Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Politics Of The Outsider

Albert Camus' novella, The Outsider is generally regarded as one of the great novels ever written. When I read it first, years ago, I felt it was a great work of literature. Having read it subsequently again, I felt an immense vacillation, a dysphoria, and this increased on my third and last reading.

As a well written, well crafted book, it has few parallels. The fame of the opening sentences is legion. The depiction and the quality of some images is surely amongst the very best in literature. The economy of the book is well matched by the spare expressions of the protagonist Mersault, if he can be called that. His taciturn, almost stylish silence is the resounding theme of the novel, for it is an answer to the absurdity of life, as seen from his eyes.

That he constantly maintains that mood is the success of the first part of the novel. Mersault clearly carries out defiantly the philosophy Camus propounded so eloquently in his famous essay the myth of Sisyphus. His sbsurdist philosophy sees us to the end of his story. However, it is to the murdered Arab man that I must draw attention to, for he is not mentioned after his death at all.
And it is to this that I object most, for it is this lack of sensitivity on Camus' part that the novel, now seen through new eyes, lacks worth.

There is a complete negation of the murdered man, of his importance, his existence, of who he is. That the murder, for that is what it is, is attributed to the glaring sun is a failure of sensibility on the writers part. This is an imperial attitude, of the conqueror's towards the slave, the strong towards the weak, towards the vanquished, the forgotten. That the act is a part of his mood, his headache is important. It is not premeditated and that is important too, signifying that the Arab man is not even worth killing.

It is Mersault's story but is it? If Camus shows the absurdity of life and death, he succeeds but while Mersault dies lyrically, the Algerian dies unannounced. It is this failure, this taking sides in a political drama, this imperial attitude that Camus settles for that the outsider fails as a document of a coherent philosophy.

I find it sad that Camus fails the very land he loves so dearly, its sun, its beaches, its beautiful people. However, in neither this book nor the plague does the native figure at all. It is as if the natives dont exist, for their world, their land and their sun is not so material.
I admire Camus as a novelist, philosopher and essayist. Some of his essays, especially in the notes are so lyrical. Yet, the cursory manner in which the colonized man is dismissed is a reflection of a failure and the harshness of an era of oppression, making it look like a defence of colonialism.

That Camus can live despite this novel is his real greatness. That he can live inspite of the outsider is his failure.


x said...

I had similar reservations about camus too when I read this book. And I could not swallow it, thinking camus was copping out or taking sides. But, per my *hazy* recollection of the plot, I think Mersault took up the knife in the 1st place as a means to defend himself from the threat posed by the Arab. The heavy glare numbed his senses resulting in the activation of his defensive reflexes to kill the arab for guaranteeing his own safety, something which the law does not distinguish with an actual cold-blooded murder.

Antonia said...

oh I think it makes perfect sense that Camus 'neglects' the death of he Arab. Of course he does not meniton him further, not because it is an arab, it could be anything, anyone. He just only describes the imperial system in its advanced lockedness. The main topic of the book is indifference. Indifference to the world, to arabs and not to mention how he treats women, so if we summarize now and apply political correctness at last, we will necessarily end up with Camus as a right-wing which grossly mischaracterizes in general his writing and life. You say he is not sensitive, on the contrary, he is very sensitive to all these powerrelations, what really imperalistic would be if he had written oh the poor arab, and now lets raise awareness and read this all as a pamphlet against colonialism. Then better one should go ahead with Frantz Fanon.
Of course does the Algerian have to die unannounced. That's just like it is in general unfortunately the real world. But at least he is honest about it and indifferent - and I would think it could have been anyone, it was the Algerian by accident, some minutes later it could have been someone completely else. It is really the question whether one doeshimjustice when one reads him as the evil colonialist who feared the evil arabs.

Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun is a good one in this respect, too. How things look like on the surface and what they describe in the background.

KUBLA KHAN said...

thanks antonia for your remarks.
HEART OF DARKNESS, by joseph conrad and the outsider seem to me two books, by two great thinkers, with exile' backgrounds, to simmer and leave a sour taste. both books, after many readings, seem indefensible as critiques of anything.
the heart of darkness is an adjectival insistence on evading the basic monstrosity of slave trade.alongwith the outsider, the fundamental flaw, please permit me to say, is in the presumed intellectual, moral, physical and cultural superiority of the civilizing western white man.
the mounds of skulls in conrad or the arab man in the outsider reflect the same malaise.
yes, there is indifference as a theme but indifference to what?
Camus had already chosen to live in France permanently when he died so tragically, and refused to be a party to any overt freedom from France for the Algerians.
Camus, like Sartre, became an armchair philosopher, participating in token civilized protests against furious atrocities.
It is in these new contexts that the outsider must be read.the outsider, i still feel, is an important work, albeit, in shadow now, in doubt.

Antonia said...

well this is always easy to say, armchairphilosopher and such things
and it is not exactly so that he never was politically active, no?
My theory about Camus is that after he had reached this indifference point, or this is much better, not indifference, but the experience of the absurd, it is impossible to engage in political activities anymore, at least not so-called radical ones. And then the next step, and this is why I mentioned the Faulkner-book, is 'The Plague', in which you get over this indifference and operate in small areas, to develop feelings or care or solidarity for the people around you, whoever this will be, arabs, could be anyone. Principles are not everything.