Now take the smart aleck in any town of him folks want no part He acts like his head was only made to hold his ears apart Now he might not like what I’m bout to say and my words might make him sore But I’m just tryin’ to be helpful cause I’ve been down that road before
–Hank Williams Sr, I’ve Been Down That Road before
Here’s what happened. A man of strong character heard some laughter, got punched during a fight after a fender bender, didn’t help a young woman who committed suicide, and after these three perils he began to drink and fornicate until he was penniless and dying all while confessing these list of actions (or sometimes lack thereof) to a complete stranger. Such is the last work of Albert Camus, the man who defined how to hold a cigarette in your mouth with no hands without looking like a jackass, and also one of the most important French writers and novelists of the twentieth century. It should be noted though that it was the first part that made him famous. Okay that’s a lie but I’m uncomfortable if I’m not making bad jokes that really aren’t funny and the book is not terribly uplifting so any and all humor I can slip in I can.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been listening to No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life by Robert C. Solomon, a tenured professor of philosophy at UT Austen, and he began his series of lectures with the works of Albert Camus. I wasn’t a stranger to the man or his work for I had actually read The Stranger, and even written a small essay about comparing it to the graphic novel Batman: Year One. I had also managed to find a few books of his essays that belonged to my mother-in-law which I devoured that summer after I was married and living in her garage. My wife got to sleep in the house and occasionally they brought me food, but tell you what those rats were vicious and my chains were thick. I found solace in Camus, and even after I read his essay The Myth of Sisyphus I recognized that Camus was an author I should have been reading in high school rather than Tom Stoppard. Solomon, to get back to the main point spent the first five lectures discussing Camus before he eventually moved on to Husserl (which he pronounced Huss-er-erl, dare you to try and pronounce that) and during one of the lectures he discussed Camus’s final novel The Fall.
I was curious about the book because I had absolutely adored The Stranger, and so when my family went to Half Priced Books I decided to grab a copy and begin reading.
Jean-Paul Sartre, a long time friend of Camus and the man who established Existentialism by giving the movement a name and direction, once referred to The Fall as Camus’s most misunderstood novel. Part of it may simply be because the novel was the man’s last before he died in a car accident, a kind of death which Camus had called Un Morte Imbecille, but it may also be because of the actual contents of the book. I’ve already provided a small synopsis of the plot, but a little more detail is necessary.
The protagonist of the book, the man who confesses his life story to the nameless stranger who at times becomes by extension the reader of the book, is Jean-Baptiste Clamence a former lawyer from Paris who has seemingly lost everything. The book is written as a series of one-sided conversations by Baptiste who describes in detail his “fall from grace,” and after reading the opening of his first confession one can accurately refer to it as such:
A few years ago I was a lawyer in Paris and, indeed, a rather well-known lawyer. Of course, I didn’t tell you my real name. I had a specialty: noble cases. Widows and orphans, as the saying goes—I don’t know why, because there are improper widows and ferocious orphans. Yet it was enough for me to sniff the slightest scent of victim on a defendant for me to swing into action. And what action! A real tornado! You really would have thought that justice slept with me every night. (17).
He continues this on the next page:
Furthermore, I was buoyed up by two sincere feelings: the satisfaction of being on the right side of the bar and an instinctive scorn for judges in general. (18).
Clamence has scorn for judges because he cannot perceive how a man could place himself in that position. It stands that there is most likely a messiah complex going on in Clamence, for he perceives honor in defending the criminal against judges and he derives great satisfaction from this work looking upon himself almost as a kind of superman. This isn’t hyperbole on my part for he actually says such:
Yes, few creatures were more natural than I. I was altogether in harmony with life, fitting into it from top to bottom without rejecting any of its ironies, its grandeur, or its servitude.
To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself as something of a superman. (28).
Clamence then is ultimately driven by ego, and any seasoned reader will recognize the rather platitude that pride goeth before the fall. Camus establishes his protagonist as a man who sees himself above the crowd of the masses, and even his supposed selflessness for the less fortunate becomes simply an extension for his ego. Men like Clamence abound in our human societies, and while the attitude “don’t be a smarty-pants” can sometimes buffer a brilliant person’s ego, Clamence’s story becomes a fascinating exploration of how individual people can plummet in spirit, reputation, and individual strength. Far better critics and theorists have poured over Camus’s final novel and derived lessons from it, and for my own part I wanted to understand at least the first part of Clamence’s fall from grace.
When the reader first hears Clamence speak he’s talking in a tavern in Amsterdam, his legal career long gone, and he spends most of his days drinking and debauching. He informs the nameless listener that he came to this state after experiencing three individual traumas. It’s the first trauma that stands out to me, for in many ways it is the most familiar. Clamence describes the event after he has just won yet another legal case:
I had gone up on the Ponts des Artes, deserted at that hour, to look at the river that could hardly be made out now night has come. Facing the statue of Vert-Galant, I dominated the island. I felt rising within me a vast feeling of power and—I don’t know how to express it—of compulsion, which cheered my heart. I straightened up and was about to light a cigarette, when, at that very moment, a laugh burst out behind me. Taken by surprise, I suddenly wheeled around; there was no one there. (38-39).
This passage may at first seem like something out of Stephen King, and when Clamence would turn the statue would suddenly have no face, and when he turned around there would be a gasp as a Lovecraftian nightmare would appear and drag him to the realm of the old gods and…well you can read it for yourself. The point is that this laughter appears at the height of Clamence’s sense of victory and as he’s about to enjoy the simple pleasure of a cigarette the laughter emerges and cuts him to his core. Now the sudden appearance of laughter is nothing malevolent for Clamence explains it out further:
At the same time I became aware of the rapid beating of my heart. Please don’t misunderstand me; there was nothing mysterious about that laugh; it was a good, hearty, almost friendly laugh, which re-established the proper proportions. […] That evening as I rang up a friend, who wasn’t at home. I was hesitating about going out when, suddenly, I heard laughter under my windows. I opened them. On the sidewalk, in fact, some youths were loudly saying good night. I shrugged my shoulders as I closed the windows; after all, I had a brief to study. I went into the bathroom to drink a glass of water. My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double… (39-40).
The Fall possesses no outright supernatural elements like ghosts, demons, imps, or aliens but the sudden appearance and disappearance of the laughter, coupled with this final impression of the mirror, both work together to heighten Clamence’s impression and distract him from his pleasures. I have no intention of explaining these elements out as figures of otherworldly forces attempting to cause Clamence to fall, and in fact I’m positive neither does Camus. During his life, Camus strived to explore the implication of action, not simply physical but also mental action, for in his novel The Stranger Meursault’s apathy is often a choice that leads him down a particular path. By not caring that his mother is dead or shooting the arab on the beach he surrenders his ability to really make the choice to exist and be in the world. Clamence likewise suffers a similar problem, however unlike Meursault who is guided by apathy for the world in general, Clamence is wrapped up in his passion for his work which is ultimately an expression of his own vanity.
At this point the reader may ask so what? What relevance does Clamence hearing some laughter have to somebody on the street who’s never even heard of Albert Camus or The Fall. By the sounds of it the novel’s just some guy bullshitting in a bar to make himself feel special.
My regular contester has hit on something in the final part of their critique. Clamence is speaking to a nameless figure, he is confessing to a nameless figure and that distinction is important. Unless you’re Catholic (I was raised Episcopal which, as Robin Williams so brilliantly put, is “Catholic Light, same religion, half the guilt”) the idea of confessing something to someone is a rather abstract concept. It’s something people do in Soap Operas when they’ve cheated on their husband or wife. Clamence at first doesn’t seem to have anything to confess. He’s a failed lawyer and now a drunk, but looking back to the fact that the person listening is never named or described changes the way a person reads The Fall because over time it becomes clear Clamence is not addressing an unknown person, he’s speaking directly to the reader.
This is important then because the first question that emerges is: why is confessing to us? The second question is: what power do we have over Clamence that he should confess to us? And of course the third question would be: are we in any position to grant him any kind of pardon.
These questions aren’t without merit. Michel Foucault, a man that many in the existentialist camp found frustrating and not just because he looked great in a turtleneck, explored this notion in his book The History of Sexuality Volume 1 when he describes the role of confession in human society:
The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile. (61-2).
That was incredibly academic and thick, but breaking it down simply Foucault is suggesting that when a person is confession to another they are placing the listener into a position of power. This really isn’t an unfamiliar concept. When a friend shares a secret they are ultimately confessing it to you, thus giving you power over them. By the way Jessica told me that Taylor totally, and I mean look at me, totally has a crush on Brandon. Confessing is placing the self in the power of another person and so looking at Clamence a problem ensues: if he’s about his fall to us he gives us power over him.
The first part of the confession is about the laughter, for after he hears it his life begins to steadily unrail. It doesn’t end, for there are two other events in his life that will break him, but the laughter begins his problems, and because he’s confessing to us he is by implication asking us to consider whether or not he is a weak man for failing at the sound of that laughter. This is hard to say because I myself am not immune to this. Whenever I hear laughter I assume that it is because of me. Part of that may be being the un-athletic kid in school for many years, or my tendency to forget to zip up my fly which brings my wife endless amusement, but it’s also a narcissism on my part for I am in many ways a selfish and vain man. Case and point, I honestly believe somebody gives a shit about my opinion on a novel by Camus.
This fear of laughter is hardwired into me and so I find it difficult to really condemn Clamence, though it does make me think of Christopher Hitchens. I’ve written before about how one of my favorite books is letters to a young contrarian, a book which acts as a series of lessons for those who wish to prepare themselves for regularly challenging the established quo. There’s one passage in particular that stands out to me as I consider this:
Laughter can be the most unpleasant sound; it’s an essential element in mob conduct and is part of the background noise of taunting and jeering at lynching’s and executions. Very often, crowds or audiences will augh complicity or slavishly, just to show they “see” the joke and are all together. […] It’s therefore not true to say, as some optimists do, that humor is essentially subversive. It can be an appeal to the familiar and clichéd a source of reassurance through shared hilarity. (116).
Laughter is a sound that, by its nature, is built to deconstruct. There’s a reason that dictators keep an eye on writers and comedians, because laughter can remind people that everyone is equal in their humanity particularly their weaknesses. Looking at Clamance it’s no mistake that Camus decides upon seemingly source less laughter to ruin the man’s moment of vanity. Clamence believed himself to be a superman, but for a moment he felt a real terror for the laughter reminded him that he wasn’t immune from weakness and thus begins his “fall from grace.”
There is more to the novel, but looking at this I wanted to explore the idea of one impression. Laughter is what breaks Clamence, and as the reader considers their own life, and the burden of power as they receive the man’s confession, it falls upon them to decide whether or not they are implicated in the man’s fall, or at least, whether they can judge him without wondering if they could find themselves in the exact same place.
For the record the title is borrowed from a song by Aerosmith. You can enjoy the song, and don’t worry its good early Aerosmith, by following the link below:
While I was researching for this one I did go to Wikipedia (bash me later) for resources (Ha, got you) and to see if there were any details in the plot that I missed (got me again) and I noticed at the bottom there was a link to a small essay about Camus’s use of religious imagery in the novel. If you’re interested follow the link below: