The Fall

For my study, I decided to study about
the famous 20th century philosopher, author and thinker, Albert Camus.
To focus my research, I decided to look further into one of his novels in
particular, ‘The Fall’, which is a philosophical novel, one of only a few that
Albert Camus wrote in his time. It was published first in 1956 and was in fact the
last novel of his published in his lifetime. It is translated into English and
many other languages across the world from the original French version, which
was title ‘La Chute’. The story in the novel is set in Amsterdam (in the
Netherlands) in a shady bar named Mexico
City situated somewhere deep within the red light district of the city. The
novel follows the story of Jean Baptiste Clamence, a formerly wealthy French
defence lawyer from Paris, who was once highly respected by his colleagues,
family and friends, but has now “fallen” from grace. It is written in the form of
a confession from the point of view of Jean Baptiste Clamence, as he tells his
story to a stranger he meets at the bar. [ref: Wikipedia, The Fall] Jean Baptiste Clamence speaks the stranger in
the second person, so it is as if he is speaking to the reader. The story
explores many themes and ideas, which include guilt of conscience, justice,
freedom and truth, all of which appear in many of the other works and philosophies
of the author Albert Camus.

The Parisian lawyer, Jean Baptiste
Clamence, is a complex and intricate character, but one who shares many qualities
of the other characters in the works of the author Albert Camus. To try and understand
the character and his story, we must first try to understand the author. Albert
Camus was a French Algerian philosopher, author and journalist, who was a
prominent figure in the early 20th century, and whose ideas and
views are still prominent and important in today’s society. He was born shortly
before the First World War on 7th November 1913 in Algeria, which at
the time was under French rule, and so naturally was implicated within the war
that was beginning to unfold at the time in Europe. Camus was born into a poor
family that had struggled financially and socially even before he was born. His
mother was of Spanish descent, she worked as a house cleaner and was deaf out
of her left ear. His father was of Alsatian descent and worked as an
agricultural worker. When the First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, his
father signed up to fight for France and left the family while Albert Camus was
still only an infant. During the infamous Battle of the Marne, which was the
culmination of the German advance into France and the Allied Forces, in which
French forces had 250000 casualties, Camus’ father was wounded in battle
serving as a member of the Zouave infantry regiment. He later died of his
wounds on 11 October in a make shift hospital. [ref: Biography.com, Albert Camus] This left Camus and his mother both
financially and emotionally affected, and meant they lived in extreme poverty
for much of his childhood. These experiences during the formative years of the
now famous thinker Albert Camus shaped many of his ideologies and philosophies
on life.

Despite many difficulties he faced
in his early childhood, Albert Camus was a good student during his school time
and was eventually accepted into the University of Algiers in Algeria, where he
studies philosophy. During his time there, he played for a prominent university
team, where the spirit and purpose of the team attracted him to join.  However, his ambitions of playing football
for a professional team were ended when he contracted tuberculosis, which was incurable
for him, in 1930; this caused him to be bedridden for long periods of time. This
affected Albert Camus greatly as he was often described as playing with courage
and passion in the match reports that followed the games. He eventually began
to look for other interests to fill his time. He took an interest in politics
and in 1935, he joined the French Communist Party, which looked to fight for
equality amongst Europeans and ethnic Algerians living in French Algeria at the
time. He then joined the Algerian Communist Party in 1936, which looked for
establishing the independence of Algeria. He later became associated with the
French anarchist movement. [ref: Wikipedia,
Albert Camus]

Albert Camus was also married twice
and was known as some what of a womaniser throughout his life, having had well
publicised affairs with high-profile actresses on numerous occasions. He married
Simone Hie in 1934 but it ended in an abrupt divorce as a result of his many
affairs and infidelities. Camus marries again in 1940 to Francine Faure, a French
pianist and mathematician. She was from a French middle class family and her
father had died fighting in the Battle of the Marne in the First World War,
just like Camus’ father. Whilst he did love her, he claimed that marriage was
unnatural and spoke avidly about the institution of marriage. His wife gave
birth to twins in 1945, but it did not prevent Camus from having an affair with
Spanish born actress Maria Caceres. This affected his wife Francine immensely
and she consequently suffered from depression and attempted to commit suicide, jumping
from the ledge of a hospital balcony. This event may have influence some of
Camus’ works as suicide and the idea of whether life is worth living played and
an important part in the book ‘The Fall’ and in much of Camus’ philosophical thinking.

Albert Camus once wrote in his essay
‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem,
and that is suicide; judging whether life is or is not worth living, that is
the fundamental question of philosophy”. The explanation for this in the eyes
of Albert Camus is because as soon as we start to think seriously, as
philosophers do, we will see that life has no meaning. It is a fairly extreme
claim and thesis, and is in stark contrast to the notion that life is could
actually be rich in God given meaning, which has been a huge part of Western
thinking for the past 2000 years. Camus stands in a long line of thinkers that
includes Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre who thought that there is
in fact no preordained meaning in life, that there is no bigger point, and that
it is this realisation that lies at the heart of the philosophical school of
thought that we now know as existentialism. While many at the time acknowledged
Camus as one of the founders of existentialism, Camus did not consider himself
an existentialist. Camus rather believed in a slightly diverging philosophy known
as absurdism. We understand absurdism to be the belief that the human tendency
to seek an inherent value or meaning to life was ‘absurd’, because it was
almost certainly not possible to find any meaning because of the vast amount of
knowledge not known to society. However, he believed that we should embrace the
absurd condition of existence and continue searching for meaning nevertheless, because
this struggle should bring us happiness. He suggested that the only meaning
that life has is what each of us give it. He compared it to the mythological
Greek figure Sisyphus, who was ordained by the gods to a life of constantly pushing
a boulder up a mountain, and to watch it fall back down again, but he was happy
to do so, because that was the meaning that had been given to his life, however
absurd it was.

Whilst I find the interpretation on
the meaning of life given by Albert Camus and the philosophy of absurdism to be
an interesting one, it is not one that I agree with totally. I think it is positive
and motivational way of looking at life in that it can give meaning to all life
in that whatever meaning people choose for themselves is the correct one for
them. Perhaps if someone chooses to commit their life’s meaning to becoming a successful
businessman that has their company on the stock exchange, then that is their
choice and decision to make. They may spend their childhood studying and working
extremely hard at school, spending all of their free and spare time in the library
to extra work in order to achieve the highest grades and top marks in their
exams. With these grades, they may go on to further education, perhaps to study
business, economics or management, where they will learn the process of
building a business, investing and expanding the company to employ other people.
Once graduated they may start a business, which could fail and flop, but
nevertheless taught them valuable lessons of how difficult the business world
is. They might then eventually find a gap in the market for a valuable product
or service and create a successful business, that through networking, marketing
and funding, eventually on the stock exchange. Finally, their life’s meaning
has been completed. But what after this? Once they have attained and completed
the meaning of their life, what purpose is there for living anymore? Is suicide
the only thing that follows this? The rational argument is that suicide is of
course not the answer. It is not being suggested either that just because goals
or aims are attained, there is nothing left to work or strive for, as new goals
can obviously be set. However, it must be understood that many sacrifices were
necessary in achieving those goals. Perhaps for example, family and friends
were neglected and abandoned in pursuit of achieving the meaning of life.
Though this may be an extreme example and there are many more reasonable things
that people give for life’s meaning, I still think it show that the philosophy
does have its flaws and is not a perfect way of thinking.

In my life, as a practicing Muslim,
the meaning I give to my life is to know and worship God. This expands into
following God’s will and following his guide to living at meaningful life (which
we believe is explained in the holy book, the Quran). I believe that this meaning
is imprinted within our souls before we are even born and it appeals to our human
nature. Consequently, I believe that every person does indeed carry the seed of
belief in Oneness of God but it may have been buried under generations of
social conditioning and negligence. The message of the Oneness of God is believed
in Islam to have been delivered by prophets and messengers throughout history
to remind humanity of their purpose. The end result given for this meaning of
life is the eventual Judgement of God and the afterlife. Whether one has
followed their natural disposition to know and worship God and follow his wish
will determine whether they are to spend the afterlife in Heaven or Hell. The
promise of Heaven or conversely the fear of Hell is an underlying drive for myself
to give this meaning to my life. I am aware of the apparent flaws that many may
have with this concept. However, as I suggest to some atheist friends of mine
who suggest that giving this meaning and ‘blind faith’ to my life could be all
for nothing if there is no afterlife or no purpose to life; if there is no
afterlife, then I will have lived my life and died believing there was in fact
a meaning to my life and will be none the wiser. But if there conversely is an
afterlife, then my belief will not have been in vain.

Nonetheless, Albert Camus was an
irreligious man and his ideology of absurdism was explored in his philosophical
essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, one of his most famous works. Some of his other
famous works include the novels and essays ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Plague’, ‘The
Rebel’ and ‘The Fall’. I chose to study ‘The Fall’ because it was written at an
interesting point in Camus’ life. He had been heavily involved with UNESCO
fighting for human rights following the atrocities of the Second World War at
the hands of the Nazis. The Algerian War then broke out in his home country,
where his mother still lived. In his personal life, his tuberculosis returned,
cutting him off from society for 2 years, and he was involved in a highly
publicised affair with a famous Spanish actress, which as I mentioned before,
led to his wife’s attempted suicide attempt. These all contributed and had
influences on the book, which I will now explore further.

‘The Fall’ is written in the form
of a monologue, where the character narrates in the first person, speaking to
the reader. The character is Jean Baptiste Clamence, formerly a wealthy and
successful Parisian defence lawyer. It is mainly set in a bar in the red light
district of Amsterdam called Mexico City. He describes his glory days in Paris
where he was rich, successful and charming. He describes how used to nobly
defend widows and orphans, but not just for the name of justice, also for the
feeling of always being in the right. He used to help the elderly and blind
cross the street, as it made him feel above everyone who was watching. Things
continued like this until one late night, he was crossing a bridge over the
River Seine. He passed a woman and then heard her fall into the water below.
Rather than turn around to save the woman screaming for help, he did nothing at
all, because he didn’t want to risk his own life. This was a huge turning point
in his life, as was never able to get over letting the woman drown. Once he
realised that he was a hypocrite, he lived in constant fear that everyone else
could also see the same flaws and see past his façade. By this point in the
novel, he begins to explain why he is admitting all this. It is because his
confession isn’t just his own story, it is everyone’s. He says to the reader
that it’s like he’s “taking off his own mask and turning it around and placing
it on you”. Everyone is guilty of something. If one were in that situation,
what would we do? Would we jump in? One might say that they would call for help
or an ambulance. But what if the woman died anyway, because the help came too
late? The premise is that we would be responsible and guilty of
negligence.  We are guilty not only by
our actions, but also our inactions. And if you would jump in, what about other
situations? This is not about just this one specific example. It could be said
that when Camus was writing the story shortly after the World War, he was
referring to the lack of enough action to stop the atrocities of the Nazis.

After the war, the horrors of the Holocaust led many to
abandon any belief in an ordered world. Many began to understand Camus and
existentialists like Sartre when they spoke about the terrifying abundance of
freedom in the world rather than just the lack of meaning. To most of us,
freedom sounds like a good thing. But the novel explores the idea that freedom
is actually the opposite. The man was free to decide whether they would save
the drowning lady. They were not obligated by any absolute rules or laws. Some
might say people only supported the Nazis out of fear of being sent to
concentration camps for not doing so, but they still had the freedom of
choosing. And enough of the supposedly innocent public made that choice to get
Hitler into power and keep him in absolute power for a long period of time. This
concept of freedom leaves us open to the moral judgement from others, which the
narrator say is what we are really afraid of when being judged, rather than
being afraid of punishment. This is because, as the narrator explains, power
and authority come from judging others. Although Camus himself was irreligious,
the novel explores elements of religion. The title of the novel could refer to
the fall of man, where Adam and Eve ate an apple from the Garden of Eden. In
that story, they were ordered by God to not eat from the tree, but they still
had the freedom of choice and free will, and were judged and punished for their
actions accordingly. The title also obviously refers to the fall of the narrator
from his wealth and success to the seedy bars with little respect. It also
refers to the literal fall of the woman on the bridge. The narrator also
compares Amsterdam, which is built in concentric circles, to the 7 circles of
Hell described in Dante’s famous poem Inferno. [ref: Schmoop, The Fall] It is perhaps another allusion to Camus’ view of
the situation in Nazi Germany during the war. Among other things, the book is
an attempt to explain how man can be capable of such atrocities as the
Holocaust.

I found the ‘The Fall’ to be an enjoyable read and it opened
my eyes to the ideologies of Albert Camus, one of the most famous philosophers
of the last century, and to the concepts of existentialism and absurdism,
whilst also exploring the concepts of guilt, judgement and freedom of choice.
It was Camus’ last fictional novel before his death. He won the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1957 the year after the book was published. Camus died in 1960 at
the age of 46 in a car accident in a small town outside Paris. In his coat pocket
was an unused train ticket. He had planned on travelling by train with his wife
and children, but at the last minute chose to travel by car with his publisher
instead. [ref: Wikipedia, Albert Camus]