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The Fall-Albert Camus
|by Pramod Khilery|
Satyajit Ray had once said that with the advancement of age one is likely to become less judgmental about others. Perhaps he meant to consciousness creeping in as the life wears on. Albert Camus’s novel is about the prickling shadow of demons of simply passing judgment, in other words, living outside of one’s self. It tries to stir up the waters of judgment to see the distortions of reflecting objects. Camus may have been dissecting his own self through the mask of Jean-Baptiste Clamence but it is amply clear how sarcastic he is of the judgmental nature of left wing intellectuals with whom he had fallen out after the publication of The Rebel in which he excoriated Stalin and his Communism. But this is one judgment Camus thinks he can afford as he is putting the protagonist to intense scrutiny to arrive at a conclusion. In this way it may well be the most personal novel published in his life time before The First Man, unfinished and visibly autobiographical, landed into reader’s hands in 1995 more than thirty years after his death.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence, son of an army officer, the first person narrator, into his forties, was a lawyer in Paris. Now he is a habitué of Mexico City, a low brow bar located at a port in Amsterdam. He deems himself a chatterbox and claims to make friends easily but not before weighing the subject. All what we read in the book is his almost soliloquy, with occasional interventions, never put into words, from the acquaintance he runs into at the bar. In this way it could well have been an internal monologue. Clamence, not the real name, reveals what a perfect human being he was in terms of the civil disposition he gave account of in personal as well as professional life. He never lost an opportunity to help the needy in fact waited for them, displayed good manners, took the cases of destitute for the lowest fee, achieved success in his profession and felt rewarded in refusing awards. He tells the narrator and the reader he was charming, good looking, athletic and successful with women. Such was the social success he enjoyed that he found his natural sense of superiority attuned with his love for heights. In the nutshell he said he was satisfied, personally as well as for being on the right side of divide. He claimed to reach a position where virtue itself was the arbiter of life. So much so that ‘a blind man, a reduction in sentence…, a warm handshake.. and a brilliant speech’ defined a perfect day for him. Encomiums showered upon him. At one point he even goes to the extent of calling himself a Superman.
This is Clamence’s past. Now, in Amsterdam, Clamence is out to find a semblance of purgation through self inflicted public accusations against his own self from a deep rooted guilt: as hobby works as a legal counsellor. He says at one point, ‘the more I accuse myself, the more I have the right to judge you’ thus also making the central point of novel clear that only a deep self circumspection allows one to pass judgment on others. Clamence hounds Mexico City from Jewish Quarters where he lives every evening in search of ears to his confessions and ultimate motive. Isn’t there a world of difference between two Clamences, the Superman and the guilt ridden? If the Clamence of Paris as we are told was an epitome of art of sculpting personality then what is the guilt that had him chuck his job and come to this city whose concentric canals he likens to the circles of hell. This is what is revealed as the confession makes its way through the novel. The narration progresses smoothly and sometimes verges on didacticism. We along with acquaintance are in monologue with Clamence.
Novel opens with perhaps an allusion to short shrift Dutch people are likely to give to an outsider. Clamence opines about the waiter and his silence. How much of this is literal and how much an allusion is not clear. Entire novel is replete with allusions about Europe in particular, humanity in general, left wing intellectuals in specifics and perhaps Sartre in sheer individuality. Thus the introspection-engendered personal vices galore and virtues redefined of Clamence end up issuing out public odor for everyone to sniff. ‘Mind you, I am not passing judgment’ he says in the very beginning once the acquaintance has been won. Why he is so wary of passing judgment? What wrong has he seen? What difference has he found between an opinion and judgment? Is former a process while latter a conclusion? But what if the process is a long drawn one? Wouldn’t then every stage is a judgment in its own right? Perhaps the answer doesn’t lay in the act of judging itself being wrong or right but in reaching out to the truth by digging inside one’s self as well as observing and knowing outside of the self using all the faculties at one’s disposal. Commitment to the truth alone which is never flat and plane and hence multihued only can help us tread the slippery path between opinion and judgment. Insinuating towards the Europe of his time Clamence says, ‘Someone has to have the last word. Otherwise every point of view would give rise to its opposite and there would be no end to it all. Power, on the other hand, settles everything.’ The power is prone to pronouncing judgments. Clamence’s hatred for the act of judging per se did not engender from his introspection. It was always there. But it was the charlatanry and dishonesty he came to recognize in his own self that made him wary of even celebrated human virtues. If he helped a blind man cross the road he took his hat off as if to receive accolades for a performance. If he attended funerals he made sure he was noticed. If someone expressed gratitude for the help he extended he cut it off and further pressed them under the golden burden. He had everything: an expression and a pose. And he reigned. Yet for all this introspection he is too public to avoid judgment. He mocks those who hold forth a lot and lay goose eggs. Allusion is not lost on anyone. ‘I always thought our fellow citizens were crazy about two things: ideas and fornication.’ In the same breath he says, ‘in any case, we should not judge them badly for it’ only to sound off again on the nature of Dutch people. Clamence thought he was a natural charlatan. He never needed to learn anything. Everything came naturally. His orphic belief comes forth when he says,’ entitled to this happiness by a command from on high’ and in the very next sentence he repudiates his religiosity.
Has Clamence been able to shake off his former self in his new habitation? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. It is more a matter of coming to terms with the realized vices in the light of putting oneself on the same plane of judgment as others. He has seen himself naked. But he still has opinions and judgments and quite acerbic ones at that. And these are what we hear in his narration. It seems Clemence of Amsterdam is better placed than Clamence of Paris to embellish his self and originality and yet social success, again though today he is comfortable with the idea of a hidden truth something which troubled him during his days of introspection and indifference but only at the cost of death. But in the context of the novel that is a hypothetical question. Only that we can’t overlook the distance that Clamence has traveled. Since he has set out to lay himself bare before a stranger not once but as many times as possible his new found sense of originality and honesty is now on display to be praised by readers without the element of his conscious performance sneaking in. The very fact that he has plumbed so deep in his self bears testimony to his having a grounded consciousness. Picturing hell as having ‘streets with trade signs for everyone without explanations’ he says of his sign, ‘I know mine: a double face..’ Clamence has been able to see only a sort of thaumaturgy in everything he did all his life. Here is a list of the words, phrases and sentences he uses about himself through his excruciating self scrutiny to relate what now tugs at his conscience and gives off a smell of hollowness: actor, me-me-me, I proceeded across the surface of life in words, so to speak, never in reality, Everything slid…yes, everything slid over me, I exploited rather than served them(women), …all the creatures whom I chose had not to live at all,… there is not a single person that I loved whom I did not also eventually betray, …what (I) excelled in above all was contempt.
Over the course of narration, aside from his personal dip, Clamence touches upon a gamut of events, personal as well as public. Through the rage and resentment in his self aroused out of a traffic incident in which he was knocked down we are told about the sense of oppression moving over intelligence of his being. Was he alluding to Sartre again when he wrote, ‘people generally turn to politics and hurry to support the cruelest party.’ In a monologue about ‘killing oneself’ to teach others lesson which starts with confession of suicide thoughts having crossed his mind he lays down the futility of such an act by striking one of the most resounding and truthful line in the novel, ‘martyrs should chose to be forgotten, mocked or exploited. As for being understood, never’ thus also debunking the need for friends. He talks about his speeches in court as purely acts of falsehood. Clamence tells about the tearing apart of his illusions of ‘universal accord’, realization of his having enemies even amongst those who he didn’t know and his sense of being ridiculed by everyone. He holds people’s spite as well as desire to escape judgment responsible for their having become prey to demons of judging.
As Clamence talks more about people than himself sometimes through himself we begin to sense an incipient rage seeping in his self and wreaking havoc. He confesses his disgust with others while forgetting his own weaknesses. He felt he was being judged and laughed at though he knew to be judged and found wanting was a prerequisite for improvement. He proclaims that entire humanity is hanging in the balance i.e. neither here or nor there or in other words Dante’s Limbo. His self scrutiny laid bare the interminable play between vices and virtues and how one thing leads to another. We see Camus in Clamence in visible light when he presses upon the absurdity of human affairs. The prickling combination of realization of inner truth and outer impression which fetched him compliments drew Clamence into such fits of despair that thoughts of death became ‘constant companion.’ Since he considered himself now a lair he decided to invite ridicule by doing a volte-face: an opposite of everything that is considered correct and right. Now it was not the oppressor but oppression of oppressed that he thought fit to defend. The word ‘justice’ angered him. He invoked God in front of bistro atheists. He questioned his integrity and accused himself of letting many murderers die. Only accusing himself was not enough. He did not learn the right way until he reached the most abject and neglected state.
At this point Clamence alludes to stagnation. He is almost as wary of Paris as fond of Greece. Yet not being able to stem the compliments he despised so vehemently Clamence talks of his next refuge: love. Finally he had decided to give love a try. Till now it was only making love which dictated his flings. But because even love had to reach the point of making love the dissonance between the two threw Clamence into a state of chastity. But for such a man next port of call could only have been debauchery. The art of forgetfulness which he excelled in got a new lease of life once yoked between debauchery and alcoholism. The sense of artificial immortality he gained came with one realization of mortality: liver. But still Clamence took satisfaction from the fact that that one month of debauchery further calcified the indifference and his irregularities cast a shadow on his profession. It was not as much the debauchery but the intoxication of it that charged him to launch into his provocations that further set him onto the path he had chosen for himself. Clamence thought the brute roughness of this path would whip his guilt to death. It didn’t happen.
Now he turns to religion Christianity in particular. He finds Last Judgment paler before the quotidian judgment that mankind pass. He tries to mitigate his guilt by stating that Jesus too was conscious of lack of absoluteness of his innocence. He laments that Jesus has been let down most by those who have become judge in his name ‘with a pardon on their lips and sentence in their hearts.’ And soon after this outburst he pulls in all religions into the envelope of his ire. ‘To be judged without a law’ he says is the greatest torment, something prevailing all across.
In the last episode of the narration Clamence tells us of his having been taken as prisoner in North Africa where through an opportunity to lead he came to know his selfishness garbed in his self conceived worthiness on account of his role. He unveils his socialist past and having become an accomplice in purloining of a painting called The Last Judges in 1934 yet to be found before coming down to term judge-penitent. ‘The profession of judge-penitent is the one that I am exercising at the moment’ Clamence concludes. He hasn’t ceased to be a judge only that he is a penitent too. Now his chatter is ‘guided-guided by the idea, of avoiding personal judgment.’ But in the same breath Clamence expresses helplessness to do so whereupon he advises the extension of personal condemnation to universal condemnation without any prejudices. ‘…be a professional penitent to become a judge’ he announces. He ironically endorsees slavery because he has come to realize freedom comes with a cost. He ridicules pretentious atheists and tells them to be Christians. As for himself he confesses to have ‘friendly feelings towards the very first of them (Christians).’
In the last pages of the novel Clamence sums up everything. He has become a human mirror in which his clientele at Mexico City can see themselves. Through his narration he is also telling their stories and hence their self. Repentance is delicious for him. Though he claims not to have changed, ‘I have accepted duplicity, instead of bewailing it’ the mere profundity of his self realizations precludes if not the deepest illusion and feigning their victory. It is in the end only that Clamence expects the reflection in mirror to be his alter ego. So much so that deepest secrets of the two selves may entwine thus hammering forth the truth that sin is not divorced from decency and even righteousness. At one point Clamence finds in him an echo of Godhood as he hands (bad) character certificates to other people and is brave enough to feel ‘adored.’
It is Camus’s spectacular success that in 92 odd pages he has been able to write a grand narrative which is as much solemn as ironical, as much self absorbed as self deprecating and as much about the protagonist as about the world; political, religious and intellectual. The inward dip that Clamence took endowed him with a sense of judgment devoid of sentimentality. He has taken it upon himself to open the closed doors of consciousness of people not through pulpit of pontification or preaching but by stripping himself bare down to the bones underneath flesh where every skeleton looks similar. During one of his monologues in an effort to lay bare his duplicity Clamence said, ‘I made war by peaceful means…’ This statement should have endeared us to Clemence since this is what Gandhi actually did. Didn’t Gandhi say that he fasted to effect a change of heart in the enemy? In other words trying to bend other to your definition of what is good and right. Since Gandhi was fighting imperialism and unjust laws much to the service of this phrase ‘war by peaceful means’ which otherwise is prone to exploitation and misuse the ‘change of heart’ doctrine worked to his advantage. In Clamence’s case the phrase applied in different context becomes synonymous to duplicity. Now even the admission is a war by peaceful means but hued differently.
Most of the narration unfolds in the darkness of night either direct or lightened. We are taken through streets of Amsterdam, to sea embankments and on a ship. Downpour and rain recur. If narration began in bar it ends at Clamence’s house. One constant thread through the entire narration or novel is metaphor of laughter. What does laughter signify?
As the narrator realizes and come to terms with his flaws laughter loses its potency to ruffle him. We can discern in that laughter a perpetual jeer whose degree of rippling is directly proportional to one’s degree of center as referenced by Naipaul in his eponymous book which is a function of acute self scrutiny and concentration. As we are told at the end of the novel it was one incident which led to it all. An incident which left behind a nagging sense of regret for Clamence. An incident which got proselytized into a laughter whose inherent jeer sent Clamence into the deepest innards of his own self. Clamence’s sins aside from some of his escapades with women are not outright atrocities on humanity. Perhaps most of what Clamence accused himself of reigns supreme in the quotidian world in much greater degree, at much greater scale and with much greater outward manifestations. Some of these manifestations find place in Clamence’s not so cloaked insinuations. Clamence is contradictory but isn’t it the play between contradictions that gives life it’s rising up as the biggest epitome of contradictions Nietzsche exemplified? Clamence also comes across as somewhat unhinged and negative in his response to the new lurid realizations but his acutely honest sense of atonement more than compensates for it. What Clamence does to the listeners of his tale over the course of some days also ipso facto gets extended to the readers of his narration. In that sense Camus has very honestly and intelligently transcended the novel beyond its traditional scope of reading and impression. Somewhere the character of Clamence begins to effuse a sense that his real literal self has relinquished his being to a metaphorical hoi polloi thus extinguishing himself to let the author speak directly to the readers about himself and them.
The economy that Camus has employed does the book a great deal of service as it leaves room for readers to complete the picture by themselves. A plethora of allusions and lyrical tinge to the sentences demands a slow and meticulous reading. Every sentence is worth its weight and the moment we feel digression setting in the meaning and allusion entailed brings it back to mainstream. The Fall as it progresses only rises up the consciousness path of the reader. The novel concludes only penance can be made once one is past his time and that too is not un-admirable.
The Fall through what we read and how we read has us meet Albert Camus in myriad avatars. A humanist, antireligionist, a believer in absurdism of life and yet seeker of truth, critic of left wing, a percipient petulant, a womanizer, an intensely public man through excruciatingly private personality and above all a writer who has been able to touch the atoms of compounds of water of consciousness without letting the refraction introduce bends in his profound reach. Through Clamence in the wake of his painful isolation and desertion Camus must have wanted to clear his doubts. The metaphor of regret in the context of novel appears only a fictitious hook on which he hanged his self to be exposed under the sunlight of scrutiny. Camus had had the heart to brave the tide. Camus’s novel is not special only for its protagonist having met the hollowness underneath which could be called a function of meeting the self but because he had the courage to call it The Fall.
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