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A primer on existential philosophy?

  • May 23, 2010
Rating:
+4

Meursault is a clerk in Algiers, an intentionally non-descript young man with no particularly interesting traits, characteristics, skills or habits. Now considered to be mandatory reading for those interested in notions of existential or nihilist philosophy, Albert Camus' "The Outsider" or "L'Étranger" is the story of Meursault's life. Or perhaps it might be more precise to suggest that it is the tale of Meursault's indifference to and virtually complete lack of participation in the events surrounding him - how, in a sense, he is almost an indifferent, meta-observer of his own diffident state of being.

As the story opens, Meursault is told of his mother's death and, although he grudgingly attends her funeral, he does not weep nor does he display any of the typical reactions or emotions that are expected of a person in his situation. In fact, instead of mourning, he engages in a casual sexual relationship with a former acquaintance that he enountered that day. A few days after the funeral, as a result of an almost absurd string of events and circumstances, Meursault shoots and kills a man. But rather than displaying any remorse or concern, we witness Meursault casually sit through his own trial and judgment with virtually complete detachment and indifference. Before his execution, a chaplain attempts to discuss matters of faith with him and turn him to God but, as with other events in his life, Meursault is disinterested and reconciled to the world's lack of interest in him and his fate as well.

In trying to make some sense of what I had read, I wanted to at least learn a little bit about existentialism. As I now undertand it, a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called his or her "essence" instead of there being a predetermined essence that defines what it is to be a human. Thus, the human being creates his own values and determines a meaning to his life. Ergo, I am concluding this means that Meursault is the quintessential existentialist in that he had determined the steps of his own life, made his own choices and lived with them. Having done so, he was indifferent to others and their reactions to what he perceived as his own self-worth.

I can say that The Outsider was ... well, interesting. For my tastes, unfortunately, I'd also have to categorize it as very bleak and joyless and certainly far from compelling. Perhaps, as a reader, I'm a bit thick when it comes to thinking of matters philosophical. But it is what it is and perhaps that's why I don't jump up and down suggesting that this is a must read classic. Recommended for those that want to challenge themselves with what one might call a thinking man's classic.

Paul Weiss

 

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More The Outsider reviews
Quick Tip by . December 22, 2010
Meursault is a clerk in Algiers, an intentionally non-descript young man with no particularly interesting traits, characteristics, skills or habits. Now considered to be mandatory reading for those interested in notions of existential or nihilist philosophy, Albert Camus' "The Outsider" or "L'√Čtranger" is the story of Meursault's life. Rather dark, bleak stuff but I think that's rather on purpose.
Quick Tip by . June 09, 2010
As a teen, this was my number one favorite book. I cried so hard at one part of the story. I read it later, much later, and it wasn't nearly as impactful as it was back then, but still an excellent book.
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Paul Weiss ()
Ranked #16
   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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