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Journal of Camus Studies | JCS

Journal of Camus Studies

The Journal of Camus Studies

Formerly the Journal of the Albert Camus Society, the JCS is published annually and is available in print or as an ebook. For more information on purchasing or contributing visit the Camus Journal page.

Albert Camus The Fall | related pages

Albert Camus The Fall | Notes on the text

The Fall was published in 1956 and was intended to be part of the Exile and the Kingdom collection (published in 1957). However, as the story grew and developed Camus realized it would be better served as a standalone work. Set in Amsterdam, it is written in the form of a conversation between former Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and a fellow Parisian he meets in a seedy dockside bar called Mexico City. However, the conversation is completely one-sided, a kind of confession and we never hear from other man. The Fall covers a period of five days and is set in five locations starting in the bar and ending in Clamence's apartment.

Judge-Penitent

Clamence gives himself an odd role that Camus has him call a 'judge-penitent'. This position allows him to draw others into his confession by making them see in themselves the sins Clamence denounces in himself. Once the listener has recognized his own guilt Clamence can join them as judge supreme in their self-judgment. See The Just Judges below.

Clamence in Paris

In Paris, before his fall, Clamence had been a high-flying and well respected lawyer. A defender of the weak and hero of the downtrodden, he actively sought out cases that would reaffirm his angelic public and no less importantly self image. He has a love of high places such as the tops of mountains and the upper decks of boats. And his charitable actions, assisting widows and orphans, giving to the poor and helping blind people cross the road help him feel lofty, flying high. Clamence is not motivated by any feelings of altruism but rather the selfish desire to feel above others.

Clamence's fall to Earth, and resulting self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, a city below sea-level whose 'concentric canals resemble the circles of hell', is precipitated by a literal fall of a woman to her death in the river Seine. He doesn't see her fall and consciously chooses not to investigate (as this presumably would result in his facing another choice, whether or not to risk his life in a rescue attempt). How would his high self-image, his role as defender of the weak, remain in tact if he chose to err on the side of personal safety? Over the next few days he also avoids reading any newspapers that may confirm the death of a woman in the river. The plan appears to have worked and Clamence gets back on with his life; however, unbeknown to him at the time, a worm was in his heart and silently eating away. One day, whilst in a particularly self-congratulatory mood, he hears laughter in the distance. This laughter seems to him to come from the waters of the river. At this moment he is struck by a clash between his self-image and reality. A final blow comes in the form of a literal blow to the face, a sucker-punch from a motorcyclist he gets into an argument with on the street. Humiliated and resentful, Clamence's 'fine picture of himself' is shattered. Faced with what to do now Clamence attempts and fails to destroy his fine reputation. Politically incorrect statements are taken by those who hear them as jokes. How else could they be taken, coming from such a morally commendable man as Jean-Baptiste Clamence? He closes his law practice and throws himself into a life of debauchery. This too is a failure.

Prison camp 'Pope'

During the war Clamence flirts with the idea of joining the Resistance but the fear of working in one dark and damp cellar only to be caught and then killed in darker, damper cellar is too much for him. Instead, he flees Paris, via North Africa, intending to end up in London. As with many others, as with Camus himself, the War gets in the way and Clamence's plans are thwarted. He is arrested in Tunis and ends up in a German prison camp. In the camp he meets up with a veteran of the Spanish civil war, captured by a 'Catholic general' and handed over to the Germans. As a result, the man has lost his faith in Catholicism and demands a new Pope. Clamence is elected and his new position as camp 'Pope' gives him some power over the other inmates. This power he abuses one day when he drinks the water of a dying comrade.

The Just Judges

The Just Judges is a panel from a fifteenth-century altarpiece by Jan van Eyck entitled The Adoration of the Lamb. The painting is not Camus' invention (neither was the bar, Mexico City); it really went missing in 1934. In The Fall, the stolen painting hangs in a cupboard situated in Clamence's apartment. He got it from the bar-tender in Mexico City, who had received it from its thief in return for a drink. This act was, in typical Clamence style, presented as an act of kindness. The painting was extremely 'hot' and he offers to hide it for the new owner.

Clamence uses the painting to illustrate his idea of the judge-penitent. The judges in the painting are on their way to adore Jesus, the sacred lamb, and Clamence does not believe they can ever find him. Christianity, he believes, can not offer people the redemption it pretends it can. The message of Jesus, his goal on Earth, has according to Clamence been distorted by the Church. Jesus taught his disciples not to judge others; however the Church has turned him into the ultimate judge. Clamence has no faith in Jesus as messiah and gives himself the role of prophet, an empty one since he has no 'Good News' to proclaim.

Who is Jean-Baptiste Clamence?

First of all he is a character in The Fall. This much is obvious but it is worth saying as so many people want to reveal him as Camus himself, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or as a representative of those Parisian intellectuals Camus was most often associated with. What's in a name? Jean-Baptiste clearly sounds like John the Baptist and Clamence sounds similar to Clamans 'cries' in Latin. The Biblical John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness, announcing the coming of Jesus Christ. Camus' Jean-Baptiste is crying out the absence of a Christ, one who has not been and who is not coming.


The questions raised

Who is Clamence supposed to represent? Is he a caricature of Sartre et al or is he a portrait of something Camus has discovered in himself? Perhaps Clamence is a picture not of how Camus sees himself but of how he thinks others see him. The answers to these questions matter if we are to understand Camus' later position on the absurd. The picture painted in The Fall is a bleak one indeed. Contrasted with the hopefulness of The Myth of Sisyphus and the optimism of The Plague what we get in this work is the idea of human selfishness as a fundamental flaw in our nature. Indeed, the key ethical question of the The Fall is the extent to which selfishness acts as a barrier to authentic morality.

Simon Lea | 2005