Jean-Baptiste Clamence: The Existentialist Rambler

 

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

In his eulogy for Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre said that The Fall was likely Camus’s “finest and least understood” book.  Given that Sartre’s most famous work, Huis Clos (or No Exit), bemoans that “hell is other people”, and that the protagonist of The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, spends his life tormented by the thought of what other people think of him, is seems only logical that this would be a work Sartre had a great affinity for.  This notion that hell is other people comes through in Clamence’s existentialist struggle to define his ‘authentic’ self, and his practice of relying on others to validate his identity.  This parallel between the two works becomes particularly clear when Clamence states that “God is not needed to create guilt or to punish” as “Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves” (110).  The judgement of others is worse than the final judgement.  This means, then, that for Clamence, life and virtue become a performance and he is perpetually acting a role that he might be validated, as demonstrated through Clamence’s sometimes theatrical rhetoric. The Fall, then, operates as a companion piece to Sartre’s Huis Clos. However, it pushes Sartre’s maxim that hell is other people one step further by arguing that hell, in fact, is a place on Earth, contrary to what the excessively amorous Belinda Carlisle might suggest.

 

The FallClamence’s existentialist struggle is perhaps best exemplified by his striving to find his authentic self.  For instance, though he “enjoyed [his] own nature to the fullest”, in order “to soothe” others, he would “occasionally pretend to condemn such joys as selfishness” (20).  He does concede that “No man is hypocrite in his pleasures” (66), but in admitting that he condemns such pleasures, he highlights that his words and actions contradict each other, creating a false self. Though he seems self-aware of his false self, it becomes clear that he actually comes to identify with the performative self.  For example, when he hears a woman jump into the river, he allows her to drown, giving in to cowardice and contrasting the values his performative self portrays.  Likewise, when he is confronted by a man on a motorcycle and a third party, he allows them to accost him without defending himself, fearful that he might be further beaten.  In both instances he displays a cowardice that is true to his authentic self, and which he wishes to believe to be an inaccurate reflection of him.  In this context, his inclination to condemn that which he finds pleasing can also be seen as an act of cowardice as he fears what others might think of him should he display his authentic self.  It is this weakness and cowardice, then, that are representative of Clamence’s authentic self, and it is these traits he struggles to accept as they plague him throughout the novel.

 

 

Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Huis Clos has much in common with The Fall.

Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Huis Clos has much in common with The Fall.

Because he is unhappy with his authentic self, Clamence seeks validation through the acceptance of others, undercutting his authentic self in favour of his social identity.  For instance, Clamence behaves in a courteous manner so that his “courtesy… [might be] famous and unquestionable” (21).  He was “Consequently… considered generous, and so [believed he] was” (22).  In this instance, he does not define himself as generous through his actions, or suggest that his generosity is validated through his choices, but rather only that he became generous once those around him perceived him to be so.  Likewise, Clamence attended social gatherings that his presence might be noted.  In one instance, he showed up to a social event because he “knew [his] presence would be noted and favorably commented on”, and “Without much effort, such cordial simplicity won [him] the popularity so necessary to my contentment” (36).  In this instance, it is not the support he offers others that brings him contentment, but rather the recognition he receives from others, demonstrating how reliant he is on others for his own happiness.  Such was the case in all situations, as he notes that his “popularity was great and [his] successes in society innumerable” (emphasis added, 27), and it is not through his studies that he becomes a “tireless dancer and an unobtrusively learned man” (27), but through the recognition of those qualities by others.  Each of these instances relies on a deterministic belief that reality is socially constructed, and so each person’s identity is dependant, not upon what one does, but how others define it.

 

Simone Hié, Camus's wife, who may have helped to shape how Clamence viewed women.

Simone Hié, Camus’s wife, who may have helped to shape how Clamence viewed women.

This desire for approval from others also defines Clamence’s relationship with women.  When doing pro bono legal work, Clamence states that it is “hearing [a] woman whisper that nothing… could ever repay what [he] had done for” the defendant (23) that made him feel his efforts were worthwhile, rather than what he actually did for the defendant.  In more personal relationships, Clamence confesses that after a romantic relationship had been ended, he craved the ability to re-initiate the relationship or further distance himself, and that he had “to verify the fact that [their] ties still held and that it was [his] privilege alone to tighten them” (62).  After a breakup, it was “The moment [he] was loved and [his] partner again forgotten, [that he] shone” (67).  Despite the fact that he has no romantic attachment to a woman, his happiness still depends on his past lovers’ willingness to let him control them, and thus it is only through the docility of others that he can feel strong.  His lack of authentic romantic interest is reinforced when he notes that “as soon as [he] had re-won that affection [he] became aware of its weight” (67),  further demonstrating that though he has no personal or romantic interest in his former lovers, their submission or lack thereof still has the ability to make Clamence content or distressed.  This even shapes how he sees others as he asserts that his companion “must have noticed that men who really suffer from jealousy have no more urgent desire than to go to bed with the woman they… think has betrayed them” because “they want to assure themselves once more that their dear treasure still belongs to them” (105). In this way, Clamence demonstrates again how reliant he is on how others, women especially, view him.

 

María Casares, another former lover of Camus who likely served to shape his writing.

María Casares, another former lover of Camus who likely served to shape his writing.

It is Clamence’s thoughts on suicide that provide perhaps the strongest link between The Fall and Huis Clos.  In Sartre’s play, Joseph Garcin, who is executed for refusing to fight with the army, is concerned that his death, rather than being defined as an act of bravery meant to show he was upholding his views on nonviolence, will be defined as an act of cowardice.  The meaning of his death, then, is defined by others: not by Garcin.  The other central figures in Huis Clos go through similar struggles, notably Inès, who herself committed suicide.  When speaking on suicide, Clamence offers a similar view, stating that if “you kill yourself”, it doesn’t matter “whether or not [others] believe you” as “You are not there to see their amazement and their contrition… to witness, according to every man’s dream, your own funeral” (74-75).  Rather than defining one’s own death, others, Clamence argues, “will take advantage of it to attribute idiotic and vulgar motives to your action” (75-76).  It seems, then, that even in death, Clamence is worried about how others will view and define him, much like all three of the figures in Sartre’s Huis Clos, who each fret over what those in the living world say about them.

 

A tromp-l’oeil painting by Jean François de Le Motte.

A tromp-l’oeil painting by Jean François de Le Motte.

By allowing how others perceive him to shape his behaviour and projecting this same behaviour onto others, Clamence underscores the performative nature of life, a sentiment that his highlighted by Clamence through his theatrical language.  For instance, when he describes Paris, he says it “is a real tromp-l’oeil, a magnificent stage-setting inhabited by four million silhouettes” (6).  In framing it as a ‘stage-setting’, Clamence removes Paris from the authentic world and places it squarely in the world of theatrics.  The falsity of the world is reinforced by Clamence’ assertion that the people are nothing more than silhouettes, lacking substance. Likewise, when a concierge dies, Clamence describes it as a ‘tragedy’ (34) in the theatrical sense, and states that when he “paid a visit to the concierge’s wife to receive her thanks”, her appreciation was “expressed as a great tragedienne” (35), framing her as an actor, not a grieving widow.  He describes himself in much the same way, noting that he was a “play actor” as he would help a blind man cross the street and then tip his hat to him. This tipping of the hat was not done, not for the blind man, but for the public (47), or rather, the audience for whom Clamence was performing.  Through the rhetoric of his unreliable narrator, Camus drives home the idea that the virtue and day-to-day actions of most are merely a performance meant to secure the acceptance and approval of society.

 

 

The Tower of Babel by Bruegel the Elder.

The Tower of Babel by Bruegel the Elder.

Camus does, however, include a figure who manages to attain his authentic self: the bartender.  The bartender is a Dutch man working in a bar called New Mexico in Amsterdam where he serves Frenchmen.  Though he speaks the native language of the country, the people he services often don’t speak the Dutch, and so he cannot communicate with them, leading Clamence to align the setting of the bar with the biblical narrative about the Tower of Babel.  Clamence says the man is in a kind of exile and that “he goes his own sweet way and nothing touches him” (4).  Because the bartender is alone, and “As a result of not understanding what is said in his presence, he has adopted a distrustful disposition” (4).  This allows bartender to be his authentic self without worry of being judge.  This authentic disposition is further facilitated because the bartender is a large and strong man whose autonomy cannot be usurped physical intimidation, leading Clamanece to conclude that “Being master of one’s moods is a privilege of the larger animals” (3).  This alludes to the bartender’s facticity, suggesting that part of what allows him to be authentic is the physical trait of his size, which was bestowed upon him by chance, as well as his social context, which inhibits interaction from others.  Though facticity, or circumstances which one has no control over, plays a role in the bartender’s ability to be authentic, the character still demonstrates that some are able to be their authentic selves.  The problem, however, is that this is only possible outside of a social context as bartender is allowed to exist outside of the social structures that compel others to conform to socially acceptable behaviours.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos employs an extended metaphor to demonstrate the maxim the hell is other people; The Fall serves as a companion piece that applies that maxim through the philosophical ramblings of a character whose experiences are easily translated to practical, real-world situations.  In detailing how we feel compelled to censor pleasures that we take joy in, Camus brings Sartre’s existentialist observations into the real world. This ultimately demonstrates how daily interactions are shaped to secure approval from those around us, and how such an approach can poison personal/romantic relationships.  In framing this with a rhetoric that invokes the theatre, Camus highlights the performative nature of social interactions.  Though Camus presents a figure that is able to embrace his authentic self in the bartender, this can only be achieved in the absence of social interactions, thus demonstrating the existentialist crisis that weighs down The Fall’s unreliable narrator.  Though perhaps not as enjoyable without an existentialist context to fill in the reading, and though not as engagingly entertaining an existentialist narrative as Huis Clos, the novel is a cleverly and carefully crafted chef-d’oeuvre that is essential reading for all existentialists.

 

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GREAT QUOTES

“[E]mpires and churches are born under the sun of death”. (127)

“Property, gentlemen, is murder!”  (128)

“I possess nothing. Hence I am not worried about my safety, but about myself and my presence of mind.” (128)

“Property, gentlemen, is murder!”  (128)

“I possess nothing. Hence I am not worried about my safety, but about myself and my presence of mind.” (128)

“We are all exceptional cases.”  (81)

“Your successes and happiness are forgiven you only if you generously consent to share them.”  (80)

“I have no more friends, I have nothing but accomplices.”  (73)

“No man is hypocrite in his pleasures”.  (66)

“Our feminine friends have in common with Bonaparte the belief that they can succeed where everyone else has failed.”  (59)

 

 

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Fall. New York: Vintage Books. 1956.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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