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The Fall

The Fall

Author: Albert Camus
Rating: 4/5
Last Read: August 2018
Who Should Read: Anyone interested in The Mind, philosophy, psychology, or religion

I've read a few of Camus's essays, but The Fall was my first major foray into his work.

The Fall is a short novel. The book is presented as a confessional monologue given by a lawyer to a compatriot in a bar. The lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, recounts the events of his life which led to his fall from a fully-absorbed and selfish love of life to one of dark depression and guilt. Clamence's evolution in The Fall seems to purposefully mirror the themes presented in the book of Genesis, where man is kicked out of the garden of Eden and Wakes Up to a world of work, pain, and knowledge of evil.

How does Clamence's Fall occur? While walking through Paris one night, Clamence fails to save a woman whom (he assumes) is pushed into in the river and drowns. His inaction that night drives him further and further into madness and guilt. Camus seems to emphasize a point frequently repeated by Jordan Peterson throughout his biblical lecture series: Nobody gets away with anything, ever.

Clamence's self-judgment leads him down the road to an existential nightmare. He's quite an interesting and disturbing character, especially for someone so introspective. He posits that we can never improve ourselves, because our own consciences will eternally condemn us as guilty. This is an amusing stance for a character who admits that he is morally bankrupt, but continues to act the same way that he did before "The Fall". He seems to think that his admission of guilt and cowardice makes him noble, or at least no longer a hypocritical liar. Even after the self-torment, he says that given a second chance to save the woman, he knows that he would still fail to act.

It is this final admission of Clamence's that leaves me the most disturbed - his attitude feels evil and sickening to me. Perhaps I find myself so disturbed because this attitude is more common than I would like to think.

If you are a student of the human condition, The Fall is a book for you. This novel is extremely philosophical and touches on many points which are still relevant in our society today. Perhaps the points discussed in the novel have always been relevant to humanity. I'm still chewing on many internal questions and uncomfortable Truths raised by this book.

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.

My Highlights

I enjoyed my own nature to the fullest, and we all know that there lies happiness, although, to soothe one another mutually, we occasionally pretend to condemn such joys as selfishness.

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.

After all, living aloft is still the only way of being seen and hailed by the largest number.

Indeed, wasn’t that Eden, cher monsieur: no intermediary between life and me? Such was my life. I never had to learn how to live. In that regard, I already knew everything at birth. Some people’s problem is to protect themselves from men or at least to come to terms with them. In my case, the understanding was already established. Familiar when it was appropriate, silent when necessary, capable of a free and easy manner as readily as of dignity, I was always in harmony. Hence my popularity was great and my successes in society innumerable.

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. In particular the flesh, matter, the physical in short, which disconcerts or discourages so many men in love or in solitude, without enslaving me, brought me steady joys. I was made to have a body. Whence that harmony in me, that relaxed mastery that people felt, even to telling me sometimes that it helped them in life. Hence my company was in demand. Often, for instance, people thought they had met me before. Life, its creatures and its gifts, offered themselves to me, and I accepted such marks of homage with a kindly pride. To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself as something of a superman.

Have you never suddenly needed understanding, help, friendship? Yes, of course. I have learned to be satisfied with understanding. It is found more readily and, besides, it’s not binding. “I beg you to believe in my sympathetic understanding” in the inner discourse always precedes immediately “and now, let’s turn to other matters.”

Friendship is less simple. It is long and hard to obtain, but when one has it there’s no getting rid of it; one simply has to cope with it. Don’t think for a minute that your friends will telephone you every evening, as they ought to, in order to find out if this doesn’t happen to be the evening when you are deciding to commit suicide, or simply whether you don’t need company, whether you are not in a mood to go out. No, don’t worry, they’ll ring up the evening you are not alone, when life is beautiful.

May heaven protect us, cher monsieur, from being set on a pedestal by our friends!

But it’s not easy, for friendship is absent-minded or at least unavailing. It is incapable of achieving what it wants. Maybe, after all, it doesn’t want it enough? Maybe we don’t love life enough? 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!

That’s the way man is, cher monsieur. He has two faces: he can’t love without self-love.

Death certainly has this affect on me:

Notice your neighbors if perchance a death takes place in the building. They were asleep in their little routine and suddenly, for example, the concierge dies. At once they awake, bestir themselves, get the details, commiserate. A newly dead man and the show begins at last. They need tragedy, don’t you know; it’s their little transcendence, their apéritif.

Camus isn't pulling any punches, and he hits the nail on the head:

I knew a man who gave twenty years of his life to a scatterbrained woman, sacrificing everything to her, his friendships, his work, the very respectability of his life, and who one evening recognized that he had never loved her. He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen—and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death. Hurray then for funerals!

Life became less easy for me: when the body is sad the heart languishes.

Humans need slaves (or at least domination), Clamence says:

I am well aware that one can’t get along without domineering or being served. Every man needs slaves as he needs fresh air. Commanding is breathing—you agree with me? And even the most destitute manage to breathe. The lowest man in the social scale still has his wife or his child. If he’s unmarried, a dog. The essential thing, after all, is being able to get angry with someone who has no right to talk back.

Still happening:

Power, on the other hand, settles everything. It took time, but we finally realized that. For instance, you must have noticed that our old Europe at last philosophizes in the right way. We no longer say as in simple times: “This is the way I think. What are your objections?” We have become lucid. For the dialogue we have substituted the communiqué: “This is the truth,” we say. “You can discuss it as much as you want; we aren’t interested. But in a few years there’ll be the police who will show you we are right.”

To me, this seems to be how the rich currently think of the masses:

Just between us, slavery, preferably with a smile, is inevitable then. But we must not admit it. Isn’t it better that whoever cannot do without having slaves should call them free men? For the principle to begin with, and, secondly, not to drive them to despair. We owe them that compensation, don’t we? In that way, they will continue to smile and we shall maintain our good conscience.

I have to admit it humbly, mon cher compatriote, I was always bursting with vanity. I, I, I is the refrain of my whole life, which could be heard in everything I said. I could never talk without boasting, especially if I did so with that shattering discretion that was my specialty. It is quite true that I always lived free and powerful. I simply felt released in regard to all for the excellent reason that I recognized no equals. I always considered myself more intelligent than everyone else, as I’ve told you, but also more sensitive and more skillful, a crack shot, an incomparable driver, a better lover. Even in the fields in which it was easy for me to verify my inferiority—like tennis, for instance, in which I was but a passable partner—it was hard for me not to think that, with a little time for practice, I would surpass the best players. I admitted only superiorities in me and this explained my good will and serenity. When I was concerned with others, I was so out of pure condescension, in utter freedom, and all the credit went to me: my self-esteem would go up a degree.

By gradual degrees I saw more clearly, I learned a little of what I knew. Until then I had always been aided by an extraordinary ability to forget. I used to forget everything, beginning with my resolutions. Fundamentally, nothing mattered.

Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality. All those books barely read, those friends barely loved, those cities barely visited, those women barely possessed! I went through the gestures out of boredom or absent-mindedness. Then came human beings; they wanted to cling, but there was nothing to cling to, and that was unfortunate—for them. As for me, I forgot. I never remembered anything but myself.

As I passed, the idiot greeted me with a “poor dope” that I still recall. A totally insignificant story, in your opinion? Probably. Still it took me some time to forget it, and that’s what counts.

I am guilty of this - the monkey mind at play.

As an afterthought I clearly saw what I should have done. I saw myself felling d’Artagnan with a good hook to the jaw, getting back into my car, pursuing the monkey who had struck me, overtaking him, jamming his machine against the curb, taking him aside, and giving him the licking he had fully deserved. With a few variants, I ran off this little film a hundred times in my imagination. But it was too late, and for several days I chewed a bitter resentment.

Is this how my own anger serves me - simply wanting to dominate and have others listen?

I had dreamed—this was now clear—of being a complete man who managed to make himself respected in his person as well as in his profession. Half Cerdan, half de Gaulle, if you will. In short, I wanted to dominate in all things. This is why I assumed the manner, made a particular point of displaying my physical skill rather than my intellectual gifts. But after having been struck in public without reacting, it was no longer possible for me to cherish that fine picture of myself. If I had been the friend of truth and intelligence I claimed to be, what would that episode have mattered to me? It was already forgotten by those who had witnessed it. I’d have barely accused myself of having got angry over nothing and also, having got angry, of not having managed to face up to the consequences of my anger, for want of presence of mind. Instead of that, I was eager to get my revenge, to strike and conquer. As if my true desire were not to be the most intelligent or most generous creature on earth, but only to beat anyone I wanted, to be the stronger, in short, and in the most elementary way.

The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone.

What does it matter, after all, if by humiliating one’s mind one succeeds in dominating everyone?

Everyone has a shadow. Is yours properly integrated, or do you let it run free?

When I was threatened, I became not only a judge in turn but even more: an irascible master who wanted, regardless of all laws, to strike down the offender and get him on his knees. After that, mon cher compatriote, it is very hard to continue seriously believing one has a vocation for justice and is the predestined defender of the widow and orphan.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.

Of course, true love is exceptional—two or three times a century, more or less. The rest of the time there is vanity or boredom.

The mind's scheming, exposed by Camus:

I had principles, to be sure, such as that the wife of a friend is sacred. But I simply ceased quite sincerely, a few days before, to feel any friendship for the husband.

Our feminine friends have in common with Bonaparte the belief that they can succeed where everyone else has failed.

How many people must this way:

I was never concerned with the major problems except in the intervals between my little excesses.

In short, for me to live happily it was essential for the creatures I chose not to live at all. They must receive their life, sporadically, only at my bidding.

How do I know I have no friends? It’s very easy: I discovered it the day I thought of killing myself to play a trick on them, to punish them, in a way. But punish whom? Some would be surprised, and no one would feel punished. I realized I had no friends. Besides, even if I had had, I shouldn’t be any better off. If I had been able to commit suicide and then see their reaction, why, then the game would have been worth the candle. But the earth is dark, cher ami, the coffin thick, and the shroud opaque.

Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.

In order to cease being a doubtful case, one has to cease being, that’s all.

You think you are dying to punish your wife and actually you are freeing her. It’s better not to see that.

So what’s the good of dying intentionally, of sacrificing yourself to the idea you want people to have of you? Once you are dead, they will take advantage of it to attribute idiotic or vulgar motives to your action. Martyrs, cher ami, must choose between being forgotten, mocked, or made use of. As for being understood—never!

I’m not saying to avoid punishment, for punishment without judgment is bearable. It has a name, besides, that guarantees our innocence: it is called misfortune.

Today we are always ready to judge as we are to fornicate. With this difference, that there are no inadequacies to fear. If you doubt this, just listen to the table conversation during August in those summer hotels where our charitable fellow citizens take the boredom cure. If you still hesitate to conclude, read the writings of our great men of the moment. Or else observe your own family and you will be edified. Mon cher ami, let’s not give them any pretext, no matter how small, for judging us! Otherwise, we’ll be left in shreds.

In short, the moment I grasped that there was something to judge in me, I realized that there was in them an irresistible vocation for judgment.

Your successes and happiness are forgiven you only if you generously consent to share them. But to be happy it is essential not to be too concerned with others. Consequently, there is no escape. Happy and judged, or absolved and wretched.

As for me, the injustice was even greater: I was condemned for past successes.

People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. What do you expect? The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence.

We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.

You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you.

But those rascals want grace, that is irresponsibility, and they shamelessly allege the justifications of nature or the excuses of circumstances, even if they are contradictory. The essential thing is that they should be innocent, that their virtues, by grace of birth, should not be questioned and that their misdeeds, born of a momentary misfortune, should never be more than provisional.

As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that's always worth taking.

Above all, don’t believe your friends when they ask you to be sincere with them. They merely hope you will encourage them in the good opinion they have of themselves by providing them with the additional assurance they will find in your promise of sincerity. How could sincerity be a condition of friendship? A liking for truth at any cost is a passion that spares nothing and that nothing resists. It’s a vice, at times a comfort, or a selfishness. Therefore, if you are in that situation, don’t hesitate: promise to tell the truth and then lie as best you can. You will satisfy their hidden desire and doubly prove your affection.

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.

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.

I have never been really able to believe that human affairs were serious matters. I had no idea where the serious might lie, except that it was not in all this I saw around me—which seemed to me merely an amusing game, or tiresome. There are really efforts and convictions I have never been able to understand. I always looked with amazement, and a certain suspicion, on those strange creatures who died for money, fell into despair over the loss of a “position,” or sacrificed themselves with a high and mighty manner for the prosperity of their family. I could better understand that friend who had made up his mind to stop smoking and through sheer will power had succeeded. One morning he opened the paper, read that the first H-bomb had been exploded, learned about its wonderful effects, and hastened to a tobacco shop.

You remember the remark: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you!” Ah, the one who said that spoke words of wisdom!

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?

You see, it is not enough to accuse yourself in order to clear yourself; otherwise, I’d be as innocent as a lamb. One must accuse oneself in a certain way, which it took me considerable time to perfect.

The greater the threat to the feeling in which I had hoped to find calm, the more I demanded that feeling of my partner.

I tried accordingly to give up women, in a certain way, and to live in a state of chastity. After all, their friendship ought to satisfy me. But this was tantamount to giving up gambling. Without desire, women bored me beyond all expectation, and obviously I bored them too. No more gambling and no more theater—I was probably in the realm of truth. But truth, cher ami, is a colossal bore.

Despairing of love and of chastity, I at last bethought myself of debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality.

One plays at being immortal and after a few weeks one doesn’t even know whether or not one can hang on till the next day.

There is nothing frenzied about debauchery, contrary to what is thought. It is but a long sleep.

Physical jealousy is a result of the imagination at the same time that it is a self-judgment.

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.

Hell is a real place, and I see people living there every day:

I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.

Say, do you know why he was crucified—the one you are perhaps thinking of at this moment? Well, there were heaps of reasons for that. There are always reasons for murdering a man. On the contrary, it is impossible to justify his living. That’s why crime always finds lawyers, and innocence only rarely. But, beside the reasons that have been very well explained to us for the past two thousand years, there was a major one for that terrible agony, and I don’t know why it has been so carefully hidden. The real reason is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others—even though he didn’t know which ones.

There was a time when I didn’t at any minute have the slightest idea how I could reach the next one. Yes, one can wage war in this world, ape love, torture one’s fellow man, or merely say evil of one’s neighbor while knitting. But, in certain cases, carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman.

In solitude and when fatigued, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet.

You see, a person I knew used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to hide rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden.

I didn’t know that freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne. Nor yet a gift, a box of dainties designed to make you lick your chops. Oh, no! It’s a chore, on the contrary, and a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting. No champagne, no friends raising their glasses as they look at you affectionately. Alone in a forbidding room, alone in the prisoner’s box before the judges, and alone to decide in face of oneself or in the face of others’ judgment. At the end of all freedom is a court sentence; that’s why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you’re down with a fever, or are distressed, or love nobody.

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence one must choose a master, God being out of style.

However, I have a superiority in that I know it and this gives me the right to speak. You see the advantage, I am sure. The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the burden. Ah, mon cher, we are odd, wretched creatures, and if we merely look back over our lives, there’s no lack of occasions to amaze and horrify ourselves.

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The Fall
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