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52 Novels (4): The Fall, by Albert Camus

I’m trying to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to four.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

I have wanted to read some of Camus’ work for a while; I’m just now getting to it. I plan to read The Stranger in the near future as well (I’ve already checked it out from the library).

The Fall reads like a conversational version of the Book of Ecclesiastes. It takes skill to pull off a long conversation with only one voice present; Camus pulls it off to be sure. It even seems fitting that the voice of the main character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is the only voice heard. Why should any other voice be heard? He has risen to judge-penitent.

He is guilt-ridden. He is a self-worshipper who has to come to grips with the fact that he essentially witnessed someone jump off a bridge and, for the sake of self-preservation and apathy, did nothing to help. And so now, in his own guilt, he pronounces his perspective and judgment on the world to any and all who will listen. He gives us some gems:

In solitude and when fatigued, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet. When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters – an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah, choked with fever and alcohol, my back up against this moldy door, my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment…He who clings to law that does not fear the judgment that reinstates him in an order that he believes in. But the keenest of human torments is to be judged without a law. Yet we are in that torment. Deprived of their natural curb, the judges, loosed at random, are racing through their job. Hence we have to try to go faster than they, don’t we? And it’s a real madhouse. Prophets and quacks multiply; they hasten to get there with a good law or a flawless organization before the world is deserted. Fortunately, I arrived! I am the end and the beginning; I announce the law. In short, I am the judge-penitent (pp. 117-118).

The idea that we all take ourselves to be prophets at times is intriguing and worth some thought. That idea relates to this one:

We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. You won’t do I delight a man by complimenting him on on the efforts by which he has become intelligent were generous. On the other hand, he will be home if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you (p. 81).

God says to Job, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:7). Job repented in dust and ashes. But this is not so for most of humanity. We will often accuse anything and anyone to get ourselves off the hook. If we do wrong, we want to blame it on our culture and upbringing and bad genetics. If we do right, we want full credit as bright and brilliant individuals. Camus has established that we want to be prophets; here he establishes that we want to be kings. Only the office of priest is left:

But too many people now climb onto the cross merely to be seen from a greater distance, even if they have to trample somewhat on the one who has been there so long (p. 114).

‘Take up your cross and follow me’ has been taken up by harlots who interpret it as ‘Climb up the cross so that everyone will look at thee.’ Our strange modern priesthood of personality. So far have we risen. So far have we fell. The good news is that, contra Camus, Jesus is no longer on the cross. He is risen.

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