One student perspective on Albert Camus’ novel
The Fall, by Albert Camus, has been one of the guiding stars of my life since I first read it. The New York Times called it “an irresistibly brilliant examination of modern conscience.” As the possessor of a modern conscience, I can attest to the truth of this description–in fact, I will go farther: it is not merely an examination, but a powerful indictment with which we ought to wrestle.
The book consists of conversations, although we only get to hear one side, that of Jean-Baptiste Clamence (let the reader understand the import of that name). He was once a Parisian lawyer on top of the world, but he has descended into the most wretched parts of Amsterdam, a city whose concentric circles remind him of Dante. Over the course of several nights’ conversation, he, albeit with many digressions, provides the story of his life, and both the story and the digressions reveal uncomfortable truths about our own life.
I hesitate to quote too much of the text, but to provide the flavor on what really matters in life: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man; he fornicated and read the papers;” on the modern love of procedure: “When one has no character one has to apply a method;” and on love of appearances: “That we should be forced to establish [slavery] at home or in our factories—well, that’s natural; but boasting about it, that’s the limit!” The text, however, is more than a compilation of brutal aphorisms. Instead, Clamence presents us with a well-crafted narrative, which in its best moments has a touching beauty.
Writing the whole thing off as the ravings of a madman is a tempting, but deeply flawed approach. In trying to stand apart from Clamence and the unflattering picture he paints of modern man, we are acting just like him, the archetypal modern man. Just like the man who says he has no sin, the man who says he has nothing to do with Clamence’s dark picture deceives himself. He leaves us no option other than to wrestle with his many accusations: that we care about nothing but ourselves, that we only like our friends because of what they can do for us, that we care for appearances far more than reality, that we have turned love into a means of domination, and, most of all, that we insist on our own innocence so that we can judge the whole world.
This worldview isn’t a happy one, true, but whether it’s an accurate one is a different matter. It seems so far-fetched, but scratching the surface of the modern world reveals that the whole thing rests on a foundation of barely-hidden enormities in which we are all complicit, and a thousand smaller harms each day which we do nothing about. How many abuses of the worker took place and how much was the Earth violated to allow me to type these words on my laptop, and do I care? How many times today did I turn my eye to some rude remark as I went about my day, and do I care?
What about redemption? Clamence tells the story of a man who slept on the floor while a friend was in prison before he says, “Who, cher monsieur, will sleep on the floor for us? … Yes, we shall all be capable of it one day, and that will be salvation.” That we will all be capable of sleeping on the floor for each other is a nice thought, but will we actually do it? The floor is hard. Getting to sleep will be difficult. Waking up the next morning will be hard. Another night goes by, and another, and another, and still no one sleeps on the floor for us, and we sleep on the floor for no one.
Steve Larkin is an amateur classicist, and he is probably listening to a piece of sacred vocal music as you read this. He is a freshman living in Stanford Hall. He can be reached at email@example.com.