Albert Camus (1913-1960)
[L’Etranger: Meursault commits the unmotivated murder of an Arab on the beach in Algiers and is brought to justice. Because he does not cry at his mother’s funeral he is viewed with suspicion and finally condemned to death.
La Chute: In Paris, before his fall, Clamence had been a high-flying and well respected lawyer. A defender of the weak and hero of the downtrodden, he actively sought out cases that would reaffirm his angelic self image. But Clamence is not motivated by any feelings of altruism but rather by the selfish desire to feel better than others. His fall to Earth, and resulting self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, a city below sea-level whose 'concentric canals resemble the circles of hell', is precipitated by a literal fall of a woman to her death in the river Seine. He consciously chooses not to help. His self-image, his role as defender of the weak, is destroyed by his choice of personal safety.]
The Solipsist as Hero
L'Etranger is a revolutionary book written in an atmosphere of great intellectual bitterness and hate. According to Camus, not only is Meursault innocent, he is the only authentic person in his world. His authenticity takes the form of immediate contact with existence, the only real certainty for Camus, in contrast with the false moral, religious and customary beliefs of ordinary people. If everyone were like Meursault there would be no conflicts and wars and all social hypocrisy would disappear.
Meursault is a democratic version of Nietzschean man. There are also surrealistic elements in Meursault’s character, but he is better described as a solipsistic hero and a man of the pure present moment. He has no deep relations with others or society. He knows no one. He does not worry about death because the future does not exist for him. If one lives completely in the present death becomes meaningless. He is eternal. His total engagement in the present also explains why he does not marry his mistress. Meursault’s solipsism resembles that of Valéry’s Monsieur Teste. Meursault is a kind of super-Teste who is not even a great man for himself, much less for others. He is happy to be completely alone in immediate existence.
Some critics regard Meursault as a moron, nearly animal, but while there is some truth in this, Camus actually intended him to be seen as a positive hero who refuses to play society’s game. He does not exaggerate his emotions for the benefit of society. Because he did not love his mother in the proper bourgeois manner, his life is in jeopardy.
Meursault has no ambition and instinctively rejects the rat race. His authenticity makes him an outsider. Camus believes that society feels threatened by a person who is not dependent on it, who says “I leave you alone and you leave me alone,” and it therefore sets out to destroy him. The judges condemned Meursault for being what he is, a happy solipsist, not for the murder he committed. The murder is just a pretext to get rid of the only authentic person.
All romantic heroes encounter the antagonism of society. The romantic poet of the tradition was a great genius who gave his works to an ungrateful society that turned against him because he stood out. But Meursault does not stand out; he has no "genius." He is so proud that he does not even want to be a great man. He is nothing special, just an ordinary guy who commits a crime, but for Camus he incarnates the absurd.
For the Romantics the relations of poets to society are strictly economic; for this reason their tragedies always end in starvation. Unlike the romantic poet who would rather starve than accept a menial position, Meursault is so far above society that he can accept any position it offers him without complaint. Even an economic tragedy is impossible for him.
The Novel as Lie
The romantic hero would at least have recognized others enough to be haughty before them, but Meursault simply ignores them. This makes it difficult to write about him. From a narrative point of view, he must make a major mistake to exist at all. In the ordinary course of events he has no story to tell. We know that something terrible will happen from the beginning of the book because it is so calm and its hero is so innocent. No humour detracts from this mood and this is what makes us sure we are headed toward a catastrophe, but just for literary reasons, not because that is the way things actually happen. While this works as a story it has nothing to do with reality.
Camus employs the technique of a mystery novel, but all the clues lead to the judges, not the murderer. He has judged the judges before-hand and believes that they and society are against the unusual individual. This assumption at the basis of Camus’ novel is false and Camus fails to prove it in the book.
It would not be interesting to condemn Meursault for an actual crime, for example, involuntary manslaughter, because Camus is attempting to prove that he is punished because he did not cry at his mother's funeral. We are supposed to believe that there is a persecuted Meursault and a persecuting society, but to convince us of this society would have to persecute him before he committed a crime, simply for being himself. Camus therefore must prove that no murder really exists at all, and that Meursault is simply persecuted for an action bringing his true nature to the attention of the public: the judges see his divine innocence and condemn him for it. In fact his only contact with other people is as a murderer. Without the artificial incident of the murder there would be no persecution since Meursault would be considered as nothing more than a stupid little bureaucrat and no bother at all.
It is clear that with this book Camus fails to prove what he intend. When the murder happens we already know that Meursault is essentially innocent. If the murder is an accident, the sentence is unjust but not a necessary result of Meursault’s authentic innocence. If it is a real murder, he deserves his sentence. If the murder is predestined, as Camus seems to claim, then cannot the same be said of the judges, thus acquitting them of the sin of condemning Meursault?
In any case the murder is so improbable that it fails to prove that anyone who does not cry at his mother's funeral will be executed. This improbable argument reveals the paranoiac essence of the book. Camus suffers from a persecution complex of sorts like all romantics.
Sartre saw in L'Etranger a kind of philosophic tale in the style of Voltaire. But that type of story needs a concrete issue over which to excite debate. L'Etranger makes everyone who reads it into a Meursault judging universal injustice. There is no controversial issue. L'Etranger attacks nothing concrete in society. In terms of concrete action, to be against everything turns out to be the same as to be for everything. This is characteristic of most avant–gardism.
The bourgeoisie likes L'Etranger not because they misunderstand it, but because they live in the same world themselves and understand it all too well. Everyone can feel like Meursault with the whole world against him. The narcissistic personality of today is the Promethean hero as failure. Camus got the Nobel Prize from the very society he condemned.
The Novel as Allegory
Like all romantic myths, L'Etranger turns the average into the exception and inverts the author’s relations with society. To understand it, it must be seen as an allegory of its author.
Meursault is not a real person although his character corresponds in a distorted way to Camus'. Meursault is uninterested in society which is very interested and afraid of him. For Camus, an unknown North African writer, just the opposite was true. He was very interested in a society that had no interest in him. Camus converted his loneliness and the fact that he was ignored into outright persecution in order to be superior to the society that ignored him. He chose the solitude that reality imposed on him and described hell as though it were heaven. This explains the success of L'Etranger. No one is afraid of being executed for not crying at his mother's funeral, but many people are afraid of being completely ignored.
Every romantic individual desires to get the attention of society. Meursault's murder is an attention-getting device of which Meursault himself is unaware. The writing of the novel was supposed to be equivalent of Meursault’s murder. Murder is thus the measure of the novel’s appeal for attention. But writing makes no sense for a solipsist. If solipsism were really possible Meursault would never have needed to be persecuted, but apparently he did need it and the novel is built on that need.
This is the mechanism of juvenile delinquency. Camus tossed out L'Etranger like a juvenile delinquent his crime and justification, but instead of being punished he was accepted and made into a spiritual leader by a society as sick as he was. L'Etranger is a very calculated, but also a very naïve work. It inverts everything, but expresses something profound.
A great novel is a kind of veiled confession. In L'Etranger though, the confession lies. Camus tries to convince us and himself that the absurd life of the absurd man is happy, but a naïve reader unacquainted with Camus’ complicated philosophy will often conclude that Meursault is miserable. L'Etranger, like the Western movie, is a simpleminded, mendacious representation of a Manichaean world. In that world evil is completely external to the reader or viewer who can thus see himself as completely good. The hypocrisy of the judges, of a non violent social life, may be bad but at least it makes a liveable world. But the hypocrisy of L'Etranger is violent and dangerous.
Judging the Judge of the Judges
Valéry was much cleverer than Camus and saw that his solipsistic hero, Monsieur Teste, has no tragic possibilities. Valéry would have laughed at making him a persecuted innocent. In L'Etranger Meursault is the perfect innocent and all evil is outside him, but in La Chute evil is everywhere and no one stands outside it. In this novel Camus finally recognizes the cheap romanticism of L'Etranger.
Camus became disgusted with the cult of Camus that designated him as the good avant-garde as opposed to Sartre, the bad avant-garde. In L'Etranger he wrote against his readers, but they all came over to his side. He satirized himself in La Chute to reveal himself to his admirers as he really was. La Chute is written against Camus and so also against his readers. He condemns himself to make others condemn themselves as well.
La Chute is not Christian. On the contrary, it is the most anti-Christian and yet the closest to Christianity of Camus’ works. In it he recognizes the effect of the ethical virus of Christianity and the impossibility of escaping into the pagan past. Meursault’s need for persecution shows that we are all in a Christian world despite pagan pretentions.
The judge was always a symbol of hypocrisy, oppression and evil in Camus' work. Most critics agree with Camus and do not see that the systematic judgment of the judge qua judge falls under its own condemnation and therefore cannot serve as a proper foundation for an ethical system. Camus finally understood this in La Chute. The novel shows that the problem of moral judgment is much more difficult than he had believed. Everyone judges others to justify himself and then hides the connection from himself. This makes it all too easy for intellectuals to have a clear conscience by being against.
La Chute adds a lawyer to the trial of the persecuted innocent. Camus, like Clamence, was the lawyer in L'Etranger who did not mind losing his case before the judges if he could win it with public opinion. Clamence discovers that he too is a judge. Instead of forgiving the criminals, his moral power is expended judging the judges. The man who appeared to have a passion for the underdog is really just fighting the judges. Now he understands that in opposing the judges for judging, he too is judging, just like them.
Camus understands finally that he is the same as the others. He is like Oedipus who curses the evil ones from the standpoint of the ego, the judge, but discovers that guilt returns to himself as his judgment. His guilt is the very curse he casts at the others.
There is no way to prove this allegorical interpretation of La Chute, but we do have the evidence of L'Etranger as Camus seems to have understood it at the time he wrote it and as most of the critics still understand it today. We also have the fact that in La Chute Camus changed many of his ideas and made fun of his previous views. In this novel Camus himself acts as a “judge-penitent.” He recognizes that in L'Etranger he was writing against his own bourgeois public, and he understands that he rivalled the judges in judging them.
L'Etranger exhibits the normal Promethean egotism of a young man fighting a world which resists him. Meursault’s crime is a superman's murder in which the perpetrator remains innocent. But in La Chute Camus sees things with Dostoyeskyan clarity. Clamence’s acknowledgment of guilt is not real humility. He has a Dostoyevskyan pride which debases itself to debase others. The egotism of the judge-penitent is the subtlest of all, more than that of the judge or the lawyer. Clamence is aware that he is involved in a circle: condemning oneself for condemning oneself for condemning others, etc., etc. The whole business of judging is shown to be absurd.
In L'Etranger Camus cast himself as a pagan hero, but later, in La Chute, he realized that actually he was justifying himself at everyone's expense. In writing La Chute, he falls from level to level of self-justification. In taking the guilt on himself he feels better than the others because he alone knows what he is doing. The references to Dante's Inferno suggest that the circle of judging and self-judging descends in unending spirals. Now that there are no pagan heroes we are all in the circles of Dante's hell.