There Is No Good In This World - "The Fall" by Albert Camus - Book Review

The Fall

Though The Fall can be a bit of a confusing work, the story is centrally about the awakening and transformation of a man from his naivety, thinking that he is a good person, to his acceptance of becoming a satanic-type herald who brings about the sinister awakening and “the fall” of others. To be awake for Camus is to realize that everyone is selfish and corrupt, though we all hide it so well, justify it, and give it pretty names. To realize that we are fundamentally corrupt, ourselves, and that there is no redemption, all there is is our freedom, is to transcend judgment, good, and evil. Absolute freedom with no values or truth is scary though, and so we try to submit ourselves to different masters to seek approval, forgiveness, and quell our fear at our own actions and of being judged. Rather, once we "fall," we can accept our total freedom and duplicity and recognize we are all guilty, and all the same as one another ... namely guilty. In doing this we can, though, be greater than others who are not awake as we cannot be accused of being fake, as we accept both sides of ourselves. 

The Setting and Style
The Fall is of a notably different style than that of Camus' famous work, The Stranger (which I have written about here). It is written in a monologue style, and so there is only one person talking the entire time. Any interaction with others is recounted in the response of the main character. That being said, it is certainly more confusing and difficult than The Stranger. It reads much more as a first person confession style work, allowing one more deeply into the psychology of the protagonist.

As far as the context for the story, the main context is a middle aged man living in the red quarter of Amsterdam in Holland. The city is made up of concentric circle canals, and the outer ring of canals is where the red quarter is. The monologue happens as he is in his favorite bar, called Mexico City, as well as walking around the city talking with his most recent client. The book spans five days in which he is giving his "pitch" to this new client. It is revealed at the end that this pitch is not legal services anymore, as it was in the past, but a type of baptism into nihilistic freedom. He also compares it to creating a new follower into his world in which he is king, pope, and God.

It is in the context of this pitch over the five days that the past of the main character is revealed and his beliefs expounded. We learn that he was previously a well-to-do lawyer in Paris who tried to do good fighting for the widowed, oppressed, and criminals. During his phase of running away from society, which I will explain below, he left Paris and started over in Amsterdam under a new name and with a new mission. The book is called The Fall, it seems, because his pitch takes the reader through his sort of fall from grace, something which he now seeks to replicate in others. His fall from grace and new mission of nihilistic freedom is also a parallel to the fall of Satan and Satan's new mission as the prince of Hell, cut off from God. It may also be a play on words because the event that triggered his moral fall was the fall of a woman off a bridge who he did not help.

The Stages of the Fall
Stage one: Naïve Goodness
The main character tells of his young adult life as a successful and professional Parisian lawyer. He talks about how he was completely in love with helping other people. He did not do it for the money, rather the joy that he felt in doing good for others. He would rush to help a blind person cross the street, or to help an old lady. He would seek cases to defend orphans, widows, or criminals. He thinks that he is a good person in this stage, and is unaware that there is selfish motive behind all these actions, or so he claims later.

Stage two: Failure and Awakening to Selfishness
One day he is walking in Paris and he hears a strange laugh which he cannot locate and seemingly haunts him. This laugh represents throughout the book a sign of inauthenticity. Whether it is this mysterious disembodied laugh or the laugh of other men, he takes it to represent him wearing a mask to his true self, an unwillingness to admit his true sinful nature. And so the laugh triggers him into this second stage, an awakening to his own selfishness. He is a bad man pretending to be good. A series of events at this stage in his life come to reveal this to him. He comes to understand that all his "good work" in helping other people was solely driven by the reward of good feelings that he got from it, from thinking of himself as a charitable person. It wasn't really about the other person, but ultimately about his own vision of himself.

He also tells a story of road rage in which he realizes that he is not a patient, easy going person, some stories of love with women which show that he uses and takes advantage of them, and a story of witnessing a woman drown where he did nothing at all to help her, he just ignored her and walked away.

It is here that one of the central themes of the book comes into the light. Namely, that he denies that any action is altruistically good. It seems implicit in this work that every action is ultimately about the self, every action is selfish. He even, at one point, turns toward the topic of religion. He claims that Jesus' birth was itself selfish in that he caused Herod to slaughter the infants of Bethlehem for the sake of Jesus' mission. He even claims that Jesus recognized the perverse effects of his actions and their selfishness in the guise of goodness, and so chose to take the easy way out and buckle on the pressure of this judgment and guilt by going to the cross and dying so he wouldn't have to bear it anymore. Such thoughts, though, cause confusion. He sees that he is selfish, but he does not want to be judged by other men. But to hide it and put on a mask brings about the laughter of inauthenticity that haunts him. Also, cannot others see through his mask, and see his true self? Here he moves into the third stage of trying to escape through complete hedonistic pleasure.

Stage three: Escape From it All
The judgment of others is unbearable, and so is the deception of himself, and so in order to escape the torment of it all he then recounts his attempt to drain away all the pain in a complete hedonistic pursuit. He recounts endless pursuits of women, how he manipulates them to get their bodies or to get a never ending novelty of falling in love. He has no care for any of them outside of how they please him. He visits prostitutes regularly, engages in orgies, and confesses his love to many women at one time (he admits was a lie) so that he can have the feelings of being loved in return. He turns to alcohol and drunkenness to numb the pain as well. Ultimately, though, these escapes cannot be fully sustained enough to blot out the judgment that pursues him. And so he claims that at a certain point he had a break through, a break through which led to his ultimate happiness and the secret to life. This is the acceptance of his duplicity. 

Stage four: Acceptance of Duplicity
The judgement of others and of himself goes away when he realizes that he does not have to hide his true nature anymore. Rather, he must embrace his selfishness and abuse of others out of love for himself. Then no one can claim he wears a mask, nor can he deceive himself. Embracing his duplicity frees him from all judgment. He claims that man is totally free, and yet man fears freedom because it is scary to be set adrift like that. And so people willingly choose masters to take away their freedom, to make them slaves, in exchange for approval and being called good people. He also includes religion in this category. [He never offers an argument against God, but rather it seems that he is like Sartre, he just assumes that God doesn't exist because he has freedom to disobey. Really, really not a philosophical approach. Anyway...] He transformation takes place when he is okay with becoming something of a satanic parallel, a master who accepts his total freedom to create the world in which he lives, including the freedom to bring others into this realization and servitude to himself. Hence, "the fall" is now complete and his lives his best life de-baptizing, so to speak [my words, not his], people in the red light district. Thus, the rings of Amsterdam are akin to the rings of Hell, where he exists as the satan of his kingdom.

Anti-Redemption Into Nihilism
This book, I believe, represents something like an anti-redemption which is reflective of Camus' Nihilistic philosophy. If there is no God and no rules; if only freedom and himself to create his own world among men exist; if Jesus took the cowardly way out and escaped judgment by killing himself, this means that judgment doesn't exist. It means that he can confess his guilt and yet not be guilty, rather he can accept who he truly is in all his selfishness. Thus, he calls his new job the "judge-penitent". He has become the new judge of all things through confessing his own sins, not in a way of repentance, but in a manner of embrace.

This is represented in his holding of the stolen part of the Ghent altar piece which represents God's judgment. He has usurped God's judgment for his own. And so he creates new initiates by telling his story to people and awakening them to their own inadequacy. A reverse evangelization. His office is at the Mexico City bar amongst the lowest of the low, though, he says he has best luck with those who venture into this part of town thinking they are morally higher than it. They wear the mask he once wore. All men are guilty. All men are selfish.

"For you will come back, I am sure! You'll find me unchanged. And why should I change, since I have found the happiness that suits me? I have accepted duplicity instead of being upset about it. On the contrary, I have settled into it and found there the comfort I was looking for throughout life. I was wrong, after all, to tell you that the essential was to avoid judgment. The essential is being able to permit oneself everything, even if, from time to time, one has to profess vociferously one's own infamy. I permit myself everything again, and without the laughter this (141) time. I haven't changed my way of life; I continue to love myself and to make use of others. Only, the confession of my crimes allows me to begin again lighter in heart and to taste a double enjoyment, first of my nature and secondly of a charming re-pentance.

Since finding my solution, I yield to every-thing, to women, to pride, to boredom, to resent-ment, and even to the fever that I feel delightfully rising at this moment. I dominate at last, but for-ever. Once more I have found a height to which I am the only one to climb and from which I can judge everybody. At long intervals, on a really beautiful night I occasionally hear a distant laugh and again I doubt. But quickly I crush everything, people and things, under the weight of my own in-firmity, and at once I perk up. (142) … How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits. I sit enthroned among my bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven and I watch ascending toward me, as they issue from the fogs and the water, the multitude of the Last Judgment. They rise slowly; I already see the first of them arriving. On his bewildered face, half hidden by his hand, I read the melancholy of the common condition and the despair of not being able to escape it. And as for me, I pity without absolving, I understand without for-giving, and above all, I feel at last that I am being adored! (143)" 

A Short Critique
I don't have time to give a full fledged critique of this book. What I will say, though, is that there are some things from Camus' writing of this book that make it clear that his understanding on certain topics is shallow.

First, his conception of "a good man" at the beginning is, in my opinion, laughable, as though just helping someone across the street makes one good. Certainly helping the needy in the court of law is something closer to this, but it's no surprise to Christians that people can do good things with selfish intentions. That's not something new that Camus is revealing to humanity. Rather, part of the whole Christian journey - Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive way - is to learn to love as God loves, and that is a love which actually sacrifices the lower and selfish parts of us in the service of the good of other people.

Second, it has to be said that the long descriptions of his manipulation of women is truly sadistic and reflects something of sociopathic tendencies. Maybe he was trying to write this character in the most extreme way he could, or maybe this is somehow reflective of his real life, I'm not sure how he came up with this level of manipulation regarding women.

Third, he clearly has a deep pre-occupation with being judged by others. Of course, judgement itself can only occur in reference to an objective standard of some kind, such as a moral standard. And so given his Nihilistic philosophy it makes sense that he would be repulsed by any judgment, whatsoever, because that always implies truth not relativity.

Fourth, his talk of religion and conception of Jesus killing himself over his guilt for the consequences of his actions on others ... is an absurd departure from any account of Christian theology that I have ever heard. It honestly reminds me of some of the things that the "New Atheists" say today, such as Christianity is a religion based on human sacrifice. These are claims which take no effort at understanding Christianity, but prefer an easy straw-man version where they can pull quotes to support their already established anti-God ideas. Also, like I mentioned above, he provides no argument against God's existence. Rather, it is just assumed in the story. To me, it seemed to rely on something like Sartre's reasoning that if I am free to act how I want to, then I can be God, and therefore, there is no God. To me this is so, so lazy, and why the French Existentialists should not be taken seriously as philosophers.

More could be said, but I will leave it at this.
1 - 141
2 - 142
3 - 143