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Thursday, 9 February 2012

Existentialism - The Outsider by Albert Camus

Seminar Paper
Existentialism concerns itself very much with the idea of free will, and a person’s feelings towards their existence and how they go through life. It is a cultural movement that looks at how the idea of society is somewhat unnatural, because it moulds our views. It also suggests that our human morality that we have developed, shouldn’t exist. This is because in a sense, no one life holds distinct value; we are merely the tiniest of dots in the universe.

Existentialism seems to focus on the idea that we can individually structure our own lives and values, and is the search for our ‘true self’.

In ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus, this idea is explored throughout the book with numerous examples. In the first few chapters, a lot of focus is put on the death of the main character, Meursaults mother. It’s immediately clear that her death doesn’t seem to have a big effect on him. The closest to sadness is him saying ‘I’d rather mother hadn’t died’ and that he ‘probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything’. This distant emotion was the first example of someone not placing too much value onto one life, and showed signs of not feeling real emotion or pain. However, part of Meursaults thought process was that his feelings or reactions to her death shouldn’t affect anybody, including his mother, because she is dead. Later in the novel, he also says ‘Given that you’ve got to die, it obviously doesn’t matter exactly how or when’.

Kirkegaard, a key figure in existentialism, felt that it was important that we all accept that death is both unpredictable and inevitable, as many people struggle to grasp the idea that they will one day die. He blames society partly, because of its denial of death, which makes it harder for people to accept it and move on when it suddenly affects them.
The way Meursault handles his mother’s death also emphasises the ‘accept everything’ viewpoint that existentialists seem to have. If someone dies, you should simply accept it and move on. This is the same when in prison, as he explains that he is able to adjust to life without too many problems. Such as not being able to smoke, he states that within a short period he was soon able to become accustomed to the change, and did the same for living in the cell with not much to do.

Similarly, the killing of the Arab seemed meaningless to him. He states that he doesn’t feel any true regret for the murder. From an existential point of view, this is a fairly reasonable response. What was interesting was that before he shot the Arab, he never really had any intention to kill him. Even when the Arab withdrew a knife, it was the intense heat of the sun which made him feel uncomfortable and lead to him shooting. Meursault seems to have two sides to his personality; the physical side seems to be his bigger focus. It was the annoyance of the sun that leads him to shoot, not his emotional feelings towards the Arab.

When he discovers he has to go to court, he finds it difficult to understand, throughout part two he refers to how the situation is ‘simple’, and that he must pay for his actions of murder.
While in prison, Meursault seemed to constantly look towards the future, imagining if he had to spend a long time in prison, and how he would adjust. He says ‘I’d never really been about to regret anything. I was always preoccupied by what was about to happen, today or tomorrow’. Again, this reflects a very existentialist view of constantly looking forward, ignoring the past, moving forward. They consider the future to be the most important dimension.
At one point in ‘The Outsider’, Meursault is standing by the sea, and says ‘I denied myself the water for a bit longer’. The fact that he is ‘denying himself’ shows that he is going against what his body craves, but in a sense that makes him more in control. He speaks as if he is two separate people, the person that is structured by society, expecting to feel certain emotions and react in certain ways, and what could be considered his ‘true self’. Ironically, this is the stranger side of him, as it analyses every moment, and sees it from a clear viewpoint. It looks at choice, something that is seen as crucial by existentialists.
One of the few times we see a sign of true emotional connection, particularly towards the past is Mr Perez who is very sad about the death of Meursaults mother. It was a good way of being able to compare two different emotional reactions to the same situation
Nietzsche is an important figure to look at when studying Existentialism, specifically, Nietzsche talks about existential nihilism. This is the theory that there is no specific meaning or value to life. He was against moral ideas such as Christianity and utilitarianism (which suggests that you can only asses the morality of an action after knowing all of its consequences). He believed that morality should be left to the masses, and only more prolific people should have their own ‘inner law’.
Heidegger is another key philosopher in existentialism, for his book ‘Being and Time’. He realised philosophy had explored all beings in the world, but not actually what ‘being’ is, and also how humans develop personality over time. By being, he means knowing what it is to exist. He calls us ‘Dasein’, just like every other creature. He looks at the idea of life itself, and suggests that we may not live (or exist) long enough to truly understand being, and confesses in the book that there is no real way of knowing if Dasein is able to understand life.
Going back to looking towards the future, Heidegger had described the present as ‘dread’, he felt that we are always thinking about the past, and using our memories to see what could happen in the future. He argued that the main memory from our past is guilt.
At the end of ‘The Outsider’, the author – Albert Camus, explains his view of what the novel shows through the main character. One point that interested me was that Camus labelled him a ‘hero’. I think that this may be because he is always telling the truth, ignoring the consequences. In my opinion, many would consider him an anti-hero, only his honesty is a heroic-like characteristic. Although, Camus does admit that Meursault doesn’t claim to be a hero. Meursaults acceptance of his punishments for the actions he took is a very existential approach.
Camus describes him as ‘an outsider to society’. And I agree, as throughout the book we see him go against what would be considered normal human reactions. His focus is often more on the physical reactions of life, rather than the mental reactions. He shows know real passion towards other people, such as not crying at his mother’s funeral, and not showing real love towards Marie.
In the novel, Camus seems to suggest that there is no natural basis of morality, and is merely something we have developed. Also, through Meursaults lack of belief in God, Camus seems to suggest that we shouldn’t fear there being no higher power.
The fact that the novel is called ‘The Outsider’ or ‘The Stranger’ reflects my own feelings towards the character throughout reading it. His unusual reactions to events in his life make seem almost inhuman. That could be because society has implanted me with a default setting of what I should view as ‘normal’. A key concept that existentialists are against, seems to be the expectation that we should all follow certain rules and beliefs. This is seen as a way of destroying our individualisation, and it should be our own judgement and feelings that determine what we believe. Otherwise we are not so much human; we in a sense become no more than an object. Towards the end of the novel Meursault says that the prosecutor ‘announced that I had no place in a society whose fundamental rules I ignored’. This is another example of the point made by existentialists that we have been made to follow certain rules that have been laid out by society, and always question and fear those that don’t.


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