The Fall by Albert Camus
So, lately I’ve been slumming it at a pizza place, mingling with the common folk. Why? Out of curiosity, of course. A pizza place is a great place to study human nature at its best and worst. And one thing I’ve found among the pictures of long-gone sports stars and the arcade and the orange soda spills is this: parents really fucking love their kids.
I mean, duh. But working at a pizza place geared towards families, you realize that people will do anything to justify the behavior of their loved ones, especially their kids. Whether the kid is running around the restaurant, pushing people out of the way or unplugging the arcade games, parents shrug and say, That’s just childhood. Why? Because kids are these pure beings who have not yet lost their dewy-eyed innocence to the cold, hard world.
But that is a load of horseshit. There are good kids out there, yes, but innocence is not something to be lost. From the time we are babies, we learn to manipulate our behavior in order to get what we want: crying to get attention, hitting our siblings when our parents aren’t looking, and cheating on spelling tests.
Our culture is obsessed with the loss of innocence. It manifests itself, for the most part, in talk of purity vows, abstinence, the exposure of our children to the gay agenda, sluts. I could go on. But in all seriousness, what if this obsession with innocence, and its subsequent loss, is just a sick misunderstanding of the biblical Fall from Grace?
Think about it. The moment Eve eats the apple, she becomes aware of her nakedness. So, we can suppose that the fall from grace (a loss of innocence) is a development of self-awareness. This myth of innocence plays right into the Judeo-Christian belief in the Fall of Man and the development of Original Sin. (Although moderate Christians tend to believe that their children are immune to this sinning business. Hmmm.)
But let me just posit an idea: Eve isn’t a bad person; she just develops self-awareness. Let’s think about this for a moment: it is a lot easier to control those who do not develop self-awareness than those who understand their actions and the actions of others. I mean, have you ever played the Sims?
One of your Sims wants to go to the bathroom, but you’re not done watching it, I don’t know, socializing, so you let it pee itself. If it had self-awareness, it would go to the fucking bathroom. It wouldn’t be nearly as gratifying struggling to control it as it is just to have it say, “Okay, okay, okay.” Yeah, it has temper tantrums from time to time, but if you delete the actions, you control it completely.
My point is this: the fall is not necessarily a fall from grace, but a popping of the bubble, if you will: a movement from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge. It is the realization of how we act, how we have always acted. Nothing has changed except for the ability to recognize our behavior outside of ourselves. Some people never pop their bubbles. They amble along, playing the victim, crying wolf, not understanding the meaning of their actions or seeing the consequences of those actions.
Albert Camus, 20th century French philosopher and self-proclaimed absurdist, essentially claims as much in his philosophical novel The Fall. It is a secular retelling of the Fall of Man through the eyes of a Parisian-born lawyer, Clamence, and his subsequent awakening.
In order to understand The Fall, his last complete novel before his untimely death, you must understand what he believed. Now, I could suggest you read The Myth of Sisyphus, but you’re lazy. So I’ll just tell you: in the face of the futile and random chaos of the universe, we must rage on. We cannot give in to the struggle, but rather, we must push the rock up to the top of the hill and, before chasing after it as it rolls, enjoy the sun.
Essentially: there is no God. There is just chaos. And, yes, that is downright soul crushing to those who realize it. But we must rage on and enjoy the beauty we find in the madness.
So, back to The Fall. Clamence is a Parisian lawyer who has gone to Amsterdam for a self-imposed punishment, if you will. He likens the flat land, concentric canals, and gray atmosphere to the innermost circle of Hell, which, if you read a book every once in a while, god damnit, means he considers himself guilty of treason of the worst degree.
In Paris, he defended murderers and thieves. As he tells the story, you witness the development of self-awareness. At first, he told himself that he did it to defend those who could not defend themselves, those purest of beings who had all the right reasons to break the law. He would assist blind men across the street and help women, through short-lived trysts, to find the real qualities they wanted in men.
But, through a tragedy on the Seine, he very quickly realizes that his actions are all born from self-gratification: patting himself on the back for being a good person when, in fact, he is not. Everything he does is for his own benefit. When he realizes this, he imposes a punishment upon himself, the worst he can come up with. As a lover of high places, the flats of Amsterdam are torturous. (And why does he do that to himself? Because, silly, there is no God. Deal with it.)
This one is short, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Don’t get me wrong: the prose is very easy to get through. In fact, you could read this in a couple of hours. But, if you’re going to be proactive, you should probably have Wikipedia open while you read it.
Camus is famous for making obscure biblical and literary references and, yeah, you could probably understand The Fall without looking up who the hell Lohengrin is (a knight of the Holy Grail, for the record) or to what verse he is referring when he says, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you!” (It’s Luke 6:26, FYI.) But it does add a little realism to the story of a man so arrogant that Camus should make such arrogant references.
Because, really, uppity look-at-me-I’m-smarter-than-you references aside, the book is about the basest of human desires: to be innocent of all guilt. Through the opinions of others, through the ability to control your own self-image, through the ability to bend others to your will and distraction by pointing the finger, your actions (hopefully) remain innocent.
It is only when he realizes that he is not innocent—that he wants to push blind men into traffic, not assist them—that Clamence tells you, his friend, his accomplice, that “we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all” (110). This statement plays beautifully into the collective guilt complex westerners have. We are all original sinners and the tendency to blame everything from women’s sexuality to the gay agenda for What’s Wrong With Society.
Funnily enough, Camus could write romantic comedies were he not so obsessed with the nature of man. (What a waste, am I right?) His narrator, Clamence, discusses the game he would play with women: “the assertion, painful and resigned, that I was nothing, that it was not worth getting involved with me, that my life was elsewhere and not related to everyday happiness—a happiness that maybe I should have preferred to anything, but there were you, it was too late” (61). You can just picture Matthew McConaughey saying that in his southern drawl, can’t you?
All in all, we’re all assholes, but only some are privy to that knowledge. We’re all finger-pointers, from the priest in the pulpit to the parent in the principal’s office, complaining about his kid’s grades. We’re all innocent except for everyone else. But, honestly, Camus struggles with the question of what is better: blissful and bumbling ignorance or painful self-awareness? Clamence was a happy guy until that fateful night in Paris.
And now, here you are, wondering what you’ve done to hurt others, what you’ve done that deserves punishment. Trust me: there’s a lot. But don’t let it keep you up at night. Just sip that orange soda and then walk out of the restaurant without telling me you’ve spilled it. It must have been someone else, right?
The eighth circle of hell (Out of nine, dummy. Seriously, read a book.)
Depressingly good read.