The Fall (La Chute)

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THE FALL (La Chute)

Novel by Albert Camus, 1956

Albert Camus's novel The Fall is a satirical tour de force that mocks the Christian doctrine of the fall of man, because of Adam's original sin, as pious hypocrisy by the device of setting the novel in the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam's harbor area after World War II. The novel's lone protagonist, a Frenchman who pointedly calls himself Jean-Baptiste Clamence (that is, the biblical figure John the Baptist, known as the voice crying in the wilderness), proudly declares in the novel's opening chapter that he has chosen to live in the Jewish quarter, where there is now a lot of room because "our Hitlerian brothers," with methodical efficiency, wiped out the entire Jewish community during the war. Clamence consequently adds, "I am living on the scene of one of the greatest crimes in history." Clamence also notes that the concentric canals of Amsterdam remind him of the circles of hell described by Dante and that the harbor and the old Jewish quarter are thus in the last or innermost circle, the ninth in Dante's hell, which is the circle of the traitors, those who have betrayed the highest values of their society: family, friends, country, or religion. Combining the symbolism of a Holocaust-like devastated Jewish quarter and a Dantesque ninth circle of treachery-ridden hell, Camus, alias Clamence, has thereby defined the novel's main theme from the outset as a grimly comic demonstration that man's fall from grace, in the twentieth-century Christian world, has been far more precipitous and far more universal than anything the biblical world could have imagined and that much of the fall had occurred in the name of religion.

The novel emerged from a troubled and unproductive period in Camus's career and therefore reflected his deepened pessimism about human nature. The entire content of The Fall is a transcription of a rapidly delivered speech—actually one side of an oddly unbalanced dialogue—by Clamence, whose facile comic verve is artfully contrived to obscure his meaning and thus keep both his interlocutor and the reader constantly off balance. Nevertheless, Clamence never loses their attention, because his steady stream of chatter is an irresistibly brilliant virtuoso performance, as spellbinding as that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," both to the person he is addressing and to the reader who, by an ingenious twist, turn out at the end to be the same person.

As the novel opens, Clamence is in mid-conversation with a total stranger, with whom he has just become acquainted, in a sleazy bar of the harbor district in Amsterdam. This conversation will go on for five full days, represented by the book's five chapters. Clamence brazenly makes pronouncements on all sorts of matters, most of which are plainly not true, including his name. To compound the confusion he later remarks that, before coming to Amsterdam, he had been a lawyer but that now his occupation is "judge-penitent," a calling of his own invention that will not be fully explained until the last day.

Clamence purports to be telling the stranger his life story, but it is actually a carefully calculated fiction in which he manages to "confess," contritely, to having committed all the commonest sins of man in his past when he was a prosperous Paris lawyer, admired for his defense of widows and orphans. He confesses further that in those days he took great satisfaction in being able to consider himself a person of superior virtue until one day, as he looked smugly at himself in the mirror, he thought he heard a woman's mocking laugh. The laugh compelled him to recall an occasion when he was crossing a bridge over the Seine late at night and saw a young woman preparing to throw herself into the river, then heard the splash. But instead of attempting to rescue her or get help, he walked quickly away without looking back. He now realizes that the mocking laugh was really his conscience telling him that the man of superior virtue he considered himself to be was in fact a pious fraud and a sinner, like everyone else.

It was that revelation that prompted him to give up his practice, do penance in the seediest district of Amsterdam, and take up the profession of judge-penitent. His new profession, Clamence explains, requires him to be of whatever assistance he can to all tourists who come to that sin-laden quarter of Amsterdam. His assistance consists of offering to listen sympathetically to their confessions of sin. He can only do this, however, by first accusing himself of all seven deadly sins. That is what gives him the right to judge them and allows him the pleasure of once again basking in the warmth of his own superiority. As a judge-penitent, he points out, he can once more confer upon himself the right to be called virtuous, as he was wont to do as a Parisian lawyer.

The novel naturally concludes with the disclosure that, as Clamence had guessed from the start, his interlocutor is in fact a Paris lawyer. Clamence had shrewdly shaped his own invented life story on that premise so that his offer to listen sympathetically to his interlocutor's confession would be more readily accepted and he would have one more opportunity to experience the pleasurable sensation of his own moral superiority, so necessary to his personal comfort and self-esteem. That ending compels the reader to recognize the calculated sophistry of Clamence's purely self-seeking performance. Disguised as high-minded moral philosophy, it is merely a device for exerting a kind of moral blackmail on others to feed his own emotional needs.

The thoughtful reader might well discern a broader meaning in the novel as well, intended by Camus—namely, the danger of the Christian doctrines of original sin and the fall of man. Those doctrines, which proclaim that all humans are sinners, subtly sanction the actions of authoritarian minds, allowing them to feel justified in creating such oppressive regimes as Fascism or in perpetrating such genocide as the Holocaust because their victims are certifiably sinful and deserve harsh punishment.

—Murray Sachs

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The Fall (La Chute)

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