The Fall by Albert Camus

"Have you noticed that the concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?"

“Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Edition Provenance: Camus, Albert. La Chute. France: Librairie Gallimard, 1956. Print.

Excerpt Provenance: Camus, Albert. The Fall. New York: Vintage books, 1991. Print.Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien

Introduction to the Selection by Thomas J. Tumelty

Imagine you are traveling to Amsterdam for the first time, and upon arrival you immediately make an acquaintance with a stranger, whom you ultimately strike conversation with. This man then single handedly fuels the dialogue for the remainder of your stay, spanning over the course of almost a week. You are immediately referred to as cher ami by this stranger, and whether or not you had other intentions for this trip, the reality of your stay has just presented itself. The stranger, who is the narrator of the story, is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, an expatriate Frenchman. To whom Clamence is speaking to is not fully revealed to the reader. All we know, is that the character visiting Amsterdam is a lawyer with the intention to travel to Paris; two things Clamence can heavily relate to. The text is interspersed with acknowledgements to the visiting character, but we gain the sense that Clamence can go on with his carefully constructed narrative with or without the presence of another. The dialogue becomes an evolving confession that reveal the shortcomings, insecurities and fears of Clamence, whose condition symbolizes the state of modern society. What began as a spontaneous, banal conversation, soon evolves into a verbal manifesto on life which touches on every man’s struggle. These topics range from self-pity in the wake of ubiquitous judgment, lust, religion, to the fear of death and illusions of immortality.

The city is depicted as a timeless and motionless environment where memories of long ago have the power to alter and complement current perceptions. Additionally there is this continual representation of Amsterdam as this type of hell to which the Last Judgment might find a suitable venue. Clamence, an avid atheist, formulates the argument that judgment, not on the part of a divine power but rather by the common man, is all encompassing. The fusing of built form with the ephemeral creates a living hell that violates every individuals fabricated reality, and in particular Clamence’s. Clamence equates Amsterdam’s concentric canals to the levels of hell ( a nod of recognition to Dante for indirectly supporting this analogy ). Our first understanding is that the city represents the degree to which society has deteriorated. Our second understanding is that Clamence’s confession is the confession of humanity.  By publicly disclosing faults concerning himself, Clamence’s aim is to encourage others to do the same. “The essential is being able to permit oneself everything, even if, from time to time, one has to profess vociferously one’s own infamy.” (p112) He claims that his fears and deficiencies are not unique to him, but rather represent the human condition. Clamence’s approach to his confession is quite similar to his approach to women. “You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question. “(p48)

Holland: An Introduction

Excerpt

“Holland is a dream, monsieur, a dream of gold and smoke—smokier by day, more gilded by night. And night and day that dream is peopled with Lohengrins like these, dreamily riding their black bicycles with high handle-bars, funeral swans constantly drifting throughout the whole land, around the seas, along the canals. Their heads in their copper-colored clouds, they dream; they cycle in circles; they pray, somnambulists in the fog’s gilded incense’ they have ceased to be here. They have gone thousands of miles away, toward Java, the distant isle. They pray to those grimacing gods of Indonesia with which they have decorated all their shop windows and which at this moment are floating aimlessly above us before alighting, like sumptuous monkeys, on the signs and stepped roofs to remind these homesick colonials that Holland is not only the Europe of merchants but also the sea, the sea that leads to Cipango and to those island where men die mad and happy.

But I am letting myself go! I am pleading a case! Forgive me. Habit, monsieur, vocation, also the desire to make you fully understand this city, and the heart of things! For we are at the heart of things here. Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life—and hence its crimes—become denser, darker. Here, we are in the last circle. The circle of the . . . Ah, you know that? By heaven, you become harder to classify. But you understand then why I can say that the center of things is here, although we stand at the tip of the continent. A sensitive man grasps such oddities. In any case, the newspaper readers and the fornicators can go no further. They come form the four corners of Europe and stop facing the inner sea, on the drab strand. They listen to the foghorns, vainly try to make out the silhouettes of boats in the fog, then turn back over the canals and go home through the rain. Chilled to the bone, they come and ask in all languages for gin at Mexico City. There I wait for them. “ (pp15-16)

Physical Heights supporting self-fulfillment

Throughout the narrative, Clamence repeatedly discusses is affinity for heights. This is a running theme throughout the text that emphasizes our relationship to our physical surroundings; that built and natural forms not only guide our perceptions, but determine our mindset. Additionally the notion that we are imprisoned within society is alluded to here.

Excerpt

“Lets pause on these heights. Now you understand what I meant when I spoke of aiming higher. I was talking, it so happens, of those supreme summits, the only places I can really live. Yes, I have never felt comfortable except in lofty places. Even in the details of daily life, I needed to feel above. I preferred the bus to the subway, open carriages to taxis, terraces to closed places. An enthusiast for sport planes in which one’s head is in the open, on boats I was the eternal pacer of the top deck. In the mountains I used to flee the deep valleys for the passes and plateaus; I was the man of the mesas at least. If fate had forced me to choose between work at a lathe or as a roofer, don’t worry, I’d have chosen the roofs and become acquainted with dizziness. Coalbins, ships’ holds, undergrounds, grottoes, pits were repulsive to me. I had even developed a special loathing for speleologists, who had the nerve to fill the front page of our newspapers, and whose records nauseated me. Striving to reach elevation minus eight hundred at the risk of getting one’s head caught in a rocky funnel (a siphon, as those fools say!) seemed to me the exploit of perverted or traumatized characters. There was something criminal underlying it.

A natural balcony fifteen hundred feet above  a sea still visible bathed in sunlight, on the other hand, was the place where I could breathe most freely, especially if I were alone, well above the human ants. I could readily understand why sermons, decisive preachings, and fire miracles took place on accessible heights. In my opinion no one meditated in cellars or prison cells (unless they were situated in a tower with a broad view); one just became moldy. And I could understand that man who, having entered holy orders, gave up the frock because his cell, instead of overlooking a vast landscape as he expected, looked out on a wall. Rest assured that as far as I was concerned I did not grow moldy. At every hour of the day, within myself and among other, I would scale the heights and light conspicuous fires, and a joyful greeting would rise toward me. Thus at least I took pleasure in life and in my own excellence.

My profession satisfied most happily that vocation for summits. It cleansed me of al bitterness toward my neighbor, whom I always obligated without ever owing him anything. It set me above the judge whom I judged in turn, above the defendant whom I forced to gratitude. Just weigh this, cher monsieur, I lived with impunity. I was concerned in no judgment; I was not the floor of the courtroom, but somewhere in the flies like those gods that are brought down by machinery from time to time to transfigure the action and give it its meaning. After all, living aloft is still the only way of being seen and hailed by the largest number. “ (pp23-24)

Reality of Death

Clamence outlines how society harbors a degree of indifference towards death. This introduces a selfish mindset that he claims is all too prevalent; that a concern for another is triggered first by a concern for ourselves. This observation leads to Clamence expressing his fears surrounding death. Once this fear of death evolves into an acceptance of the grim reality, Clamence discovers a level of happiness within himself.

Excerpt

“Have you noticed that death alone awakens our feelings? How we love the friends who have just left us? How we admire those of our teachers who have ceased to speak, their mouths filled with earth! Then the expression of admiration springs forth naturally, that admiration they were perhaps expecting from us all their lives. But do you know why we are always more just and more generous toward the dead? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation. They leave us free and we can take our time, fit the testimonial in between a cocktail party and a nice little mistress, in our spare time, in short. If they forced us to anything, it would be to remembering, and we have a short memory. No, it is the recently dead we love among our friends, the painful dead, our emotion, ourselves after all!” (p30)

The City

Excerpt

“A doll’s village, isn’t it? No shortage of quaintness here! But I didn’t bring you to this island for quaintness, cher ami. Anyone can show you peasant headdresses, wooden shoes, and ornamented houses with fishermen smoking choice tobacco surrounded by the smell of furniture wax. I am one of the few people, on the other hand, who can show you what really matters here. We are reaching the dike. We’ll have to follow it to get as far as possible from these too charming houses. Please, let’s sit down. Well, what do you think of it? Isn’t it the most beautiful negative landscape? Just see on the left that pile of ashes they call a dune here, the gray dike on the right, the livid beach at our feet, and in front of us, the sea the color of a weak lye-solution with vast sky reflecting the colorless waters. A soggy hell, indeed! Everything horizontal, no relief; space is colorless, and life dead. Is it not universal obliteration, everlasting nothingness made visible? No human beings, above all, no human beings! You and I alone facing the planet at last deserted! The sky is alive? You are right, cher ami. It thickens, becomes concave, opens up air shafts and closes cloudy doors. Those are the doves. Haven’t you noticed that the sky of Holland is filled with millions of doves, invisible because of their altitude, which flap their wings, rise or fall in unison, filling the heavenly space with dense multitudes of grayish feathers carried hither and thither by the wind? The doves wait up there all year round. They wheel above the earth, look down, and would like to come down. But there is nothing but the sea and the canals, roofs covered with shop signs, and never a head on which to light.” (pp60-61)

Judgment

As aforementioned, Clamence supports the views of an atheist. Hence, instead of associating the source of judgment to some higher power, he instead believes judgment comes from those that surround him. He highlights a subconscious desire to simmer in his own self-pity, and how the judgment of others feeds on his own insecurities.

Excerpt

“This is so true that we rarely confide in those who are better than we. Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society. Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default. We merely wish to be pitied and encouraged in the course we have chosen. In short, we should like, at the same time, to cease being guilty and yet not to make the effort of cleansing ourselves. Not enough cynicism and not enough virtue. We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he put them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.

Patience? You are probably right. It would take patience to wait for the Last Judgment. But that’s it, we’re in a hurry. So much in a hurry, indeed, that I was obliged to make myself a judge-penitent. However, I first had to make shift with my discoveries and put myself right with my contemporaries’ laughter. From the evening when I was called—for I was really called—I had to answer or at least seek an answer. It wasn’t easy; for some time I floundered. To begin with, that perpetual laugh and the laugher had to teach me to see clearly within me and to discover at last that I was not simple. Don’t smile; that truth is not so basic as it seems. What we call basic truths are simply the ones we discover after all the others.

However that may be, after prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being .Then I realized, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress. I used to wage war by peaceful means and eventually used to achieve, through disinterested means, everything I desired. For instance, I never complained that my birthday was overlooked; people were even surprised, with a touch of admiration, by my discretion on this subject. But the reason for my disinterestedness was even more discreet: I longed to be forgotten in order to be able to complain to myself. Several days before the famous date ( which I knew very well) I was on the alert, eager to let nothing slip that might arouse the attention and memory of those on whose lapse I was counting (didn’t I once go so far as to contemplate falsifying a friend’s calendar?). Once my solitude was thoroughly proved, I could surrender to the charms of a virile self-pity.” (pp69-70)

Fear of Death

Excerpt

“Then it was that the thought of death burst into my daily life. I would measure the years separating me from my end. I would look for examples of men of my age who were already dead. And I was tormented by the thought that I might not have time to accomplish my task. What task? I had no idea. Frankly, was what I was doing worth continuing? But that was not quite it. A ridiculous fear pursued me, in fact: one could not die without having confessed all one’s lies. Not to God or to one f his representatives; I was above that, as you well imagine. No, it was a matter of confessing to men, to a friend, to a beloved woman, for example. Otherwise, were there but one lie hidden in a life, death made it definitive. No one, ever again, would know the truth on this point, since the only one to know it was precisely the dead man sleeping on his secret. That absolute murder of a truth used to make me dizzy. Today, let me interject, it would cause me, instead, subtle joys. The idea, for instance, that I am the only one to know what everyone is looking for and that I have at home an object which kept the police of three countries on the run is a sheer delight. But let’s not go into that. At the time, I had not yet found the recipe and I was fretting.” (pp73-74)

Descriptions of the Ephemeral

Excerpt

“You are wrong, cher, the boat is going at top speed. But the Zuider Zee is a dead sea, or almost. With its flat shores, lost in the fog, there’s no saying where it begins or ends. So we are steaming along without any landmark; we can’t gauge our speed. We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It’s not navigation but dreaming. In the Greek archipelago I had the contrary feeling. Constantly new islands would appear on the horizon. Their treeless backbone marked the limit of the sky and their rocky shore contrasted sharply with the sea. No confusion possible; in the sharp light everything was a landmark. And from one island to another, ceaselessly on our little boat, which was nevertheless dawdling, I felt as if we were scudding along, night and day, on the crest of the short, cool waves in a race full of spray and laughter. Since then, Greece itself drifts somewhere within me on the edge of my memory, tirelessly . . . Hold on, I, too, am drifting; I am becoming lyrical! Stop me, cher, I beg you. By the way, do you know Greece? No? So much the better. What should we do there, I ask you? There one has to be pure in heart. Do you know that there male friends walk along the street in pairs holding hands? Yes, the woman stay home and you often see a middle-aged, respectable man, sporting mustaches, gravely striding along the sidewalks, his fingers locked in those of his friend. In the Orient likewise, at times? All right. But tell me, would you take my hand in the streets of Paris? Oh, I’m joking. We have a sense of decorum; scum makes us stilted. Before appearing in the Greek islands, we should have to wash at length. There the air is chaste and sensual enjoyment as transparent as the sea. And we . . . “ (pp79-80)

On the topic of Lust

Excerpt

“You must have noticed that men who really suffer from jealousy have no more urgent desire than to go to bed with the woman they nevertheless think has betrayed them. Of course, they want to assure themselves once more that their dear treasure still belongs to them. They want to possess it, as the saying goes. But there is also the fact that immediately afterward they are less jealous. Physical jealousy is a result of the imagination at the same time that it is a self-judgment. One attributes to the rival the nasty thoughts one had oneself in the same circumstances. Fortunately excess of sensual satisfaction weakens both imagination and judgment. The suffering then lies dormant as long as virility does. For the same reasons adolescents lose their metaphysical unrest with their first mistress; and certain marriages, which are merely formalized debauches, become the monotonous hearses of daring and invention. Yes, cher ami, bourgeois marriage has put our country into slipper and will soon lead it to the gates of death.

I am exaggerating? No, but I am straying from the subject. I merely wanted to tall you the advantage I derived from those months of orgy. I lived in a sort of fog in which the laughter became so muffled that eventually I ceased to notice it. The indifference that already had such a hold over me now encountered to resistance and extended its sclerosis. No more emotions! An even temper, or rather no temper at all. Tubercular lungs are cured by drying up and gradually asphyxiate their happy owner. So it was with me as I peacefully died of my cure. I was still living on my work, although my reputation was seriously damaged by my flights of language and the regular exercise of my profession compromised by the disorder of my life. It is noteworthy, however, that I aroused less resentment by my nocturnal excesses than by my verbal provocations. The reference, purely verbal, that I often made to God in my speeches before the court awakened mistrust in my clients. They probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law. Whence it was but a step to conclude that I invoked the divinity in proportion to my ignorance. My clients took that step and became scarce.” (pp85-86)

On the topic of Religion

Excerpt

“Believe me, religions are on the wrong track the moment they moralize and fulminate commandments God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves. You were speaking of the Last Judgment. Allow me to laugh respectfully.  I shall wait for it resolutely, for I have known what is worse, the judgment of men. For them, no extenuating circumstances; even the good intention is ascribed to crime. Have you at least heard of the spitting-cell, which a nation recently thought up to prove itself the greatest on earth? A walled-up box in which the prisoner can stand without moving. The solid door that locks him in his cement shell stops at chin level. Hence only his face is visible, and every passing jailer spits copiously on it. The prisoner, wedged into his cell, cannot wipe his face, though he is allowed, it is true, to close his eyes. Well, that, mon cher, is a human invention. They didn’t need God for that little masterpiece.

What of it? Well, God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence, and I am inclined to see religion rather a s a huge laundering venture—as it was once but briefly, for exactly three years, and it wasn’t called religion. Since then, soap has been lacking, our faces are dirty, and we wipe one another’s noses. All dunces, all punished, let’s all spit on one another and—hurry! To the little-ease! Each tries to spit first, that’s all. I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” (pp89-90)

Salvation

Clamence repeatedly describes Paris as being this type of haven to which he hopes to return. Paris is described in stark contrast to Amsterdam. If Paris represents everything that is beautiful in the world, it goes without saying that Clamence views Amsterdam as the opposite. We begin to question why Clamence is now stationed in Amsterdam, but it becomes clear that his criticism of society and of himself are fully represented in his present context.

Excerpt

“You are going back to Paris? Paris is far; Paris is beautiful’ I haven’t forgotten it. I remember its twilights at about this same season. Evening falls, dry and rustling, over the roofs blue with smoke, the city rumbles, the river seems to flow backward. Then I used to wander in the streets. They wander now too, I know! They wander, pretending to hasten toward the tired wife, the forbidding home . . . Ah, mon ami, do you know what the solitary creature is like as he wander in big cities? . . . “ (End of chapter) (p95)

The Fall

Clamence reveals his overall ambition. His narrative has been refined and repeated to many a visitor, and we can see that Clamence becomes something of a timeless element in and of himself; as long as Amsterdam exists to support his claims, he will continue to make them.

Excerpt

“So I have been practicing my useful profession at Mexico City for some time. It consists to begin with, as you know from experience, in indulging in public confession as often as possible. I accuse myself up and don. It’s not hard, for I now have acquired a memory. But let me point out that I don’t accuse myself crudely, beating my breast. No, I navigate skillfully, multiplying distinctions and digressions, too—in short I adapt my words to my listener and lead him to go me one better. I mingle what concerns me and what concerns other. I choose the features we have in common, the experience we have endured together, the failings we share—good form, in other words, the man of the hour as he Is rife in me and in others. With all that I construct a portrait which is the image of all and of no one. A mask, in short, rather like those carnival masks which are both lifelike and stylized, so that they make people say: “Why, surely I’ve met him!” When the portrait s finished, as it is this evening, I show it with great sorrow: “This, alas, is what I am!” The prosecutor’s charge is finished. But at the same time the portrait I hold out to my contemporaries becomes a mirror.” (pp111-112)

“Yes, I am moving about. How could I remain in bed like a good patient? I must be higher than you, and my thoughts lift me up. Such nights, or such mornings rather (for the fall occurs at dawn), I go out and walk briskly along the canals. In the livid sky the layers of feathers become thinner, the doves move a little higher, and above the roofs a rosy light announces a new day of my creation. On the Damrak the first streetcar sounds its bell in the damp air and marks the awakening of life at the extremity of this Europe where, at the same moment, hundreds of millions of men, my subjects, painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work. Then, soaring over this whole continent which is under my sway without knowing it, drinking in the absinthe-colored light of breaking day, intoxicated with evil words, I am happy—I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death! Oh, sun, beaches, and the islands in the path of the trade winds, youth whose memory drives one to despair!” (pp114-115)

About the Author

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957. At the age of twenty-five Camus joined the French resistance movement, and afterwards became a columnist for the newspaper Combat. Many of his other works including L’Etranger (the Stranger, 1942), La Peste (The Plague 1947), L’Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom 1957) to name a few, explore similar themes unpacked in La Chute (The Fall). Many of Camus’ writings are concerned with habitual society and how the individual is placed within a less than ideal framework. Camus’ writings often unveil the absurdities that plague every day life. Themes of innocence, self-fulfillment, imprisonment, mortality, and corruption are unpacked in many of his novels. These topics stem from Camus’ deeply rooted interest in philosophy.

1. Camus, Albert. The Fall. New York: Vintage books, 1991. Print.Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien

2. From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969 

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