Camus, The Fall, and the Question of Faith
By Jimmy Maher
The Fall is a work absolutely drenched in Christian, particularly Catholic, symbolism. The title is an obvious reference to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve; the novel’s setting of Amsterdam is a stand-in for Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell; and the work is structured as an extended confession of the narrator’s sins, with the reader playing the role of the priest. Yet the novel was written by Albert Camus, a man generally considered a leading light of the atheistic French existentialist movement of the mid-twentieth century. By taking a closer look at Camus’ life and thought, we may discover that there really is no contradiction here. The literary establishment has a constant tendency to lump thinkers together into easily digestable categories. I believe that Camus was, at least partially, a victim of this lust for simplicity.
Camus never expressed the same contempt toward religion as Jean-Paul Sartre and other prominent existentialists. This marked lack, so unfashionable in the French literary circle in which Camus traveled, was perhaps partially due to the fact that Camus never had a religious upbringing to rebel against. Although the young Albert went through certain polite motions of Catholicism, such as first communion, the religion was not taken particularly seriously by anyone within his extended family. Biographer Oliver Todd notes that Albert’s grandmother’s typical response upon learning of someone’s death was, "Well, he’s farted his last" (12). With no family coercion to react emotionally against, Camus exhibited an intellectual, if not spiritual, interest in Christianity from a young age. Indeed, his first work to attract attention in the world of letters was entitled "Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism: Plotinus and Saint Augustine."
Lack of hostility toward Christianity does not of course imply acceptance. Camus throughout his life was very much a secular philosopher. One is thus left wondering what to make of The Fall, steeped as it is in Christian imagery and thought, and positively crying out for the sort of spiritual redemption that Catholics would say can only be found in the confessional. Perhaps as he reached middle age Camus was questioning the relentlessly amoral, self-centered worldview of the existentialists, along with their notion of an essentially meaningless universe devoid of absolutes. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the existentialists had killed God, yet they offered nothing to replace Him, thus leaving a guilt-ridden man like Jean-Baptiste Clamence with nowhere to turn. Clamence desperately wants to confess his sins to a higher power, but the intelligentsia, with their pseudo-sophisticated chattering about relativity and modernity, have taken that option away from him. And so he turns to his only alternative, his fellow man. The Fall documents the sick results of Clamence’s compulsion. He talks and talks to us, confessing sin after sin over the course of several long evenings, yet never achieves the redemption he craves. He is left exhausted but not redeemed, able to take satisfaction only in the notion that he may have dragged the reader down to his own level of empty spiritual misery. Clamence seeks redemption, yet redemption is not something that mortal man can provide.
The issue that Clamence, and by extension Camus, is wrestling with here is hardly unknown to those who have rejected metaphysics. The problem is implicit in our language itself. When it comes to the really important matters, to life and death and love, the secular man finds that words fail him. The old words, much as he would love to dismiss them as outmoded, superstitious nonsense, are the only ones that fit. Faced with a death, the atheist has no alternative that resonates in the same way as the "God rest his soul" of the man of faith. Similarly, a guilt-wracked secularist like Clamence can find no solace in confession, because he does not believe anyone is qualified to hear him and wash him clean. And so the stain remains, and devours him. Religion remains such a potent force in society, against all the evidence of science and rational thought, because it offers something those things cannot. If one would discredit religion, one should perhaps be required to offer something other than empty rationalizations to replace it. I do not know what that something might be, of course, and, for all of his intellectual brilliance, neither did Camus. His novel provides no answers, only painful, almost desperate questions.
The Fall has the feeling of a deeply personal book. One senses somehow that the questions that torment Clamence are the questions that also torment the author. Certainly many commentators at the time of the book’s publication took it as direct description of Camus’ state of mind, circa 1956. Its note of questioning dissatisfaction led many to conclude that Camus was himself on the verge of embracing Christianity, not just intellectually but also spiritually. Speculation on this point is now rather pointless, of course. Camus may just as likely have been casting about for some new value system that could fill the void of traditional religion. Most likely, he had little idea of his own future. We certainly cannot know where Camus’ thoughts would eventually have taken him had he not died so soon after The Fall’s publication, but we do know that he was growing increasingly critical of the existential philosophies of Sartre and others. He wrote shortly after completing the novel that "far from leading to a decent solution of the problem of freedom versus authority, [existentialism can only lead] to servitude" (Oliver 346).
Up to this point, I have been equating Camus very closely with his novel’s protagonist, Clamence. One might question the wisdom of doing so. It is after all a truism in literary criticism that a novel is not a work of autobiography. In the case of The Fall, however, I believe that drawing a close parallel between the author and his protagonist is justified. Certainly there is much circumstantial evidence supporting my case. Clamence is forty years old; Camus was forty-three at the time of the novel’s publication. Both men were socially adept, both were notably polite and patient, and both were quite generous with their money. Both seduced women seemingly effortlessly, but shied away from serious involvement with their conquests. Todd notes in his biography that "when he slept with a woman, and she insisted on further involvement, Camus would explain that his real attachments were elsewhere. …brief sexual adventures posed no problem for him" (345). The similarities are rather striking.
That is not to say that Camus is Clamence, or vice versa. While Camus seems to have drawn from his own psyche in constructing the character, there is no reason to believe that he ever reached the state of bitter despair that marked Clamence. One proof of this might be the fact that the novel exists at all. If one accepts the premise that the creation of art, even deeply tragic art, is fundamentally life-affirming, one has to conclude that by the very act of writing The Fall Camus has transcended Clamence’s existential nihilism. Certainly Camus denied, repeatedly and vehemently, that he and Clamence were one. Some of this may have been self-serving, for no one would want to be too closely associated in the public mind with such an unpleasant character as Clamence, but nevertheless those who remember Camus generally describe him as a fundamentally gentle person, a far cry from the reprobate Clamence has become by the end of the novel. We are on much firmer ground in saying that Clamence, while an individual distinctly separate from his creator, represents the consequence of certain aspects of Camus’ psyche taken to their extremes.
The Fall feels like a transitional work to this reader. Unfortunately, we never got to see where that transition would eventually lead Camus, for his life was cut short in the middle of his stream of thought. Having rejected Christianity, at least as a workable belief system for himself personally, very early in his career, and now having rejected Sartre’s brand of existential atheism, he seems to be searching for some third, better path. If he found it, he never had the chance to share it with us. This gives The Fall an unsettled feeling of incompletion. We are left in limbo, waiting for some sort of answer to the dilemmas it poses, an answer that will of course never arrive. There are no happy endings, and certainly no redemption. We have only some of the most difficult questions one can ask, accompanied by a protagonist who is the very definition of existential angst. Clamence is a martyr for the modern, smugly sophisticated, secular man embodied by thinkers like Sartre, and, yes, his sometimes friend and sometimes enemy Albert Camus himself.
Works Cited and Consulted
Brée, Germaine, ed. Camus. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Bronner, Stephen Eric. Camus: Portrait of a Moralist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999.
Camus, Albert. The Fall. Trans. Justin O’Brien. Vintage: New York, 1991.
Rhein, Phillip H. Albert Camus. New York: Twayne, 1989.
Todd, Oliver. Albert Camus: A Life. Trans. Benjamin Ivry. New York: Knopf, 1997.