For a poster child of existentialism and indifference-maker, Albert Camus injects a lot of feeling into the flow of consciousness and one-sided conversation that is The Fall. I got the idea that the narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, sees apathy as the only rational state of mind but knows that it is not praiseworthy or by any means the most rewarding way to live. The honest self-reflection of the narrator, however uppity it is at times, becomes the self-reflection of the reader.
Pointing out flaws in anything or anyone is one of the easiest things to do. More searching than cynical, however, Camus does it in a way that implicates his narrator and makes you see your hypocrisy without seeming like an outstretched index finger in your face. Some of the societal contradictions he brings up, point to the disconnect between our ethical values versus the lives we actually lead. Here are some examples of what I mean:
“I used to forget everything, beginning with my resolutions. Fundamentally, nothing mattered. War, suicide, love, poverty got my attention of course, when circumstances forced me, but a courteous, superficial attention. At times, I would pretend to get excited about some cause foreign to my daily life. But basically I didn’t really take part in it except, of course, when my freedom was thwarted. How can I express it? Everything slid off – yes, just rolled off me” (49).
“To be sure, I occasionally pretended to take life seriously. But very soon the frivolity of seriousness struck me and I merely went on playing my role as well as I could” (87).
“Too many people have decided to do without generosity in order to practice charity” (114).
These things would be uncomfortable to admit because we are supposed to care, be genuinely invested. We are supposed to sincerely care about the plight of all human beings and animals. But Camus emphasizes that if sincerely caring is admirable and therefore holds social value, then one’s motives for caring cannot always be sincere. We are rewarded with a good reputation and standing in the eyes of our fellow citizens. One can be charitable without being generous or selfless. We want to reflect what our society deems to be good, but our true selves often diverge from that mold and in turn, we deceive ourselves.
One cornerstone of existentialism present in The Fall is the anguish felt by the extreme freedom that comes with creating one’s own essence. Nothing about you is preordained, you can decide on your own morality and identity and give meaning to what you find meaningful. Choice then, is radically personal and you alone carry responsibility for your every action. The weight of this can cause a kind of paralysis, which leads to non-decision or avoidance and perhaps even a realization that not much has meaning at all. You could do something or not do something, all the same. Taking action and failing is the fear, I suppose, especially if after harrowing deliberation you were still not sure if your decision was truly authentic (a.k.a. right).
“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” (133).
‘Freedom’, in this instance, could be replaced with ‘loneliness’ because it leaves you forlorn and abandoned all by yourself to decide for mankind what matters.
With no morality prescribed by the Scripture of a higher power, existentialists find the atrocities of war particularly absurd. God, or man for God is not administering justice through mass killing, so they might as well stop.
“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!” (37)
I think Camus meant that out of boredom and fear of death perhaps, we try our hardest to make a difference. But instead, as if we are just here doing stuff to do stuff, not for a moral end, but rather on precedent; we do and keep doing as it has always been done. War for war’s sake.
Even if you don’t relate on all aspects of criticism brought up by this novel, which would certainly be a good thing, I think almost anyone alive today can relate to it in some way. It might even point out something about yourself that you don’t like and can change. Redemption!
What I underlined:
The avidity with which in our society substitutes for ambition has always made me laugh (20)
I was at ease in everything, to be sure, but at the same time satisfied with nothing (30)
May heaven protect us, cher monsieur, from being set on a pedestal by our friends! (31)
It seemed to me that I was half unlearning what I had never learned and yet knew so well – how to live (42)
You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question (56)
When we are all guilty, that will be democracy (136)
Each excess decreases vitality, hence suffering (105)
Edition: Vintage International 1991