Home > Culture, Literature, Politics > Meursault Meets Dubya: Social Sentiment in Albert Camus’ The Outsider

Meursault Meets Dubya: Social Sentiment in Albert Camus’ The Outsider

The thought that continually springs to mind while reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider (L’Étranger) is how odd it is to imagine George W. Bush reading it, which is precisely what it was claimed that he did when he was President. A popular quip at the time was that of course Bush would readily identify with a man who felt no remorse at killing an Arab. Har har, indeed. Jesting aside, though, the philosophical view advanced by Camus in his classic short novel is so completely alterior to what Bush’s Presidency and public life in general reveal about his views that it seems particularly strange that it was on his reading list.

If Dubya was searching for some useful insight into historical relations between the democratic West and the Muslim world amongst The Outsider’s pages, he would have come away sorely disappointed. Although it is set in French-occupied Algeria, The Outsider is resolutely apolitical. Indeed, the culture soon to explode into a legendarily nasty internal conflict comes across as idyllic and well-functioning, even if it is couched in hypocrisy and dishonesty. Camus, in this book at least, shows little interest in society’s ideological imperatives, however, excepting the way that those imperatives operate on the freedom of conduct of the individual. Though it may not be political in the sense of reflecting public policy and partisan ideology, The Outsider is political more of a core sense, relating to the position of the individual towards the collective.

Camus sees that position as an essentially untenable one. His narrator-protagonist Meursault commits cold-blooded murder but is famously punished by the authorities more for his refusal to indulge social expectations of grief, regret and solemn sentiment not only in relation to his crime but to the proximal death of his mother. It is not emotion he lacks so much as sentiment, that socially-sanctioned set of quasi-emotional performances that are understood as essential markers of important human milestones.

Meursault is often described as being emotionally detached, but he is not isolated from feelings, precisely. He is only isolated from negative sentiment, from the sadness and anger and shame that he is expected to feel, and to express himself as feeling, when faced with the events that he is. He is perfectly capable of happiness, joy, and the more pleasurable impulses, but their sunken opposites are foreign to him. He does not become enraged but annoyed, doesn’t get sad but uncomfortable. He is no robot, no pitiless monster, but a pure sensualist. When Meursault says at his trial that he shot the Arab on the beach because the sun was hot, he is laughed at. But from his perspective, choices and actions do not have moral underpinnings and are nothing more than reactions to influential external stimuli.

This is the main point of The Outsider, and Camus sums it up in an analogical thesis statement at the conclusion of Meursault’s mother’s funeral in the first section of the book. A local nurse accompanying his mother’s funeral procession along a scorching desert road says to Meursault, “’If you go too slowly, you risk getting sun-stroke. But if you go too fast, you perspire and then in the church you catch a chill.’” On a basic level, it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” statement, some faint philosophical nihilism from Camus, whose narrator affirms the nurse’s words: “There was no way out.” But when those words are recalled after his trial, they take on a more resonant meaning for Meursault and therefore for the reader. They focus on the relentless demands of existence which leave us helpless to control even the basic flow of our own lives.

But Meursault responds to these forces not with despair but with a pursuit of happiness that dispenses with the emotional reactions that he finds most burdensome. His delights in life are fundamentally unmoored from social custom, and therefore they are delights that cannot be experienced within the set boundaries of his social milieu. This is what makes him an “outsider”, a more thematically apt translation of Camus’ French title than the more literal and commonly-employed “stranger” (although L’Étranger contains a suggestion of both).

Camus can do, but Sartre is smartre!

As was pointed out at the time, both the anti-religious spittle that ends The Outsider and the general existential relativism that imbues the rest of the novel would seem poor matches for the worldview of America’s born-again, morally-certain Decider. Its intellectual pedigree also seems at odds with the resolutely unintellectual image that Dubya cultivated so judiciously, although it would be foolish to believe that this pose genuinely reflected the reality of the man rather than the projected desires of the American right wing whose support he relied upon.

The key distinction, though, is that Meursault’s philosophy is basically a sort of pragmatic idealism rather than the eternal Manichean unshakeability of the religious-cum-neo-conservative starkness of Bushism. If anything, Meursault has more in common with Dubya’s successor, Barack Obama, although the current President has a much keener sense of anticipated social convention than Camus’ literary anti-hero. Perhaps this is the real point of intersection between Meursault and George W. Bush, however; the 43rd President showed little or no regard for other people’s expectations of him or of his conduct. Just ask Andrea Merkel’s shoulders about that.

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Categories: Culture, Literature, Politics
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