. To say he doesn’t care implies he understands and overcomes. Which I’m not convinced he does. Instead he strikes me as … lacking. Lacking something I would define as ‘humanity’, I’m afraid, and I can feel that collective rolling of eyes as I dare to invoke something as old-hat as human values & ignore the minefield of definitions of what that might be.
Still, I was in thrall. I found myself muttering ‘the man and the machine’ over and over. But, see, what I meant by that was ‘the man and the machine were equally matched’. Here was a man as cold as the coldest workings of the justice system, a man who felt nothing except one time, when he felt hope at his own escape. His *own* escape. And the machine of society took one look at this machine of a man and gave him the thumbs down. Or the thumbs up. Whichever one it was that ancient Rome really bestowed on gladiators that were for the chop.
And the man felt nothing.
And neither did I.
Except, well, for a grim satisfaction.
Because as much as the story kept me rapt, I admit I had a mild contempt for the man, the outsider. I wanted to see his inhumanity crushed, his absence of emotion, empathy, caring, his whatever it was that I could moralistically point to and say ‘this is a good quality, a good man’, derailed. Undermined. And destroyed.
And if you’re wondering now at my own humanity, you wouldn’t be alone. I wondered about it myself. How cunning of Camus, I thought, to make me into the very thing, the very kind of human, he was dissecting.
But turns out I got that wrong, too. My second interpretation in over two decades & I blew it.
Because one interpretation of the outsider is that he is an existentialist, a man who is existing very truly in the moment. And though he doesn’t express emotion, it’s there, hidden in his comments about the sun on his skin, the bright light in his eyes. This is his emotional statement.
Which stumps me because I thought existentialists kinda made some sort of decision to experience the world. It didn’t occur to me that, of course, they just *experience* it, they don’t go on & on about their decisions.
But even more confusing, Camus explains at the end of the book that this story is about the machine of society crushing not the machine of man but — that overused phrase — “the individual”. Condemning the individual based not on the individual’s crime but on the socially unacceptable behaviour the individual displays while being tried and even before the trial. A kind of Lindy Chamberlain death-by-media approach.
The individual — the Outsider — it transpires is condemned because of that strange, solitary scene at the beginning of the book: the moment he fails to cry at his mother’s funeral. (Ah! cried my fifteen-year-old-self. The death of the mother! Hurrah!)
Which sounds far-fetched until you discover that it’s already happened. At least once this year.
So, intellectually, I understand what Camus is saying about the indifference of the world, the indifference of the social machine, the — apparently virtuous — indifference of the precious “individual”.
I just don’t understand why in hell Camus used a psychopath to demonstrate it.