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Recent Reads: The Outsider and Before the Law

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Open gate

One of the frequent themes of Lex Fridman’s podcast, of which I’m a long-time listener, is his love of the existentialist/absurdist literature of Dostoevsky and Albert Camus (right next to his love of Python and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). While I haven’t been writing Python code or grappling much, I recently got around to reading Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider). The Outsider follows the story of Mersault, a man who refuses to satisfy the expectations of others. The famous opening of the novel goes: “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” And throughout the book, Mersault’s character remains completely indifferent to events in his life.

“That evening, Marie came to see me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said that it was all the same to me and that we could get married if she wanted to. Then she wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I once had before that that didn’t mean anything, but said I was pretty sure I didn’t love her. ‘Why marry me, then?’ she asked. I explained that it was of no importance whatsoever but if that was what she wanted, we could get married.”

Mersault seemed to remind me of Jim Carrey’s character in Yes Man. In the 2008 comedy, a guy who’s frustrated because he’s afraid to take chances attends a self-help course where he’s told to say ‘Yes’ to everything. But Mersault isn’t quite a ‘Yes man’. He doesn’t say ‘yes’ to things because he wants a more interesting life. He says ‘yes’—and also ‘no’, sometimes—because that’s really what he feels.

Without giving too much of the book away, the story questions how society responds to someone who doesn’t bend to its illusions, someone who says and does exactly as he thinks and feels, someone with anomie. What do guilt and remorse mean to someone who doesn’t care?

Someone else who refuses to care is the gatekeeper from Franz Kafka’s Before the Law.

Before the Law is a short parable about a man trying in vain to gain access to the Law. To him, “the law should always be accessible to everyone”, but the gatekeeper will not let him pass. The man spend the rest of his life at the gate—asking, bribing, pleading, but never allowed to go inside.

Like all good parables, the story is open to many different interpretations. If we take ‘the law’ literally, we can interpret the story as one about the human striving to understand justice and the legal system. Less literally, ‘the law’ may mean the overall human condition, meaning, purpose. Even though the gatekeeper in the story is persistent, the gate itself remains open. Could the man have simply walked in? Is permission illusory? Or perhaps, the story has no underlying meaning at all; to try to understand the parable is to become the man yourself.