(Throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the "hero's journey," as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
By Albert Camus
Review by Madeleine Maccar
There is a degree of self-aware humility I've come to expect from my heroes that Albert Camus's Jean-Baptiste Clamence doesn't immediately personify in his first-person narration of The Fall. Any man who extolls his own virtues ("For modesty," Clamence confides to his silent companion--presumably the reader--whom he has met in a seedy Amsterdam bar, "I took the cake") and damn near breaks his arm patting himself on the back doesn't exactly smack of the sincere modesty I feel that a hero inherently possesses, and such hubris almost demands a righteous bitchslap from the hands of fate that are pushing and pulling a traveller along his journey.
It's hard for me to reconcile the heroics with the hero when the former are relayed entirely in the hero's words; however, holding himself accountable for the slow unfurling of his own story is a decidedly successful method of winning over the audience so long as the narrator can deploy a certain degree of vulnerable honesty without compromising his capability or credibility. If he can talk about his most damning weaknesses with straightforward candor, such a willingness to lay himself bare forgives any lapses into crowing about his earned successes--especially with the gradual revelation that the hero has relied entirely on himself through several crucial stages along his journey: Clamence served as his own supernatural aide (touting himself as "a charming Janus" and invoking his "extraordinary ability to forget" to explain how he once lived in blissful unawareness of the dirty underbelly of the world around him) and delivered himself from the abyss--in his story, a concentration camp where he finally shrugged off his faith in the church--to emerge as a better version of himself, however long it may take for that transformation to register in another's eyes.
It was equally difficult to examine The Fall without giving in to the natural pull of Camus's reimagined trajectory of the fall of man; like Adam and Eve, Clamence's innocent bliss gave way to an inundation of guilty knowledge. The allegorical parallel is set up so naturally that every attempt at dissection wants to come back to Amsterdam's concentric circles eerily echoing those of hell, Clamence's preference for lofty places, and a once dauntingly high sense of personal worth and one's own goodness. It is a fall--the fatal plunge and dying screams of a suicidal woman Clamence all but ignores, despite priding himself on being a good man with a soft heart for the ill-fortuned--that plants the seed of self-doubt in our hero's mind, though it sits dormant until the buried memory of his inaction is triggered by a completely unrelated incident years later, eventually forcing Clamence to reconcile his true self with the illusion he has carefully fostered. Unlike the events following the biblical fall, Clamence did not remain in a state of humiliated exile: His belief that God is dead leaves room for a figure of judgment to ascend and fill the late deity's vacated post, a responsibility that the transformed former lawyer Clamence feels well-suited for, having eschewed personal connections beyond guiding similarly lonely souls to the same understanding and rigorous moral criticism he has embraced.
This omnipresent sense of Camus's novel mirroring the first fall is underscored by Clamence's own self-wrought downfall inciting his journey to forge ahead in earnest, as demonstrated in his attempt to demolish his highly regarded reputation to get a better (and, notably, lower) vantage point for examining himself as a microcosm and human nature as embodied by other people on a larger scale--people, as another French writer and contemporary of Camus's famously posited, being a hell unto themselves. This is how Clamence arrived at his own paradoxical conclusion of enlightenment, railing against external forces while becoming the outside aide alternately guiding and judging others to steer them toward their own willingly offered guilty admissions and submission to the higher power of his critical appraisal.
What makes Clamence a magnetic character rather than a repugnant sycophant is a willingness to divulge his shortcomings and confront his own hypocrisy for the sake of a metamorphosing into a more honest man, albeit one on the fringes of society. And, really, existing outside society is the only place for a man who judges others just as rigidly as he does himself and who can no longer bear the company of men who refuse to take his transformation seriously. Seeing his singularly fostered ideas become misinterpreted in the company of others left him with no other choice but to isolate himself from the life he knew and reduce his worldly interactions to an anonymous, one-on-one playing field. Having understood that his own actions and intentions weren't as admirable as he thought, Clamence's relationship with the world continued to collide with the unhappy truths that a world once filled with friends is really anything but: "... [I]t seemed to me that every one I encountered was looking at me with a hidden smile ... Once my attention was aroused, it was not hard for me to discover that I had enemies."
Clamence initially appears to be hanging on to the ruins of a crisis instead of dealing with the aftermath of an epic internal journey; the difference between the two may just be a matter of semantics and perspective. But what lends honor to his transformation is his ready inclination to give himself up to a way of interacting with the world that few would accept: Clamence admits that grand acts of heroism are best left to others, he is a lonely judge-penitent who only has purpose when he has his one-person audience, and he has allowed the epiphanies of internal contemplation to reshape his perception of the world. He is both God and Satan, guiding and judging in equal measures, suffering nobly and needlessly, all for the sake of assuming a responsibility that no one asked him to accept.