Literary and Philosophical Essays

By Jean-Paul Sartre; Annette Michelson | Go to book overview

II
Camus' "The Outsider"

M.CAMUS' The Outsider was barely off the press when it began to arouse the widest interest. People told each other that it was "the best book since the end of the war". Amidst the literary productions of its time, this novel was, itself, an outsider. It came to us from the other side of the Equator, from across the sea. In that bitter spring of the coal shortage, it spoke to us of the sun, not as of an exotic marvel, but with the weary familiarity of those who have had too much of it. It was not concerned with re-burying the old regime with its own hands, nor with filling us with a sense of our own unworthiness.

We remembered, while reading this novel, that there had once been works which had not tried to prove anything, but had been content to stand on their own merits. But hand in hand with its gratuitousness went a certain ambiguity. How were we to interpret this character who, the day after his mother's death, "went swimming, started a liaison with a girl and went to see a comic film", who killed an Arab "because of the sun", who claimed, on the eve of his execution, that he "had been happy and still was", and hoped there would be a lot of spectators at the scaffold "to welcome him with cries of hate". "He's a poor fool, an idiot", some people said; others, with greater insight, said, "He's innocent." The meaning of this innocence still remained to be understood.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, which appeared a few months later, M. Camus provided us with a precise commentary upon his work. His hero was neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. These categories do not apply to him. He belongs to a very particular species for which the author reserves the word "absurd". But in M. Camus' work this word takes on two very different meanings. The absurd is both a state of fact and the lucid awareness which certain people acquire of this state of fact. The "absurd" man is the man who does not

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