In his novella, The Fall, the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus stops lamenting for a moment social injustice as well as the “meaninglessness” and “absurdity” of an empty Nietzschean universe in general, and turns instead to biography, specifically to his own cruelty.
Camus was a notorious, even “obsessive,” womanizer. But in time it got more complicated for him after his wife, though she kept to their agreement about an ‘open’ marriage for a long time, finally couldn’t take his philandering any longer and attempted suicide.
In the story of The Fall Camus in fact confesses that, like the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, he too was a notorious betrayer of himself and others.
Women for Camus, as the deliberately revealing story makes clear, were a serial means to a brief end, a moment of delectable selfish escape —and they were just the persons “to lie to,” all the while knowing they adored him.
It is here in this story that Camus, like the story’s protagonist, finally gets real with the need to “confess” his own personal and spiritual infractions “before [his] death,” but “without guilt”.
Earlier, in his essay The Myth of Sysiphus, he wrote,
“It is because he (Don Juan) loves [his women] with the same passion and each time with his whole self that he must repeat his gift and his profound quest.”
In The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a very successful and very vain Amsterdam defense attorney, was returning home by way of the Pont Royal after visiting his mistress when he passed a figure leaning over the bridge. After a moments hesitation, he continued walking.
Suddenly he heard the “dreadfully loud” sound of a body striking the water. He froze, but did not turn around. He heard a cry, repeated several times. He thought he must act fast … but did nothing. Then the cries ceased.
The silence “seemed interminable”. He trembled, motionless, and went weak. But it was “too late, too far,” he thought. So he continued on, informing no one.
Clamence resumed his life until some considerable time later he began to feel a persistent sense of unease— not guilt, but an agitation, the thought that people now saw through him.
He even imagined that they were laughing at the braggart’s cowardice. His only relief came by telling his story, confessing “not to God or to one of his represent- atives; I was above that, as you well imagine,” Clamence said, but “to men, to a friend, a beloved woman, for example”.
Camus, as stated, wrote The Fall shortly after his wife’s attempted suicide. She had finally despaired of his philandering and he was somehow compelled to tell the story, to “hurl himself into the general derision”.
The philosopher of existential anxiety had been stone cold to his own wife’s existential loneliness. Especially to her, though he said he cared for her. But not enough to be faithful to her.
He responded to a friend and associate that while he did “not feel guilty” about the incident, he did “feel responsible,”(1) a fine, clever, distinction. His conclusion was “I should never have married”.
Passion, sensuality, these were necessary for Camus. But love? No, not that. Love too is the absurd. One only uses the “other” — even if one is responsible.
Both Jean Paul Sartre and Camus, once friends, did their philosophizing and writing about living in a godless, heartless universe, without serious reference to the matter of real personal moral guilt. National or abstract guilt is always a feasible subject. Intellectuals enjoy pontificating about that sort of thing. But personal moral guilt?
Camus broke with Sartre because Sartre put political ends above morality. Camus insisted that morality must come before any and all political ends. But personal guilt much closer to home? Very much closer? He certainly would not seek forgiveness and absolution for his own immoral acts. He saw no reason for it. That would imply an eternal law. At most, it seems, “being responsible” for Camus simply meant admitting a certain sorrow maybe, and then making other arrangements for himself.
Always for himself.
Perhaps in the final analysis neither Camus or Sartre was honest enough to confess what their contemporary Aldous Huxley frankly stated:
“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption [SH: note that desire preceded investigation]. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves…
“For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to morality, because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” – Aldous Huxley in Ends and Means, 1937. —
“True debauchery is liberating. It creates no obligations. In it you possess only yourself; conversation is not obligatory there: hence it remains the favorite pastime of the great lovers of their own person. It is a jungle without past or future…On entering, one leaves behind fear and hope.” — Albert Camus, The Fall. — SH
(1) Roger Quilliot. Camus and The Fall, BBC documentary excerpt from the longer documentary The Madness of Sincerity:
Updated December 2021