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The post/modern Outsider

Garry Gillard

H237 Narrative Fiction 2
Lecture 9 1995

In this lecture I want to read Camus's L'Etranger, translated as The Outsider, against the concepts of Modernism and Postmodernism. In order to do this I shall present deliberately simplified versions of these concepts, because the point is not to present a correct version of the relevant intellectual history - of the history of ideas - but to highlight two contrasting aspects of Camus's novel, and I'll be using the notions of Modernism and Postmodernism to do that, and in so doing I'll be continuing an analysis which I began in the first lecture in this unit.

My argument is that this novel is usefully to be thought of as poised on the cusp between Modernism and Postmodernism, having the characteristics of both. For the present purpose Modernism is seen a mode of thought which employs what Lyotard calls grand narratives, or meta-narratives, and I've previously suggested examples such as those of Freud, Karl Marx, Claude Levi-Strauss, Durkheim, Bergson, and so on. Also for the present purpose Postmodernism, on the other hand, is a mode of thought trying to come to terms with the loss of a sense of direction and of a unified sense of identity and purpose.

In my first lecture I set up an opposition between modernism and postmodernism and I used Ihab Hassan's table (as did Daniel Narbett in his tutorial paper) [1] as a preliminary organising device (not because it's in any sense 'true'). [2] Here's a selection from the Hassan table -- with my addition from Bakhtin. [3]

Table 1.1 Schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism [4]











art object/finished work




At the level of the énoncé, or the 'represented' - or the 'presented world,' in Horst Ruthrof's terms [5] - the place where these concepts are most starkly opposed is in the courtroom scenes, in a place which is often where ethical and related verbal disputes are engaged. Here the discourse of Meursault is opposed to that of the officials, and the prosecutor in particular, who at one point says, for example (in the Stuart Gilbert translation):

"In demanding a verdict of murder without extenuating circumstances, I am following not only the dictates of my conscience and a sacred obligation, but also those of the natural and righteous indignation I feel at the sight of a criminal devoid of the least spark of human feeling." [6]

The prosecutor's opinion of Meursault's ethical world, that he is 'devoid of the least spark of human feeling,' is based on a view of his behaviour, which is read like a text and then interpreted as having a certain meaning. The two strings of behavioural text, the one to do with the death of his mother, and the other with the death of the Arab, are related, and the one is seen as indicating the meaning of the other. In the terms of the official discourse - monoglossic, modernist and magisterial - Meursault is seen as a profoundly evil person because he is also seen as a person who did not love his mother enough: therefore he must have intended to kill the Arab. Because he smoked and drank coffee in the presence of his mother's dead body, he can be said to be a criminal.

When Meursault speaks, because of the internal narrative situation, or what these days we might call 'Meursault-cam,' we are aware that he is always at least telling the truth - even though what he expresses is apparently deviant, transgressive. In the same courtroom scene, for example, he says

... the first thing that crossed my mind: that I'd had no intention of killing the Arab. ... I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was only too conscious that it sounded nonsensical, and, in fact, I heard people tittering. (103)

The reported speech, and the comments that go with it, as well as the indications of the reception of what Meursault has to say, indicate that it is the general view that he has an inadequate and amoral explanation for the killing. It also appears that he is also incapable of expressing himself in the conventional rhetoric of the courtroom, and it is elsewhere indicated that the French he uses is not standard 'educated' French. He employs a stylistics and a lexicon which is apparently neither cosmopolitan nor bourgeois. He shares the gangster slang of Raymond, for example: 'Je le descends?' ('Shall I drop him?') [7] That is, as far as we can tell from the few hints we are given. As he says himself, to the examining magistrate: 'C'est que je n'ai jamais grand-chose a dire. Alors je me tais.' [8] (87. 'I never have much to say. So I keep quiet.')

The monoglossic discourse of official culture requires that people behave in certain ways in certain circumstances, and particularly in what have been called 'boundary situations' - in this case, in relation to the death of one's mother, and in a courtroom. Meursault's awareness of his inability to conform in this regard is signalled by his overwhelming awareness of his physical being, and in each case by excessive heat and light. At the burial he narrates, among other things: 'But soon I lost interest in his [Perez's] movements; my temples were throbbing and I could hardly drag myself along.' (26) In the courtroom he tells us: 'What with the crowd and the stuffiness of the air I was feeling a bit dizzy. I ran my eyes round the courtroom but couldn't recognize any of the faces.' (85) And after the summing-up for the prosecution: 'Personally I was quite overcome by the heat and my amazement at what I had been hearing.' (103) However, he most significant moment of being overpowered is, of course, the moment at which Meursault pulls the trigger: 'Je ne sentais plus que les cymbales du soleil sur mon front et, indistinctement, le glaive eclatant jailli du couteau toujours en face de moi. Cette epee brûlante rongeait mes cils et fouillait mes yeux douloureux.' (Gallimard: 90) 'I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs. (64)

For me, as someone who has read and been impressed by Camus's non-fiction writing, and particularly The Myth of Sisyphus, the most striking thing about the evocation of Meursault's world is its physicality, the strong sense, as also found in Baywatch etc., of the body in relation to the elements, the sun and the sea, and in phases of tension and relaxation. And is it not the case that in many of Meursault's actions - running after the truck with Emmanuel, playing water spouts in the sea with Marie, helping Raymond in his dealings with his woman and his underworld colleagues, and, finally, killing the Arab - all these actions are characterised by the terms in the right-hand column of Hassan's schema.

With regard to 'purpose': we might recall the interview between Meursault and his boss, in which 'He then asked me if a "change of life," as he called it, didn't appeal, and I answered that one never changed one's real life; anyhow, one life was as good as another and my present one suited me quite well.' (48) And when Marie asks him to marry her: Meursault 'said I didn't mind; if she was keen on it, we'd get married.' (48) Which suggests to me 'chance' in the matter of planning one's affairs, rather than 'design.' With regard to the pair 'hierarchy/anarchy,' I suggest one could consider the reversal of relationship between Salamano and his dog, between Meursault and his mother - his patronising attitude towards her 'boyfriend,' Perez, for example: 'exhaustion and silence' characterise the situations in which Meursault follows and kills the Arab, and in which he fails to deal very effectively with his defence in the courtroom - he is always being overwhelmed by the heat and light, and is rarely in a situation of 'mastery.' The end of the novel is characterised by a certain openness, as Meursault anticipates a kind of 'performance,' or 'happening' on the day of his public execution, rather than the kind of closure in which the narrator might have summed up his life as a 'finished object' and taken his leave. In fact he is 'ready to start life over again,' as though the novel could have another lease of life, were it not for the fact that the central character is about to lose his. (120) This kind of analysis, I freely admit, is a bit too mechanical, but it does provide a fresh context in which to read the novel, rather than, say, in the existentialist context of its own time, perhaps less relevant now than it was in 1942?

I'd like to mention another narrative you probably haven't heard of. La mort heureuse was published in French in 1971 and immediately translated and published in English as A Happy Death in 1972. The Penguin edition came out the next year. [9] It was written by Camus in two complete drafts, but never published in his lifetime - mainly because it was superseded by The Outsider. The main character is called Patrice Mersault [10]; his mother has recently died, he runs after a truck with a clerk called Emmanuel, he eats at Celeste's restaurant, from his balcony he watches people going to the movies and coming back from a football match, he has a girlfriend called Marthe, and the central action in the novel is a deliberate murder. And although the results of the murders are quite different - in A Happy Death the main character has committed a perfect crime from which he benefits, while in the later work the clumsy murderer becomes the victim of his judges - the problem that is solved in both is the same: how to die happy. One of the manuscripts of The Outsider was subtitled 'A Happy Man.'

Stylistically, though, there is a marked difference between the two narratives, despite the fact that the earlier one was conceived and composed between 1936 and 1938, and Camus was working on The Outsider as early as January 1939. In the earlier novel there is a tendency to try to explain everything. Not only is there much more detail of a descriptive kind than in The Outsider, not only are many more of the feelings and perceptions of the central character indicated, but there is a more noticeable effort to provide interpretation also, to direct the attention to the kinds of meaning intended to emerge from the effect of the reading. Let me read you just this one passage, which may serve as an example of each of these characteristics. I think you will be able to notice not only each of them, but also the similarities and differences between this writing and that in The Outsider. If you think of the last paragraph of your text, the one with the idea of the 'benign indifference of the universe,' you will be able to see what I mean. The piece I shall read is also from almost the very end of A Happy Death.

The blanket slipped from Mersault's shoulders, and when Lucienne stood up to cover him, he shuddered at her touch. Since the day he had sneezed in the little square near Zagreus' villa to this moment, his body had served him faithfully, had opened him to the world. But at the same time, it lived a life of its own, detached from the man it represented. For these few years it had passed through a slow decomposition; now it had completed its trajectory, and was ready to leave Mersault, to restore him to the world. In that sudden shudder of which Mersault was conscious, his body indicated once more a complicity which had already won so many joys for them both. Solely for this reason, Mersault took pleasure in that shudder. Conscious, he must be conscious without deception, without cowardice -- alone, face to face -- at grips with his body -- eyes open upon death. It was a man's business. Not love, not landscape, nothing but an infinite waste of solitude and happiness in which Mersault was playing his last cards. He felt his breathing weaken. He gasped for air, and in that movement his ruined lungs sneezed. His wrists were cold now, and there was no feeling in his hands at all. Day was breaking. [11]

I suggest that there is less sense in the last paragraph of The Outsider of a desire to comprehensively cover all the ground, and to account for everything. Indeed there is this surprising opening-up, I suggest, in the desire of the condemned man, in the last hours of his life, not only to feel 'ready to start life all over again,' but also hopeful of being greeted on the day of his execution with 'howls of execration.' This ending certainly surprised me the first several times I read it, though thirty years later the effect has softened somewhat. But even now I find as I read it again in French, and to make this point, try to work out my own fresh translation, I feel the crude directness of the paradoxical desire: 'For everything to be perfect, and so that I felt less alone, the only thing left to wish was that there be many spectators on the day of my execution, and that they welcome me with cries of hatred.' [12] Camus wrote in one of his notebooks about The Outsider that 'the end [was] ; a drawing-together of different themes, a privileged place in which the very disjointed character whom I described finally took on some form of unity.' [13] This may be true about his sense of the character 'Meursault,' but, I suggest is not of the effect of the narrative, which reaches a peak of energy as the novel breaks off, as if silenced before its natural end.

I use the term 'natural' advisedly because of the fact that 'Natural Death' is the title of the first part of A Happy Death, that part that describes the very unnatural murder which makes Patrice Mersault rich. In a consciously ironical twist the second part of the earlier novel is called 'Conscious Death' although it ends with the natural death - due to pleurisy - of the protagonist, he is conscious of it coming to him. As you have heard in the passage I read, he is ready and waiting for the death that ascends like a stone making its way from his stomach to his throat. The novel in fact ends, in a consummately Modernist way with a notion of 'the truth.' Here is the very ending.

"In a minute, in a second," he thought. The ascent stopped. And stone among the stones, he returned in the joy of his heart to the truth of the motionless worlds. [14]

But I don't want to end in this unfashionable way, with this double closure. This is not an outsider's ending. I could rather tell you about this other lecture that I didn't write, about the ambivalence of The Outsider as colonialist and Orientalist. If I'd taken that approach I might have pointed out the origins of both the author and the novel's milieu in Algeria, a place both European and African, Christian and Muslim, bourgeois and anarchic, of the body and the mind, Apollonian and Dionysian, meaningful in its absurdity. I might have discussed the evocation of 'the Arab,' with no name and hardly any characteristics, like Raymond's 'girl,' who only has her suffering to distinguish her. And I might have gone on like that for fifty minutes ... but I didn't.


1 Narbett, Daniel, 'Apocalypse then and now,' unpublished tutorial paper, 2 August 1995, H237 Narrative Fiction II, Murdoch University.

2 Hassan, Ihab 1985, 'Schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism,' in 'The culture of postmodernism,' Theory, Culture and Society, 2, 3, 119-32; this quotation: 123-4. See also Hassan, Ihab 1975, Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times, Illinois University Press, Urbana, Ill.

3 Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trs. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (from Voprosy literatury i estetiki, Moscow, 1975), University of Texas Press, Austin and London: 262-3.

4 Hassan 1985: 123-4.

5 Ruthrof, Horst 1981, The Reader's Construction of Narrative, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

6 Camus, Albert 1961 [1942], The Outsider, Penguin, trs. Stuart Gilbert from L'Etranger: 102-3. Further page numbers from this translation in the text.

7 Camus, Albert 1957 [1942], L'Etranger, Gallimard (Livre de poche) edition of 1957: 85. Further page numbers from this edition in the text. 'Shall I plug him one?' Stuart Gilbert translation, Penguin: 61.

8 'Well, I rarely have anything much to say. So naturally I keep my mouth shut.' Stuart Gilbert translation, Penguin: 70.

9 Camus, Albert 1973, A Happy Death, Penguin; trs. Richard Howard from La mort heureuse, Gallimard, 1971.

10 Note that it has been suggested that this character's name homonymically combines the sea and the sun: la mer, le soleil; whereas in the other name, Meursault, the first element suggests death, from 'je meurs' = 'I die,' and so the sun in the second syllable seems to have given place to the idea of a leap, for which 'sault' is a perfect, not a partial homonym. This is, however, perhaps, trivial conjecture.

11 Camus 1973: 105.

12 'Pour que tout soit consomme, pour que je me sente moins seul, il me restait a souhaiter qu'il y ait beaucoup de spectateurs le jour de mon execution et qu'ils m'accueillent avec des cris de haine.' Gallimard: 179. The French 'consomme', which I have suggested be conveyed by 'perfect', also means 'consummated', 'accomplished' (Stuart Gilbert's choice), and has associations of having been 'consumed', 'used up.' A consummate performer, in both languages, has nothing left to do to improve his performance. The kind of soup called 'consomme' is a clear liquid, the meat and any other solid ingredients having been used up in the preparation.

13 Carnets IV, 1942.

14 Camus 1973 [1971]: 106.

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