Corporeal Consciousness: Albert Camus’ Disconcerting Modes of Subjectivity in “The Outsider”
Perception not as a mode of thought, but as a pre-reflective act
The Outsider (1942) is a novel composed ‘about the absurdity and against the absurdity’ of modern society. The novel’s gloomy narrative portrays the life of a young man ‘wondering on the fringe’ of society, trapped in an ambivalent cross-play of solitude and sensuality, innocence and guilt. Through the obstinate life of its narrator Meursault, the novel displays the inarticulateness between an individual consciousness and the world, an impediment between an emerging self and the hypocritical, conspiring society which surrounds it. As the novel progresses, the protagonist’s existential condition gradually becomes a subjective state of ‘Being-for-itself’, which is continuously obfuscated by an external rigid system of justice and at the same time inwardly perplexed by the distortion of such a system.
For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.
Camus allows the contrast between individual nihilism and the ‘absurdity’ conceptualized in the form of ‘otherness’ to permeate the narrative until eventually his narrator kills a man and is virtually unable to elaborate his feelings and to see himself as a criminal. Strongly informed by Camus’ theoretical perspective of the Absurd, the narrator’s subjectivity, with its lucidity (or lack of it) is less affiliated with that of a class or collectivity than to the psychology of his own solitary, apostate, increasingly isolated self. In this context, even matters of agency and choice appear to be gratuitous and irrational. If the novel’s rejection of reasoned arguments poses genuine problems which are impossible to be reconciled in philosophical terms, Camus’ literary aesthetic embodies in its own structure all the ontological anxieties that the text sets out to disrupt
 According Sartre’s phenomenological ontology, a person in a ‘being-for-itself’ state is the only being capable of detaching himself or herself from the world, causing therefore nothingness to emerge. See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 7.
 Camus’ afterword in Albert Camus, The Outsider, trans. By Joseph Laredo (London: Penguin, 1982), p.117.
 Camus differentiates the ‘concept of the absurd’ from the ‘experience of the absurd’ in the same way that he distinguishes between the absurd person and the absurdity perceived by such a person. See Avi Sage, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd (Amsterdan: Rodopi, 2002) trans. From the Hebrew by Batia Stein, p.48.
- In Merleau-Ponty’s theory, things make sense (or not) for us perceptually as they do for pre-verbal children and animals. The philosopher sees perception not as a mode of thought, but as a pre-reflective act. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Abgindon: Routledge, 2012), p.
- The Albert Camus Society is an international organisation made up of three groups: The Albert Camus Societies of the UK, US and Poland. Together we hold a joint annual conference and publish The Journal of Camus Studies (JCS).
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