Thursday, 27 September 2018

Je Dirai Enfin Par Votre Bouche - Existentialist Visions of Hell, Redemption, and Self-Possession in Albert Camus's La Chute (The Fall)

"Avez-vous remarqué que les canaux concentriques d'Amsterdam resembient aux cercles de l'enfer?[1]" (Have you noticed that the concentric canals of Amsterdam resemble the circles of Hell?)

[Warning: Contains spoilers and references to self-harm. Read-on at your own discretion.]

Albert Camus's 1956 novel, La Chute[2], is an attempt to weave into a narrative structure the ideas and opinions of the French Existentialist movement. How well does it succeed in this attempt?

In order to begin, we must expand our definition. La Chute is better described as an attempt to overlay the ideas and opinions of the French Existentialist movement upon the general landscape of Dante's Inferno. The present-day action takes place in Amsterdam, which here serves as a metaphor for the Inferno in three distinct ways. The nested horseshoes of concentric canals encircling the centre of Amsterdam represent the nine concentric circles that shape Dante's vision of the underworld. Amsterdam can hardly be said to have the climate or average annual temperature commensurate to being an apt stand-in for Hell. Yet Amsterdam also represents a specific location within the Inferno:

"Ici, nous sommes dans le dernier cercle. Le cercle de... Ah! Vous savez cela? Diable3, vous devenez plus difficile à classer." (Here we are in the final circle. The circle of... Ah! You know that. Damm it[3], you become harder to classify.)

The ninth and final circle of Dante's Inferno is the circle of traitors. Frozen to his waist at its centre is Satan, the ultimate traitor in Christian mythology. His wings beat the air in torment, chilling the air about them, turning the River Cocytus to ice and leaving him trapped, together with all the other traitors to their kindred, country, guests, and lord that inhabit the ninth circle.

In the eight circles above, everything is as hot, humid, and hellish as popular culture tends to conjure in its collective imagination. The ninth circle is Hell's dungeon; the place where are kept all those so beyond hope or redemption that they aren't actively tortured. Rather their souls are encased in the ice at varying levels of immobility and ignored. Virgil and Dante can discern little more than vague shapes in the ice as they pass that way. They move on down the legs of Satan and up onto the island of Purgatory.

Amsterdam, with its temperate climate, situated on the coast of the North Sea, is an effective substitute for the cold of the ninth circle. Snow is falling in the final chapter of La Chute and settling on the "dark jade canals" and the 'little snow-covered bridges". Our narrator idly speculates about second chances and jumping into the water to save another soul. This would leave him trapped in the icing over canal, like those frozen in the ninth circle. He goes back to bed.

As with the ninth Circle, the characters of La Chute are anonymous and go unheard and unseen. The novel's only voice is its narrator, one Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Even this, he tells us, is not his real name. Clamence's narrative is told to another man, principally in a bar near the red light district of Amsterdam. All that we know of this other person's contribution to the conversation is in the phrases that Clamence echoes back at him ("You are in business, no doubt? In a way? Excellent reply! Judicious too."). The true nature of this second presence is obscured until the novel's final page.

The third and final way in which Amsterdam serves as Hell in La Chute is as a personal Hell for Jean-Baptiste Clamence. At the centre of Clamence's narrative is his confession and profound regret for a transgression committed when he was younger. For this he cannot forgive himself, and for which he condemns himself to self-exile as a result.

Clamence had years before been a lawyer in Paris. One night, crossing a bridge in the early hours of the morning, he passed the figure of a woman contemplating the river from the middle of the bridge. He carried on to the other side, but hadn't gone far down the bank when he heard a splash. This splash was quickly followed by a scream. Clamence surmised that the woman had jumped into the Seine to end her life, but changed her mind once in the river. He had a second in which to take action and jump in and save her. He remained frozen on the bank. The screams subsided. He carried on walking.

As Clamence tells it, the incident fades from his mind until one night, crossing a different bridge in Paris, he hears a laugh that seems to come from someone on the river, moving along its waters. The laugh haunts him, as the facade of respectability of his life as a lawyer begins to unravel, like Nekhlyudov in Tolstoy's Resurrection, faced as a magistrate with the woman he'd condemned to prostitution by getting her pregnant and dismissed as a maid in the household of a family friend. In failing to jump into the river and save her, Clamence wonders what shame caused this woman to take her own life. He comes to see himself as the last in a long line of men to have failed her.

Nekhlyudov sells his possessions and retreats from respectable society, as Tolstoy himself did (Resurrection was Tolstoy's final novel). Clamence closes his practice in Paris, and drifts by accident and by design to places and situations that represent variations on the upper circles of Hell, including their infernal heat. He is interned in a North African Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War. He climbs the active volcano, Mount Etna, on the Island of Sicily, to look into the heart of the volcano. He travels around the Greek archipelago, where myths of the underworld were first written down, becoming the bedrock for western literature for the next two and half thousand years.

"[L]e hasard, la commodité, l'ironie, et la nécessité aussi d'une certaine mortification, m'ont fait choisir une capital d'eaux et de brume, corsetée de canaux, particuliérement encombrée, et visitée par des hommes venus de monde entier." (Chance, convenience, irony, and also the need for a certain mortification, made me chose a capital of water and fog, corseted by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all over the world.)

In moving to Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence finds the ultimate representation of personal Hell, like Room 101 in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, laid out across a city. Not only do the concentric canals and climate of Amsterdam suggest the ninth circle of Hell, but with its innumerable bridges, Amsterdam is shaped to remind Clamence of his failure in Paris any time he wishes to travel across the city centre. To cross Amsterdam is to pay a heavy psychological toll for his sins: So heavy that Clamence will not cross a bridge after dark.

The dystopia of Hell is reflected in other ways within La Chute. Clamence draws his companion's attention to the premises of a former Amsterdam slave trader, complete with African heads carved into the woodwork. The bar in which much of the action takes places is called Mexico-City. Its name recalls the Aztecs and their ritual blood sacrifices on the killing floor. The bar itself is situated in the old Jewish Quarter that existed before the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and the deportation of its inhabitants to the Hell-on-Earth that awaited them at Auschwitz, Belsen[4], and Sobibor[5].

Dante also makes a personal appearance in La Chute:

"Connaissez-vous Dante? Vraiment? Diable. Vous savez donc que Dante admet des anges neutral dans le querelle entre Dieu et Satan. Et il les place dans les Limbes, une sorte a vestibule de son enfer." (Do you know Dante? Really? Dammit. Then you know that Dante admits there were neutral angels in the war between God and Satan. And he places them in Limbo, a sort of vestibule in his Inferno.)

Here Camus, or Clamence, misspeaks. The Vestibule and Limbo are very different places in Dante's Inferno, lying on opposite sides of the River Acheron. Limbo is the first circle of the Inferno, where reside all the virtuous pagan souls that existed before Christ and were therefore denied the opportunity to convert to Christianity and be saved. The Vestibule, where we find the neutral angels, is an anti-circle of hell, encountered before Charon and his riverboat across the Acheron and into the Inferno proper.

The name Jean-Baptiste Clamence warrants examination. At face value, the name is a play on John the Baptist, the pre-cursor to Christ in Christian mythology. As John the Baptist carried out baptisms in the River Jordan, Jean-Baptiste Clamence hears confessions near the River Amstel. Clamence describes himself as a judge-penitent; a title of his own invention. His method is to befriend the respectable men who come looking for the seedier parts of Amsterdam. Then he compels them to confess their sins to him by going through the charade of confessing his own sin, as if for the first time:

[J]e me tiens devant l'humanitié entiére, récapitulant mes hontes, sans perdre de vue l'effect que je produis, et dissant: « J'étais le dernier des derniers. » Alors, insensiblement je passe , dans mon discours, du « je » au « nous ». Quand j'arrive au « voilà ce que nous sommes », le tour est joué, je peux leur de leurs véritiés. (I stand before all of humanity, recapitulating my shames, without losing sight of the effect that I produce, and say: "I am the lowest of the low," Then brusquely I move from "I" to "We". When I get to: "This is what we are." the game is over and I can tell them some home truths.)

As well as allusions to John the Baptist, the name Jean-Baptiste Clamence has more than a whiff of sulphur surrounding it. The initials J.B.C. could be read to spell out some variation on Jesus Bleeding Christ, or Jesus Bloody Christ[6]. The blasphemy inherent in this combination of words and letters once again suggests the pit, and the inversion of a black mass, twisting Christ into the Antichrist. During his time in the internment camp, Clamence's fellow prisoners elect him a kind of mock Pope. The protestant reformer, Martin Luther, considered Pope Leo X to be the Antichrist, as did Protestants for centuries after Luther's death. Jean-Baptiste Clamence is as much Mephistopheles as he is John the Baptist. Clamence collects confessions as Mephistopheles is said to collect souls. Nightly, Clamence has his fill from the inexhaustible supply of budding Fausts waiting to be consumed before the bar of Mexico-City.

What does any of this have to do with Existentialism?

The origins of the Existentialist movement can be traced to the writings of the Danish philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard[7]. As noted in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

"Kierkegaard rejected the claim, which he took (perhaps unfairly) to be Hegel's[8], that we can look forward to a time when the different interests and concerns of people can be satisfied through their comprehension within an all-embracing objective understanding of the universe.[9]"

Whoever developed the idea, it stated that there will come a time when individual intelligence and intellectual thought have reached such a level of refinement and subtlety that all people will think in the same way and come to the same conclusions. Everyone will work towards the same goals and follow one path, once they realise what the right path is.

Kierkegaard rebuts this by noting that individual concern will always be the overriding emotion in sentient beings. It might be possible, through a high level of education and training, for everyone to see their place within society (and the universe), and act according to some perceived norm, or within society's agreed limits. Yet self is always nearer than society: Inner thoughts always closer than the instruction of peer pressure or billboard advertising. As such, human beings, and by extension human society, will never achieve a level of equilibrium in thought or in desire. Hegel's idea of 'absolute consciousness' is unattainable in the real world, except through the liberal use of eugenics, gulags, and concentration camps.

Kierkegaard's objection to Hegel, however, is religious rather than metaphysical. Kierkegaard believes that true objectivity can only be obtained through infinite subjectivity, the ability to see every individual viewpoint simultaneously. The only entity capable of infinite subjectivity would be God, by virtue of his being omnipresent, and therefore everywhere at once. Kierkegaard's objection is not that absolute consciousness is unobtainable, but that it is only knowable to God.

The true father of Existentialism is generally held to be the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger[10], with Kierkegaard considered its principal Godfather[11]. However, Heidegger's is a metaphysical Existentialism, largely dealing with existing consciousness as an abstract concept. Heidegger has little advice on the moral or ethical implications arising from Existentialist thought and its consequences. The work moulding metaphysical Existentialism into an ethical Existentialism would largely be conducted in France during the 1930s and 1940s. Heidegger may have been its progenitor, but one philosopher contributed more to the sum of Existentialist thought than any other: Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre[12] is to Existentialism what Karl Mark[13] is to Communism. While Karl Mark did not invent Communism, he did with Capital (1867), and The Communist Manifesto (1848 - co-written with Friedrich Engels) contribute more to Communist thought, and have a farther reaching influence, than any other Communist writer. Sartre's influence is not to the same magnitude as Marx, but Sartre can likewise claim to have written Existentialism's two most important treatises: L'Etre et le Neant (Being and Nothingness: 1943), and L'existentialisme et un humanisme (Existentialism is Humanism: 1946). For the purposes of the current thesis, we will concentrate on the latter work.

L'existentialisme et un humanisme is based on a lecture Sartre gave at the Club Maintenant, Paris in the months following the conclusion of the Second World War[14]. Sartre posits an ethical Existentialism by drawing a line between two kinds of Existentialists: Christian Existentialists (existentialistes chrétiens) and Atheist Existentialists (existentialistes athécs). The difference between the two essentially comes down to a belief in which came first: existence (l'existence) or essence (l'essence). Do we come into this life with our personality already decided upon and preloaded into the frontal lobe? Or are personality and personal preference something that only emerge after we come into being? It's a variation on the nature versus nurture debate. Is who we are pre-existing, or is our essence shaped by the influence of circumstance and environment?

The prosaic answer to the question is probably a combination of the two. The work done on genetics in the seventy or more years since L'existentialisme et un humanisme was published has revealed certain traits that we find encoded in our genetic code. These traits set our susceptibility to particular hereditary diseases, and determine our hair and eye colour and sexual preference, amongst other things. Yet this is a small part of the picture. Genetics set sexuality, yet everything else is a free choice and open to individual interpretation. A person may be born pre-programmed to be a certain sexuality, but how that sexuality manifests itself and the types of people that that individual will be attracted to is determined by everything else that happens to them after their birth. Genetics can only set the starting conditions for how a person's life might proceed. Until that protean essence comes into existence, we can no more pre-determine the outcome than we can predict the path and position of a single elementary particle.

As an existentialiste athéc, Sartre is firmly of the belief that existence precedes essence. He goes to the trouble of rejecting the existence of God, but notes that belief in a deity is not an answer or panacea to life's ills, as life seems to proceed whether one believes in a god or not, with all the same risks of famine, disease, and war. Those who hold to a particular faith get hit by cars and throw themselves from bridges just the same as those who hold to no faith at all. Sartre posits that by rejecting the existence or influence of God, all that remains is oneself and one's actions. These are the only things for which or to whom an individual can be held responsible ("je suis responsable pour moi-méme et pour tous...").

Moreover, by rejecting the control of any greater power, whether it be God, communism, or societal pressure to conform to a restrictive role in society, we wrestle back control over our life choices. If one believes that one's path in life is hindered by immigrants, or shadowy world cabals, then one's path is unlikely to change, as immigration and global politics (real and imagined) are beyond the range of most people's influence. It is possible to advise others; nurture them; force our will upon them even, but the rationalisation to act or not to act is an internal process and it can only be affected by external influences up to a point. If one is restricted to blaming others for past mistakes, there is little one can do to redress those mistakes for the future. If, on the other hand, one takes ownership of past personal mistakes and takes steps to redress them and prevent such errors occurring in the future, then progress is made by the mere action. You can't change other people. You can only change yourself. And this brings us back to Jean-Baptiste Clamence and La Chute.

In the moment of his paralysis by the riverbank, Clamence becomes Jean Paul Sartre's concept of existentialism made narrative flesh. Clamence is a man alone, free from God (for whom he does not expresses a preference), or the judgement of others. The decision to act or not to is his to make alone. He cannot externalise the responsibility to anyone else. As Dante serves as an avatar for all such pilgrims who make the journey towards Christian redemption, so Clamence is an avatar for the existentialist faced with total autonomy.

Clamence would appear to be the classic model of an existentialiste athéc. He tells no one else of what happened (not until the confessionals of his later years). He takes no steps to ascertain if the woman survived, or her body was found. For a time he forgets the incident, but when the memory returns, Clamence arranges his own series of punishments. He seeks to blames no one else for his lack of activity.

Clamence does not offer an explanation for his inaction. Perhaps it is a variation on the bystander effect, where large groups of people will stand and watch a violent assault, because the presence of others leads individuals to assume that someone else will step in. The more people that are present, the less likely it is that any one person will take charge. As a lawyer, Clamence will have spent a good part of his life receiving training and instruction from others, as well as falling into their bad habits and practices, which is the inevitable consequence of working in any profession of high institutionalisation. In that instant at the riverbank, Clamence is the king of his own domain, with power of life and death over this one person. Yet autonomy is a concept so alien to most people that Clamence baulks at the responsibility. No one else is compelling him to act through instruction, or the simple fear of being thought a coward by society, and so he takes no action. He condemns two people to their fate in doing so.

Considered in reference to its associations with Existentialism, La Chute is a work of tragedy. Sartre notes in L'existentialisme et un humanisme that when faced with two choices, both of which are equally unpleasant, or have unfortunate consequences, there is no right or wrong answer:

"La seule chose qui compte, c'est de savoir si l'invention qui se fait, se fait au nom de la liberté." (The only thing that counts is knowing if the invention one makes is made in the name of liberty.)

The tragedy in La Chute comes not from Clamence's lack of action at the riverbank, but his reaction to his inaction. Clamence embraces the basics of existentialisme athéc by accepting responsibility for what happened and seeking personal penitence for his transgression. Yet the function of punishment is to force the individual to accept the consequences of their actions to reduce the risk of similar bad behaviour occurring in the future. Once the individual has accepted responsibility for their actions, and demonstrated sufficient remorse to the point where the probability of reoccurrence is negligible, punishment moves on to rehabilitation. Clamence cannot give a repeat performance of his act of cowardice, because he refuses to be placed in that situation again by his prohibition on crossing water after dark, so in one sense the chances of recidivism are slim. Yet this further cowardice only compounds on the original act of treachery towards a fellow human being in need. Clamence is sorry in thought, but not in action. This prevents him from moving on from the punishment stage. He remains trapped in a cycle of self-recrimination: An existentialiste athéc manifestation of hell.

Clamence's remorse is manifest, yet he shows little interest in redemption, unless in his acts of self-confession and contrition at Mexico-City. His refusal to cross a bridge after dark demonstrates the extent to which the event has marked and weakened him for evermore. By hanging around notorious suicide spots and rescuing from the waters the next person that requested help, Clamence would wipe away his guilt at a stroke. Further acts of kindness could rescue something worthwhile from a scene of tragic self-destruction. France had two volunteer lifeboat services at the time: Société Centrale de Sauvetage des Naufragés, and Hospitaliers Sauveteurs Bretons[15]. Another path to redemption. Yet Clamence will not even visit the scene of his perceived crime, only ossify in regret at its borders.

Dante's journey leads away from the ninth circle, towards the ascension of the island of Purgatory and his emersion in the River Lethe, which unaccountably flows out of the Garden of Eden[16], and whose waters wash away the memory of sin from all penitent souls that pass through their flow. Clamence stagnates, despite having less reason than anyone in the Inferno to remain there. It is a free choice, but it's hardly a constructive choice.

There is also the question of the woman on the bridge. What about her free choices? We can of course never know what circumstances motivated her to jump into the River Seine. Had she, as Clamence believes, been ruined by a man, or ruined rather by her own malfunctioning psyche? Is she Ophelia, compelled to drown herself by the actions of some rash Hamlet, or like Virginia Woolf driven to desperation by mental illness and the impact she thought she was having upon her loved ones:

"I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know."

Clamence demonstrates a certain chauvinism by assuming the woman can only have taken her life through the actions of a man. Virginia Woolf had died fifteen years before La Chute was published. Albert Camus had written his treatise on suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, only a year later in 1942. "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem," Camus writes, "and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." It could also be argued that suicide is Existentialism taken to its extreme, where the individual assumes responsibility for the their own termination. Although like the choices of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, it hardly demonstrates Existentialism at its most positive or proactive.

In Resurrection, Nekhlyudov is directly and actively responsible for the destitution of the woman who comes before him as a magistrate. Clamence, on the other hand, is a victim of chance. Ten minutes later and he would have had no knowledge of the existence of the woman on the bridge. He had no hand in her downfall and didn't compel her to jump. Yet he carries the weight of her action for the rest of his life. Like Satan, if he only stopped struggling for one moment and recognised that his own actions are what's keeping him imprisoned, he might break free. If Satan stopped flapping his wings, the ambient temperature from the circles above the ninth would melt the River Cocytus beneath him[17]. If Clamence would only cross one bridge after dark, it would negate the need to cross so many during the day.

One answer to why Clamence proceeds as he does might be found in the personal life of Albert Camus. It is known that Camus's second wife, Francine Faure, on at least two occasions jumped from the upper floor of buildings, including the second floor of the psychiatric hospital in which she was being treated for depression. These might have been suicide attempts, and Faure's state is likely to have been exacerbated by Camus's various affairs.

We can therefore read Clamence as Camus, and the woman on the bridge as Francine. La Chute is Camus's partially veiled confession. It is also an act of scapegoating by conjuration. Camus conjures Jean-Baptiste Clamence, attaches his sins to the judge-penitent, and condemns him to eternal damnation. Camus, meanwhile, continued with his life. Francine forgave him, and the couple are buried together in the south of France.

Whether or not one considers its methods wholesome, one can't deny fiction writing as a prime example of the industry of Existentialism. Some people blame others for their mistakes. Writers take their mistakes and turn them into literature, and cautionary tales for the instruction of others.

Clamence wants to be punished. In the final chapter his companion visits him at home, where he is laid up in bed. In his bedroom is displayed The Just Judges, a panel from a larger work painted by Hubert Van Eyck, in real life stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium in 1934. In La Chute it has been displayed at Mexico-City, but Clamence has taken it home and is telling all and sundry that he is in possession of the painting in the hope of being arrested for its theft. There is a suspicion in the final chapter that Clamence is near the end of his life and is desperate for some real world punishment because he does not believe in anything after death. Perhaps this explains the true nature of the companion to whom Clamence has been speaking all this time:

"Ne sommes-nous pas tous semblables, parlant sans tréve et à personne... Alors, racontez-moi, je vous prie, ce qui vous est arrivé un soir sur les quais de la Seine et comment vous avez réussi à ne jamais risquer votre vie. Prononcez vous-meme les mots qui, depus de années, n'ont cessé de rentir dans mes nuits, et que je dirai enfin par votre bouche: O jeune fille, jette-toi encore dans l'eau pour que j'aie une seconde fois la chance de nous sauver tous les deux." (Are we not the same? Always talking, and to no-one... Then tell me, please, is it you that arrived one night at the Seine, and how you managed to never risk your life? I say now the words that throughout the years have not ceased echoing in my nights and that I say at last through your mouth: O young women, throw yourself into the water one more time that I might have a second chance to save us both.)

In the book's final moments, Clamence is revealed to be talking to himself. Whether through idle day dream or hallucination, the person to whom Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells his confession is the younger Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Curiously, from the text quoted above, Clamence would appear to be speaking to a postlapsarian version of himself; one who also failed to prevent the women's fall. He also regrets his lack of action and repeats the mantra to second chances. The only difference it seems is that the mature Clamence has ceased to believe in second chances, despite the words still echoing through his nights. A regret, which, as discussed, could easily be remedied by facing the scene of his failure on any bridge after dark. To the bitter end, he obstinately refuses the call:

"Supposez, cher maitre, qu'on nous prenne au mot? Il faudrait s'exécuter. Brr...! l'eau est si froide." (Suppose, dear friend, that someone took us at our word. It would have to be carried out. Brr...! The water is so cold.)

Albert Camus's 1956 novel, La Chute, is an attempt to weave into a narrative structure the ideas and opinions of the French Existentialist movement. How well does it succeed in this attempt?

The character of Jean-Baptiste Clamence embodies and embraces many of the elements of Existentialism. However, he is a man caught between two camps. He adopts total autonomy for his failure to act at the riverbank, rather than report the incident to the police, or confess and seek forgiveness from a priest. Yet in deciding his own punishment, Clamence falls back on Christian ideas of punishment imposed punitively for disobedience, and as a deterrent to others who wish to challenge the current order. In the end he embraces the worst from both camps, and becomes neither existentialiste chrétien, or existentialiste athéc, but existentialiste tragique.

As well as perhaps being Camus's confession and act of penitence for the impact that his infidelities had upon Francine, La Chute is a cautionary tale on the dangers of living in the past. For one moment of inaction, Clamence lives a lifetime of regret. He could, as discussed, look to mitigate the guilt he feels by putting himself in a position where he can help others. He is stuck, fixated on that one moment in time. So much so that he wishes or prays through all the nights of his life for a chance to travel back and save the woman on the bridge. It is a vicious circle, or time loop, both of which have become staple narrative devices when referencing the Inferno since the death of Dante in 1321[18].

Clamence is an existentialiste tragique by stagnating in the failures of the past, rather than seeking to learn from those mistakes. His attitude towards women develops into something healthier than that of his prelapsarian state, but he also gives up his practice in Paris, which he says specialised in securing monies from estates for the widows and orphans of the deceased intestate. One admires the partial progress Clamence makes in his attitudes, but it only serves to underpin the tragedy of his character. For all his hellish associations, perhaps it is the younger, not older, Clamence who is Mephistopheles here, come to collect his own aged soul. Or like Virgil, come to lead the dying Clamence down into the Inferno. In his imagined conversations with his younger self, Clamence to the last embodies the essence of the Existentialist struggling for their autonomy, principally concerned with moderating their own actions. The tragedy is in how Clamence handles his autonomy, and how he burdens himself with the responsibility for the autonomy of a stranger.

Jean-Paul Sartre was Existentialism's last great contributor, although a clutch of French philosophers that came after Sartre, including Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucaut, could be considered post-existentialists, like the post-punk bands that emerged out of the wreckage of punk[19] in the late 1970s. And yet, Existentialism, particularly Sartre's model, has plenty to recommend it, especially in these days of increasing secularism, and the rising popularity of social media, and the echo chambers of thought and opinion that they create. Where we once lived in societies where we were forced to believe in a single truth that benefited a handful of people, increasingly we come to see our single truth, the one which places us at the centre of the universe,  as the only truth allowable, and waste time and energy trying to impose that truth on total strangers in 280 characters or less.

Existentialism speaks to this. We are each one of seven billion solutions that the planet Earth has found to the problem of consciousness. We are ultimately only responsible to and for ourselves. If we behaved in exactly the same manner as anyone else, we would be failing in the one purpose for which we were created: to be unique. Some of those unique solutions, of course, malfunction so that they are a danger to others or to themselves. This is where society has (or should have) institutions in place to provide remedy or to impose sanction. Individuals have a say in how these are administered, but apart from a handful of people in positions of high power or super celebrity, few people's influence extends far beyond the borders of their own fragile bodies, or short time upon this planet. People seek to interfere in the lives of others, or simply to find someone else to blame for every misfortune that befalls them. Ironically, if we paid less attention to other people's failings, and concentrated more on identifying and fixing our own, we might gain greater influence beyond our borders. Then the outdated ideas, industries, and institutions on which much of modern society is still based might give way to something more beneficial and flexible to the general health of all.

We live in an increasingly decentralised world: Facebook, Instagram,and Twitter are as much nation states as France, India, or Taiwan, only financed by advertising revenue instead of taxation. Much of our infrastructure is still highly centralised, the system of elected representation perhaps the most egregious relic in an age when it is possible to see and speak to someone on the other side of the world as if they were in the next room. It should no longer be necessary for 600 or so individuals to represent and vote on behalf of 6 million people, especially given the poor record of elected representatives in accurately representing the wishes of the electorate. Those 6 million people, the ones considered capable at the very least, should by this stage in our technological evolution be able to vote for themselves on matters before parliament, either through casting their vote directly through secure electronic means, or by having some kind of proxy in place that automatically casts a ballot based on the voter's preferences. The more individual preferences recorded for as many individuals as possible, the better regulated might society become to the wishes and needs of its individual citizens.

“If there were a nation of Gods," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the grandfather of all French philosophy since the time of the revolution, "it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.” The existentialiste athéc of Jean Paul Sartre rejects God in favour of making the individual God of their own life, reality, and realm. True democracy is still unobtainable for now, so long as people are bickering over trivial matters in a million places on line, and women are compelled to write and rewrite every social media post they make for fear that some male will pipe in to offer his unsolicited advice. One day we might be ready, and humanity might come to rule itself not through democracy, but nephocracy: rule by the cloud (from nephos, the Greek word for cloud). It would require a society of Existentialists to make it possible. Then might La Chute transcend its place as a novel to become a teaching aid and cautionary tale on the dangers and pitfalls of autonomous self-control. Atheist, Christian, or any other types of Existentialism would all be welcome, so long as they were able to give a better account of themselves than the example set by Jean-Baptiste Clamence.

La Chute also serves to remind us, like John Donne, that no one person is an island. We can accept the mantle of Sartre's Existentialism to take responsibility for our actions, but that is not the same as bearing the consequences of our actions alone. Even a society of Existentialists is a society. You can't change others, but neither can you move through life unaided. Society at its best spreads the load, so that no one individual or group bears too much of the burden. In a top down society, those on the bottom bear the load and so we see, as in Camus's time, that there is a long way to go before we approach any kind of happy societal medium that Existentialist thought might help to facilitate.

Albert Camus's 1956 novel, La Chute, is an attempt to weave into a narrative structure the ideas and opinions of the French Existentialist movement. How well does it succeed in this attempt?

Very nicely, thanks. Devilishly clever, one might say.

Et quand ils ont bien bu
Se plantent le nez au ciel
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
Sur les femmes infidèles
Dans le port d’Amsterdam,
Dans le port d’Amsterdam[20]

[1] La Chute, Albert Camus, Editions Gallimard, 1956
[2] Published in English translation as The Fall (1957)
[3] Which my Penguin Modern Classics version curiously translates as "By Heaven." I am not enough well versed in French or French Algerian idiom to know if it is a usual to use the Devil's name as a vocative or ejaculatory expression, but at face value Camus uses Diable here as both a vernacular expression of surprise and to redouble the hellish overtones. Heaven is nowhere to be found.
[4] Most notably, Anne Frank.
[6] As B is the voiced counterpart to unvoiced P, and where C can be pronounced as a K or an S, the initials JPS, signifying Jean Paul Sartre can also be seen.
[7] 1813-1855
[8] Georg Wilhelm Frederick Hegel (1770-1831)
[9] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich (Editor), Oxford Universe Press, 1995
[10] 1889 - 1976
[11] Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) to a lesser extent is also considered a Godfather of Existentialism.
[12] 1905 - 1980
[13] 1818 - 1883
[14] 29 October 1945
[15] They merged into Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer in 1967
[16] Genesis cites four rivers flowing out of Eden: The Tigris, Euphrates, Gishon and Pishon.
[17] There is something wonderfully Greek about Satan's predicament in the Inferno. One finds much of Tantalus and Sisyphus in the punishment chosen for him.
[18] See the TV shows, Preacher and American Horror story, or James Joyce's Finnegans Wake for variations on these techniques. Also, Groundhog Day, Doctor Who, Star Trek or Stargate for variations on the basic theme.
[19] The Fall and Joy Division to Sartre's Clash. Heidegger would be Joey Ramone in this analogy. Kierkegaard: MC5
[20] "And when they are too drunk, They plant their noses to the sky. They blow their noses in the stars. And they piss like I cry, On unfaithful women. In the port of Amsterdam. In the port of Amsterdam." - Amsterdam, Jacques Brel

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