Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Jean-Baptiste Clamence
Albert Camus, The Fall (Random House/Vintage Books, 1956)

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."

I have already told you, I am a judge-penitent. Only one thing is simple in my case: I possess nothing. Yes, I was rich. No, I shared nothing with the poor. What does that prove? That I, too, was a Sadducee . . . Oh, do you hear the foghorns in the harbor? There'll be fog tonight on the Zuider Zee. (p. 10).

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).

I was truly above reproach in my professional life. I never accepted a bribe, it goes without saying, and I never stooped either to any shady proceedings. And—this is even rarer—I never deigned to flatter any journalist to get him on my side, nor any civil servant whose friendship might be useful to me. I even had the luck of seeing the Legion of Honor offered to me two or three times and of being able to refuse it with a discreet dignity in which I found my true reward. Finally, I never charged the poor a fee and never boasted of it. Don't think for a moment, cher monsieur, that I am bragging. I take no credit for this. The avidity [eagerness, greed] which in our society substitutes for ambition has always made me laugh. I was aiming higher.... (pp. 19-20).

He is not just a lawyer trying to do good, but righteous about virtue, he is "[a] real tornado!" (p. 17).

You would really have thought that justice slept with me every night. I am sure you would have admired the rightness of my tone, the appropriateness of my emotion, the persuasion and warmth, the restrained indignation of my speeches before the court. Nature favored me as to my physique, and the noble attitude comes effortlessly. Furthermore, I was buoyed up by two sincere feelings: the satisfaction of being on the right side of the bar and an instinctive scorn for judges in general. (pp. 17-18).

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.

I always enjoyed giving directions in the street, obliging with a light, lending a hand to heavy pushcarts, pushing a stranded car, buying a paper from the Salvation Army lass or flowers from the old peddler, though I knew she stole them from the Montparnasse cemetery....

Let us speak . . . of my courtesy. It was famous and unquestionable. If I had the luck certain mornings, to give up my seat in the bus or subway to someone who obviously deserved it, to pick up some object an old lady had dropped and return it to her with a smile I knew well, or merely to forfeit my taxi to someone in a greater hurry than I, it was a red-letter day. (p. 21).

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.

Familiar when it was appropriate, silent when necessary, capable of a free and easy manner as readily as of dignity, I was always in harmony. Hence my popularity was great and my successes in society innumerable. I was acceptable in appearance; I revealed myself to be both a tireless dancer and an unobtrusively learned man; I managed to love simultaneously—and this is not easy—women and justice; I indulged in sports and the fine arts.... [J]ust imagine, I beg you, a man at the height of his powers, in perfect health, generously gifted, skilled in bodily exercises as in those of the mind, neither rich or poor, sleeping well, and fundamentally pleased with himself without showing this otherwise than by a felicitous sociability. (pp. 27-28).

* * * *

Each joy made me desire another. I went from festivity to festivity. On occasion I danced for nights on end, ever madder about people and life. (p. 30).

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

satisfied most happily that vocation for summits. It cleansed me of all bitterness toward my neighbor, whom I always obligated without ever owing him anything. It set me above the judge whom I judged in turn, above the defendant whom I forced to gratitude. Just weight this, cher monsieur, I lived with impunity. I was concerned with no judgment; I was not on the floor of the courtroom, but somewhere in the flies like those gods that are brought down by machinery from time to time to transfigure the action and give meaning. After all, living aloft is still the only way of being seen and hailed by the largest number. (p. 25).

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:

I was dazed and had trouble breathing. That evening I rang up a friend, who wasn't at home.... 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..."

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).

I was waiting, I believe.... I also had some health problems at that time. Nothing definite, a dejection perhaps, a sort of difficulty in recovering my good spirits. I saw doctors, who gave me stimulants. I was alternately stimulated and depressed. Life became less easy for me: when the body is sad the heart languishes. It seemed to me that I was half unlearning what I had never learned and yet knew so well—how to live. Yes, I think it was probably then that everything began. (pp. 42-43).

What a thin veneer this armor of success turns out to be, pierced so suddenly, without expectation, by laughter of the unseen!

The laughter incident evokes a memory: Clamence had witnessed a young woman jump from a bridge and disappear in the river. He realizes, in retrospect, that he might have saved the woman, but he made no attempt to do so. The strange laughter echoes the cry of the young drowning woman as she moves downstream to her death. (pp. 69-70).

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:

"I recognized no equals. I always considered myself more intelligent than everyone else, as I've told you, but also more sensitive and more skillful, a crack shot, an incomparable driver, a better lover.... I admitted only superiorities in me and this explained my good will and serenity. When I was concerned with others, I was so out of pure condescension...." (p. 48).

"In short, I wanted to dominate all things." (p. 54).

"I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression." (p. 55).

"I lived my whole life under a double code, and my most serious acts were often the ones in which I was the least involved." (pp. 88-89).

"For more than thirty years I had been in love exclusively with myself." (p. 100).

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.

First I had to recover my memory. By gradual degrees I saw more clearly, I learned a little of what I knew. 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. (p. 49).

* * * *

I lived ... without any other continuity than that, from day to day, of I, I, I. From day to day women, from day to day virtue or vice, from day to day, like dogs—but every day myself secure at my post. Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality.... I went through the gestures out of boredom or absent-mindedness....

Gradually, however, my memory returned. Or rather, I returned to it, and in it I found the recollection that was awaiting me. (pp. 50-51).

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:

"First I had to recover my memory. By gradual degrees I saw more clearly, I learned a little of what I knew. Until then I had always been aided by an extraordinary ability to forget. I used to forget everything...." (p. 49).

"I never remembered anything but myself." (p. 50).

"But just think of your life, mon cher compatriote! Search your memory and perhaps you will find some similar story that you'll tell me later on." (p. 65).

"A]fter prolonged research on myself, I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being. Then I realized, as a result of delving in my memory, that modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress." (p. 84).

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." (p. 139).

Where does Clamence's insight and self-discovery lead? We want to think it leads
somewhere, that it might result in a more truthful life. If self-knowledge is a way of seeing ourselves more truthfully, then we want to think that seeing ourselves truthfully will be an impetus for a more responsible professional life. But Clamence, like the alcoholic unready to give up drinking, has not reached bottom; not yet.

To be sure, I knew my failings and regretted them. Yet I continued to forget them with a rather meritorious obstinacy. The prosecution of others, on the contrary, went on constantly in my heart.... [D]oes that shock you? Maybe you think it's not logical? but the question is not to remain logical. The question is to slip through and, above all—yet, above all, the question is to elude judgment.... [I]t's a matter of dodging judgment, of avoiding being forever judged without ever having a sentence pronounced. (p. 77).

Clamence has used success to avoid being judged.

[W]ealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected laws, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that's always worth taking. (p. 82).

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

we don't want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default. We merely wish to be pitied and encouraged in the course we have chosen. In short, we should like, at the same time, to cease being guilty and yet not to make the effort of cleansing ourselves. Not enough cynicism and not enough virtue. We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good. (p. 83).

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.

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.... (p. 87).

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).


Lawyers and Literature Home Page