from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #9: The Truth in The Outsider

with 2 comments

I don’t really have anything interesting to share this week, so I will do what I do when I have nothing to say: borrow someone else’s words.

I just finished re-reading The Outsider (or The Stranger, depending on your translation) by Albert Camus. The copy I have is from the 1946 translation. It isn’t the copy I had with me when I was in the army—I don’t know where that copy went—I picked up this copy at a used bookstore on “the Ave” near school for three dollars and fifty cents. (The price on the back cover is 50 pence.)

I mention in my introduction that I identify with Mersault, the protagonist in The Outsider, and reading it again, I was struck with how well Camus was able to convey the thoughts of the prisoner.

[emphasis added to some of the following quotes]

There are some things of which I’ve never cared to talk. And, a few days after I’d been sent to prison, I decided that this phase of my life was one of them. However, as time went by, I came to feel that this aversion had no real substance. 75

Just last weekend, I was asked why I never talk about the army. (I joined some friends late who were in a heated argument over the army… again.) I’ve never really cared to talk about it. I prefer not to think about it. But because of this book, I find myself talking and thinking about it endlessly, something that I admit makes me uncomfortable.

Soon after this I had a letter from her. And it was then that the things I’ve never liked to talk about began. Not that they were particularly terrible; I’ve no wish to exaggerate and I suffered less than others. Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man. 79

Still, that phase lasted a few months only. Afterwards, I had prisoner’s thoughts. I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard, or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. 79

When talking to conscripts, people often ask, “How are you adapting?” What they mean by “adapt” is really the acceptance of/resignation to one’s fate, the changing of one’s mindset. “Institutionalization,” they call it in The Shawshank Redemption. Of course they don’t know that that’s what they’re really asking. It’s a kind of formality, a natural question to ask a conscript.

I gradually became quite friendly with the chief gaoler [jailer], who went the rounds with the kitchen-hands at meal-times. It was he who brought up the subject of women. ‘That’s what the men here grumble about the most,’ he told me. I said that I felt like that myself. ‘There’s something unfair about it,’ I added, ‘like hitting a man when’s he’s down.’ – ‘But that’s the whole point of it,’ he said; ‘that’s why you fellows are kept in prison.’ – ‘I don’t follow.’ – ‘Liberty,’ he said, ‘means that. You’re being deprived of your liberty.’ It had never before struck me in that light, but I saw his point. ‘That’s true,’ I said. ‘Otherwise it wouldn’t be a punishment.’ The gaoler nodded. ‘Yes, you’re different, you can use your brains. The others can’t. Still, those fellows find a way out; they do it by themselves.’ With which remark the gaoler left my cell. Next day, I did like the others. 80

Except for these privations, I wasn’t too unhappy. Yet again, the whole problem was: how to kill time. 81

I’d read, of course, that in gaol [jail] one ends up by losing track of time. But this had never meant anything definite to me. I hadn’t grasped how days could be at once long and short. Long, no doubt, as periods to live through, but so distended that they ended up by overlapping on each other. In fact I never thought of days as such; only the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ still kept some meaning. 82-3

When, one morning the warder informed me I’d now been six months in gaol, I believed him – but the words conveyed nothing to my mind. To me it seemed like one and the same day that had been going on since I’d been in my cell, and that I’d been doing the same thing all the time. 83

Time is the conscript’s enemy. The two years are spent watching the clock, watching the calendar. When you’re at work and you watch the clock, you count down the hours until you can go home. Imagine that you’re not counting hours but days, weeks, years. There is a crushing weight in time spent waiting, time spent in privation, time spent in frustration. The days were definitely long “as periods to live through,” but the life is so monotonous, you can’t separate one from the other.

I’ll end it with this. It’s not a quote from The Outsider, but it’s related to time.

Sharon knows rule #1, the clock is the enemy. The basic rule is this: the more you look at the clock, the slower the time goes. It will uncover the hiding place of your mind, and torture it with every second. –Ben Willis, Cashback–

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2 Responses

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  1. You’re so right about the time being the enemy. There are times when I find myself just staring at the calander, particularly the day I get discharged. Since the days are all the same, the week feels like one day and the weekends are what seperates them.

    I’m now a follower of your blog dude. Keep it up.

    Fermentation

    July 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm

  2. Fermentation,

    Thanks. Time really is a bitch. I don’t think there was a single day I didn’t spend time looking at the calendar. My squad was top-heavy when I was a private, and they loved torturing me with the fact that I had hundreds of days more than them.

    Anyway, good luck with the rest of your service and keep up your blog when you can, too.

    Holden

    holdenbeck

    July 3, 2010 at 9:31 pm


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