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?