“Neither existentialist nor absurdist, but nihilist”. Discuss the validity of this statement with respect to the protagonists of The Outsider and Perfume.
When exploring the human condition through the eyes of misanthropes and amoral anti-heroes, it is perhaps inevitable that Patrick Süskind and Albert Camus would convey existentialist and absurdist themes in their novels Perfume and The Outsider. However, it may be possible to take an analysis of these themes further, to an extent where one can claim that they ultimately conclude in nihilism.
The motifs of existentialism and absurdism in The Outsider are most saliently presented through Camus’ main protagonist, Meursault, who exhibits a stoic indifference to humanity and its values throughout the novel, instead revealing them to be absurd and objectively meaningless. Meursault is utterly solipsistic, and hence, existentially, he is the centre of his ‘universe’, deriving all daily structure, moral principles, and judgements from his own moral code.
Meursault may existentially define his own essence through his candid, unemotional outlook on society, constructing his own meaning by extracting subjective significance from objective truth through an almost brutal honesty. Moreover, the character of Meursault as a potential embodiment of existentialism may be further enhanced by his alienation from society; while he is immersed in it, he is often portrayed as a mere observer, or subject to judgement “I noticed a row of faces…all…scrutinizing the new arrival…looking for…criminalities”.
Meursault also seems to make an existential decision, albeit perhaps subconsciously, not to conform to mankind’s artificial social conventions and expectation, realising their fundamental futility and absurdity. His mother’s death, for example, doesn’t evoke any sense of loss in Meursault: “I probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything…The only thing I could say for certain was that I’d rather mother hadn’t died”. In addition, Meursault casually befriends Raymond Sintès, despite the man’s patently dubious reputation and occupation, instead of expressing the repugnance that one would expect.
Meursault’s evident amorality places his concept of moral principles firmly outside the ethical boundaries defined by conventional society. Existentially, therefore, Meursault exists as “a conscious being not in accordance with any essence, definition or system” apart from that which he creates for himself; he is an existential representation, in microcosm, of mankind. Consequently, human ethics and the legal system that upholds them are portrayed as absurd and ineffectual in achieving their purposes.
For instance, Meursault’s reaction to his first encounter with the law was that it “all seemed like a game”, and “Everything was so natural, so well organized and so calmly acted out”. This patronising dismissal of the judicial system underscores its absurdist insignificance in the midst of an incomprehensible, apathetic universe. Camus may also explore absurdism further by exposing the trial itself as a morbid form of public entertainment: “[The papers have] blown your case up a bit. The summer’s the silly season for the papers.”
The absurdity of this perversion of the abstract concept of ‘justice’ invokes a sense of role reversal as the judicial system, supposedly designed to discern truth and espouse morality, is revealed to be the opposite; ironically, Meursault, the criminal, is the only sincere party in the legal proceedings.
Conversely, Meursault’s evident amorality and his tendency to undermine social convention and expectation may be interpreted as wholly nihilistic. Meursault’s amorality is strongly reminiscent of nihilist theory that challenges the existence of an objective morality; his inability to define any set of moral guidelines whatsoever may be attributed, from a nihilist perspective, to the fundamental impossibility that a universal system of ethics can be defined for mankind or for the individual.
Meursault also rejects God, stating that he “didn’t believe in God”, and “…throughout the whole of this absurd life…what did…God…matter”. A disbelief in God’s existence may be characteristic of existentialism (“God is dead”); however, such a complete rejection of a divine presence may be closer to nihilism, which claims that there is no proof of any form of creator or divine ruler, and even if one existed, man was not obligated to place his faith in it.
Ultimately, however, any claims of nihilism in the text of The Outsider may gain the most credence from the fact that Meursault surrenders to death, faced by the hopeless situation of being sentenced to capital punishment: “everybody knows that life isn’t worth living…It was still only me who was dying, whether it was now or in twenty year’s time”.
Patrick Süskind’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a murderer and the main protagonist of Perfume, is a manifestation of “arrogance, misanthropy, immorality…[and] wickedness”, and so serves as a pejorative perspective on mankind and an extreme embodiment of the formidable ‘will to power’ theorised by the precursor of existentialist philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche. Both these literary traits enable a keen exploration of existentialist and absurdist aspects of man’s existence.
Grenouille’s existential significance is mainly derived from the significance of the “fleeting realm of scent”, with the olfactory world as Grenouille’s ‘universe’; only Grenouille is able to comprehend and extract meaning from smell and through his supernatural olfactory abilities. Existentially, this isolates him from mankind, but simultaneously makes him the focus of his ‘universe’, so Grenouille is compelled to turn to himself for all direction in forming his essence.
However, while Grenouille is able to penetrate the olfactory world, “he could not…smell himself”. His own scent eludes him, a metaphor for his lack of an identity that renders the rest of society and its physical world impenetrable, augmenting Grenouille’s alienation. He is detached from his fellow man, and, fundamentally, also isolated from himself; in these ways, the misanthropic murderer may be a perverse, existentialist representation of mankind in microcosm.
Grenouille makes the ultimate existential decision to forge his own essence by concocting his own divine scent, in accordance with the existentialist assertion that human existence precedes human essence, and that the latter is moulded by our action or inaction throughout our existence. However, it may be argued that the structure of the text itself contradicts existentialism, as Grenouille is introduced in the opening as “one of the most gifted and abominable personages”. His essence is seemingly established before his existence, which is physically introduced afterwards with Grenouille’s birth “on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom”. Conversely, his ‘odourless essence’ formed during childhood and inability to smell himself culminates in his attempt to create his true olfactory essence and identity.
Grenouille also appears to relinquish his purpose in moments of despair, such as when he is unable to “distil radically new scents” using Baldini’s “alembic” (“When it finally became clear to him that he had failed, he halted his experiments and fell mortally ill”), and when he finds the stench of humanity so unbearable that he retreats to a mountain cave for several years (“…Grenouille had become…more sensitive…to human odour…Thus his nose led him…towards the…greatest possible solitude”). Such responses to the futility of existence may suggest a nihilist reading of Perfume explored through the nihilist attitude of its main protagonist.
Süskind may also explore the absurdity of language, arguably an artificial construct to give shape to the chaos of our existence, through Grenouille’s epistemological limitations in that area. “With words designating non-smelling objects…[Grenouille] had the greatest difficulty”, and “everyday language would soon prove inadequate for designating all the olfactory notions that he had accumulated within himself”. Nihilistically, it may be implied in the text that the inadequacy of language stems from the fact that objective truth is impossible to distinguish, and hence impossible to express. Even through a supernatural sense of smell, Grenouille is unable to interpret his sensory experience empirically or communicate this knowledge to others; the meaning that Grenouille can extract from scent is utterly subjective, and thus a private discourse. If communication is flawed to the point of being futile, one can draw nihilistic conclusions.
Additionally, like Meursault, Grenouille nihilistically and radically rejects God. He exhibits utter impudence towards God as a concept and entity, deifying himself as a “divine creator” in a parody of the biblical Genesis, and disdainfully declaring: “God stank…He…was Himself a swindler, no different from Grenouille”.
Isolated from humanity with superhuman senses, Grenouille exhibits no loyalties to people or ethical systems, an outlook that concurs with nihilism; instead, he exploits other individuals to further his own futile ambitions. It may be argued from an existentialist perspective that Grenouille is ultimately loyal to himself; however, this argument is perhaps weakened by his eventual suicide in response to the absurdity of the universe, an entirely nihilistic reaction and attitude as Grenouille fails to construct his own meaning out of life due to misanthropic despair.
Essentially, Albert Camus’ The Outsider and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume undeniably incorporate elements of nihilism, or attitudes that suggest a nihilist reading which is more plausible than existentialism or absurdism. The main protagonists’ ultimate sacrifices in response to the hopeless absurdity of existence have convinced this reader that the philosophical themes of the two novels can be eventually reduced to nihilism.
Camus, A., The Outsider, translated from the French by Joseph Laredo, Penguin Books, pg 81
Kreis, S., The History Guide: Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe – Lecture 12: The Existentialist Frame of Mind, copyright Ó 2000, last revised 28/02/06, accessed 07/05/08, http://www.historyguide.org/europe/lecture12.html
Nietzsche, F., The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882); information obtained from Wicks, R., Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/, accessed 19/05/08
Süskind, P., Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, translated from the German by John E. Woods, Penguin Books, 1987, pg 3