To celebrate the 75th anniversary of ‘The Outsider’, we pay tribute to the radical writer and his influential thoughts on the meaning of life – or rather, the positive lack of it
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.” So begins Albert Camus’ debut novel, L’Etranger – two sentences that have come to define The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the US) for the 75 years since its seminal publication. Why? Because within them lies the novel’s central philosophical question: how do we confront the idea that human life has no meaning? And how does society attempt to impose rational order where there is none?
Born in 1913 in French Algeria, Camus was the chief architect of the paradox of the absurd, which at its root, questions how we live with the knowledge of our own meaningless. Nihilism, for Camus, was not the answer. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, before dying in a car crash in 1960 at the age of just 46. With his good looks and charisma, the writer became, over the course of his life and since, an intellectual celebrity who embodied the ideas that he promoted. Though loathing the label, he gave existentialism a fashionable edge – so much so that he was shot by Cecil Beaton for Vogue in 1946.
Meursault, the anti-hero of The Outsider drifts through the novel with cold, emotional distance; he is incapable of empathy, perennially bored with life, and is unflinchingly honest about both of these things. Despite his detachment, the character of Meursault remains just as absorbing as Camus himself by embodying the sense of alienation that we all feel sometimes.
“People all over the world connect the book to their coming of age, to grappling with the toughest questions of existence,” writes Yale scholar Alice Kaplan in her new ‘biography’ of the novel, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic. “The absence of depth in Meursault, his strange indifference, has paradoxically drawn readers to him, since it’s natural to hunger for understanding when it’s withheld,” Kaplan continues.
But while Meursault floats through his existential angst, Camus was able to use his philosophy of the absurd as an excuse to enjoy himself with ever greater intensity. He dated a string of actresses, befriended intellectuals and bohemians, was fascinated by football, loved smoking (he even named his cat ‘Cigarette’), dressed well, and wrote essays on the importance of sunshine and nakedness.
As he once famously said: “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”