Identity and The Outsider. The Meaning of the novel by Albert Camus of France

During the Covid lockdown in 2021, I re-read The Outsider after 54 years. A powerful novel written by Albert Camus of France. I emailed Margaux in Paris of my appreciation for the novel. She kindly posted to me an illustrated English version of The Outsider (also occasionally translated as The Stranger). I gave a recorded talk on identity and the outsider in the Waldhaus Zentrum, Andernach, Germany in early May, 2022.

Margaux listened to the audio talk with my written reflections and sent me her response below. I appreciated her reflection. She gave me permission to copy and paste her e-mail into this blog. She wrote:

They (audio and reflections) made me realize that I wish to be connected all the time but being the outsider has great value also. It may be fearful or unpleasant at times, as we usually prefer or are used to being consumers of sensations. We are especially addicted to the urge of ‘feeling happy’ but there may be something much bigger and more important to live for.

“Meursault and Camus lived for what they knew to be true. At the end of the book, Meursault said he realised he was happy and has always been. He quoted his mother saying “nobody is truly unhappy”. Sensations are not the truth. Nor is it the place we think we have in society.

Societies urge us to feel a certain way or behave a certain way. The persons in power do not like change. They prefer to bathe in the comforting illusion that we are in control of our lives and the environment. Being the outsider gives us the chance to let space for change to take place.

Thank you, Margaux.

 

The title of the afternoon talk is Identity and The Outsider

This is a transcription of a Dharma talk given in the Waldhaus Zentrum in early May 2022. I edited and adapted the talk for readership including adding quotes from the novel and stories to illustrate points.

I have in front of me The Outsider, one of my favourite novels. Albert Camus, the Algerian-French citizen, wrote this novel in 1942 during the Nazi occupation. I will quote from the book having re-read the 160-page book once more on the journey to the Waldhaus Zentrum.

The Nazi censors authorised its publication probably due to not understanding its significance. The novel touched a strong and receptive response in France and also became an international bestseller.

Let me start with an exploration of us, as human beings, and the major issue of identity. The inner posture of the outsider has great value in life.

Let me touch upon the personal here with you. Nshorna, my daughter has reminded me: “You are a product of the hippie era of the 1960s.”

Who am I to disagree with my daughter?

In 1967, I made the overland trip to India. We (hippies) read a variety of literature on the road. Such books as Aldous Huxley and The Island, Camus and The Outsider, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Aldous Huxley, The Island, Jack Kerouac and Dharma Bums/On the Road, French poet, Charles Baudelaire, DT Suzuki/Alan Watts on Zen. Some of us enjoyed smoking, not tobacco, I must add, as we made this journey to the East.

Reading such books touched a strong chord within – an encouragement to be free and authentic. A decade after the Second World War, Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the youngest writers in the history of the Nobel Prize winners to get the award.

This talk examines our relationship to identity and the value of being the outsider.

We are strongly encouraged to develop an identity, despite not being born with one. Society imprints upon us our identity, conditions our mind, so our perceived worth comes through identity. Upbringing, family, location, lifestyle and institutions help construct our identity. The pressure can become intense through parents, schools, status, position and recognition.

When we think of ourselves, we say, I am a …Often the first word coming to mind is our job or our studies. Our identity with the nation state also arises. Other roles impress upon us, such as our identity in the family. We think we are our identities, our roles.  The impact forces upon us a construct of who we think we are, and we impose an identity upon others as well. The conditioning has a primary default. We cannot see outside of myself, outside of our identity. I don’t know who I am, without my identity.

The Importance of the Outsider  

Identity determines a role we must play. Am I male, English, white, teacher, father, writer etc? It is not surprising, that when grasping onto an identity as myself gets shaken up through sudden change, loss, separation, or death of a close one, we face insecurity and vulnerability. Despair, anxiety and blame then construct around our insecure or deprived identity. This situation blocks out the view we have confused identity as the substantial reality of who we are. It is absurd – to use a Camus term – to reduce ourselves to an identity.

A minor or a major incident triggers a huge shake up within.

  • Who am I?
  • Who am I without this man (or woman) in my life?
  • Who am I without this relationship?
  • Who am I without this job?
  • Who am I without these studies?
  • Who am I without the approval of other people?

Such dynamic questions and doubts are widespread. Can identity play a minor part in the reality of life, and not the dominant one? The exploration around self-doubt provides the opportunity to resolve these fundamental questions about our existence

Approval, and disapproval, likes and the dislikes, and other kinds of reactivity gets in the way of a free and expansive vision of life. We can share with each other the understanding about ourselves. Identity offers useful a social function. Be mindful and careful about depending on the approval of other voices.

Albert Camus tells us of the value of being an outsider in this world – not an uncommon position at times in our life.  For example: You go to a social function, and you feel to be a stranger, an outsider. You can’t connect with anyone. I am one of those who have much love of being the outsider, the stranger, the witness.

One evening Marie, the girlfriend of Meursault, asked him if he want to marry her. He replied:

“I said I didn’t mind, and we could do if she wanted to. She then wanted to know if I loved her.

I replied as I had done so once already, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t.

“Why marry me then,” she said.

 I explained to her that it didn’t really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one asking me and I was simply saying yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter.

I said: “No.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I’d have accepted the same proposal from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship.

I said, “Naturally.”

She then said she wonder if she loved me as well.

After reading this encounter, I (Christopher) said to myself. Two Outsiders. Cool. It also sparked memories of being asked the same question as Marie asked Meursault. I expect women proposed to Albert Camus, a handsome man in the mold of Humphrey Bogart (Film: Casablanca). I (Christopher) politely declined the very occasional marriage invitations, serious and light. One woman who wanted to marry me told me I was hiding behind my identity as a Dharma teacher and afraid to share my feelings. Who am I to disagree with another’s perceptions of myself? Feelings and thoughts told me the outsider took priority over being a certified partner!

Much contemporary spiritual language emphasises the experience of connection, of oneness – a merciless mantra in certain circles if we do not feel don’t feel connected. Why put pressure on ourselves to be connected? The inner voice of the outsider also matters.  In his extraordinary novel, Camus gets the point across. Here is an example in the first lines of the novel.

In the first person, he writes,

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home. Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours, sincerely. That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday,”

A Voice without Compromise

Meursault, the central figure featured in in the novel, shows the singularity of a principle, running through the story – to tell the truth of his experience rather than rather than compromise so others will accept him.

The novel tells of Meursault getting into an argument with an Arab in Algeria, who he shoots and kills. Meursault finds himself on trial and facing a public execution under the guillotine.

Meursault says truly little in his function as an outsider. He doesn’t seem particularly involved in anything revealing a detachment with events around him. In few words, he states what he feels and thinks. Camus says Meursault refuses to play the game. revealing an uncompromising thread in events in his life, an alarming degree of honesty.

This standpoint shows something for us to take notice of. We compromise, compromise and compromise knowing deep down, we’ve lost our soul – to put it into spiritual language. We compromise to get on well with others, sacrificing authenticity and integrity

A friend, Mr. Perez, askes Meursault about his mother. How old she was when she died. Meursault says fairly old. He does not care about her age.

He shoots the Arab who is holding a knife to him. With one bullet, he kills the man. Then he puts another four bullets into him.  What goes on in this mind of this outsider. The police interview him at the police station.  He says, “Immediately after my arrest, I was questioned several times, but it was only a matter of finding out who I was, which didn’t take long.  He is described as withdrawn. I never have much to say. So, I keep quiet.”

The Buddhist tradition appreciate those who abide in noble silence saying little. Such a person could be among our friends and family, kids or work colleagues. They are not extroverted by any stretch of the imagination. The person may not explain to others their actions. Some quiet souls live like angels in this world. We need to be sensitive, respectful, and listen to the angels, who might say something in the space of a few words, precious, deep and long-lasting.  In their own way, let us make time for quietness of being. Let us love the silences and solitude which give us the opportunity to breathe, to feel and think without an identity.

Meursault is no angel. The outsider displays a detachment he is unaware. Awareness of the sharp difference between being an outside and detachment would not have led him firing five bullets into a man.  In the last section of the novel, his insights emerged through a depth beneath his everyday identity.  You and I know a happiness, enjoying life in the absence of the roles, absence of identity involving others. For example, we work in the office or factory, The identity with the job ends for the weekend. Roles don’t have the power to make us unhappy. We transfer that power to the role.

My granddaughter, aged 15, lives with me. I call myself a grand-father. She came to live here after suffering bullying at her old school, 250 kilometers away. She is one of the quiet ones, one of the angels. A gang threatened her in the school and on the streets.

Quietness can touch a deep place within. We certainly have various roles. can spend much time thinking about them or the identity we want.  I like a role. I don’t like the role.  When your parents behave in awkward and difficult ways, they might tell you:  You are wasting your life. You haven’t got a proper job. If you hear that, remember you are probably on the right track! Some of us looked at our parents and realised our parents were not in a position to tell us how to live. We might think.  I love you but your way of life does not give me any inspiration.

In the exploration of life, inspiration and encouragement matters. You can find much happiness in being the outsider as well as being deeply connected.  The experiences of both support each other. In meditation, we support the witness, the outsider when we step back to look at the body, states of mind, thoughts and more.  It is important to see any identification with the nation state, its ideologies and politics, as well as unresolved aggression within.

Nshorna gave me a DNA Ancestry Kit for Christmas in December 2021 My first thought was I have no more interest in my past. I spent months during Covid lockdown writing a Memoir, Ten Years and Ten Days to fulfill a promise to my late mother (1920-2015) who leant on me since 1977 to write this book. I knew nothing about my father. Never met him. My mum and he went off for the weekend to stay in a hotel in Leeds in 1943. She got pregnant during the first weekend of making love – being a devoted Catholic, she wouldn’t lie. I completed the DNA kit.  The results of the DBN test made me happy.

I found out DNA shows I am only 48% English. I was thrilled.  I have never to be wanted to identify with being English. The English have a long history of global warfare, racism and ingrained class system. I am 27% Viking (Swedish and Norwegian), 18% Irish (Catholic, mother’s side) and 5% Scottish.

I emailed the beautiful, intelligent and regal Nina in Stockholm, my partner in the late 1990s. I told her we share a similar DNA Viking heritage – no wonder I fell in love with her. She comes from a Viking royal family. The past can shape our feelings, perceptions with our long history. Not grasping onto, not clinging or holding on to identity, it might well leave us with the feeling of being with the unknown.

We might ask ourselves. Who am I without this identity related to the past or present? – as Camus points out in his novel. The silence of being and a state of not knowing brings a receptivity through learning to love and learning to be with the unknown.  We can know a valuable perception of life not bound to a role or identity. That doesn’t mean the rejection of the role, but informs our roles in fresh ways. The sense of not-knowing who we are acts as a support for realisations around clarity and truth.

Every time you and I walk into the meditation room, we don’t know what the quality of the meditation will be like. We don’t know if it will be a calm and clear meditation or insecure and painful. Will it be a deep meditation, superficial or neither? Meditation reminds to live with not knowing, to recognise it as a feature of daily life. Not knowing is authentic. Camus refers regularly to the absurd – thinking we know and much of the time we don’t and could not know.  This situation is not made up. It’s not imagination. We need feel to be an outsider to all the certainties and convictions in society.

A healthy attitude handles knowing and not knowing, past, present and future.  I re-read The Outsider while travelling from home in Totnes, Devon, England, to the Waldhaus Centre (near Andernach, Germany). Meursault faces execution.  He is found guilty of murder. Just before his execution, a priest comes three or four times wanting to hear his beliefs and confession. Do you believe in God? No. Do you believe anything? No.

The priest cannot understand.  How could you say life is meaningless? Meursault reflects within that the day enters into the darkness. He knows his execution will be at dawn. That’s it. The well-intended priest keeps putting pressure on Meursault. He cannot understand why the prisoner cannot express remorse for the killing.

Meursault stays true to himself. He does not express remorse because he does not feel it.  Because he does not feel it, he does not say it. The judge and jury regard the man in the dock as cold, hearted, brutal, with no feelings. Therefore, he deserves to die. He still refuses to play the game of remorse to try to get his sentence reduced. Meursault has feelings but not the feelings the judge and jury want to hear. He didn’t feel grief over his mother. I also did not feel grief over the death of my mother. She had a long, adventurous life. No grief. Barely a whisper of sadness. She died. End of story. A precious soul who gave an unshakable love.

Meursault said he was irritated when his mother died. Judy, my sister rang me from her home in Brisbane, Australia to tell me mum had died an hour or two earlier. She asked me to attend the funeral in three or four days times. I said instead I would send flowers and a message to be read at the funeral service in the Catholic Church in Brisbane. Judy said: “You have to come. You are the speaker in the family.” I felt an irritation. My mother had died. It made no difference to her. Two days later, I made the 23-hour flight from London to Brisbane.

The next day, Meursault went swimming with his new girlfriend and went to watch a funny movie. Judy and I visited to seaside and poured most of her ashes into the sea. I keep ashes in a small empty medicine container in the drawer in my bedside table.

We might not like Meursault attitude, but he stays true to what he feels and thinks refusing to compromise due to expectations from others. He knows he is going to pay the highest price. He gets angry with the priest for the pressure exerted upon him. This anger proves to be cathartic and serves as a relief. The priest finally gives up and leaves to the relief of Meursault. He only wants to be with himself in his last hours.

Meursault says:  I felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged that got rid of all my ills, and killed all my hopes.

I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world and finding it so much like myself.

Benign is friendly, but also indifferent. The outside and the insider to life fused.  The last lines of the novel read:

I realised that I’d been happy and that I was still happy for the final consummation. And for me to feel less lonely. my last my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution, and they should greet me with cries of hatred.  

Right to the very end, Meursault did not play the game of the victim, the hated one or the despised one. The spectators did not get a grip on what he felt.

So close to death, mother must have felt liberated and ready to live her life again.  No one, no one at all had any right to cry over her. And I, too, felt ready to live my life again.

As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hoes. I looked up at the mass signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding so much like myself, in fact so fraternal.

I realised that I had been happy and that I was still happy. For the final consummation made me feel less lonely My last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.  (End of novel)

Comment on The Outsider by Albert Camus

In his 400-word Afterword written in January 1955, Albert Camus wrote:

Any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death. I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned, because he doesn’t play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives wandering on the fringe on the outskirts of life, free and sensual. And for that reason, some readers have been tempted to regard him as a reject. But to get a more accurate picture of his character, or rather than one which conforms more closely to this author’s intentions.

You must ask yourself, in what way muscle that’s the central character doesn’t play the game. The answer is simple. He refuses to lie.

This is a reminder to all of us of bold, brave people who refuse to lie. They have a precious role on this Earth. Let’s have a quiet minute together.

May all beings explore the richness and the diversity of human experience.

May we recognise and appreciate being the outsider and interconnectedness.

May all beings stay true to wisdom.

THE OUTSIDER
Albert Camus
Translated from the French by Joseph Laredo, 1982
Publisher. Everyman’s Library
ISBN. 978-1-85715-139-8
London.
Note to reader. My favourite publisher.
Classic books and presentation/typeface with red cord to indicate pages read.

 



  • Today, I was sitting outside a coffee shop having a cup of coffee.

    While reading your above article with eyes open I fell into a total silence and equanimity. Looking around was just seeing. Not anything interfering.

    So relieved. So at ease. Nothing to do. Nowhere to run to.

    After a while these lyrics of a song came to mind:

    A gentle rain falls on me
    And all life folds back into the sea
    We contemplate eternity
    Beneath the vast indifference of Heaven
    The vast indifference of Heaven

    by Warren Zevon.

    Performed here live by David Lindley:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQxrHqKFFqc

    Thanks for the teachings.


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