By Albert Camus.
147 pages
Translated from the French, "La Chute," (1956) by Justin O'Brien
New York: A Vintage Book, 1956.

Comments and outlines by Bob Corbett
June 2003

Jean-Baptist Clamence has become a judge-penitent and offers his services to selected visitors to his office, the bar Mexico City, on the quays in Amsterdam. The clients don’t come to the Mexico City to seek his services, he trusts himself upon those selected.

But what is a judge-penitent? This is complex, even purposely a bit unclear, a bit contradictory. Being a judge-penitent involves both content and form. It seems some sort of amalgamation of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Nietzsche’s Overman, and Heidegger and Sartre’s “authentic” man.

The entire book is first person narrative and Clamence is the sole speaker. The book is one long five day monologue to his latest…. – latest what? Victim? Client? Student? Penitent? Consoled? Initiate? It will depend more on outcome than process.

As judge-penitent Clamence first tells his own story, his life story, selected to explain several things – his quest for meaning; the process of his life crisis; his ascent or decent (choose what you will) from everyday life into the role of judge-penitent.

Clamence was a criminal lawyer and a good one. He tended to choose clients whom he had good reason to believe were guilty of murder. He then used his considerable skill and the constraints of law, to get the murders off, to set them free.

He was by most human standards a great success – wealthy, well-respected (if viewed as a bit odd), cultured, a known gourmet and man phenomenally successful among women of all sorts and classes.

Then he began to hear the laughter – voices clearly laughing some sort of cynical laughter, yet no one could be seen near him. He began to create this laugher of questioning even in his own inner being.

A decisive act occurred one night in Paris when he was walking across a bridge. After passing a woman he heard her jump into the Seine, and while he hesitated and thought about it, he kept walking. He even avoided reading the newspapers for several days after to keep from knowing the outcome.

The mysterious laughter, his guilt over the woman brought him to question his whole life.

The central thing he learned seemed to be that unlike the law or football or tennis, life itself had no rules and thus pure innocence made no sense.

To stop the laughter and guilt he first had to embrace this world of freedom. This made him a judge of and for himself, but this was not enough. To give his life meaning and silence and peace, he had to become a judge-penitent for others and he set himself up at the Mexico City.

I found the book to be brilliantly crafted. A significant part of the philosophical message of the novel is that human knowledge of both the meaning of life and the nature of “the good” are beyond any exact human knowledge. Rather, the intellect is likely, on Clamence/Camus’s view, to be contradictory, uncertain, fraught with risk of error. It is seen as difficulty and likely to produce the mechanics of escape into certainty on the part of us mere humans.

Clamence is a living model of this. His early years were a serious attempt to live a life of clear meaning and absolute rules. But in mid-life he began to have the doubts of both ontological and moral skepticism. His choices mirror the anxiety predicted in the theory he later propounded, and his acts are often contradictory and puzzling – actually suggesting a coherence toward his skepticism.

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of this novel he believed it was Camus’s best, he argues that Clamence is, in fact, Camus, and the novel is what I’ve described above and Camus’s personal “confession” to the world of who he is and what his work is about.

I don’t have any evaluation of Sartre’s thesis. But it does seem at least consistent with what we know of Camus’s quest for personal authenticity and his drive to share that view with others.

Along the way in the novel are several positions, views and insights which struck me as particularly interesting or rich and I shall comments on several below.

For Clamence the human has two dominant drives:

Together they adequately describe humanity.

“It always seemed to me that our fellow citizens had two passions: ideas and fornication…. A single sentence will suffice for moderns man: he fornicated and read the paper.”

I was much taken with an image Clamence uses on how society quietly, steadily and relentlessly steals human individual freedom. He likens this process to the tiny “nibbles” of one pariah fish takes of a victim.

“You have heard, of course, of those tiny fish in the rivers of Brazil that attack the unwary swimmer by thousands and with swift little nibbles clean him up in a few minutes, leaving only an immaculate skeleton? Well, that's what their organization is. "Do you want a good clean life? Like everybody else?" You say yes, of course. How can one say no? "O.K. You'll be cleaned up. Here's a job, a family, and organized leisure activities." And the little teeth attack the flesh, right down to the bone. But I am unjust. I shouldn't say their organization. It is ours, after all: it's a question of which will clean up the other.”

Part of the role of the judge-penitent is to challenge his target people to change their lives toward what Existentialists would call authenticity. Part of that would be to be more honest concerning interpersonal relations with others. Clamence argues that while human have formally barred slavery (at least in the west), what we have in effect done is to alter its form, coating it with some icing which hides the substance of the cake beneath.

He even acknowledges that having slavery but not calling it that – even denying it and congratulating ourselves for this advance is “useful.” It has two consequences:

  1. It soothes the consciousness of the slave “owner.”
  2. The illusion of non-slavery often, even usually, internalized by the slaves themselves, gives them at least some sense of (false) hope.

“Just between us, slavery, preferably with a smile, is inevitable then. But we must not admit it. Isn't it better that whoever cannot do without having slaves should call them free men? For the principle to begin with, and, secondly, not to drive them to despair. We owe them that compensation, don't we? In that way, they will continue to smile and we shall maintain our good conscience.”

Sartre has claimed that this novel is a brilliant phenomenology of human being and especially a real “confessional” of Camus. The passage below if worth considering in this regard:

“However that may be, after prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being. Then I realized, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress. I used to wage war by peaceful means and eventually used to achieve, through disinterested means, everything I desired. For instance, I never complained that my birthday was overlooked; people were even surprised, with a touch of admiration, by my discretion on this subject. But the reason for my disinterestedness was even more discreet: I longed to be forgotten in order to be able to complain to myself. Several days before the famous date (which I knew very well) I was on the alert, eager to let nothing slip that might arouse the attention and memory of those on whose lapse I was counting (didn't I once go so far as to contemplate falsifying a friend's calendar?). Once my solitude was thoroughly proved, I could surrender to the charms of a virile self-pity.”

I close these note with three pages from near the end of the book in which a critical thesis – and a tension – is resolved.

The experience of guilt, arrived at via the judge-penitent role and guidance, is the path to freedom and authenticity.

At the same time there is for me the puzzle. Since someone else, the judge-penitent leads others to this clarity of being, does the person arrive at his or her own freedom, or does the person become the slave of Clamence/Camus/The Existentialists?

I’ve wrestled with this issue for all 36 years of my own teaching philosophy. I would never describe myself as much of either a judge or penitent (in any public world, even in teaching) but I was certainly both of those in my own heart. Like Clamence, I wanted to challenge others and rather than “setting up shop” in the Mexico City or as a parish priest, I chose the venue of the university classroom, and perhaps even now in retirement, this cyber-space of my web page. But what does the judge-penitent inspire or produce? Freedom and authenticity in the other or the subtle slavery of which Clamence speaks?

Camus’s challenging passage is below:

No excuses ever, for anyone; that's my principle at the outset. I deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion, the extenuating circumstance. With me there is no giving of absolution or blessing. Everything is simply totted up, and then: "It comes to so much. You are an evildoer, a satyr, a congenital liar, a homosexual, an artist, etc." Just like that. Just as flatly. In philosophy as in politics, I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty. You see in me, tres cher, an enlightened advocate of slavery.

Without slavery, as a matter of fact, there is no definitive solution. I very soon realized that. Once upon a time, I was always talking of freedom: At breakfast I use to spread it on my toast, I used to chew it all day long, and in company my breath was delightfully redolent of freedom. With that key word I would bludgeon whoever contradicted me; I made it serve my desires and my power. I used to whisper it in bed in the ear of my sleeping mates and it helped me to drop them. I would slip it… Tchk! Tchk! I am getting excited and losing all sense of proportion. After all, I did on occasion make a more disinterested use of freedom and even – just imagine my naiveté -- defended it two or three times without of course going so far as to die for it, but nevertheless taking a few risks. I must be forgiven such rash acts; I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know that freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne. Nor yet a gift, a box of dainties designed to make you lick your chops. Oh, no! It’s a choice, on the contrary and a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting. No champagne No friends raising their glasses as they look at your affectionately. Alone in a forbidding room, alone in the prisoner's box before the judges, and alone to decide in face of oneself or in the face others' judgment. At the end of all freedom is a court sentence; that's why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you're down with a fever, or are distressed, or love nobody.

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence, one must choose a master, God, before being out of style. Besides, the word has lost its meaning; it’s not worth the risk of shocking anyone.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett