Modernity and The Greeks in “The Fall”

by Jarrod Tallman

Albert Camus’s novel The Fall is a monologue. In some ways it reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. It is a confessional in the face of death. But Camus’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, seems much more aware of his place, both physically and mentally, in this absurd and silent universe. Theoretically opposed to Beckett’s hero, Molloy, who seems content to reinvent himself in a never-ending onslaught of negations and absurd situations, Jean-Baptiste has developed meticulous methods to make sense of his situations and give his life meaning.

Part of the strength of Camus’s work in The Fall lies in the difficulty to pinpoint the novel’s political position or motivations. Most well-read and respected scholars have posited it as an autobiographical critique of his split with Sartre, but have trouble agreeing on whether it is a confession by Camus or a sort of revenge on his critics. But this should not surprise us coming from a man whose aesthetic calls for nothing less than a reverberation of the silence of the universe and the feeling of divorce that humans sense when they encounter this silence in their search for meaning. For Camus the negation of what is “right” is not just wordplay, but an underlying essence that can be found in all his work. Camus’s empathetic and impartial approach that strives to leave the reader in the middle asking their own questions is perhaps his most overlooked success, and the key to the longevity of his work. This seemingly contradictory formal technique that often leaves philosophers questioning his philosophical ability and literary critics with myriad interpretations can be traced back to Camus’s early work, beginning with his Master’s thesis Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, through The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger; The Rebel, The Plague, and The Fall. That, though, is a topic for another larger, more in-depth paper. Coming soon to a reading space near you.

In this short paper I would like to take a look at very peculiar passage from The Fall. Its peculiarity is most pronounced due to a radical shift in the tone of Jean-Baptiste’s monologue.

You were wrong, cher, the boat is going at top speed. But the Zuider Zee is a dead sea, or almost. With its flat shores, lost in the fog, there’s no saying where it begins or ends. So we are steaming along without any landmark; we can’t gauge our speed. We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It’s not navigation but dreaming.

 

In the Greek archipelago I had the contrary feeling. Constantly new islands would appear on the horizon. Their treeless backbone marked the limit of the sky and their rocky shores contrasted sharply with the sea. No confusion possible; in the sharp light everything was a landmark. And from one island to another, ceaselessly on our little boat, which was nevertheless dawdling, I felt as if we were scudding along, night and day, on the crest of the short, cool waves in a race full of spray and laughter. Since then, Greece itself drifts somewhere within me, on the edge of my memory, tirelessly… Hold on, I, too, am drifting; I am becoming lyrical! Stop me, cher, I beg you.

 

By the way, do you know Greece? No? So much the better. (The Fall, 97-98)

 

It is in this passage, two-thirds of the way into the novel, that Clamence slips from premeditated sophism and drifts off into vivid and immediate description. Symbols emerge and metaphors are made. One metaphor that emerges is a comparison of the lifeless and hazy fog of Modernity against the sensuous and vivid life of the Greeks.

Modernity, represented in this passage by the drab progression across the Zuider Zee, is not what it appears to be. There are no landmarks for reference, no moral compass, nothing concrete. Creating meaning is not a way out of the fog, it’s just dreaming. It’s called progress yet nothing changes––there is no beginning and no end within the dead sea of Modernity.

On the contrary, the journey through the Greek isles is constantly renewing itself. Islands clearly pass by, then disappear, and new ones appear. Nothing is hidden, everything is what it appears to be and nothing more. There is a definitive sensuousness to the spray caused by the cool moving waves against the boat, there is joy and laughter in the journey––there is a sensuous immediacy to life in Greek thought.

But Clamence is remiss to let this alternative perspective slip out. “I am becoming lyrical! Stop me, cher, I beg you.” The rest of Clamence’s monologue pretentiously strives to construct a system of thought that not only gives his life meaning but justifies the morality of his actions, and it is by disseminating this system of thought to others and convincing them of its “truth” that he finds salvation, hence the sophistry of his monologue. It is here, in this very passage, that the reader might more fully notice Clamence’s conscious attempt to hide the way out of the problem of Modernity, precisely because the very methods that Modern thought allows afford him with the salvation he desires:

“By the way,” Clamence asks his devout listener, “do you know Greece? No? So much the better.”

2 thoughts on “Modernity and The Greeks in “The Fall”

  1. “… coming from a man whose aesthetic calls for nothing less than a reverberation of the silence of the universe and the feeling of divorce that humans sense when they encounter this silence in their search for meaning.”

    The Greek islands, the sensuous and immediacy they represent to Clamence, could those represent that impossible thing that the universe does not give us, a reason to live? Our days are like traveling the Zuiderzee, drab, indeed nothing to steer our moral compass by. Yet we cannot help but search for something there, something deeper, something intrinsically valuable in life itself, and, unable to find out, we rebel, desperately searching for it, and hopefully, we attain a state of Camus’ lucid indifference.

    If so, then why does Clamence end with “Do you know Greece? No? So much the better.” It could be negation of the previously suggested interpretation, or perhaps it just shows Clamence’s human feelings and morality towards his fellow men. After all, in every way possible, he wanted to ascend above those around him, so why would he not strive to be the only one attaining lucid indifference, the only true rebel..?

    • Interesting. In the quote you are referring to I’m addressing the inability of scholars and critics to paraphrase the “meaning” of Camus’s work in The Fall. I see this emphasis on non-didactic work as a critical part of his aesthetic.

      I understand the way you apply the quote to Clamence’s nostalgia for the Greek isles, and I do think that in their extreme sensuousness, relative to the Zuider Zee, Clamence’s image does represent a way out of the meaninglessness of life. I believe that Camus does sense something like “meaning” in the sensuousness and beauty of existence.

      I believe that Clamence says “By the way, do you know Greece? No? So much the better.” because he realizes that he got a little carried away, and perhaps let something slip, a sort of hope that doesn’t include him and negates his system of self-salvation. In some way, if the man he is manipulating decides to leave Amsterdam for those Greek isles, if he finds them more appealing than Clamence’s narrative, then Clamence’s system breaks down, for he relies on “converting” this fellow to achieve salvation.

      To be honest, I really need to re-read that one. I found it to be a rather surprising change of tone for Camus compared to The Stranger or The Plague.

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