Lawyers and Literature
The protagonist and narrator of Albert Camus's novel, The Fall introduces himself to a patron in an Amsterdam bar as Jean-Baptiste Clamence"a lawyer before coming here." (p. 8). "A few years ago," says Clamence, "I was a lawyer in Paris and indeed, a rather well-known lawyer." (p. 17). And now, says Clamence, I am a "judge-penitent." (p. 8). Clamence repeats this self-description but remains rather cryptic about what he means by "judge-penitent."
To the stranger in the bar, Clamence asks, "May I, monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding?" (p. 3). What services, one wonders, can this lawyer offer anyone? The bar patron does not respond, either to this question, or to any that are put to him as Clamence tells his story. Faced with the stranger's silent assent, Clamence begins what the reader begins to see is a confessional monologue. Clamence is a man who cannot stop talking, cannot stop observing his past life and reporting his observations for any and all that might listen. As Clamence, commenting on his own pathologizing, puts it, "I seize any and every opportunity." (p. 5). Clamence's intrusion on the stranger's solitude—the setting of the story is a virtually abandoned Amsterdam bar—is paralleled by Clamence's intrusion into the secure world of the reader. Bar patron and reader alike are lured into serving as an audience for Clamence's labored efforts to discover the truth about his life.
Clamence, a lawyer of "noble cases," specializes in the fortunes of "widows and orphans." (p. 17).
He is not just a lawyer trying to do good, but righteous about virtue, he is "[a] real tornado!" (p. 17).
Clamence was a man with a satisfied conscience; he was what we now call "politically correct." "The feeling of the law, the satisfaction of being right, the joy of self-esteem, cher monsieur, are powerful incentives for keeping us upright or keeping us moving forward." (p. 18). Clamence reports: "I have never felt comfortable except in lofty places. Even in the details of daily life, I needed to feel above." (p. 23). Clamence contends that his life was an achievement that rose above "the vulgar ambitious man . . . to that supreme summit where virtue is its own reward." (p. 23). It is at these "heights" and "lofty places" of "supreme summits" that Clamence has staked out a life.
What could go wrong in such a life, a life defined by devotion to virtue? We know, from Clamence's introduction of himself, the locale in which his story is being told, and the way the story begins, that something has gone wrong. But before we find out how Clamence has gone astray, and for his having done so to have any emotional impact on us, we must learn what kind of person he is, something of his character, and how his efforts at virtue have been born out in the way he lives.
In the beginning, before his days in Amsterdam bars, Clamence says, "you can already imagine my satisfaction, I enjoyed my own nature to the fullest...." (p. 20). "I took pleasure in life and in my own excellence." (p. 25). It was, says Clamence, a life "lived with impunity." (p. 25). A life "shielded from judgment as from penalty...." (p. 27). There was, he says, "no intermediary between life and me" (p. 27); it was a life blessed by happiness and pleasure and contentment with lofty heights. Clamence experiences his success "[a]t every hour of the day"; he is able to constantly "scale the heights and light conspicuous fires" and experience a "joyful greeting" rise toward him. (p. 25). Clamence takes "pleasure" in his "own excellence." (p. 25).
Clamence seems overly self-conscious of his virtue, taking satisfaction in the assumptions he makes about his own good character.
It is one thing to endeavor to lead a virtuous life but quite another to glory in it. The reader begins to suspect Clamence. What kind of person proclaims his own goodness? Do those who do good and make a life of it entitle themselves to self-laudatory thoughts? Or does Clamence's self-laudation in some way undermine his proclaimed virtue? Can we claim goodness for ourselves or must we rely upon others to render judgment on our character? Clamence says enough to speculate that his devotion to virtue puts him in danger of what C.G. Jung called inflation, an overdetermined view of one's place in the world.
Before any attempt can be made to assess Clamence's claims to virtue, we must listen, painful as it may be, to Clamence tell his "inflated" story of the good life.
Fatigue, when he experienced it, passed and he "would rush forth anew. I ran on like that, always heaped with favors, never satiated, without knowing where to stop....(p. 30).
Clamence was equally blessed, he tells us, in his pursuit of happiness and virtue as a lawyer. The legal profession
Being a lawyer does not hamper life's joys, but is an occasion for delight. (p. 22). Clamence's ease with success reminds us of Ivan Ilych. It is, Clamence finds, "a result of being showered with blessings," so much so, he feels "marked." (p. 29).
But there are indications from Clamence himself that all was not well. He finds that he is far less comfortable "in the details of daily life" than "in lofty places." He has always "needed to feel above." (p. 23). He later observes that: "I was at ease in everything, to be sure, but at the same time satisfied with nothing." (p. 29). Clamence, like Ilych, has been so successful that he "never had to learn how to live." (p. 27). He says later, he has "dreamed" himself to be a "complete man ... who has managed to make himself respected in his person as well as in his profession." (p. 54).
Clamence indeed seems blessed "until the day—until the evening rather when the music stopped and the lights went out." (p. 30). There is an incident one night walking home. He hears laughter, but there is no one in sight. When Clamence reaches his apartment, he reports:
In a "a successful life" proclaimed "without immodesty" (pp. 27-28) one would assume that a bit of strange laughter of the sort Clamence reports would be readily forgotten. Not only were Clamence's successes "innumerable" (p. 27) but he has a feeling of "relaxed mastery" and "completion." (pp. 28, 38). Clamence's experience of life seems in almost every way the reverse of Charles Reich and Alice Koller. He has, in a psychological sense, everything they seek. How then, can strange and annoying laughter, a doubleness of image in the bathroom mirror, be the undoing of such a successful, satisfied man? What fate can draw a man out of the shell of success and security?
After the incident involving the mysterious laughter, Clamence finds that "a sort of silence" has descended on him and like Ilych he seeks the advice of physicians. (p. 42).
What a thin veneer this armor of success turns out to be, pierced so suddenly, without expectation, by laughter of the unseen!
This incident with the strange haunting laughter takes Clamence by surprise, a surprise that calls his life in question. The memory of the drowning woman's death cry brings Clamence to speak more honestly of himself: "I had the suspicion that maybe I wasn't so admirable." (p. 77). Suddenly, the all-embracing virtuous life is revealed (as the reader has long suspected) as a cover story.
Clamence begins to see himself "bursting with vanity. I, I, I is the refrain of my whole life, which could be heard in everything I said. I could never talk without boasting...." (p. 48). Clamence's self-diagnosis confirms what the reader has already concluded, there is a dark, shadow side to all this talk of self-proclaimed virtue:
Clamence had perfected an illusion of virtue, a "fine picture" of himself, an idealized self image presented to the world as a persona. Clamence has fashioned a public identity for himself rooted in self-deception. "I had dreamed," says Clamence "of being a complete man who managed to make himself respected in his person as well as in his profession." (p. 54).
Clamence's discovery of the truth about himself happens "little by little" following the evening he hears the repressed sound of the drowning woman's laughter. (p. 49). He tells us how he begins to uncover those parts of his life that did not fit the self-image, the shadow of his virtuous life.
As the narrative proceeds, Clamence speaks more of his private life, in particular his life with women. "To begin with, you must know that I always succeeded with women—and without much effort." (p. 56). But here too, Clamence has created and lived behind a facade. Clamence tells us that he knew what women wanted, and acted to make them believe he was the kind of person that could give them what they wanted. He manipulated them through sincerity, through his idealization of them ("setting them so high"). He loved women, but it was an odd kind of love. Love was a "game," involving "little speech[es]" which he had "perfected." (p. 61). The complexity of the game lay in his ability to use a psychology of reversal: "The essential part of that act [with women] lay in the assertion, painful and resigned, that I was nothing" and that the relationship would not work. (p. 61). Sensitive women "tried to understand me, and that effort led them to melancholy surrenders." (p. 61). Clamence even returns to women after long absences and repeats the process a second time. (p. 62). The essential technique, a manipulative skill, is to make that which is not love appear as love, a technique derived from his ability to keep all his "affections within reach to make use of them when I wanted." (p. 68).
Clamence, with his new effort at honesty, can now laugh at himself. Moreover, he can admit that his depraved private life with women is a reflection of his public life with its "professional flights about innocence and justice." (pp. 65-66). Being truthful about his relations with women, Clamence can no longer deceive himself "as to the truth" of his character. (p. 66). He laughs at the foolishness of his speeches and pleadings in court. "Even more," he says, "~at my court pleading than at my speeches to women." (p. 65).
Clamence calls what has happened, and his feelings about himself, shame, but only reluctantly and without commitment. But whatever the feeling, he claims it has never left him since the "adventure" on the bridge and the cries of the drowning woman that lies "at the heart" of his memory. (p. 69). Earlier Clamence has noted that "the heart has its own memory...." (p. 6). Clamence's monologue, lasting we are told some five days, is itself a work of memory, creating a story that moves from the surface of how he has lived (with a set of assumptions about his self-proclaimed virtuous life) to the darker shadow side of his character. The story that Clamence tells is a work of re-membered life:
Clamence speaks of practicing a "useful profession"
that "consists to begin with . . . in indulging myself up
and down. It's not hard, for I now have acquired a memory."
Clamence has used success to avoid being judged.
In seeing himself more clearly, Clamence becomes distrustful and vulnerable. (pp. 77-78). His social and public world begins to fall apart. He becomes "aware only of the dissonances and disorder that filled me; I felt vulnerable and open to public accusation." (p. 78). He discovers that he has enemies. (p. 79). The truth takes its toil. "The day I was alerted I became lucid; I received all the wounds at the same time and lost my strength all at once. The whole universe then began to laugh at me." (p. 80). The conversion to honesty does not make for instant healing.
There is not much need to wrestle with Clamence's story if we assume we are morally innocent, or at worst, more moral than others. As a teacher of legal ethics I find that those who set out to be lawyers, regardless of their moral attentiveness, assume they are, basically, essentially, good, honest, and true, and that in becoming a lawyer they will live a version of the good life. But are we, like Clamence, deceiving ourselves? Clamence argues that
Clamence, the consummate game player, admits the difficulty of self-insight, and that even insight can become a game. Clamence, on this point, joins Alice Koller who warned that self-reflection can become an act, another role.
We are, it seems from Clamence's narrative, so strongly fortified against insight and so taken with game-playing that we will, without caution, undermine efforts at self-reflective honesty. One way Clamence defends himself against insight is by immersing himself in his work. "I was still living on my work, although my reputation was seriously damaged by my flights of language and the regular exercise of my profession compromised by the disorder of my life." (p. 106). Clamence finds that his professional work is "compromised" by the disorder in his life. And the reverse is true as well; Clamence recognizes that "real vocations are carried beyond the place of work." (p. 130).
Clamence, following the ebb and flow of his narcissism, bottoms-out and falls into "the most utterly forlorn state." (p. 96). "[F]or more than thirty years I had been in love exclusively with myself." (p. 100). I had "a longing to be immortal." (p. 102). "I was," says Clamence, "absent at the moment when I took up the most space." (pp. 87-88). The only way to proceed, Clamence concludes is "to break open the handsome wax-figure" that I have presented to the world. (p. 94).