Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Existential Burden: On Guilt and Innocence in The Fall by Albert Camus

Original French Book Cover of La Chute
In the words of his fellow French philosopher (and often rival) Jean-Paul Sartre, the novel The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus is "perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood" of his works. I love the cautionary disclaimer of “perhaps” thrown in there for good measure because Sartre at the time was still at odds with his one-time friend who had tragically died in a car accident. 

Notwithstanding, the other parts of the sentence certainly ring true as The Fall is not as read nor hotly discussed and debated as opposed to the more known and celebrated works of Albert Camus, such as The Stranger (1942) or The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

In my view, The Fall is not his best novel; that honour I would bestow upon the exemplary The Plague (1947), but I found the ideas expressed in his last work of fiction to be of great interest and relevance for existential philosophy. There are many themes that are dealt with in the form of dramatic monologues by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a self-proclaimed judge-penitent who has fallen from grace. Once a reputable lawyer who (supposedly) used to help the poor and widowed, he ends up sick and lonely in an apartment in Amsterdam.  

When Clamence started off helping widows and orphans, he was highly respected by his peers and society in general. However, he did not lead an authentic life. He may have helped the blind cross the street and shown many other good deeds in front of others, but deep inside he had done so only for attention and acknowledgement. His actions were self-interested and, worse, they hardly reflected his true inner disposition and feelings, which in fact tended towards its opposite direction, ranging from disinterest to even disgust of his fellow beings.

One night, while walking down the streets of Paris, he notices a young distraught girl by the Seine. He pays her no notice. She jumps and cries for help but instead of coming to her rescue, he quickens his steps and deafens his ears; he even refuses to read about her fate the next day in the papers.

Yet this event remains in his memory and literally resurfaces a number of times in the novel. The most persistent haunt is an indiscriminate laugh (the derisory voice of conscience) that he hears on various occasions, which he feels is aimed at him. In such a way, he carries with him his share of guilt over his refusal to act and potentially save the girl’s life.

Actions are an important part of existential philosophy; they are meant to propel us towards engaging with life in a chaotic and desolate world. After the indelible horrors of World War II, people had lost faith in traditional forms and pillars of meaning, such as God and religion, while humanity, warts and all, had come into sharper focus. Valuable and veritable action existed in helping others and it was considered a manner of alleviating suffering and injustice both of which abounded in the world around us. 

Moreover, actions served as standards of judging and evaluating a life; a good and decent person was not one that merely prayed to the heavens or asked God for forgiveness, but one who physically made the world a better place. In that sense, morality should be expressed in tangible forms and not serve as mere thoughts or an empty mouthpiece; put differently, ideology ought to be enmeshed with actions.

Essentially, we are free but that comes with a price. We need to take responsibility for our deeds and we will be judged by others as well as judge ourselves in the process. The problem is that we all carry guilt with us and none of us are innocent, according to Camus. The fact that the world cannot give us pre-packaged bits of truth and meaning but that we have to figure it all out for ourselves makes the whole endeavor more difficult and cumbersome.

That is the reason, why Clamence is a judge-penitent. He judges both himself and others, while he repents his own actions and lack thereof. The other issue that complicates matters is that people generally do not lead authentic lives; they are either dishonest towards others, themselves or even a combination of both. Clamence claims to know the truth and that elevates him over others, but he is still caught up in the sticky web of the world as he cannot exist without others.   

Existential guilt has been explored in other works, most memorably in Franz Kafka’s The Process in which its protagonist K. gets arrested one morning despite being innocent of any specific crimes. It is the guilt of humanity, the mark of the cross on Cain’s forehead that makes him guilty despite feeling or believing to be innocent. We cannot disassociate ourselves from this, but we can try our best to face it and then deal with it as best we can.

Nobody is exempt of this guilt, not even Jesus. Why did Jesus so quickly give himself up to the authorities knowing that we would face death? Believers may say that it is to purge the world of its sins with his blood, but Camus claims that Jesus was not the innocent sheep himself. On the Day of Innocents, Herod sent out his army to kill infants and children, while Jesus managed to escape with the help of an angel. Although essentially cleared of any wrongdoing himself, Jesus must have felt pangs of conscience that so many innocent children had died instead as well as because of him.

This could be the reason why Jesus did not put up a fight and quickly gave in when the time came. This would also, according to Camus, explain his cry to God, why He had forsaken him, a doubt not only in the Deity’s possible non-existence but also an accusation of not interfering with the slaughter of many innocent people. This information, these particular lines of lament and accusation had been, however, suppressed (censured) by all gospel accounts, with the exception of Mark.

Camus then engages in a bit of pun and wordplay, which unfortunately loses its impact in translation. Despite all the somber philosophy, there is substantial amount of humor in his writing. Jesus chose his apostle Peter to be the founder of the church. Yet it was Peter (Pierre in French) who would betray him three times, and yet he was supposed to be the rock (“pierre”) of the Church. Jesus must have been aware of the delicate irony of the situation, says Clamence.

The novel is also surprisingly frank and forthcoming about sexuality, especially considering the time it was written, namely a few years before the so-called sexual revolution. Clamence decries the double standards and hypocrisy of society and he claims to bed both respectable women as well as prostitutes in the same hotel bed!

Moreover, he says that when he engaged in debauchery, namely sex and alcohol, all it did was help him forget about the guilt and pain for a while. In such moments, he would manage to lose himself and find some temporary comfort and relief. Yet such actions were not a sign or expression of freedom but rather a form of evading responsibility and action as one would become enslaved to them and eventually still wake up to an unchanged situation of existential guilt and suffering.

In a world where excess and debauchery are often viewed as the ultimate forms of pleasure and enjoyment as well as a carefree existence and life of freedom, it is interesting to note that all of this is merely another form of escapism. True permanent pleasure cannot be gained from such vapid and superficial experiences or lifestyles.

On its face value, existentialist philosophy may seem pessimistic, especially with its heavy reliance on guilt and loss of innocence. Yet what I like best about this branch of philosophy is the fact that it gives us something to hold onto. This something may be vague and not clearly defined, but it forces us to become who we are and to face the world as genuinely as possible. In all of this, our deeds speak louder than our words and we cannot isolate ourselves from others but must interact and exist with them.

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