Out of Eden

I read Albert Camus for the first time last month, after buying The Fall from Porter Square Books, a fine independent bookstore not far from where I live. I marveled at the economy of Camus, at his ability to chart in very few pages the erosion of a man’s conscience from the first glimpses of corruption to the full realization and acceptance that he is a monster through and through. The experience of following Jean-Baptiste Clamence and his mysterious acquaintance through the seedier parts of Amsterdam is not a pleasant one, but there is something very precise about it: Unlike any other author I can think off, Camus appears simultaneously to be dissecting his protagonist and to be peering into his reader’s soul with a magnifying glass and a question, “Aren’t you just like my Clamence?”

Whether it is a reflection of my own thoughts at the time, or an effect that Camus has on most readers, I cannot say, but most of my thinking about the book centered on examining the exact juncture at which Clamence changed from merely mistaken to “morally depraved. For Clamence, as for everyone else, the test would start with a binary option, followed by a thought process, followed in turn by the action in response to the choice. When faced with subsequent criticism, it is quite common for a person to rationalize his choice. It is less common, though, to take a step further back and ask the question, “Why did I rationalize this choice in the way that I did?” To his credit, Clamence has the mental wherewithal to ask this question of himself, not verbatim, but via a discussion of his actions with his unnamed companion. He talks of initial pangs of conscience, symbolized beautifully by a disembodied laugh in the dark. He admits that he has, above all, wanted to dominate his fellowmen and his actions have followed from that. Until this point, Clamence is a flawed human being with whom many may identify. Thereupon, he proceeds to worsen his case by declaring that there is no going back to the old ways, that he is now finally comfortable with his depravity.

I could not decide, when I finished the book, whether to view Clamence with contempt or to empathize with him. In retrospect, I lean toward the latter, for the end of Clamence’s account reads a little bit like capitulation. At his age, in his situation, it seemed like he could not muster the strength to return to an honest life. Maybe, the emotional baggage from his moral regression would have been too heavy to bear. At the end of the confession, it does not appear that Clamence is still greedy for power and recognition. Instead, he appears resigned to leading a corrupt life in a corrupt world. In that other great story of sensual debauchery, Dorian Gray finally cultivated a rage fatal enough to cause him to plunge a knife through his conscience thereby ending his horrible existence. Clamence, on the other hand, has completely insulated himself from repentance. He will thus continue on this spiral, becoming comfortable with sinning, and not feeling too guilty about it.

Any discussion of this book would be incomplete without a mention of its connection to the Bible, in which a punitive God casts Adam and Eve out of Eden, from where they fall as sinners onto the Earth. Here, in the biblical context, they have been ever since, smothered in the middle of a ghastly embrace between guilt and disobedience – compulsively guilty but unable to abstain from disobedience, compulsively disobedient but unable to cast guilt aside. It is in this context that the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence makes the most sense, but was there a message, if any? Can Clamence’s final decision to accept his depravity be construed as an attempt to break away from the stifling constraints of the Judeo-Christian canon and subsequently as the existentialist crisis of the urban everyman? Or, is it merely an indictment of the protagonist’s (and our) failed conscience as my initial reaction to the book would have me believe?

9 thoughts on “Out of Eden”

  1. Oh my. What a question! I’m going to go with indictment of the way it worked out for Adam & Eve. Why must we always be condmened to guilty disobedience? I like it that Camus wanted to try out smug disobedience. The trouble though is that “disobedience” is still disobedience. Maybe the thing to do is look more closely at disobedience itself.

  2. Very interesting review of Camus and beautifully written. I see Clemence differently to you: I don’t think he is depraved, I think he’s human and fallen. He’s a prophet lost in the wilderness, as he says, and it’s a wilderness full of broken tenets of Christianity, invested still with residual power but unable to cohere into a doctrine that could give him hope. You don’t mention the central incident, which is the moment when he fails to help the young woman who throws herself off the bridge, and I’d love to know what you make of that. It’s the turning point for him, when he begins to find himself unacceptable, and some commentators (me included, I guess) read it as a crisis in witnessing. The inability to know what you are seeing at the moment of its occurrence, which is what makes judgement so impossible, seems to be the great flaw in man’s bid for moral purity.

  3. BL, yes, it is difficult to phrase but I meant disobedience without the negative connotation that we generally ascribe to it (free-spiritedness maybe?).

    Litlove, your thoughts are illuminating as always. I agree about the dissonance between Clamence’s life and his Christian tenets. I love what you wrote about the great flaw in man’s bid for moral purity. That is so true, both of the man who is making a choice and of the people who are judging him. (I didn’t mention the incident on the bridge due to spoiler concerns. Between that and the laughter in the dark, I thought I would reveal the latter.)

  4. It’s time for me to finally read Camus, I think. I’ve gone round and round regarding existential despair and the popular flavors of nihilism, not so much as an adolescent dressing up but because that’s where I was landing. Of course they’re not novel in the least, but hunting around for reflections that suss out their details leaves a bit to be desired. There is the gratuitous capitulation which is rather more titillation than anything (c.f. “grimdark” in contemporary parlance). There is McCarthy’s “I’m just a bit uncomfortable giving in completely so I’ll cap off this harrowing journey through depravity with some silver linings.” I loved it all the same, but I longed for a commitment to the depravity, to understanding that it may yet outlast the indomitable human spirit which we use as a kind of spiritual isomorphism onto our hopes and ignorances, a safe detour of our intellectual explorations back onto our expectations of safety.

    Is there anything that touches ideas similar to Camus’ here that you’d recommend?

      1. Daniel, I wonder what books to recommend that invoke similar ideas as Camus. Probably another one of Camus’ books, say, “The Stranger”?

        Outside Camus’ writings, and when it comes to introspection over moral depravity, I cannot help but recommend “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.

        One of my favorite books about the darker side of human nature is “Lord of the Flies”. Unexpectedly, that book scared me quite a bit. In the same breath, I would recommend “Heart of Darkness”.

      2. Read _The Lord of the Flies_ in middle school and loved it so I’ll definitely return to it. Bought it last year for the family. I also have heard of _Heart of Darkness_ quite a bit but never engaged with either the book or the movie. And, for some reason, _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ always sounded like a WWII romance story. Guess it’s not. +)

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