Seeing Through the Fog of Human Identity
Albert Camus’ “The Fall” (1956) is the masterful confession of Jean-Baptiste Clemence, a Parisian lawyer living as an expatriate in Amsterdam. “The Fall” is written as an epic monologue, always through the voice of Clemence, however the reader hears all through the ears of an unnamed albeit ‘cultured bourgeois.’ After meeting Clemence at the ‘Mexico City’, a disheveled bar in the sailor’s quarter – we are made to feel foreign, unsure of why we are here – but Clemence immediately lures us in to the shelter of acquaintanceship, and buys us a gin. Any first time reader of “The Fall” would do well to specifically note any reference Clemence makes to bridges, for therein lies a haunting motif, the sin he cannot forgive in himself.
Camus’ prose is rapturously poetic, the narrative flows easily, and there’s not a wasted breath in the whole of “The Fall”. Each line of monologue is dramatic and requires our attention, for Jean Baptiste is viscerally real in his speech. Clemence’s disclosure is perfectly astute and each page is inherent with lyrical gems of dense meaning. “For the statue to stand bare, the fine speeches must take flight like pigeons. So here goes.” Not as doves or jackdaws, mind you, but as pigeons, and each of Clemence’s points flutters and takes flight, revealing the ambiguities of his own character.
The reader would be wise to remember that Clemence maintains the eloquence of a lawyer and his speech is marked by elaborate equivocations. “But I am letting myself go!” Announces Clemence, but a few pages in, “I am pleading a case! Forgive me. Habit, monsieur, vocation, also the desire to make you fully understand this city, and the heart of things! For we are at the heart of things here. Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?… Here, we are in the last circle.” As a parallel, Clemence becomes our Virgil, leading us up and down these canals, pointing out the finer details of foggy Amsterdam, all while commentating on the duality of crime and virtue, as illustrated through his anecdotal outpourings, always with an ulterior destination in mind. But if we are already in the final ring of Hell, then where are we going? Purgatorio? Paradiso? Are we falling up?
Clemence recalls the details of his life with tactful measure, never failing to articulate the dual-motives of his righteousness and failures. His confessions appear fully realized and he doesn’t seem to conceal any weakness in his character. Rather, he draws out the worst in himself, and demonstrates how pride and vanity are always interlaced with his best intentions. “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 use to wage war by peaceful means and eventually use to achieve, through disinterested means, everything I desired.”
Clemence straight-forwardly describes his occupation as a judge-penitent, then patiently bides his time building his back story in order to reveal, in the height of the final chapter, what the nature of his work really is. While Clemence paints an adept portrait of human existence in tones of gray, his most powerful points are to be found on the subject of judgement-itself. In the course of his law profession, Clemence defended the innocence of the guilty, and observed the guilt of the innocent. “If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves were constantly innocent, cher monsieur. And in my opinion… That’s what must be avoided above all. Otherwise, everything would be just a joke.” Clemence does not believe in a universal state of innocence, nor in any ultimate judgement. “Moreover, we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. Everyman testifies to the crime of all the others… God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves. You were speaking of the Last Judgement. Allow me to laugh respectfully. I shall wait for it resolutely, for I have known what is worse, the judgement of men… I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.” Clemence, feels chased by the sound of hearty laughter – he hears in it the spirit of condemnation, the way a prisoner is haunted by the voice of their sentence. The laughter is what provoked his fall from a contented lifestyle and has brought him to his current position as ‘judge-penitent.’
“We confess to those who are like us and share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered… We wish merely 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 make the effort of cleansing ourselves. Not enough cynicism and not enough virtue. We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. Do you know Dante? Really? The devil you say! Then you know that Dante accepts the idea of neutral angels in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule of his Hell. We are in the vestibule, cher ami.” In line with our parallel to ‘Inferno’ our faithful Virgil has led us out of Hell and on to Purgatorio. The course of our journeys on the coast is rising in purpose.
Clemence makes a grand show – a crucifixion, in it’s symmetry – of judging himself. We too, have silently judged our acquaintance, and through the reflective aspect of Clemence’s confession, we are unwittingly provoked into judging ourselves. Clemence reveals himself to be a mirror for the ‘cultured borgeois’ – by which we realize our own guilt. Thus, we fall from the vantage peak of our judgements, while Clemence rises to Paradiso. He is excited like a child who has won a clever game, yet racked by the poor health of his age as it snows outside his apartment – it is snowing in Albquerque as I write this from the tower of the Fine Arts Library, and a vast white fog has consumed the mountains and the city. Jean Baptiste Clemence is vindicated from a lifetime of judgements while he admits his guilt (the theft of the Last Judges painting) before our very eyes! His guilt implicates us thoroughly, we are complicit scoundrels together and this ceremony has been our baptism, the freedom this responsibility permits. Salvation cannot be found – “for one would have to cease being anyone” – an idea which speaks beyond the comprehensibility of our selfishness. We can choose to be lost to the Inferno, or we can languish in Purgatorio. The divine path to Paradiso is hinted at: “Yes, we have lost track of the light, the mornings, the holy innocence of those who forgive themselves.” Clemence, and perhaps we too, continue to feel secure in the fog of our identity, proud of the sinners we are and the angels we aspire to be; and might even become if we have the courage to strive for that divine forgiveness, which was beyond our polite revelator, Jean-Bapstiste Clemence.