The Outsider 2 Essay, Research Paper
To What Extent Does Meursault illustrate the value of Authenticity?
To live authentically, in existenialism, means basically to live without deluding ourselves about the meaning of our lives or our place in the world, or about death. According to the existentialists, much of what we do is in what Sartre would call ‘bad faith’. Religion is a prime example of Bad Faith. God is, allegedly, an imaginative excuse for not facing up to our own responsibilities in life. A priest spends his whole life telling himself and others what God says we can and can’t do. He also tells us that we need not even worry about death because death is not the end of our existence. He also tells us that even though the world is very confusing, and in some cases completely unintelligible, we need not worry about that either, because all will be explained, by God, when we pass from this world into the next. In one fell swoop, practically all the worries and difficulties are conveniently taken out of our lives by one single mysterious being. The priest lives his life mainly in preparation for his next life. Sartre says that there is no God and there is no next life. The priests actions, like the man behind the glass window talking into the phone in The Myth of Sisyphus, appear ridiculous and incomprehensible.
Meursault lives only for the present moment because, in existentialist terms, that is the only moment of his life that he is in control of. The past is unchangeable, and his future self, according to Sartre, is almost a complete stranger, for whom he can vouch no responsibility. Whether Meursault consciously realises this or not, he places no faith in making plans for the future. He turns down what would appear to be a very attractive opportunity of promotion as uninterested as if he were refusing a cup of coffee. Ambitions are of ‘no real importance’ to him, something he apparently realised when he was forced to give up his studies. Here we see a parallel with Camus’ own life. He, too, was forced to give up his studies when blighted by that disease that seems to creep into almost all existential works of fiction, tuberculosis. Camus put much of himself into the novel, even literally so, according to a footnote in the original French version of the novel. He enters himself as one of the reporters at the trial scene: “…one of them, a much younger man in grey flannels and a blue tie, had left his pen lying in front of him and was looking at me. All I could see in his rather lop-sided face were his two very bright eyes, which were examining me very carefully, without betraying any definable emotion. And I had the peculiar impression of being watched by myself…”(ch3 part 2)
Meursault does not allow himself to be constrained by the morals of others even though he is very much aware of them. He smokes whilst keeping vigil over his mother’s coffin, even though he knows that others would not because they believed that they shouldn’t. He refuses to see his mother’s body even though he knows it is expected of him to do so. At first glance, Meursault would largely appear to be without his any morals of his own, and it is difficult to decide whether he is amoral or immoral. But there is evidence to suggest that he does draw the line in some places. When Raymond wants to take him to a brothel he refuses, claiming that he does not like that sort of thing, though he has no qualms about having sex with Marie without holding any moral obligation towards her, and openly admitting to her that he does not love her. He does not lie to her to spare her feelings.
Two of the most direct displays of inauthenticity in existentialism, appear to be Happiness and Hope. Meursault does not get excited about anything. He seems to have found some sort of perspective that he believes to be the real and true one. Happiness is indeed something that is created within us, it is not something we find or are given. One might become wildly happy about being offered the promotion of a lifetime, believing that this has made them happy. But if they were offered the same opportunity just after receiving news that their mother had died, they would take very little pleasure, if any, from the news. We ourselves, make ourselves happy from within. We convince ourselves that certain things make us happy and other things make us unhappy. Much of this belief is conditioned upon us by society. We have to work hard in life. We don’t like that. But we get paid for it. We do like that. We don’t get paid as much as we would like. We don’t like that. But it is all worth it in the end because we get a few weeks holiday each year and we like that a lot. If we didn’t believe in these things, life would be somewhat plain and everything in the world would assume the same monotonous tone – much like Meursault’s life. And then, Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus, ‘..the why arises ..’ and we see ‘the first sign of absurdity.’
Just as it is with Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, it is not until Meursault lets go of hope that he is able to meet his death comfortably. One of the most troubling aspects of being human is knowing that one day you will die. And according to most existential philosophers, there is no coming back and no moving on. Death is the end, the cut-off point of existence. It would be a great thing then to be able to face the inevitability of your death without fear or hesitation. And this is exactly what both Meursault and Ivan Ilyich do, but not until they have given up hope of holding onto life. Hope takes on the role of a heavy weight that holds us back. It is interesting to note that the reason that Sisiyphus is being punished is that he tried to stay in the land of the living too long, after his work was done.
There is a little evidence to show Meursault behaving inauthentically. He is a creature of habit. The name Celeste is always accompanied by the words “as usual”, because Celeste and his restaurant are part of his routine. He likes to wash his hands at lunch-time but not in the evening because the towel is damp by then. Smoking, though it seems to be a luxurious pleasure at first, later turns out to also be a habit that he is forced to control when his cigarettes are taken from him in prison. Meursault is encapsulated in his own little world, so much so that he is prepared to complain to his boss about the fact that the towel is damp in the evenings as if it were a matter of great importance, whereas things like ambition or marriage are of ‘no real importance’. Meursault moves through the world without any direction other than towards his death. He seems to have resigned himself to the fact that almost nothing is worth bothering about. Although he does not simply conform to other people’s conventions , he does not offer any real resistance either. He seems to have handed over control of his life to the rest of the world. It is mainly the sun, one of his favourite aspects of life, that is responsible for his downfall. Meursault does not put his heart into anything. Even the relationship with Marie seems to have just ‘happened’. Meursault constantly regards people and things alike as being passive. Instead of noticing that a woman was standing outside the door of the old people’s home, there was a woman standing. People and encounters with them seem to be ‘events’ like any other. Albert Camus, in the ‘Myth of Sisyphus,’ describes how man desperately struggles to find something that he has in common with the world. If he could find one trace of emotion in this indifferent unblinking world he would be satisfied. It is a common trait of man to attempt to animate the world around us. In subtle ways we convince ourselves that the world is alive as we are and that it feels as we do, in literature and in basic language. The truth, as Camus sees it, is that the world is nothing more than unfeeling, unsympathetic matter. It is mere self deception to think that we are kindred with the world and the other things in it. Meursault sees things as things.
Though this would appear to be a trait of authenticity in Meursault, it does not seem to be a desirable one. The world that Meursault sees is a blend of beautiful colours and warmth mixed with the stark ugliness of humanity; the sea and the sunset sand the warm Algerian nights opposed to Raymond, in his dirty apartment, beating his girlfriend till she bleeds, Salamano’s disease ridden dog, and the sweat filtering its way through the wrinkles of Perez’s shrivelled face. ‘Mankind is not related to this world’, Camus seems to be saying. Even Meursault who almost seemed part of the world, a ‘cat among animals,’ was betrayed by his beloved sun, bearing down on him mercilessly until he pulled the trigger of the revolver. Only betrayed, though, in the reader’s eyes, not Meursault’s.
The most inauthentic aspect of Meursault is that he seems to have no grasp of consequential reasoning especially when it comes to his own actions. He does not seem to be able to make the link between his writing the letter for Raymond and the beating of the girl. In his opinion nothing affects him unless he can feel it here and now, in the present moment. He is not bothered about the girl’s beating because he believes it has nothing to do with him, because he didn’t touch her. On that fateful day when he shoots the Arab, he is more upset that he has spoilt what was previously a good day, than because he has killed someone. He does not even realise the consequences for him personally until he is sentenced to death. Meursault had lived his life up until this point as if he were only half awake.
It is not quite true that Meursault , as Camus himself puts it, is a man who ‘refuses to lie.’ Meursault does, in fact, lie on two occasions. He lies when he writes the letter to Raymond’s girlfriend, telling her that all is forgiven and that he wants her back, and he lies again, to the police, telling them that she ‘cheated’ on Raymond. Camus, and many other commentary writers make Meursault sound as though he stands tall above other men, defending Truth. He is doing nothing of the kind when he refuses to lie. Does he even refuse to lie? It seems more that he simply sees nothing wrong with the truth. If he refuses to lie, it is only refusal to lie to himself. He does not try to convince himself that he is happy or unhappy about something.
His most authentic hour, as it were, is almost at the very end of the book where he finally confronts death – his death- properly. He realises that everyone dies at some point. It is ironic that it is someone who leads the most inauthentic life possible – the priest- that helps him along the way to this revelatory experience. The priest seems to represent the cold emptiness of death for Meursault. When the priest enters for the final time he feels uncomfortable: “a slight shiver went through me when I saw him..”.
It is a little later that the priest provokes such irritation in him that Meursault wakes up for what seems to be the first time in the novel. He accuses the priest of not knowing whether he himself was alive, ‘because he was living like a dead man.’ He realised that death meant truly that nothing mattered since all things were ‘evened out’ by the fact that everyone dies no matter who they were, how important they thought their life was or what they did in it. He regrets nothing. His heart jumps one final time at the thought that he might still have a chance of living a little longer, but he finally kicks away hope and allows himself to stare death directly in the face.
-’The Outsider’ Albert Camus, Penguin. Translated Joseph Laredo.
-’The Myth of Sisyphus’ Albert Camus, Penguin. Translated by Justin O’Brien.