With reference to The Outsider by Albert Camus, discuss Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of (post)modernist literature in relation to the question of the unpresentable.

By Thomas McMullan, Goldsmiths, University of London

Writing in his collection of essays, The Inhuman, Jean-François Lyotard states: “For the last century, the arts have not had the beautiful as their main concern, but something to do with the sublime” (Lyotard, The Inhuman 135). By distinguishing between the concepts of beauty and sublimity, Lyotard can be seen to relate back to the aesthetic theory of such eighteenth-century philosophers as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. The aspect of the sublime in particular forms a core facet to the argument presented by Lyotard through his 1979 work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In the concluding essay, “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism” Lyotard affirms:

The sentiment of the sublime is, according to Kant, a strong and equivocal emotion: it carries with it both pleasure and pain. Better still, in it pleasure derives from pain. (Lyotard, “Answering the Question” 77)

For Lyotard it is this relationship between pleasure and pain, an association based on the facet of the “unpresentable”, which constitutes a central aspect to the postmodern condition. This essay shall explore how Lyotard expresses such a relationship, in correlation to the work of Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Albert Camus, and how such a notion can be applied to concepts of both modernist and postmodernist writing.

In giving a concise backdrop to the philosophy of the sublime, Will Slocombe underlines an important concept: “When we speak of styles of the sublime, we must also understand that we are speaking of stylised forms of the sublime within ideological constructions” (26). It may be understood that subsequent generations of scholars interpret sublimity within different approaches based on their particular ideological discourse. A key example of this, and a large influence for Lyotard, is the shift of thought between Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. According to Slocombe:

Where Burke argues that the sublime originates from the pre-rational apprehension of an object, Kant argues that no judgment on sublimity can ever be pre-rational and, in fact, it is only through our reason the sublime may occur. (37)

For Burke, the sublime exists as an emotional response, “a primal response that occurs within the body before the rational mind can attempt to grasp the dangerous object” (Slocombe 31). In comparison to this, Kant places the rational mind at the centre of a sublime sensation. In The Critique of Judgment, this sensation is divided in two separate notions: the dynamically sublime and the mathematically sublime. While the former may be interpreted within the context of a Burkean model, in which an object “outrages our will because we know, as sensibly conditioned beings, we are helpless before it” (Burnham 91), the latter notion is based upon the cognitive processes of an individual. Kant claims that this second facet of the sublime stems from “the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind, transcending every standard of sense” (n.p.). It is this transcendental quality of a concept which surpasses a conscious ability for comparative measurement that Kant relates to a universal formlessness, or “Unform”. Both Kant and Lyotard link this formlessness to the sense of anxiety that derives from the “painfully inadequate” ability to comprehend an unpresentable concept. According to Lyotard, this dichotomy of the sublime can be expressed in two distinct ways, “modernist nostalgia and postmodern jubiliation” (Lyotard, “Answering the Question” 78). To understand how postmodernism is defined, it will prove useful to first investigate Lyotard’s notion of modernism in these terms.

In The Inhuman, Lyotard highlights a quotation by Apollinaire: “More than anything, artists are men who want to become ‘inhuman’” (2). This sentiment can be seen to relate to the disparity Kant describes between the human capacity for conceptualisation of the sublime and the inability of human perception to present this within language. Lyotard’s use of Apollinaire’s insight highlights an important concept in the context of modernism: that while an awareness of the “inhuman” qualities of sublime comprehension is achieved within modernist writing, this awareness is contradicted by “nostalgia for presence felt by a human subject” (Lyotard, “Answering”: 79). Lyotard claims that although modernism is conscious of the limitations of human expression it nevertheless retains a sense of nostalgia for a totalising communicative meta-narrative:

It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure. (ibid. 81)

As a result of this, there exists a conflict between the “solace” of comprehension in the communicative power of a modernist novel’s language, and the unpresentable sublime perception which it attempts to communicate. In “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism” Lyotard uses Marcel Proust as an example to illustrate this definition. Lyotard claims that throughout In Search of Lost Time Proust is conscious of the sublime by possessing a hero that “is no longer a character but the inner consciousness of time” (80). While the narrative voice signifies an unpresentable concept, Lyotard emphasises that, as it is communicated through the unity of a novelistic tradition, the concept itself is not made perceptible but is merely alluded to through the “solace” of a comprehensible system of language:

Proust calls forth the unpresentable by means of a language unaltered in its syntax and vocabulary and of a writing which in many off its operators still belongs to the genre of novelistic narration. (80)

It is this nostalgia for comprehension in the face of the mathematically sublime, the belief in language’s power to communicate even that which lies exterior to our comprehension, which forms Lyotard’s definition of modernism.

In comparison to this nostalgia for totality, Lyotard articulates the postmodern as follows:

The postmodern […] puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable […] in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. (ibid. 81)

According to Lyotard, the postmodern embraces the inability for the sublime to be communicated collectively through a shared medium of language or image. Instead of a modernist wish to “return to the stability” (Malpas 48) of established literary forms, postmodernism celebrates the destruction of such traditional styles. In The Inhuman Lyotard uses the example of the artist Barnett Baruch Newman, whose paintings of pure colour cause the viewer pain at the denial of “the solace of good forms” as a means of depicting the mathematically sublime. Lyotard claims that such art “dismantles consciousness” (The Inhuman, 90) and exposes the “unform” that exists in the disparity of our imagination’s ability to present the sublime. In terms of literature, it is through a refutation of language’s power to communicate notions beyond cognitive comprehension which illustrate the “unform”. Unlike Proust’s attempt to convey the sublime through an established language system, postmodernist literature openly exposes language’s inability to signify meaning and through this denial of communication presents the unpresentable “in presentation itself”.

In order to clarify the extent to which a denial of “good forms” relates to an articulation of the sublime, it is fruitful to interpret The Outsider by Albert Camus using Lyotard’s notions of postmodernism and modernism. Written in 1942, Camus’ novella rests uneasily between these two notions. While the traditional language systems and conventional narrative structure cannot be described as an archetypal example of postmodernism, it nevertheless depicts techniques that lie beyond modernism’s yearning for a totalising form of representation. Instead of encapsulating one particular reaction to the sublime, The Outsider may be best interpreted as an illustration of the tension which exists between the postmodern need for an “inhuman” expression, and the modernist difficulty of escaping the “nostalgia” for a teleological representative process.

This relationship is seen most clearly during the second section of the book, in which the crime of the protagonist, Meursault, is judged by the law. The prosecutor asserts that Meursault’s killing was due to a premeditated motive: “This is no ordinary murder, a thoughtless act you might consider extenuated by circumstances. […] This man is intelligent. […] He knows the value of words” (The Outsider, 97). The persecutor claims that Meursault is human; that he “knows the value of words”. This perception is subsequently contradicted, as Meursault relates through the narrative: “He said the truth was that I didn’t have one, a soul, and that I had no access to any humanity nor to any of the moral principles which protect the human heart” (98). Although the magistrate highlights Meursault’s inhuman lack of emotional response, by suggesting a premeditated motive he ultimately interprets Meursault’s actions within the framework of a traditional system of law. Donald Lazere comments on these conflicting views:

It is not Meursault whose suppositions are absurd in their dislocation from reality but the examining magistrate and later the attorneys at the trial who spuriously believe that everything can be rationally explained. (Lazare 155)

This need to translate Meursault’s actions within a system which offers a sense of totality can be seen in comparison to Lyotard’s notion of modernism and the sublime. While Meursault is by no means a mathematically sublime figure, the relation of his perceptions to his actions offers a model that does not fit with the jury’s cognitive process. As a result, instead of accepting the “unform” of Meursault’s nature, the jury communicates the inhuman notion of his impulsive crime through the solace of a form which offers a sense of comprehension: the law.

Meursault, to use Lytoard’s articulation of postmodernism, may be seen to alternatively portray a “stronger sense of the unpresentable”. Unlike the jury’s translation of Meursault’s actions through a totalising social code, Camus” protagonist opposes the use of such a system to explain his actions. The critic Donald Lazere comments on this element of Meursault’s character:

His consciousness is primarily one of animal sensuousness rather than intellectual self awareness, and he has a strong impulse toward returning to unconscious union with nature, through swimming, sleeping, and ultimately death. (154)

It is the notion of “animal sensuousness” which defines Meursault’s perception as foreign to the rationality of the jury. Throughout The Outsider the emphasis of Meursault’s perception is upon the direct sensory impact of a natural stimulus, a reoccurring example of this is the motif of the sun. During his mother’s funeral, Meursault walks with the funeral procession through the countryside; instead of communicating an emotional sense of loss, Meursault focuses his language upon the sensory experience of the sun’s heat:

All around me there was still the same luminous, sun-drenched countryside. The glare from the sun was unbearable. […] I felt a bit lost, with the blue and white sky overhead and these monotonous colours all around me. (21)

The sense of being “lost” may be seen to relate to the concept of the dynamically sublime; the heat of the sun is an impression that lies exterior to human control and therefore evokes an element of sublime incomprehension. Yet although Meursault is oppressed by the direct sensory experience of an object which lacks comparative measure, he nevertheless communicates his experiences through a comprehensible language-system. It is not until his murder of the Arab at the end of the first section that Meursault demonstrates a postmodern interpretation of the sublime.

During this scene the sun again forms the stimulus for his perceptions:

All I could feel were the cymbals the sun was clashing against my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear still leaping off the knife in front of me […] The sea swept ashore a great breath of fire. The sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame. (60)

Unlike the experiences of his mother’s funeral, Meursault is here unable to communicate through a realistic representational language-system. Camus depicts a sensory overlap through the synaesthesia which forms between the aural “cymbals” and the visual “dazzling spear”. Harold Blood comments that “the blinding light of the sun burns away all judgment” (Albert Camus, 4); if this is understood in a Kantian context it may be argued that the sun resists “judgment” from a cognitive mind. The sensory confusion of Meursault’s language therefore exposes the inability of language to communicate a mathematically sublime sensation. To reinforce this postmodern reading, it is helpful to use the notion of language-games. Introduced by the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, this is a concept which states that language is built up from a collection of heterogeneous systems: “Think of words as instruments characterized by their use” (189). Instead of a language shared between different members of a society, Wittgenstein outlines an approach that views “speaking of language [as] part of an activity, or form of life” (43). Lyotard uses this idea to highlight the impossibility of any totalising system to be created, as it will ultimately be undermined by the multiplicity of incongruous structures of communication. In relation to Meursault, it is this gulf between the perceptions of his senses and the translation of these within coherent language-games which result in his confusion of communication. Donald Lazere views this trouble as the central cause of Meursault’s condition: “His inability to verbalize or interpret his sensory experience makes him almost literally a foreigner among men of factitiously analytical language” (155).

In the afterword to The Outsider, Camus himself states that “the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game” (118). If this is understood in a postmodern context, it is because Meursault does not subscribe to the analytical language-games of his jury that he is executed. Instead of “playing the game” and translating his thoughts through a comprehensible social order he embraces the transcendental formlessness of his original sensory experiences and becomes “inhuman”.

By focusing on the limitations of his senses, Meursault is not the indifferent result of social evolution, but is instead the root of human expression itself. The evidence for this lies in Lyotard’s statement that the postmodern exists, not as a specified temporal movement, but rather as a “nascent state, and that state is constant” (“Answering”, 79). This viewpoint suggests that communication of the transcendental “unform” must be used to reassess the experience of the past: “the artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done” (ibid. 81) Meursault’s fixation on his senses, separate from the meta-narratives of his surrounding society, presents a sensory origin from which Lyotard believes human experience must stem: “The event happens as a question mark “before” happening as a question” (Lyotard, The Inhuman, 90). Postmodernism may therefore be interpreted as a foundation upon which structures of perception are forged, and through this foundation an individual is able to reinstate their individual will from the cognitive terror of formlessness.

Works cited

Harold Bloom, Albert Camus (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989).
Douglas Burnham, Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Judgement (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000)
Albert Camus, The Outsider (London: Penguin Books, 1982).
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Donald Lazere, The Unique Creation of Albert Camus (London: Yale University Press, 1973).
Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
J-F Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism”, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp.71-82.
Simon Malpas, Jean-Francois Lyotard (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 48.
Will Slocombe, Nihilism and the Sublime Postmodern (London: Routledge, 2006).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The First Reader”, The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006), pp. 179-192.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The Rejection of Logical Atomism”, The Wittgenstein Reader, pp. 40-54.


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Burgin, Richard, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (London: Souvenir Press, 1973)
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Lyotard, Jean-Francois, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991)
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Malpas, Simon, Jean-Francois Lyotard (London: Routledge, 2003)
Slocombe, Will, Nihilism and the Sublime Postmodern (London: Routledge, 2006)