This is a (long) article I wrote for the paper a while back, which unfortunately wasn’t published in the end…so I’m sticking it up here. Now read on…
The youthful rebel without a cause is one of the most enduring icons of our culture. Think Holden Caulfield lambasting “phonies” in Catcher in the Rye, Marlon Brando scorching the screen in The Wild One, gloomy Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or Kurt Cobain’s self-hating screeds during Nirvana’s glorious reign.
There are many more, of course, but perhaps the king of them all is Mersault, anti-hero of The Outsider (L’Étranger). Albert Camus’ 1942 novel concerns a young man shunned by bourgeois society for shooting an Arab dead on a sun-bleached beach; and worse, seeming to express no remorse over it, and worse again, not mourning his mother in a public and melodramatic way.
The Outsider – perfect title too – is perhaps the classic tale of youth in revolt: disaffected, alienated, rebelling against society’s norms, inscribing one’s own meaning onto a meaningless universe…or maybe just being contrary for the sake of it. The ambiguity is part of the beauty.
What makes these characters and stories so fascinating? And what makes most of us go through a youthful period of rebellion, alienation and reckless adventure?
We’ll take the second question first. Dr Carl Pickhardt is a Harvard-educated Texan psychologist specialising in children and adolescents. His 15 books include Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, he writes a blog for Psychology Today on the subject, and he’s appeared in Time, The Wall Street Journal and a host of Stateside TV shows.
Rebellion and alienation, he says first, are not the same. “Rebellion is an act of resisting the adult powers-that-be, and the rules of authority they represent. Alienation is an act of withdrawal in order not to be part of the status quo or support the social norm. For example, some alienated adolescents can decide to drop out, operate on the fringe and not socially participate; while some rebellious adolescents, carrying the banner of personal freedom, can buck the system at home, at school, out in the world. In this sense, rebellion is more opposition-based, and alienation is more estrangement-based.”
Crucially, both rebellion and alienation have a purpose during adolescence. Dr Pickhardt says, “Adolescence is that process of transformation which begins around ages 9-13 and usually winds down in the early- to mid-twenties. Over the course of this trial-and-error growth the child becomes a young adult. Both rebellion and alienation have roles to play.
“The twin goals of adolescence are independence and individuality. In service of these outcomes some degree of rebellion and alienation has a healthy part to play, so long as the young person does not engage in self-defeating, self-destructive, or socially harmful behaviour.
“Early adolescence begins with the separation from childhood; in words and actions the young person is declaring that they no longer want to be defined and treated as just a child anymore. Now rebellion starts the push to operate more on one’s own terms by pushing against adult, particularly parental, authority: actively, through argument and disobedience, and passively, by ignoring and delay.
“Alienation is the withdrawal from family to join a competing social family of peers who are all in the business of becoming different in the same way he or she is. What’s important to understand here is that parents are neither destined nor obliged to go through agony with their adolescent, since in most cases the process unfolds within the tolerance limits of a well-functioning family life.”
A different view – less medically professional perhaps, more creatively intuitive – comes from Julian Evans, author of three books and a literary critic and broadcaster with a special interest in the development of the modern novel. An Académie Française laureate, he’s currently making a new translation of André Gide’s 1914 classic of existential angst, The Vatican Cellars.
Julian believes that “every new generation kicks against both the conventions of their parents’ generation and the more embedded, more political, society-moulding conventions of the deeper status quo”.
And this helps explain why we’re drawn to “the heroes and anti-heroes who express that revolt – Mersault and Lafcadio, stars like Brando and Dean and the characters they played, and the early-dead of rock’s pantheon, performers like Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
“Their attraction is that they’re against something we know is fatally compromised because, apart from anything else, it threatens to bore us to death: the life-path that society – with all its vested interests, repressions and mediocrity – lays down for us. The fact that most of us eventually compromise, or come to terms to some extent, with that life-path and society is, well, another interesting aspect of existence. And of course society needs some sort of system to function.
“But not all of us compromise to the same degree. Some keep on rebelling, or at least resisting.”
He cites, as the most seminal rebels or outsiders in fiction, Mersault, Holden Caulfield, Gide’s Lafcadio, the nameless narrators of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn and William Brown.
Their motivations – much like in life, really – are manifold, Julian says: “Societal repression, especially in adolescence; dysfunctional materialism in American Psycho; hypocrisy, convention and boredom, for example in The Vatican Cellars, Sartre’s Nausea or Houellebecq’s Atomised. The characters in all these are falling or fallen, and most want to break out or to stop falling in any way they can.
“They’re usually cursed with a burden of self-consciousness and seek self-forgetfulness or every sort of consciousness-oblivion: joy, love, drugs, murder. They want to change the world and forget themselves. Consciousness is a heavy load.”
UCD graduate Peter Francev is president of the Albert Camus Society USA and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Camus Studies. He now lectures at university at southern California, and is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester for research on Byron and hermeneutics (the theory of textual interpretation).
Mentioning Meursault, Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus and – that boy again – Holden Caulfield as classic outsiders, Peter adds, “The moody outlaw represents what most of crave to be, at one point or another in our lives. It is the idea that we don’t necessarily care about much of anything, including ourselves. And since this individual seems to go against the norm of society, he or she is viewed as a rebel.
“These characters’ motivations depend upon the author or book, but generally I would say that it is not merely the idea of rebellion, but the idea of ineptitude regarding an emotional connection with society. Also, it could be rooted in someone not feeling as if they’re fitting in with society.”
It’s not all bratty awkwardness and anti-social destructiveness; there can be a great positive power in these stubborn outsiders, and what they represent. “I don’t see much of a positive side to Bret Easton Ellis’s protagonists,” Julian says, “but anyone who is against the status quo has potentially got something positive to say. Most writers would say that ‘writing against’, and inventing characters who ‘act against’, are positive things for an artist to do.
“Perhaps one of the reasons Camus is being talked about again is that we’re clinging to the remnants of a political, economic and moral orthodoxy that has less and less to say to us. Federico Fellini said, near the end of his life, something like: ‘We know something is coming, but we don’t know what. Fascinated and mixed-up in the present, we are living in a sort of waiting-room.’ That inertia and apathy has to be challenged – and the young in particular have the energy to do it.”
Dr Pickhardt says, “In the larger social scheme of things, social reform can depend on people opposing or withdrawing from the existing system of governance. So rebellion and alienation are things that adults experience as well as adolescents, but for young people they are built into the process of growing up.
“I believe the outlaw, in song and other story forms, represents the alienated outsider who is resolved to live individually and independently, according to his or her rebellious rules. This is an inspiring image for adolescents and a romantic one for those adults who, in the process of making a living and managing a family, may feel like they comply and conform more than they wish.”
Ah, there’s the rub: age. We almost always speak of these things in terms of “growing up” and “gaining” maturity in sloughing off all that youthful angst. Could it be the case, though, that we’re not just gaining something, but losing something? Should we hold onto those feelings of alienation or rebellion? And is it possible that we regret that loss, even subconsciously, as our life goes on?
“Growing up is giving up,” Dr Pickhardt says. “Just as the girl or boy must give up some valued childhood ways to become adolescent, so the young person has to give up some adolescent ways to become adult – becoming part of the established system, for example, rather than opposing and withdrawing from it. But older adults may still envy the adolescent who feels free to act in the rebellious and alienated ways they remember in their youth, but can no longer afford to do.”
Julian says, “The jury’s out, to my mind, on whether adulthood is about gaining maturity or losing the spirit of revolt. Experience tells me that most people, as opposed to fictional characters, do lose their spirit of revolt and either make their peace with the power structure or become ‘rebellocrats’: one-time enfants terribles who keep the mannerisms but align themselves with the power structure.
“Bertolt Brecht – who was not a rebellocrat in my view – once said there were two kinds of anger: ‘small anger’, or kleiner Zorn, and ‘big anger’, or grosser Zorn. Small anger is weak and temporary; the bigger sort is the rarer, truly artistic kind. I think it’s a useful distinction. More people have kleiner Zorn than have grosser Zorn. But José Saramago, for instance, held on to his anger he’d had as a young communist and remained a member of the Portuguese Communist Party until his death.”
And existential heroes in fiction aren’t always young, he points out: he mentions “José Saramago’s potter, Cipriano Algor, rebelling against the tide of shopping-mall materialism in The Cave; or Querry in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case.” So maybe there’s some hope for us oldies yet, to keep those rebel fires burning.
Julian says: “Perhaps in the best outcome, the spirit of open revolt gives way, as we become older adults, to a spirit of resistance. I definitely feel we should hang on to our feelings of alienation, and continue to know when to rebel, even as we learn to accommodate ourselves to the world. Increasingly all around us are circumstances and conventions trying to stop us being free. Get a job! Earn a living! Work for less! Do what you’re told! Resistance these days is a condition of keeping hold of our freedom.”
Peter adds, “With age comes maturity, more or less. Once the idealised novelty of rebellion wears off, the rebel settles down into a life of routine. Take Camus’ oeuvre, for example. One could make the argument that had Meursault been acquitted of murder – and being a bad son – then he could have taken the job in Paris and even gone into law. Of course, he would have despised law and may have fled to Amsterdam like Camus’ later protagonist Clamence.
“But our youthful experiences help shape who we are, and who we become as adults. When we lose those feelings of rebellion, a part of us dies, and there is the sorrow of an innocence lost.”
Sorrow, death, loss: Mersault and the rest, you feel, would have at least understood, if not approved.
“The outsider carries aspects of our shadow selves, our darker instincts”
Outsiders are the bearers of uncomfortable truths. Camus said Meursault is condemned because he refuses to lie – society demands that he weep at his mother’s funeral and regret his crime, but he won’t play the game. We don’t want to be Meursault but we’d like that ability to detach, to stand apart and take a stance when our beliefs don’t accord with the mainstream. The outsider carries aspects of our shadow selves too, our darker instincts, like the scapegoat in Biblical times. They act as a kind of sublimator of those inadmissible thoughts and urges we all possess but daren’t express.
When it comes to fiction, happiness writes white. A character devoid of some subterranean pull, some inner wrestling with the meaning of existence, simply isn’t interesting. In fiction, as in life, we’re drawn to those who share our sensations. Who, among us, has not pondered on the reasons we’re adrift in this earthly space? Who at the fall of evening has not been gripped by a sudden fear of death and the unknown?
Everything seeps into fiction. Writers and artists are always tapping into changes and disturbances in the collective. The great shifts in consciousness induced by Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud were being felt in the early twentieth century, as morality and conscience were decoupled from the divine.
The last century witnessed two world wars, the death camps, the Bomb, ethnic cleansing, chemical warfare, systematic torture: in the face of such stupefying evil is it any wonder feelings of alienation and dread surfaced – and continue to – in fiction? In the past, religious belief offered a promise of salvation, but in an indifferent universe with no hope of an afterlife, characters are compelled to search within for the meaning for their existence, reflecting man’s painful push towards individuation.
For me, the greatest living exponent of philosophical fiction is JM Coetzee. In The Life and Times of Michael K he created Meursault’s natural heir. With his Kafkaesque lineage Michael K is the quintessential outsider. Mute, hare-lipped, devoid of material trappings or gifts of the intellect, he leaves the city and roams the desert. Psychically naked, he is repeatedly incarcerated and, though nearing death, still refuses to eat, speak or surrender to the system.
Coetzee also provides us with some of the best examples of older characters, especially female, wrestling with existentialist angst. And in the company of his greatest creation, the elderly Elizabeth Costello, there is no shelter from the self and no shirking of awkward truths. She cogitates on life, death, lack of hope, the end of history. So while rebellion may be synonymous with angry young men eager to start a revolution, existentialist angst in literature is by no means confined to the young.
- Mary Costello’s collection of stories, The China Factory, was published in 2012. The Galway writer’s first novel will be published in November.
Youthful alienation, rebellion and outlaws – the best books…
- The Outsider, Albert Camus – I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m the stranger, killing an Arab
- A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess – Burgess’ unique confection of moral treatise and linguistic pyrotechnics is still spectacular to read today
- The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger – how not to make friends and influence people…but at least you won’t be a phony
- The Vatican Cellars, André Gide – a nihilistic, amoral anti-hero is still some kind of hero
- The Prodigy, Herman Hesse – the straightjacket of formal education sees a gifted boy lose his mind
- The Outsiders, SE Hinton – gang-fights in 1960s Oklahoma, written when Hinton was just 15
- The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend – we thought it was all laughs as kids, not realising how downbeat the book really was
- Brighton Rock, Graham Greene – Pinkie is a terrifyingly believable teenage psychopath
- Less than Zero, Brett Easton Ellis – the first in a career full of books centred on self-absorbed brats, over-consumption and trendily flat prose
- Lord of the Flies, William Golding – brilliant, sad story of public school boys turning feral on a tropical island
- Rumblefish – another Hinton story, made into elegant, abstract cinematic art by Francis Ford Coppola
- West Side Story – so which are you, a Jet or a Shark?
- Battle Royale – seminal Japanese shocker about a class of students let loose on an island to kill each other. Presumably inspired The Hunger Games
- Heathers – “Dear diary: my teen angst bullshit has a body-count”
- My Own Private Idaho – melancholy, dreamy portrayal of rent-boys in Oregon
- Rebel without a Cause – James Dean breaks a million hearts and makes himself immortal
- A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel is a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one
- Elephant – Gus Van Sant’s woozy, unsettling fictionalisation of the Columbine massacre
- The Breakfast Club – seems cheesy in retrospect, but in 1985 we took this very seriously indeed
- Thirteen – too much too young for two spoilt girls in California