The Verdict on Albert Camus’s The Fall
As if to mock the crumbling principles of a fallen era, “The Just Judges” preside over a solemn dumping ground of earthly hell. This flimsy legion of justice, like the omnipresent eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, casts a shadow of pseudo-morality over a land spiraling towards pathos. But Albert Camus’s The Fall unfolds amidst the seedy Amsterdam underground--a larger, more sinister prison than the Valley of Ashes, whose center is Mexico City, a neighborhood bar and Mecca for the world’s refuse. The narrator and self-proclaimed judge-penitent, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, presides over his subjects every night to “offer his services,” although partially dissembled and highly suspect, to any who will listen. More artfully than a black widow preying on her unsuspecting mate, he traps us in his confessional monologue, weaving a web so intricate and complete that no one can escape its clutches.
Clamence points out that “Holland is a dream…of gold and smoke” whose residents are “somnambulists in the fog’s gilded incense” who “ have ceased to be” (13-14). Peopled by the living dead, where “hundreds of millions of men…painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work,” “Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell,” as in Dante’s Inferno (144, 14). Holland’s lost souls are the forsaken ones, machines who go through the motions of life but never really live, the modern men, who fornicate and read the papers, with good intentions and bourgeois dreams never realized. These are the men capable of tolerating the “Liebestod” and the Holocaust in the same breath, who wait for something to happen, “even loveless slavery, even war or death” (37). It is of a society in descent from innocence and steeped in alienation, not unlike Camus’s Post-War era, whose potential of beauty keeps its evil in limbo--and Clamence is their celebrated king, a “new pope who should live among the wretched” (125). He is Milton’s Satan, who continues his “chute” throughout the novel and disturbingly forfeits his particular paradise to plunge into the depths and horror of human existence. A “false prophet” whose pulpit is the brothel, the bar, the prison cell, and whose parishioners are his accomplices, Clamence takes his place among his fellow fallen and “human ants.” He preaches in Mexico City to pimps, thieves and criminals who flock to him like lost sheep. The doves will never reach Amsterdam, for they fly too high above the vestibule of Hell, Dante’s land of “neutral angels.”
Yet there was a time when Jean-Baptiste Clamence had “the look of success”—he was the architect of a thriving law practice in Paris, the city of salvation, light and hope. He championed the causes of the poor and the persecuted, always giving and asking nothing in return, metaphorically sleeping with justice every night. But it was a sham, a farce of grand proportions—he...