Albert Camus’ The Fall specifies a new kind of self-flagellation. While Christians throughout time have flogged themselves to purify the world through their pain, believing that their sins cause civilization-wide catastrophes, Camus’ protagonist creates a closed circuit of vice and virtue: he confesses to his vices so that he many continue to enact them.
Such behavior has relevant links to contemporary nihilism and the Old Testament, which are worth analyzing. But rather than bemoan nihilism, Christianity, or slave morality, Albert Camus problematizes Nietzsche’s response to those problems: an affirmative will to power. The Fall’s main character, Jean Baptiste Clement, falls from a Nietzschean grace and loses the profound indifference that enables a deep, Nietzschean joy. He then finds himself filled with half-hearted indifference, which seizes his mind and implants a duty to judge and confess.
On one hand, Nietzsche rejected the lifeless, resentful Christian worldview that most Westerners inherit. Its emphasis on meekness, pity, enduring commitments, and monotheistic worship effaces everything that is joyful, powerful, and aesthetic about living. On the other hand, he rejects the complete negation of its worldview; without faith in God or guidance from the Church, one runs the risk of believing that life and all its possible forms are meaningless— thus landing at the same passive, nihilistic endpoint as Christianity. The German wanted a world and worldview that promotes joy, strength, experimentation, and refined tastes.
Seeing that Western culture offered no viable alternatives — even the blooming field of scientific inquiry lays on nihilistic territory— Nietzsche created his own philosophy. He offered his will to power, embodied by his character of the Ubermensch. This character dislikes modesty and anything else that diminishes one’s capacity or willingness to manifest capabilities; a person should cultivate a positive, proactive stance towards their powers. Importantly, this power is not relational. It is self-generated in that one’s self-esteem is not a product of others’ rotten nature or incompetence; it necessitates action, as opposed to passivity, which necessitates an ethic of engaged behavior. While the Ubermensch states, “I am good, therefore you are evil,” his slavish counterpart prefers the formula, “You are evil— therefore I am good” (Deleuze, 113). The Nietzschean hero does not need to compare himself to others, in terms of outcomes or evaluations. He, like his values and modes of evaluation, are self-made.
Albert Camus’ affinity to Nietzsche is made obvious by their belonging to the same existential, continental philosophical tradition, as well as his frequent engagements with his works. He therefore sketches The Fall’s protagonist in this Nietzschean light. Jean-Baptiste has high self-esteem, works hard, and imagines himself superior to other people. He even speaks Biblically about his life. “Isn’t that Eden, my good friend, life taken directly? That was mine. I never had to learn to live. On this point, I knew everything when I was born” (La Chute, 31). Such a superlatively lived reality caused him to feel, “free from others for the excellent reason that [he] didn’t recognize any equal. [He] always saw himself as the most intelligent in the world” (La Chute, 53). Normally, such self-admiration evaporates because we learn that we are not infinitely capable or omnipotent. But when faced with obvious limitations, such as the fact that people are better than Jean-Baptiste at things he doesn’t practice, like tennis, he claims, “If I had time to train, I would certainly be among the best” (La Chute, 53). Wherever he isn’t better than others, he could be— according to him.
Just like Nietzsche’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Clement enjoys his powers and tastes. He is unashamed to confess to his superiority in terms of joy, strength, or taste.
The Temptation to Pity and Compare
Naturally, people with such egomania are bound to have complicated relationships with others. When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra comes down from the mountain in order to impart his wisdom, he finds that the village people are unworthy and incapable of receiving it, so he returns to his heights. The allegory affirms the cliche that the philosopher is divorced from the banal, dreadful social world. Rather than being excommunicated for being different, he simply chooses to not play the game. His solitude enables him to experience the profound joy of his thoughts and existence.
Camus’ character, however, cultivates a relationship to others. And, at a glance, it seems healthy and productive and wholesome. We learn that he freely gave lighters to those that asked, that he even helped old folks cross sidewalks (La Chute, 25). He even enjoyed it. Superficially, we can already draw a distinction between him and Zarathustra in that he interacts, while Zarathustra acts. But the critical issue is the type of joy, since perhaps they enjoy opposite behaviors for a similar reason. Whereas Nietzsche’s character moves towards joy, Camus’ character explains, “When I occupied myself with others, it was pure condescendence” (La Chute, 54). This sets up a nasty, problematic loop. The character’s self-esteem begins to rely on the fact that he is better than others — not that he is intrinsically good— which means that he needs their weak, stupid behavior. Jean-Baptiste bemoans the fact that he lives in a civilization in which people only fuck and read the newspaper, embroiling themselves in senseless dramas, but he craves it (citation?). He needs bored, powerless people in order to make himself feel powerful.
Because Jean-Baptiste thrives on pitiful condescension, he finds himself in a network of half-hearted social obligations. Neither joy nor power motivate him— turning social interactions into irritating obligations. This assessment even extends to friendship, which, though, “long and hard to obtain,” is something “to cope with” (La Chute, 35). Friends will not,
“telephone you every evening, as they ought to, in order to find out if this doesn’t happen to be the evening when you are deciding to commit suicide, or simply whether you need the company… As for suicide, they would be more likely to push you to it, by virtue of what you owe yourself, according to them. May heaven protect us, cher Monsieur, from being set upon a pedestal by our friends” (La Chute, 35).
In this way, Jean-Baptiste sees his disdain for others as typical. He explains that people throughout the world love funerals because death frees people from the obligation of attending to others’ pains, sorrows, and needs (citation?). They simply want solitude.
But they need more than solitude, according to Camus, if they are to evade pity or condescension or nihilism. It is not sufficient to avoid social contact; people must be active in their isolation— or else their solitude decays into boredom, which breeds petty social dramas: loveless relationships, half-hearted obligations, aimless conversations. Camus’ protagonist is only exceptional in how deeply he allows himself to be numb to others. It’s obvious in the casual tone as he outlines his fall; the extreme example, of course, is that he witnessed a woman committing suicide by plunging into a frozen river— and he continued walking past her desperate cries for help. Despite his condescension, or perhaps because of it, Jean-Baptiste does not help in moments of dire crisis. He is locked into a lifestyle of half-measures.
An emphasis on what is lower than him — and how he can profit from it— breeds an existential dread. On one hand, Camus suggests that the character’s mistake was to belong to a social world, since, “success and happiness are forgiven only if you generously consent to share them. But to be happy it is essential to not be too concerned with others. Consequently, there is no escape. Happy and judged, or absolved and wretched” (citation).And yet, isolation engenders a, “liberty [that] is too heavy to carry, especially while you suffer from fever, or when you’re in pain, or you don’t love anyone…The weight of the day is terrible” (La Chute, 139). This dread is the feeling of falling from an impossible Nietzschean grace. Camus’ story shows that it is tenable only in short bits.
Fallen to the level of the general population, he tries to ascend to the heights again. Geographically, he prefers high places to low gulfs; socially, he continues to condescend and judge; even intellectually, he is, “for every theory that refuses innocence and for every practice that makes [man] guilty” (La Chute, 138). He doubles-down on condescension and judgement. Although these were originally symptoms of his fall from Nietzschean grace, he tries to re-appropriate them to create a feeling of power, which wards off boredom and self-consciousness. By the end of the novel, once he has mastered his practice as a judge-penitent — after leaving Paris, after memorizing his confessions, mastering the art of judgement— he claims, “I reign now, but now forever. I found again the sommet, where I can be alone to climb and where I can judge the world” (La Chute, 148). Being alone relieves him of half-hearted obligations; judging makes him feel powerful.
But the gravity of being born into a social world and being concerned with others (i.e. he has to judge them) forbids him from absolute joy. Unlike Zarathustra, he does not fully renounce the world; he renounces it enough to judge it but not abandon it. Thus, at his peaks, “sometimes, from far, far away, when the night is beautiful, I hear a laugh in the distance and I doubt everything again. But then, quickly, I dominate everything, creatures and creation, beneath the power of my weakness and then I perk myself up” (La Chute, 148). But his need to judge obliges him to be enmeshed in the despicable social world. The laughter is the soundtrack to his fall, which is the lost ability to live without regard for the judgement of others.
Ingeniously, he devises a way to judge others with minimal presence of others: he judges others through himself. He just finds one person, then portrays, “common traits, experiences that we have in common, the experiences that we have suffered together…a good tone, being a good man,” in order to create a sense of parallelism between himself and others; he calls himself a mirror to others” (La Chute, 145-146). Then, while confessing, he transitions from 1st person singular to 1st person plural— enabling him to say, “voila, look at what we are” (La Chute, 146). Thus, he simultaneously confesses to his vices as well as others’ vices; he simultaneously judges himself as well as others. Contemporary readers consume insane amounts of fuel for loathing— news media, social media, advertisements, lifestyle brands, etc. — but Camus’ character just needs one good ear.
If the ending delivers a sadness that expands in the reader’s mind, that’s because it tastes fatalistic. The novel ends with the protagonist’s playful wish that the young woman he let kill herself would jump into the icy water just one more time— so that he could save her, and, in doing so, save himself from his fall into petty, half-hearted indifference. But this is obviously in jest, since he follows by exalting the fact that, “It’s too late, it’ll always be too late. Luckily!” (La Chute, 153).
Jean-Baptiste’s tactic only works if he embodies something like human nature in his confessions. He can’t transition from judging himself to judging others unless he is like others. The reader can only infer this from their own reading, to the degree that they feel resigned to the protagonist’s psychology. His fall — which might be our fall— is from the profound indifference that enables deep joy; he is obliged to share life with others, and this prevents him from attaining and holding onto happiness. Camus replies to Nietzsche’s isolated, resentmentless mountain is the artistic, philosophical equivalent of the Bible’s Garden of Eden, and, as such, is the height from which we fall.
The fall, then, occurs between two kinds of indifference. The first and preferred is the Nietzschean indifference that allows a person to cultivate their powers. In this light, Albert Camus’ The Stranger is tender, confused representation of such indifferent individualism. The Fall, on the other hand, reflects the passive, petty indifference that mires the social world. The grand contribution of Albert Camus’ The Fall might be that it pronounces the impossibility of living without indifference, while also revealing the difficulty of a profoundly liberating indifference.
Works Cited/ Further Reading
Camus, Albert. La Chute. Gallimard, 1959.
Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche. PUF, 2015.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. The Gay Science: with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Vintage Books, 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Foulis, 1909.