Wednesday, October 27, 2010

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

We all have books which we love and which we hate. We all have reasons for that love or hate, be they related to the quality of the writing, the nature of the characters, or the progression of the plot. Here is a post on a specific book and why it is wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG, because it incorrectly portrays a world-view.

As part of English for my final year of secondary school, I had to study The Outsider (or The Stranger, depending on the translation) by Albert Camus. I hate that book. More than the book, I hate the standard interpretation of it, which is that this book is about Existentialism. It is not.

The lead character in this book (Meursault) is one who shows and feels little emotion and forms no attachments. He has no great ambition. Really, he just is. His emotional spectrum seems to range from neutral to this is nice.

The people who claim that this book is “Existentialist” only remember the first half of the definition of existentialism: That life has no intrinsic meaning. They forget the second, and most important part: Therefore, we must give it that meaning ourselves. Another cause for concern is that I have met English teachers who were unaware of this distinction, and they danm well should be if they are teaching this book! So, if you're an English teacher reading this and were not aware, go inform yourself! This is important. Camus himself rejected the "existentialist" label, because he considered this books to be on absurdism.

"Oh, the burden of human choice!"

That “life has no meaning” is a philosophy known as Nihilism, and at its deepest this book is about a nihilist character. I get extremely angry and peeved when people use this book in an attempt to illustrate existentialism, because I just happen to be an existentialist. Believe it or not, it was studying this book which made me realise that. But only because my English teacher was smart and informed enough to remember that second part of the definition for existentialism.

I would say that a much more accurate description of the character is that he is a psychopath (that is, has Antisocial Personality Disorder). Key characteristics include:
  • Lack of remorse, shame or guilt
  • Shallow emotions
  • Lack of capacity to form attachments
  • Callousness/Lack of empathy
  • Poor behavioural controls/Impulsive nature
  • Lack of realistic life plan
  • Substance abuse
There are others, of course, but I would say that Meursault displays all of the above. I, on the other hand do not display any of these. Of the characteristics which are not on that list, the only one I have is "impulsivity", and I already have a diagnosis for that.

I am an existentialist. My life has meaning. The people in my life and the things I do hold meaning for me. I do not believe that this meaning is innate or predetermined by some more powerful being, but by me as they are mine. It is a liberating, empowering, wonderful thing because I have those choices, subject only to my biology (which is inescapable to a great degree, so I accept it where necessary).

I am not a nihilist. I am not a psychopath. Stop using this book to describe a worldview which it does not actually represent.

Common Sense: Knowing when to hold yourself back, even when there's nothing else to do the job.

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