The Fall.

AuthorYoshino, Kenji

THE FALL. By Albert Camus. New York: Vintage Books. 1991 (Justin O'Brien trans., 1956). Pp. 147. $9.


If one wishes to revisit a classic, Albert Camus's The Fall is a riskier choice than Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird,(1) which Steven Lubet eloquently discussed last year in these pages.(2) It is not only that Camus's work will be less familiar to legal audiences than Lee's, despite the fact that The Fall is becoming recognized through critical "revisitation" as perhaps Camus's greatest novel.(3) It is also that the legal protagonist of The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, does not have Atticus Finch's immediate appeal. Finch is idealistic, Clamence is existential; Finch is pious, Clamence is debauched; Finch is hopeful, Clamence is mordant; Finch is American, Clamence is French; Finch is a lawyer, Clamence is an ex-lawyer who is now a judge-penitent.(4) Indeed, "the fall" of the title describes Clamence's fall from being an idealistic attorney much in the mold of Finch to being the urbane, dissolute, and strangely knowing expatriate he is at the time he tells his story. At least regarding the question of whether it is possible to live greatly in the law, The Fall is a much darker and more disturbing work than To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a less charismatic classic -- a song of experience rather than one of innocence.

Yet like many songs of experience, Camus's novel has a polyphony that simpler stock narratives about the law -- or the simpler stock narratives that are the law -- do not possess. Clamence is too urbane (to repeat the adjective that best describes him) to be a lawyer. He has seen too far into the world, and too deeply into himself, to believe, or even to pretend to believe, in the particularized determinations of guilt or innocence that the law requires. His urbanity causes him to leave his Finch-like career to adopt a hermit-like existence. He shifts from going to court (p. 17) to holding court in seedy bars (p. 3), from having many possessions (p. 120) to having little more than stewardship over a stolen van Eyck painting (p. 128), from arguing other people's cases (p. 3) to ritually confessing his own sins (p. 139).

So what can we learn from Clamence's urbanity? In my view, it most starkly illuminates the nature of confessions. Among literary characters, Clamence is perhaps unsurpassed in his grasp of what confessions mean and how they work. To see this, we might begin by noting that the entire novel appears to be a monologic confession on Clamence's part. At the novel's inception, Clamence strikes up a conversation with a stranger in an Amsterdam bar. That conversation leads to a series of others over five days, in which Clamence reveals more and more about himself. While we discern Clamence responding to (and sometimes repeating) the stranger's questions, we never hear any voice in the novel other than Clamence's own. At the end of the novel, Clamence tells his interlocutor that he is engaged in ritual confession (p. 139) -- like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, he finds listener after listener to whom to tell his life story.(5)

But while Clamence's confession appears monologic, it is actually dialogic in at least two senses. First, the confession is not the same confession every time, but is tailored to the listener. "I don't accuse myself crudely, beating my breast," Clamence says, "No, I navigate skillfully, multiplying distinctions and digressions, too -- in short I adapt my words to my listener ..." (p. 139). In an important sense, then, the monologue is guided by the interlocutor, as captured by commentary that seeks to reconstruct the stranger's half of the conversation.(6) Second, the confession is framed to elicit, and, if we are to believe Clamence, always does elicit, a counterconfession from the listener. The purpose of tailoring his words to the listener, Clamence reveals, is to "lead him to go me one better" (p. 139). At one point during his confession, Clamence says to the stranger: "Search your memory and perhaps you will find some similar story that you'll tell me later on" (p. 65). And at the end of the novel, Clamence says to his interlocutor: "Now I shall wait for you to write me or come back. For you will come back, I am sure!" (p. 141).

Clamence has a theory for why confessions can be so generative. Confessions can elicit counterconfessions because everyone is guilty, because everyone has something to confess (p. 110). This insight enables an artful individual making a confession to "construct a portrait which is the image of all and of no one" (p. 139). When such a portrait of guilt is painted, it pricks the: conscience of others who recognize themselves within it -- in Clamence's words, "the portrait I hold out to my contemporaries becomes a mirror" (p. 140). That conscience seeks absolution in a confession of its own, which may in turn stimulate other confessions. The strange fecundity of confessions reflects the universality of the guilt that prompts them.

This urbane view of confessions suggests why Clamence left the legal profession. In the law, confessions are not meant to demonstrate universal guilt. To the contrary, the confession is meant to demonstrate that only the confessant (the individual making the confession) is guilty. A confession by one suspect is usually seen to exonerate, rather than to implicate, the others. Just as the urbane view situates the confession within a generalizing discourse of guilt (the confession shows that all are guilty), the legal view situates the confession within a particularizing discourse of guilt (the confession shows that some, but not others, are guilty). An actor as fully committed to the urbane view as Clamence will have difficulty remaining a traditional legal actor.

Short of following in Clamence's footsteps and leaving the law, what might a legal audience do with the urbane understanding of the confession? In this Review, I first more fully describe the urbane view by engaging in a close reading of Camus's novel. I then draw on Peter Brooks's recent groundbreaking book, Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature,(7) to consider the difficulties that the law has in incorporating the urbane view. In so doing, I turn to a classic text -- the Miranda(8) warning -- that the Supreme Court just "revisited" this Term,(9) to argue that the Miranda warning is a legal attempt to contend with the urbane view.


The state of grace from which Jean-Baptiste Clamence falls is not so different from that imaginatively occupied by Atticus Finch. Clamence tells his interlocutor that only a few years before their conversation he was a lawyer in Paris specializing in "noble cases" (p. 17) -- cases involving widows, orphans, and alleged murderers. He was, he claims, "truly above reproach in [his] professional life" (p. 19) and, more generally, one of the happy few who are born knowing how to live (p. 27). As such, he evaded all unfavorable judgment: "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" (p. 17). Judgment was always directed toward others: "The judges punished and the defendants expiated, while I, free of any duty, shielded from judgment as from penalty, freely held sway bathed in a light as of Eden" (p. 27).

Yet Clamence sees in hindsight that his Eden always contained the seeds of its own dissolution. First, he comes to recognize the sinister aspect of his appetite for good deeds. That aspect is evident even in a simple recitation of his incommensurate emotional responses to such acts: Clamence describes his love of helping blind people across the street (p. 20), his exultation at the approach of a beggar (p. 21), and his joy at driving strangers home during transportation strikes (p. 22). But Clamence only gradually comes to identify the problem: that he gives not out of altruism but to demonstrate his own superiority. He recognizes that he has always "needed to feel above" (p. 23). This is a literal need -- when Clamence says that he has "never felt comfortable except in lofty places," he means that he prefers "the bus to the subway, open carriages to taxis, terraces to closed-in places" (p. 23). Yet it is not only a literal need, for as Clamence notes, his "profession satisfied most happily that vocation for summits" (p. 25). And at least in its figurative manifestation, the need for heights calls his altruism into question. Clamence's virtue ostensibly permits him to attain "more than the vulgar ambitious man" and to ascend "to that supreme summit where virtue is its own reward" (p. 23). But is virtue truly its own reward if the virtuous man takes so much pleasure in surpassing the vulgar ambitious one? Clamence comes to answer this question in the negative -- "When I was concerned with others, I was so out of pure condescension ..." (p. 48).

Clamence also believed in his own perfection because of his unmediated access to life -- `wasn't that Eden, cher monsieur: no intermediary between life and me?" (p. 27). That aspect of Eden, too, is ultimately interrogated. Clamence arrives at the insight that his relationship to his life is mediated through forgetting -- "I had always been aided by an extraordinary ability to forget. I used to forget everything, beginning with my resolutions" (p. 49). He cannot remember the issues that are ostensibly so important to him: "Fundamentally, nothing mattered. War, suicide, love, poverty got my attention, of course, when circumstances forced me, but a courteous, superficial attention.... Everything slid off -- yes, just rolled off me" (p. 49). Yet he does not forget ,quite everything. The only thing that he remembers -- the only thing that provides coherence -- is himself: "I lived consequently without any other continuity than that, from day to day, of I...

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