La Chute: Albert Camus on the consequences of not learning to live

The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Rubens, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

The FallThe Fall by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last of Camus' works completed before his death in 1960. First published in 1956, the work is presented as a monologue by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a Parisian lawyer who has moved to Amsterdam to become a "judge-penitent". I will return to this term later. 

Clamence has become bitterly cynical about judges, law, and justice, and has taken to womanising, drinking, and generally driving himself into the ground through hard living. I've read other reviews suggesting the work is Clamence's "confession", for others it is his "self-accusation". The story (it is clearly a philosophical work, rather than a novella) incorporates the stolen panel "The Just Judges" of the Van Eyck painting, The Mythical Lamb (also known as the Ghent altarpiece). The panel was actually stolen in 1934 and is missing to this day. 

There are a few other historical references which I found fascinating, including Girolamo Savonarola (a Florentine precursor to the Reformation and mentioned in Machiavelli's The Prince); Bertrand du Guesclin (a Breton knight and French commander during the 100 Years War); Johannes Vermeer (Dutch painter famous for Girl with a Pearl Earring); and the "Little Ease" (1.2 metre square torture cell in the Tower of London's White Tower where one can neither stand nor lie down); Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (and an earlier reference to Iseult, an alternative name for Isolde in the Arthurian story); and François Achille Bazaine (who rose from the ranks under Louis-Philippe and later Napoleon III, and held every rank from Fusilier to Marshal of France).

I was surprised by how others had interpreted the work. Scott Horton (2009) in Harper's Magazine Blog sees Clamence's fall as the fall of society after the Second World War, and draws parallels with the recent past. He also suggests that the The Just Judges symbolises that while the panel is fake, there is an original, and we can live in hope that the just judges will return some time in the future. I find it interesting that this echoes Girolamo Savonarola's prediction of a prophet from the north who would come to remove the corruption of the church. 

Tony Judt (1994) in the New York Review of Books goes so far as to say that Camus was already in decline before his death, and that he was only "moderately gifted" at philosophy. (Judt also wrote that The Myth of Sisyphus "has not worn well".) I am inclined to make my own interpretation of the work, based on a few things that others (as far as I know) have not mentioned. 

First, Clamence mentions frequently how he despises the dark, underground, and cramped spaces (like the "little ease") and prefers the heights and mountain-tops. Maybe his work as a lawyer frustrates his desire to be a philosopher? 

Second, there are several references to the problems with altruism. For example (p. 8):
...he wrote over the door of his house: 'Wherever you come from welcome and enter'. And who do you suppose welcomed his invitation? Why, militiamen, who marched in, made themselves at home and disembowelled him.
And (p. 72):
Too many people have decided to do without generosity in practising charity.
From these, I see the work is much more about the individual. 

Third, the work addresses the challenge of living a virtuous life. Virtues and vices make numerous appearances, including jealousy (p. 66), cowardice (p. 34), shrinking from responsibility (p. 24), being so self-centred as to not take anyone else seriously (p. 54), and a raft of other issues that resonate with me. For example (p. 52):
...we would like at the same time to be no longer guilty and not to make the effort to purify ourselves. Not enough cynicism, not enough virtue.
I could go on. For me, the work addresses all of the issues of the self-centred person coming to terms with self-respect, and dealing with the guilt and shame that replays itself in the mind. In particular (p. 70):
Don't wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.
And avoiding self-reflection has its own price (p. 50):
I received all the wounds at once and lost my strength at a single blow. Then the whole universe began to laugh around me.
I have written previously about self-respect and how we suffer what Joan Didion referred to as our own home movie, but Clamence refers to as a film (p. 50):
I ran this little film a hundred times, with odd variations, in my imagination. But it was too late and for a few days I would suffer from a feeling of bitter resentment.
Clearly, Clamence is not happy with his past choices and has no idea of his purpose in life. In assessing his life (he is aged 40 by this time), he laments (p. 55):
I measured the years that separated me from my end. I looked out at examples of men of my age who were dead already. And I was tormented by the idea that I might not have time to accomplish my task. What task? I don't know.
All Clamence can do is judge himself (the judge-penitent) (p. 53):
Some mornings, I would conduct my trial to the very end and reach the conclusion that what I excelled in above all was contempt.
Clamence is not free, but wishes to be so (p. 58):
I wanted to break up the mannequin I presented to the world wherever I went, and lay open to scrutiny what was in its belly.
For me, the fall is not about the fall of society or humankind, but the inevitable residue that greets he who does not learn to live (p. 90):
These nights, or rather these mornings, because the fall occurs at dawn, I go out and walk briskly along the canals.
Camus presents to us, through Clamence, what it is like to live without philosophy, what it is like to live without self-respect (p. 90):
Yes, we've lost the light, the mornings, the holy innocence of the man who forgives himself.
Clamence is happy to die, not because of some reconciliation of the self, but because he knows himself, yet is incapable of conquering himself.

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