What Albert Camus’ ‘The Fall’ Has To Say About Modern Society
Most readers would recognise Albert Camus from his Nobel Prize winning L’Etranger (English tite: The Stranger or The Outsider) and his contributions to the philosophies of existentialism and the Absurd. La Chute (‘The Fall’) is what I would call Camus’ chef d’œuvre. The novel’s brevity inversely represents the quality of the words printed on the page. Whilst reading it, you can feel the meticulous effort that Camus exerted in producing this wonderfully dark masterpiece.
Written in second-person, the novel is a series of broken up monologues as the narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, tells the story of his fall from ‘Eden’ (Paris) and his exile to the ‘bourgeois hell’ of Amsterdam. Clamence, a former lawyer, describing himself as an ‘intelligent man’ struggles to find meaning in his life. One of Clamence’s biggest weaknesses and the overarching theme of the novel is his fear of being judged. Laughter is the personification of judgment for Clamence. It instills fear in him as he perceives people are mocking him – it acted as a catalyst for his demise to Amsterdam. However, laughter can also allude to the theme of innocence. He describes it as: ‘natural and almost friendly; putting the world to rights.’ This theme of innocence leads to what truly haunts and saddens Clamence – his own fall from innocence:
“Yes we’ve lost the light, the mornings, the holy innocence of the man who forgives himself.”
This sentence reveals Clamence’s sadness that despite his love for himself and even being judged by others, he knows that he will never stop judging himself. That is one of the true ‘falls’ of the novel, in which you come to a point in your life where you have a realisation that you are a person with flaws, faced with your own guilt from your actions and importantly too, your inactions.
Jean-Baptiste, who fears being judged, is a judge himself both verbally and professionally. He deeply understands the hypocrisy of the situation, and commented cynically on this modern society around him:
“I sometimes wonder what historians of the future will say about us. One phrase will suffice for the modern man: he fornicated and read newspapers. After this sharp definition, I dare to say, the subject will be exhausted.”
This startling clairvoyant assessment of his era, which can still be applied today, shows his distaste for the meaningless pursuits, of how his society really accomplished nothing and only judged each other, thereby certifying his nihilistic outlook on life. This first incident, an argument in traffic, in his series of ‘falls’ could have been brushed aside as being ‘trivial’ but for Clamence it shattered his glorified illusion of himself and exposed him to the vulnerability of how everyone was judging him (badly), including himself: ‘After having been struck in public without striking back, it was no longer possible to nurture this fine image of myself.’ This is representative of his fall from innocence. He grew paranoid (‘the whole universe began to laugh at me’) and in face of that he turned all his faults to his advantage, to try and compensate for them but it still would not free himself from the guilt. This led to a sort of nervous breakdown when he revealed to all his friends the duplicity of his character that he fooled them all with. This relates to the theme of power: ‘I wanted to reshuffle the cards and above all, yes, I wanted to destroy the flattering reputation, the idea of which sent me into a fury.’ Clamence was so obsessed with being judged that he showed his friends how he judged himself before they could realise it on their own. He was giving them ‘permission’ to judge him, which in turn tried to provide himself the freedom to accept his flaws without having to feel the guilt. But what he eventually realised was that freedom from judgment could never be found as you will always be confined to by your mind. Temporary freedom can be found by judging others, and so what follows is a vicious cycle:
“At the end of every freedom, there is a sentence, which is why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you have a temperature, or you are grieving, or you love nobody.”
From his dooming realisation, he exiled himself to, as referred before, the ‘bourgeois hell’ of Amsterdam. A personal punishment, due to his obsession with being superior to others (‘I have never felt comfortable except in lofty places. […] I preferred the bus to the subway, open carriages to taxis, terraces to closed-in places.’) He sent himself to a place that is below sea level reflecting his attitude of being a fallen man, he ran away to hide in the fallen depths of Amsterdam – describing each concentric circle in the design of the city resembling the hell of Dante’s Inferno. Thus, we have his cycle of duplicity as he found solace in Mexico City (the bar), as the real Mexico City is 8,000 ft above sea level, a place where he could play God by passing judgment on others whilst giving his ‘confession’ amidst the hell of Amsterdam.
What The Fall teaches us is that we are never going to be free from judgment. In the age of mass media, with the personal lives of others printed on the covers of newspapers and magazines we do feel a sense of justification to form opinions. Where Camus surmised the modern man as having ‘fornicated and read newspapers’, we could probably say the same for ourselves but replacing ‘newspapers’ for ‘Twitter’. But whilst we are carefully controlling our own profiles on social media, with the knowledge that other people are going to be looking at them, we can never escape the fact that we are always going to judge ourselves.
What do you think? Leave a comment.