Conformity: it’s a word dripping with connotations of ignorance and stupidity. The immediate reaction to this word is one of disdain, especially to the masses. Conformity is a conglomeration of warped ideals and structures. They can often place a heavy boulder on the prospect of growth. You cannot truly be who you are with the weight of perceptions whispering in your ear. Conformity is simultaneously loud and silent as it is ever-present yet hidden in the way it shapes us. The people and ideas that make up our surroundings play a part in our thinking, whether we are aware of it or not. Societal structures are deeply instilled yet they’re also vague. We all have our own set of reasoning and interpretation of the morals and values we grew up with. Each life is a unique pathway stemming from the common road of the ideals and environment we live in.
Yet, in these vaguely delineated ideals are values that are almost unanimously revered: kindness, selflessness, sympathy, remorse and guilt. While we may question and stray from these qualities, they are mostly perceived as admirable. The absence or suppression of these ideals leads to sin. The true criminal is one who shows no penitence for their actions. And here lies one of our major themes in L’Étranger or most commonly (and incorrectly) translated to The Outsider by Albert Camus.
Absurdity in philosophy isn’t particularly related to the ludicrous or irrational. What Camus is referring to is:
“The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
The great philosophical question is “What is the meaning of life?” and Camus’ answer is that there is none. While this is depressing at initial interpretation, he argues that its lack of meaning makes life all the more meaningful. Life is in essence, incongruent and chaotic. The more you try to rationalise this insane world of ours, the increasingly futile the endeavour becomes. So with this knowledge we create our own meaning.
According to the wiki page on absurdism:
“The Absurd refers to the conflict between (1) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (2) the human inability to find any.”
The Outsider is a very short book. However, with this lack of length it is surprisingly rich in content. The content isn’t particularly in the plot itself but in the implications. The real story is in the interpretation behind the sequence of events and that’s what makes this a modern classic. It is also great for what it does not possess. The book is complex in its simplicity. It’s not a character study nor does it involve an intricate storyline but it is rather a commentary on the perception of everyday life told through the central character Meursault. While there is a focal point that serves as the climax, it is rather a tool to expose the central theme as opposed to a revelation on the nature of the character. That is not to say that Meursault isn’t interesting. Meursault is a stranger superficially disguised as an ordinary citizen. His uniqueness isn’t particularly blatant but he is a stranger in two ways. He becomes a stranger to the public and the public are strangers to him. Societal norms are strange to him: the need for companionship, the idea of marriage, the concept of ambition etc. The smart way in which Camus tackles this foreignness is through this masquerade of Meursault being perceived an ordinary man until the event that is to define him. Meursault is not a rebel to society. He doesn’t criticize their ideals or comment on the inherent fucked-up-ness of the world. He is also not a misunderstood, tortured soul or a misfit. He does not belong to the brooding, shadowy trope most often used to comment on society. The reader does not get a sense of angst but of complete detachment. He has no difficulty participating in society. What sets him apart is that he cannot find the purpose of this participation. His character is not particularly well-defined. He has no motivations, no designated sets of ideals and no real ambition towards anything. This isn’t a criticism of an underdeveloped character but an interesting device to reveal the concept of absurdity without directly explaining it.
The best way to describe Meursault’s character is indifferent. Meursault is an indifferent spectator to life. From the first page we dive into this “benign indifference”. Meursault’s mother has just passed away. Instead of discussing a feeling of loss or of any grievance, he already seems to be with the understanding that death is merely a part of life. We don’t get much of a sense of the relationship he had with her or the impact her passing has had. The way he goes about the news is mechanical. We get only a glimpse of a person behind the robotic manner with which he plans the arrangements to attend the funeral. The trip to the old people’s home itself appears more tumultuous than the actual loss. He partially reflects on his decision to put her in “a home”. One would expect guilt but he states that although she was initially unhappy, it was just another situation to adapt to. She cried because her “routine had changed”.
Yet, with this carelessness we don’t sense a fractured relationship or of a menacing soullessness. He does mention that “For now, it’s still a little as if Mama hadn’t died.” This could indicate that he is still in shock but as the book progresses; we see that he remains emotionless. This behaviour is the key factor to his ultimate fate.
“I undoubtedly loved Mama very much, but that didn’t mean anything.”
A recurring image throughout the book is of the sun. The sun is usually symbolic of the warm and inviting. However, the sun casts an ominous, blinding glare –especially at the most crucial point of the story.
He talks of the “sun’s glare, reflecting off the road” on the way to the old people’s home and yet again the “stifling” heat of the courtroom. He describes the heat of the fateful day as “the same sun as the day I’d buried Mama.” On the beach we are treated to the most important and masterfully descriptive passage of the entire book.
“The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me.”
The sun is an omnipotent presence reigning down its wrath. It is there, in all its blazing glory at the height of Meursault’s tensions.
The story is divided into two parts: the events leading up to the focal point of the infamous act and then the consequences.
The latter is particularly more engaging and reveals the significance of the events so far. The first part can seem a bit meandering until you sit with the implications and dwell on Meursault’s character. Is he worth any sympathy? Why is he so distanced from his surroundings? When you view life through his eyes, the perception of normality begins to change. This is the true power of literature as it exposes you to things you may have never thought about before. Meursault is able to remove himself completely from the emotions and personal impacts that life and people evoke. He merely goes along with things because there doesn’t seem to be anything better to do. He seeks to satisfy current needs without really looking forward. He willingly surrenders into whatever the world has in store for him without much thought. He isn’t concerned with outside perceptions because they are not his own. They are not what he feels. He will not feel guilty for someone else’s interpretations.
With that we can talk about conformity. There are the mundane routines we immerse ourselves in. There are the clichés in life that we strive for. There is the watchful eye of the masses. And Meursault feels nothing for this. However, remorse, guilt and sorrow are not emotions to be ashamed of. We look for signs of these in the wrongdoers. We tell ourselves to feel when we are guilty or have experienced hardship. And Meursault refuses to say anything more than he needs to say or fight against a crime he knows he has committed. He will not show emotion where there is none in order to please the public. For this, he becomes imprinted as the soulless perpetrator of a premeditated crime. He refuses to conform in the face of the harshest punishment.
Meursault’s character and the book itself are difficult to explain. Although he appears uncaring and apathetic, he is accountable. This is what makes him a sympathetic character despite his callousness. This is a remarkable quality in the face of what lies ahead. His indifference isn’t a manifestation of a secret desire to self-sabotage as he longs for the “familiar sounds of the city” that he loved. He does not want to face what’s ahead but knows that he has to. He fantasises about the chances of escaping his fate. Yet again we see that he doesn’t long for relationships and the people that he loved but rather the external. He wants to hear the sounds of the newspaper sellers, trams and birds in “the calm night air”. This was the time that “he sometimes felt happy”.
I particularly enjoy the rebellion in the mind-set of absurdism and existentialism. Most people think of philosophy as a means of finding and ascribing meaning while this branch of existentialism argues against the very seeking of this. Existentialism is in itself an act of defiance to traditional philosophy and focuses on individualism and subjective experiences. In a sense, our own subjectivity is all we really have. Its aim is to be resistant to the masses, form separation from the group and use this separation to emphasise exploration on the individual. Who are we outside of the world we live in? The underlying assertion is on complete accountability for our actions. Even in the absence of a higher power, there is a need to establish our own sense of ethics. Lethargy and stagnation are also actions in themselves and we are accountable for every choice including the lack thereof.
My introduction on conformity may seem out of place but it’s an on-going concept that I have been grappling with. This book has been able to introduce another perspective on it that has given me even more to tackle with. Conformity is neither wholly bad nor good. It can help to police your actions and promote accountability but can also hold you captive. What is healthy participation and when does it become imprisoning? The detachment explored in this book was fascinating to me. It’s an interesting device to separate emotion from lived events. I spend a lot of time obsessing over what people think of me and contemplating inconsequential events. I understand that complete detachment is not healthy but it’s still a tool I can use to determine what I want and only taking actions because that’s what other people want of me. I shouldn’t be completely selfish (as I can be when I’m lethargic) as worrying about disappointing others can be motivational for being ultimately more productive and bettering myself. It’s a fine line to walk but pretty much everything in life is blurred.
Please note that I tried to limit my research on the book and the author because then this would’ve ended up being a regurgitation of other people’s thoughts instead of my own. I may have misread things and left out/forgotten some key points. I’m also too lazy to do a proper bibliography.
After writing this I found a lovely picture that better illustrates this entire post: