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Camus, Algeria, and “The Fall”

Camus’s political writings on the Algerian war are collected in Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) which he published in 1958. It is a depressing volume. The manner, in the post-1945 essays, is not so much that of Camus as that of the moderate bourgeois French journalism of the period: categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.

The Arab personality will be recognized by the French personality but in order for that to happen, France must exist. “You must choose your side,” cry the haters. Oh I have chosen it! I have chosen my country. I have chosen the Algeria of justice in which French and Arabs will associate freely!

He had one concrete idea during this early part of the war—that of a “truce for civilians.” He went to Algeria in January 1956 and presented this idea at a public meeting. The proposal was badly received. Camus was attacked by the Europeans, largely ignored by the Moslems. An informant of Albert Memmi spoke of his disappointment at Camus’s “sweet sister” speech.

The dual crisis of the autumn of 1956—Suez and Hungary—brought a closer assimilation of Camus’s position to that of the French right-of-center. He supported the Hungarian rebels—as did Sartre—but, unlike Sartre, drew “European” lessons from their action: “in spite of the dramatic bankruptcy of the traditional movements and ideals of the left, the real Europe exists united in justice and in liberty, confronting all tyrannies.”1 In relation to Suez, the only violence which he condemned was that of the language of Marshal Bulganin.2 In a message to French students on Hungary he acclaimed “that violent and pure force which drives men and peoples to claim the honor of living upright.”3 At the same time, he believed that as a result of the lesson of Hungary, “We will be less tempted to overwhelm our own nation, and it alone, under the weight of its historic sins. We will be more careful—without ceasing to demand from her all the justice of which she is capable—about her survival and her liberty.”4

The France whose survival was in question was a France which included Algeria: thus the rightness of the Hungarian rebellion provided a reason for putting down the Algerian one. In respect of methods, his position remained humane: torture was “as contemptible in Algiers as in Budapest.”5 Hope nonetheless resided exclusively in the Western camp:

The defects of the West are numberless, its crimes and its faults real. But in the last analysis, let us not forget that we are the only people who hold that power of improvement and emancipation which resided in the genius of freedom (le libre génie).6

Despite his revulsion from the methods of the repression, his position was necessarily one of support for repression, since he consistently opposed negotiation with the actual leaders of the rebellion, the FLN. In 1955 he had proposed an Algerian round table without the FLN, and in 1958 in the Foreword to his Chroniques Algériennes (Actuelles III), he points out that negotiation with the FLN would lead to “the independence of Algeria controlled by the most implacable military leaders of the insurrection; that is to say, the eviction of 1,200,000 Europeans of Algeria and the humiliation of millions of Frenchmen, with the risks involved in the humiliation.”

He makes it clear that he rejects this independence, and therefore the negotiation. The rejection of negotiation is basic and necessarily implies support for the substance, if not for the details of the methods, of the French Government’s policy of pacification. The actual political formulas proposed by Camus in 1958 have to be situated in the light of this: they are formulas of a type frequently canvassed and varied by French governments at this period, designed to help the process of pacification—through the isolation of the FLN—and capable of execution only after the suppression of the FLN, if at all.

Thus the regime of “free association” which he foresaw required French military victory over the insurgents. After that he aspired to the extension of democratic rights to the Arab population, but the results of this democratic process could be overruled from France. The French Government was urged to announce:

One: that it is disposed to give full justice to the Arab people of Algeria and to liberate it from the colonial system; two: that it will make no concession on the question of the rights of the French of Algeria; three: that it cannot accept that the justice which it will consent to render should signify for the French nation the prelude for a sort of historic death and for the West the risk of an encirclement which would lead to the kadarization of Europe and the isolation of America.7

Camus’s position in the Fifties was one of extreme intellectual and emotional difficulty and tension. He had written about freedom, justice, violence, and revolt in abstract terms and asserted principles which he presented as of both fundamental importance and universal application. He never altogether abandoned this language and he continued to write about politics in the tone of a severe moralist. Yet his actual positions were political and partisan. The violence of the Hungarian rebels and of the Anglo-French expedition in Egypt raised no problems. It was violence “on the right side”: precisely the logic he had rejected, on grounds of a rigorous morality, in relation to revolutionary violence. Freedom was an absolute for the Hungarians and their violence in asserting their will “to stand upright” was “pure.” The violence of the Algerian Arabs, who thought that they were making the same claim, was “inexcusable” and the nature and degree of the freedom to be accorded to them was a matter to be decided by France, in the light of its own strategic needs—a plea which was irrelevant when made by Russia.

He remained in fact a Frenchman of Algeria and what seemed to be the increasingly right-wing positions of his later years were latent in his earlier silences. The only public statement of Camus on the subject of the Algerian war that has the ring of complete candor is one that he made in Sweden in December 1957 just after he had received the Nobel Prize: “I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn a terrorism which operates blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which one day may strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice but I will defend my mother before justice.”8

The defense of his mother required support for the French army’s pacification of Algeria. It is only in the light of this situation, with all its conflicts and ironies, that one can understand Camus’s last and perhaps his best novel, La Chute (The Fall).

La Chute began as a story for L’Exil et le Royaume, and is marked by some of the same preoccupations as the stories in that collection. The place of exile is Holland, the setting a dock-side bar. The story is cast in the form of a monologue; the narrator is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, once a lawyer, now describing himself as “a penitent judge” (juge pénitent).9 Clamence’s style is elaborate and ceremonious: “I see you gag at that imperfect subjunctive. I must confess my weakness for that form and for fine language in general.” One of the reproaches that had stung Camus most at the time of the publication of L’Homme Révolté was that of excessive elegance in style: in the person of Clamence he gives this tendency full rein, while partly parodying it, and taunts his adversaries. He diagnoses that his interlocutor is a bourgeois: but a “refined bourgeois! To gag over imperfect subjunctives indeed proves your culture twice over since you recognize them in the first place and then since they irritate you.”

The setting, like so much in L’Exil et le Royaume, is dreamlike: “Holland is a dream, sir. A dream of gold and smoke. More smoky by day and more gold by night. Did you notice that the concentric canals of Amsterdam are like the circles of hell? A bourgeois hell, naturally, peopled with bad dreams.”

Clamence tells of his life in Paris, as a lawyer: “I specialized in noble causes…. I had my heart on my sleeve. You would have really thought that justice slept with me every night.” He abounded in small courtesies, was generous, lived a full life:

I succeeded in loving at the same time women and justice, which is not easy. I went in for sports and fine arts…. I was made to have a body, hence that harmony in me, that easy mastery which people felt and which helped them to live, they sometimes told me. In truth, through being a man, with so much plenitude and simplicity, I became a little bit of a superman.

One day when coming back from court after making “a brilliant improvisation…on the hardness of heart of our ruling class,” Clamence was crossing the Pont des Arts when he heard a laugh behind him, looked around and saw no one there: “The laugh had nothing mysterious about it. It was a good laugh, friendly….” That evening when Clamence saw his face in the bathroom mirror “it seemed to me that my smile was double.”

He tells of another incident which altered his picture of himself. Getting out of his car to remonstrate with a stalled motorcyclist who refuses to move and uses abusive language, he is hit in the face by a pedestrian who takes the side of the motorcyclist. Behind his car, a line of traffic starts to honk horns. He returns to his car and drives off while the pedestrian taunts him with cowardice: “After having been struck in public without reacting, it was no longer possible for me to caress that beautiful image of myself.” He dreams of revenge: “The truth is that every intelligent man dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society through violence alone. As that is not as easy as you might think by reading certain kinds of novels, one generally relies on politics and runs to the cruellest party. What does it matter after all to humiliate one’s mind if in that way you can succeed in dominating everybody? I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression.”

He tells of a kind of love affair. He learns that a woman with whom had had once slept had told a third party that he was not much good. He takes care to recapture this woman, dominate her, and mortify her: “Until the day when in the violent disorder of a painful and constrained pleasure, she rendered homage aloud to what enslaved her. On that day I started to get farther away from her since I had forgotten her.”

Then he tells of his “essential discovery”: Crossing the Pont Royal in Paris one night in November, three years before the evening when he heard the laugh, he sees a young woman leaning over the parapet. After passing her, he hears the noise of a body falling into the water. He stops without turning round. He hears a cry repeated several times, going down the river and then ceasing. He listens for a while, then walks off with short steps in the rain: “I informed nobody.”

His relations with his friends change: “My fellows ceased to be in my eyes the respectful audience I was used to. The circle of which I was the center broke and they placed themselves in a single row, as on a courthouse bench…. Yes they were there as before but they were laughing…. The whole universe started laughing around me.”

Clamence is pursued by a ridiculous thought: “One could not die without having confessed all one’s lies. Not to God or one of his representatives. I was above that as you may imagine. No—to confess it to men, to a friend or a woman one loved for example.” He cherishes such projects as jostling blind men in the street, bursting the tires of invalid chairs, and slapping infants in the subway: “The very word justice threw me into strange furies.”

One day on a transatlantic liner he sees a black spot on the ocean. He looks away, his heart beating. When he looks back the black spot has disappeared. It bobs up again, a piece of flotsam.

Yet I had not been able to look at it. I had thought immediately of a drowned person. I understood then, with acceptance, as one resigns oneself to an idea whose truth one has known for a long time, that that cry which years before had rung out on the Seine behind me had not ceased, carried by the river towards the waters of the Channel, to make its way in the world across the vast space of the ocean and that it had waited for me until this day when I met it again. I understood also that it would continue to wait for me on the seas and on the rivers—everywhere where might be found the bitter water of my baptism. Even here, tell me, are we not on the water?

He speaks of the guilt of Jesus for the deaths of the Innocents: “That sadness which you can make out in all his acts. Was it not the incurable melancholy of one who heard throughout the nights the voice of Rachel, groaning over her little ones and refusing all consolation? The cry rose in the night. Rachel called her children, killed for him, and he was living.”

He realizes that he is again pleading a case. He is half-advocate, half-prophet: “After all, that’s what I am, taking asylum in a wilderness of stone, of fog and stagnant water. An empty prophet for a mediocre time. Elijah without a Messiah. Crammed with fever and alcohol, my back stuck to this mildewed door, my finger lifted towards a lowering sky, covering with curses lawless men who cannot bear any judgment.”

He takes to his bed suffering from “swamp fever, I think, which I picked up when I was Pope.” This was during the war, in North Africa when Clamence had been neutral between the opposing parties, and subsequently interned by the Germans. A fellow prisoner proposes that they should choose from among themselves a new Pope who would live among the suffering people: ” ‘Who among us,’ he said ‘has the most weaknesses?’ By way of a joke I raised my finger, and was the only one who did. ‘Good. Jean-Baptiste will do.’ ” He exercises his pontificate for a few weeks, his main problem being the distribution of water in the camp. He gives up after drinking the water of a dying comrade: “Persuading myself that the others needed me more than they did the man who was going to die anyway, and that I should keep myself alive for them. This is the way, my friend, that empires and churches are born, under the sun of death.”

He explains how he carried on his new profession of penitent judge, by the practice of public confession:

I mix together what concerns me and what has to do with other people. I take common characteristics, experiences which we have suffered together, weaknesses which we share, good manners, present-day man in short, as he rages in me and in others. With all that, I make a portrait which is one of everybody and nobody. A mask in short, quite like a carnival, one recognizable and simplified, one in front of which you say: “I think I’ve met that fellow somewhere.” When the portrait is finished, like this evening, I show it with an air of grief: “That, alas, is what I am.” The indictment is finished. But at the same moment the portrait which I show to my contemporaries becomes a mirror.

He confesses that he is in possession of the stolen panel, The Just Judges, from van Eyck’s The Mystic Lamb. He thinks his interlocutor may be a policeman, and invites him to make an arrest. This interlocutor is, however, like himself, a lawyer, they are “of the same race.” Clamence addresses to him the last words of La Chute:

Tell me, I beg you, what happened to you one evening on the banks of the Seine and how you succeeded in never risking your life. Say to yourself the words which for years have not ceased to ring out during my nights and which I will say at last through your mouth: “Young girl, throw yourself in the water again, so that I can have a second chance to save us both.” A second chance, eh? What a rash suggestion! Supposing, sir, we were to be taken at our word, we’d have to carry out our promise. Brrrrr! The water is so cold! But don’t worry. It’s too late now. It will always be too late—luckily!

Roger Quilliot rightly warns that to try “to identify Camus with Clamence would be as gross an error as to insist on mixing him up with Tarrou.”

An American critic, Emmet Parker, says that “Jean-Baptiste Clamence, rather than being a modern John the Baptist, Clamens [sic] in Deserto, as many critics have thought, comes near to being a satirical portrait of left-wing intellectuals as Camus saw them, lost in the nihilistic desert of 20th century ideologies, led astray by their own systematic abstractions.”10

Even though the novel contains, as M. Quilliot has established, many echoes of the Sartre/Camus controversy, and not a few jibes at the Sartre position, it would be a serious error, and a belittling one, to take Clamence as a kind of caricature of “Sartre and other progressive intellectuals.” Clamence himself surely gives the clue when he says: “I mix together what concerns me and what has to do with others.” It is a “game of mirrors” as Camus himself said. It is inconceivable that Camus, the Saint Just of 1944, “the godless saint” of post-Liberation youth, could have devised the character of the penitent judge without his irony being aimed at himself as well as others. The book is not “satirical” in any ordinary sense; its irony is wry and painful, its tone that of the examen de conscience which stands in the background of the French moralistic tradition to which Camus consciously belonged.

La Chute is not a caricature but a probing of man’s nature as known to Camus through his own experience: Clamence is certainly not Camus but is the arrangement of mirrors through which Camus inspects that experience and causes it to be reflected. Nor can the specifically Christian, or pre-Christian, elements in La Chute—so clearly signaled both in the title and in the name of the narrator-protagonist—be glossed over. Under the surface of irony and occasional blasphemy, La Chute is profoundly Christian in its confessional form, in its imagery, and above all in its pervasive message that it is only through the full recognition of our sinful nature that we can hope for grace. Grace does not, it is true, arrive and the novel ends on what is apparently a pessimistic note. Yet the name of the narrator—that of the forerunner—hints, however teasingly, at the possibility of a sequel.11

La Chute belongs to the same cycle as the stories in L’Exil et le Royaume, although it was not finished until later. Its preoccupation should, I think, be related to those of the stories in that collection, to Camus’s sense of isolation after the publication of L’Homme Révolté, and especially to his sense of exile resulting from the developing tragedy in his own country. The isolation and the exile are of course connected, because it was Camus’s position in relation to Algeria, and therefore to other colonial situations, which marked him off from the political positions of the Sartre circle.

I believe that La Chute, the only one of Camus’s novels which is not set in Algeria, is the one in which Algeria is most painfully present. Amsterdam is not only an anti-Algeria, a sunless, foggy place of exile; it is also a limbo: “You know then that Dante accepts the existence of angels who were neutral in the quarrel between God and Satan. And he puts them in limbo, a sort of ante-chamber of his hell. We are in the ante-chamber, my friend.”

It is not, I think, fanciful to relate this concept of limbo to Camus’s position on the struggle in his native Algeria. Torn between justice and his mother, Camus was drawn into a long hesitation which seemed to many like neutrality. Eventually, with the decision to put his mother first, he came by 1958 to support everything that was fundamental in the French Government’s position. At the time of writing La Chute, and even later, his position seemed indecisive and unsatisfactory to both communities in Algeria. Naturally the community that resented this most was his own: that of the Europeans, who showed him clearly what they thought in January, 1956.

This seems to me to cast some light on the call and the laugh in La Chute. Daru in L’hôte was doubly summoned: the policeman, Balducci, called on him to convey the prisoner to the nearest town. The prisoner called him to help the rebels: “Viens avec nous.” Daru does not follow either call and is left in isolation: essentially Camus’s position. I believe that in La Chute—a much more complex work than L’hôte—these two calls were pressing on Camus’s consciousness at this time and fused at a deep level into one: the voice of Rachel calling her children. Clamence’s paralysis on the bridge corresponds to that of his creator before the conflicting call of what he had thought of as his country. The laughter which follows him, which “put things in their proper places,” is provoked by the discrepancy between what he had been saying and how he behaves. He who had talked so much of justice must now abjure such language, since there is something he prefers to justice. The emergence of the ironical juge pénitent prepared the way for a different view of life, more conservative and more organic.

Essentially Camus is beginning to take the side of his own tribe against the abstract entities. He is heeding that call which reached him most deeply, thus taking an ironic distance from those universals which had hitherto dominated his language. Perhaps for this reason there is a curious sense of liberation about La Chute as compared with the stories in L’Exil et le Royaume. The manner of the short stories is generally flat and grating, suggestive of painful effort. In La Chute on the other hand, beneath the bitter irony there is a return of that undertone of elation which we find in L’Etranger and La Peste. It is doubtful whether lyricism and irony were ever before so combined as they are in Clamence’s narrative. The circles of hell are also a sort of circus, with Clamence as the master showman, virtuoso in the manipulation of mirrors and in a patter which constantly amalgamates the ridiculous and the sublime.

On February 13, 1960 Albert Camus was killed in a car accident at a place called Le Grand Frossard. He was forty-seven. La Chute, which implied a renewal, remained his last word.

Probably no European writer of his time left so deep a mark on the imagination, and at the same time on the moral and political consciousness, of his own generation, and of the next. He was intensely European because he belonged to the frontier of Europe and was aware of a threat. The threat also beckoned to him. He refused, but not without a struggle.

No other writer, not even Conrad, is more representative of the Western consciousness, and conscience, in its relation to the non-Western world. The inner drama of his work is the development of this relation, under increasing pressure and in increasing anguish.

Many articles and commentators identified Camus as the just man. In this they were unjust to him, perhaps even more so than Madame de Beauvoir when she wrote of him as “that just man without justice” (ce juste sans justice). Both verdicts shrink the dimensions of the tragedy. He was above all an artist and his primary and most enduring concern was not with justice but with artistic truth. Yet the artistic truth of the novelist, dramatist, and essayist has social and political implications, and is a form of justice.

In L’Etranger, artistic truth was contrasted with, and placed above, forms of justice in society. In La Peste, artistic truth joins, through a basic human integrity, an ideal of social and political justice. But La Chute breaks up that marriage: artistic truth here reveals justice as a complex and self-flattering illusion.

In historical terms, the ideal of revolutionary justice which was appropriate to a Frenchman under the Occupation (La Peste) was no longer appropriate to a Frenchman involved in France’s position in the postwar world, and especially not to a Frenchman of Algeria (La Chute). Both artistic truth and justice had their social and cultural habitat. Camus was a creation of French history, French culture, and French education, and all the more intensely French because of the insecurity of the frontier. He liked to express himself in universal terms: that too was a French tradition. He could not divest himself of his Frenchness; he could not betray his mother; if France in Algeria was unjust, then it was justice that had to go, yielding place to irony. Rieux and Tarrou made way for Jean-Baptiste Clamence.

Camus’s basic dilemma is that of all intellectuals in the advanced countries in their relations to the poor countries, but with the difference that he felt the dilemma much more acutely and faced the implications of the choice he made, in La Chute, with unmatched imaginative integrity. Not every intellectual has to make the same final choice, but each must realize how much he is a product of the culture of the advanced world, and how much there is that will pull him, among the “Algerias” of the future, toward Camus’s “fall.” One may still feel it to be a fall indeed, a great personal tragedy, and a defeat for a generation: a defeat most decisive when unacknowledged. One may feel—as the present writer does—that Sartre and Jeanson were right, and that Camus’s voice added to theirs instead of turned against them, would have rallied opinion more decisively and earlier against imperialist wars, not only in Algeria but also in Indochina-Vietnam and elsewhere. One may experience horror at the sight of the moral capital of La Peste being drawn on in support of the values of the Cold War and colonial war.

Yet we must recognize that it was to Camus, not to Sartre, that the choice was presented in a personal and agonizing form: that Sartre’s choice, even if it was the right one, came relatively easily,12 whereas Camus’s choice, wrong as we may think it politically, issued out of the depths of his whole life history. Politically, Camus and his tribe, the Europeans of Algeria, were casualties of the postwar period. Imaginatively Camus both flinched from the realities of his position as a Frenchman of Algeria, and also explored with increasing subtlety and honesty the nature and consequences of his flinching. The moralist talks himself out of existence in the terrible, hollow, public rhetoric of these last years. At a different, much quieter level, the serious explorations of the mature artist have hardly begun when they are suddenly cut short by senseless accidental death.

Among those who mourned him in all the world’s great cities and some other places, there were many who still thought of him as the just man, the Godless saint. Others, who could no longer think of him in this way, mourned mainly for the artist, and for what might still have been. The paradox and torment of his political development presented themselves to us no longer as conscious choices but as the conditions of the life of the artist: conditions in which La Chute represented an heroic achievement. He left us at last the tone, the smile, and the half-promise of Jean-Baptiste Clamence: and also the mirror.

  1. 1

    Franc-Tireur, November 10, 1956: Quilliot, Camus, Essais, p. 1780. The general edition of Camus’s works used in the present essay is the Oeuvres Complètes, Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard): I. Théatre, récits, nouvelles; II. Essais, edited by Roger Quilliot, 1965.

  2. 2

    Tempo Presente/Demain, February, 1957: Essais, p. 1763.

  3. 3

    Message to a meeting of French students, November 23, 1956: Essais, p. 1781.

  4. 4


  5. 5

    Discours de la Salle Wagram, March 5, 1957: Essais, p. 1783.

  6. 6


  7. 7

    Algérie 1958 in Chroniques Algériennes (Actuelles III).

  8. 8

    Stockholm interview, December 14, 1957: Essais, pp. 1881-2.

  9. 9

    This is probably a reference to the penitent orders of friars, who both do penance themselves and suggest penance to others.

  10. 10

    Emmett Parker, Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena, University of Wisconsin, 1955, p. 160.

  11. 11

    When in a review in The Spectator of the English version of The Fall, I stressed its Christian tendency, Camus wrote to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, confirming that this approach to the novel was sound.

  12. 12

    Relatively” must be stressed. Sartre’s choice may have been easy subjectively, but it involved the risk of his life.

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