Study Guide

The Fall Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

By Albert Camus

Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

He had written on his threshold: "Wherever you come from, come in and be welcome." Who do you think answered that noble invitation? The militia, who made themselves at home and disemboweled him (1.11).

This Candide-like tragedy is right on par with the absurdist idea of irrational suffering in the world. Or, in easier terms, bad things can happen to good people. (For more on ≤i≥Candide≤/i≥ and Voltaire’s philosophical bent check out our Shmoop module.)

I once knew a manufacturer who had a perfect wife, admired by all, and yet he deceived her. That man was literally furious to be in the wrong, to be blocked from receiving, or granting himself, a certificate of virtue. The more virtues his wife manifested, the more vexed he became. Eventually, living in the wrong became unbearable to him. What do you think he did then? He gave up deceiving her? Not at all. He killed her (2.3).

Here's a great example of Jean-Baptiste’s unique brand of logic – and we’re using the term loosely. With regard to the man in this story, we could call him irrational, or we could accept that he’s just using a different, maybe even absurd rationale.

They were asleep in their little routine and suddenly, for example, the concierge dies. At once they awake, bestir themselves, get the details, commiserate. A newly dead man and the show begins at last. They need tragedy, don’t you know; it’s their little transcendence, their apéritif (2.19).

Jean-Baptiste argues that man wakes up when he experiences tragedy, but the fact of sleeping in the first place is more important (and more common) as far as philosophical theories like existentialism are concerned. We are "asleep" in the sense that we are unaware of our surroundings.

But let me first point out that my concierge’s wife, who had gone to such an out lay for the crucifix, heavy oak, and silver handles in order to get the most out of her emotion, had shacked up a month later with an overdressed yokel […] But nothing proves that they were not in love. And nothing proves either that she did not love her husband (2.22).

Jean-Baptiste’s classic "no one knows what goes on behind closed doors" argument is a smaller piece of the claim that no one know. Existentialism was all about the fact that there is no objective truth, and Camus agreed with at least this much.

At that very moment, a laugh burst out behind me. Taken by surprise, I suddenly wheeled around; there was no one there. I stepped to the railing; no barge or boat. I turned back toward the island and, again, heard the laughter behind me, a little farther off as if it were going downstream. […] I went into the bathroom to drink a glass of water. My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double... (2.24).

It is fitting that Jean-Baptiste’s downfall takes the form of laughter – what he really hears is a judgment of how ridiculous, how absurd his life is. What makes it so absurd – the duplicity of his character – is right here in this important passage as well, since his smile looks double to him. Smile = absurdity, double = duplicity.

Until then I had always been aided by an extraordinary ability to forget. I used to forget everything, beginning with my resolutions. Fundamentally, nothing mattered. War, suicide, love, poverty got my attention, of course, when circumstances forced me, but a courteous, superficial attention. At times, I would pretend to get excited about some cause foreign to my daily life. But basically I didn’t really take part in it except, of course, when my freedom was thwarted. How can I express it? Everything slid off – yes, just rolled off me (3.11).

Those of you who have read The Stranger are familiar with Mersault, its title character and narrator. If you’re not, you can take our word for it that this passage describes Mersault perfectly. Indifference is a tricky business when it comes to Camus; in one sense, you’re supposed to accept that the world is indifferent and operate in it anyway. But this has to do with acceptance, not with indifference on your own part. You accept that there are bad things going on in the world, but you don’t let it "roll off" you the way Jean-Baptiste does here. So, in this way, Jean-Baptiste is a negative example before his "fall," at least according to Camus. Now look at how his behavior changes now that he’s chilling out with you in Amsterdam; is he still indifferent? Or has he become a positive Camus hero?

I loved them, according to the hallowed expression, which amounts to saying that I never loved any of them (3.20).

This is by no means a major idea in The Fall, but the inadequacy of language is an important argument for Camus. The idea is that language couldn’t possibly describe the complexities of human emotion. On top of that, we have to define words subjectively – words like "love," in this case – so how can we use those terms with another person? We don’t know if another defines a given term in the same way we do.

I can hear them now: "He killed himself because he couldn’t bear ..." Ah, cher ami, how poor in invention men are! They always think one commits suicide for a reason. But it’s quite possible to commit suicide for two reasons. No, that never occurs to them. So what’s the good of dying intentionally, of sacrificing yourself to the idea you want people to have of you? Once you are dead, they will take advantage of it to attribute idiotic or vulgar motives to your action. Martyrs, cher ami, must choose between being forgotten, mocked, or made use of. As for being understood – never! (4.4).

Again we confront the problem of objective truth, of constant misunderstanding between all men. Jean-Baptiste applies it in particular to death, or even more specifically, to martyrdom, but the problem is both universal and perpetual.

I have never been really able to believe that human affairs were serious matters. I had no idea where the serious might lie, except that it was not in all this I saw around me – which seemed to me merely an amusing game, or tiresome.

[…]

To be sure, I occasionally pretended to take life seriously. But very soon the frivolity of seriousness struck me and I merely went on playing my role as well as I could. I played at being efficient, intelligent, virtuous, civic-minded, shocked, indulgent, fellow-spirited, edifying ... In short, there’s no need of going on, you have already grasped that I was like my Dutchmen who are here without being here: I was absent at the moment when I took up the most space (4.17-8).

Jean-Baptiste is identifying a problem not only with his duplicity (i.e., constant, constant lying to himself and those around him), but also with his awareness. He was "absent" while present – like the Dutchmen in Chapter One – because he wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on. His head was in the clouds, or in this case, the fog.

Well, there were heaps of reasons for that. There are always reasons for murdering a man. On the contrary, it is impossible to justify his living (5.16).

This final line gets at a fundamental problem which existentialism tries to solve: if the world is indifferent and there is no grand "purpose," how do we justify living at all? How do we give our lives meaning? Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre - contemporary to Camus, and rival when The Fall was written - would answer that a man is defined at any moment by choosing to act. Does Jean-Baptiste exemplify this "solution"?