Camus, the Absurd and the Arab Other



Camus’ THE OUTSIDER is a novel of ideas set in colonial Algeria about 1942. To understand this novel’s deep meaning, we can usefully begin by considering its dramatic ending.

To set the scene: Meursault, the novel’s European protagonist and narrator, is condemned to death by a court more for his rejection of conventional mores than his unprovoked shooting of an Arab on a beach in Algiers.

Meursault, who appears to be an unremarkable man, flouts conventional morality when he fails to act as socially ordained upon the death of his mother. He doesn’t want an open casket. He smokes, drinks coffee and falls asleep while keeping vigil in front of the casket. He doesn’t know his mother’s age. Worst of all, he does not cry at his mother’s funeral. And shortly after the funeral, he heads for a swimming pool where he hooks up with Marie. To complete the litany of callousness, he sleeps with Marie on the eve of his mother’s funeral. All of this is cited as evidence of a criminal mentality at his trial for murder. The prosecutor spends more time denouncing Meursaut for his callous treatment of his mother than his shooting of an Arab.

Meursault’s final response, while he awaits the guillotine in prison, is defiance. He vehemently rejects the efforts of a priest to have him repent and consider the state of his soul, declaring himself an atheist. And then, reflecting his conviction of the rightness of his perspective despite the disapproval of society, he welcomes the hostility and hatred of those who will witness his death. Meursault refuses to conform to the expectations of society and is determined to live his life without illusions and without the false consolation of religion or fake contrition.

Although Meursault is an improbable hero, Camus nevertheless casts him as what we might call an existentialist or absurdist hero. In effect, Camus uses his novel to illustrate the lofty and abstract ideas regarding the absurd that he expostulates upon in his philosophical book of essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). What then is #existentialism and the #philosophyoftheabsurd?

B. The Absurd as Reflected in Camus'”The Myth of Sisyphus”

Existentialism is a catch-all term that refers to the work of philosophers who focus on how individuals may live in a world devoid of God and absolute values. Sartre is regarded as one of the great existentialists, and yet typically, when he was once asked whether he was an existentialist, he responded: “existentialism? I don’t know what that is.” On another occasion, Sartre stated that Camus was not an existentialist. Camus agreed, but did Sartre one better by stating “I am not a philosopher”. What Camus seems to have meant was that he was not an existentialist like Sartre, ie, he did not agree with Sartre’s Marxism and Communist sympathies. Camus upheld human agency and personal freedom, attributes that Camus believed were denied by structural Marxism.

But we should not get hung up on debating whether or not Camus adhered to this vague thing called existentialism. What is important is that Camus saw the world as absurd, and on that basis asked a profound question: in a world devoid of God, eternal truths, or guiding principles, how does a person avoid the ultimate defeat of suicide or social conformity and, instead, fashion a meaningful life?

To understand Camus’ answer we could read hundreds of pages of his high-flown (better, overblown) philosophical rhetoric in The Myth of Sisyphus, or we might simply mull over Camus’ 3-page essay revisiting the myth of Sisyphus within this longer portentous work. I prefer the latter course because Camus excelled more as a writer of fiction than philosophy; he was able to convey metaphorically in a few words a complex set of ideas.

It is not coincidental that Camus published both his philosophical text on the absurd and his novel #L’Etranger in the same year-1942. The latter is a fictional representation of the philosophy of the absurd. I contend that, in his ultimate defiance in the shadow of the guillotine, Meursault has a #Sisyphus moment. What does this mean?

Camus’ basic point in his philosophical tome entitled The Myth of Sisyphusis that we must accept the harsh reality that our lives are futile, that we follow routines without intrinsic purpose, that what happens to us is largely a matter of blind chance, that morality has no real foundation, that are hopes and dreams are largely illusory – and yet we must not succumb to despair and suicide. What remains, after we give up the comforting ideas of God, of an afterlife, of eternal truths and values, of a benign fate, is the life we have, here and now – a life “of which man is the sole master.” In short, life is meaningless, yet valuable.

He uses the plight of Sisyphus to illustrate what he means. Sisyphus, of course, was condemned by the gods for all eternity to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again when he reaches the peak. Yet Sisyphus does not react with despair and rage at the futility of his endless task. He transcends these natural reactions through bold defiance and an engagement with the only life he has or will ever have. At the bottom of the hill, he pauses to gauge his best route to the summit. Then he places his shoulder to the boulder with renewed vigour. He has taken control of his life. He is free of all illusions. Fully cognizant of the absurdity of his situation, he refuses to buckle. In effect, he creates his own goals, chooses his own path, and measures his own progress. We can even imagine him happy.

Consider how this heroic portrayal relates to Meursault in L’Etranger.

C. The Outsider

Meursault is heroic because, while accepting that life is without meaning, he succumbs neither to despair, nor to suicide nor to nihilism. Rather, he responds with defiance, like Sisyphus. To give in to suicide or nihilism is, for Camus, a defeat. But M is not defeated, even when faced with the certainty of the guillotine. Not only does he remain defiant and unflinching in his honesty, but also he retains a zest for life even in his prison cell.

For instance, he does not offer excuses for the murder. In his final confrontation with the Arab, Meursault muses that “one might fire, or not fire – and it would come to absolutely the same thing”. Then M shoots him not just once (an apparently fatal wound), but 4 times more. Later, he offers no explanation for the final 4 shots. In a meaningless world, why does it matter?

Physical sensation is a very important part of M’s concept of a good life. A man, he thinks, could experience enough joy in one day to last him a lifetime in prison through the memories he stores up. He proves this observation in his own case. Even at the end, lying on his cot, he is transfixed by the small slice of sky he can view through his cell window.

Meursault also avoids nihilism. Although he rejects the idea of an eternal moral order, he does adhere to a relative moral code guided by reason. He accepts that actions must have consequences. He killed a man, and thus feels he must pay the penalty. While the prosecutor paints him as a remorseless monster, he calmly and inwardly demurs, wishing he could have a friendly talk with the prosecutor to show him where he goes wrong. Reasonable men, he seems to believe, can arrive at a dispassionate common judgment.

IN SHORT: Like Sisyphus, Meursault does not flinch in the face of a futile existence, but rather remains honest in his opinions and relationships, courageous in his acceptance of a world without meaning, and passionate in his embrace of everyday life. He is the master of his own destiny. In these ways, M is an absurdist hero.

D. Conclusions: 4 critical comments

1. Does Camus provide a consistent characterization of Meursault?
More specifically, is the defiant and courageous M at the end of the novel in keeping with Camus’ depiction of his protagonist in its earlier sections?
I think not. The heroic M is out of character with the early M.

The early M is rather lazy and lackadaisical, and not at all a deep thinker. He is content to hang out at the pool and hook up with any attractive woman. He goes along with people because it is the easy way out. For example, he writes a letter that the pimp Raymond can show to the police that excuses the beating the latter administered to his girl friend, on the grounds that she was unfaithful. But in reality it is all a lie. He does it to please someone who he does not even want as a friend.

In sum, M is not depicted as having the stern qualities of Sisyphus until the end of the story. A heroic figure should not be so self-absorbed.

2. Should not an absurdist hero have more sympathy for the plight of others?
Meursault has no sympathy or empathy for the Arab he summarily and nonchalantly dispatches or the Arab girl friend of Raymond, who is beaten up. Is gross insensitivity a necessary attribute of those who embrace the absurdist viewpoint?

3. There is also the issue of racism.
It is striking that Camus does not present any rounded #Arab character in his novel. Indeed, the author does not even give names to the Arabs that appear, including the girl friend of Raymond and her brother and his friends. The second most important character is “the Arab” who is callously murdered, yet this individual is given no personality and no name. The crime itself receives little attention. It seems more important that Meursault failed to cry at his mother’s funeral than that he pumped 5 bullets into his victim. Arabs are presented as just part of the scenery, like trees or plants. Camus Is probably reflecting the typical viewpoint of the pieds noir at the time. The indigenous population is present only as the embodiment of threat and in the role of victim.

The counterpoint to Camus’ novel is Kemal Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation (2014), a fictional investigation of the murder of “the Arab” that views the events from the perspective of #thecolonized. The novel’s main point, ironically, is that the murdered Musa, far from representing the “other,” has a living brother who is virtually identical to Mersault in perspective and experience.

Camus may have intended his novel to illustrate only the notion of the absurd, but in writing it, he unintentionally illustrates the sad truth that even progressive and purportedly self-aware intellectuals can harbour unexamined racist notions.

4. Finally, how seriously should we take Camus’ answer to how we can lead meaningful lives in the midst of a meaningless world?
There is no doubt that Camus had a talent for the use of metaphor, for paradox, for the telling phrase. I enjoyed reading his brief reflection on the myth of Sisyphus as much today as I did when I was in my 20s. But the difference is this: I now read those 3 pp with an indulgent smile rather than a perplexed earnestness. The heroic defiance of Sisyphus and Meursault now appears to me more in the nature of youthful posturing than a persuasive behavioural guide for grappling with absurdity. The idea that we become masters of our own lives when we throw off all illusions and when we accept our solitary role in a universe devoid of spirit sounds more like the musings of a twenty-something in love with the ultimate rebellion than mature reflection. It is a view of the world that would suit an early Clint Eastwood character, but is it more than that? Is it really so hard to live in a world devoid of spirit? We do it all the time; we devise our own meaning; we (most of us) do not commit suicide. And we generally avoid the insensitivity towards others spawned by the absurdist hero’s extreme self-absorption.

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).