Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Humanity Has a Nasty Habit of Falling

Reading Albert Camus is a little like being lectured by a hypocrite who's not actually a hypocrite, because it's that you just don't understand that he isn't one. That's the problem. As with the fulsome and sometimes didactic narrator of "The Stranger," "The Fall" and its vocal representation, going by the handle Jean-Baptiste, illustrate all that is wrong with the individual and all that is wrong with the world as viewed through his individual eyes, which aren't narrow but open to the vast gravity of our failure to understand what we are.

I wouldn't presume to think that the narrator of "The Fall" was a stand-in for Camus himself, and somehow I'm certain he isn't even slightly. This isn't for any philosophical reason, any reason in the character's mien that's departing markedly from the school of thought with which Camus is most often affiliated, existentialism. It's rather the wry quality to all that the narrator chooses to elucidate for his one-man audience, someone whom we readers begin to feel is us, convinced of the affected charismatic prose of the speaker as I was, I felt also very taken in by him and in a good way (if that's possible). I don't consider my feeling so mixed-up to be coincidental, either.

I imagine it was all part of some plan hatched by Camus when writing this. Man is inert, is dysfunctional, is finding fault in others by the contrived means of putting forth all he or she has done wrong, then allowing that to become true of all mankind, thus beguiling us by the slight of hand of pleading guilt by association. Notions like the one who speaks loudest has at his disposal what's most worth being said:

He declared the need for a new pope who should live among the wretched instead of praying on a throne, and the sooner the better . . . and in a dull voice said that we must choose among us, pick a complete man with his vices and virtues and swear allegiance to him, on the sole condition that he should agree to keep alive, in himself and in others, the community of our sufferings. "Who among us," he asked, "has the most failings?" As a joke, I raised my hand and was the only one to do so. "O.K., Jean-Baptiste will do." . . . He declared at least that nominating oneself as I had done presupposed also the greatest virtue and proposed electing me.
So much of what's said here reminds me of political business in all time periods, when walls are taken down as we construct new ones modeled on equally faulty ideas. Frivolity such as that a man who nominates himself must then also presuppose possessing "the greatest virtue," and do so without much in the way of deliberation -- that it's a decision made because it's easier to follow the one who seems to understand the joke, even when you do not, and even when it's possible, if not likely, that the joke's being played on you.

That's what "The Fall" does so well.

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