Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Fall

The previous post about  mentioned self-satire as an inherently introspective method of discourse. Whether I arrived at this conclusion independently or on the basis of my three entranced readings of The Fall I cannot be sure, but if I failed to support the idea sufficiently in the previous post then I have the whole of Camus’ text to fall back on. The degree to which Jean-Baptiste Clamence relates to Camus may be up for debate, but the character himself confesses his life story, at least to the degree that it is the only life story the character ever offers, for the explicit purpose of precluding the possibility of being judged by others. Or so he says, anyway. Jean-Baptiste outlines a rhetorical trick he used in court to condemn the jury tasked with judging his clients by exposing their guilt, thus subverting their ability to condemn others without first condemning themselves. He takes this further for himself by admitting his guilt from the outset, rendering others’ judgments redundant and forcing others to reflect on their own guilt. This is essentially the trick that Fellini pulls in his own film, a supposed self-chastisement that few would ever be able to make of themselves. What is not required in this rhetorical trick is telling the truth, as long as what is said does not omit known failings or include obvious falsehoods, because it is the appearance of honesty that prevents judgment, not actual honesty – the key is to force others to condemn themselves. In this way it is just as likely that Jean-Baptiste, and Camus and Fellini with him, is playing the role of the matador as the role of the penitent. In fact, that Jean-Baptiste Clamence is able to judge at all seems to imply that he has not really condemned himself at all, or perhaps he simply benefits from getting the self-flagellation out of the way. There is really no reason to believe that he is telling the truth at all, and no reason to believe that he would care to. By compelling others to denounce their own follies with a false facade and leaving them with nothing to replace their past self-assurance Camus leaves only questions and doubts in his wake, a false satirist but an immensely truthful black comic.


Don't lies eventually lead to the truth? And don't all my stories, true or false, tend toward the same conclusion? Don't they all have the same meaning? So what does it matter whether they are true or false if, in both cases, they are significant of what I have been and of what I am? Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.

And so the deeper one travels into The Fall the closer one comes to the man whose cinematic biography is entitled Fellini: I’m a Born Liar. As Fellini moved farther from the ‘truth’ of his neorealist roots and into the elaborate strings of lies of his later films it becomes clear that he seeks to find a similar sort of beautiful twilight through lies and fiction. After all, it was a lie which propelled Jean-Baptiste into an existential tailspin, the lie of someone laughing at him which he knew to be untrue but could not shake due to the possibility of it being justified. It is in this way that Jean-Baptiste turns an admission that has every reason to be doubted into a piercing weapon, all by the possibility that it could be true. It is an ode to black comedy if there ever was one – the attempt to stifle outright laughter through exposing the painful truths of the fictional absurdities which draw the laughs to begin with. This is not to say that Camus does not revel in comedy tinged in tragedy, sprinkled with irony, and singed by ambiguity, for it is pretty much all he does, yet his character’s central aim is to stamp out that emblem of ‘light comedy’, the untroubled laugh, by having Jean-Baptiste confess to the point where the laugh offers no revelatory insight. It matters not whether the truth is told if the form, that of the confession, achieves all of the effect of telling the truth without having to worry about whether the truth is actually told. Fellini, Guido, Jean-Baptiste, Camus, a quartet of born liars – but who would even be able to tell if it were otherwise?

5 comments:

  1. “This is essentially the trick that Fellini pulls in his own film, a supposed self-chastisement that few would ever be able to make of themselves. What is not required in this rhetorical trick is telling the truth, as long as what is said does not omit known failings or include obvious falsehoods, because it is the appearance of honesty that prevents judgment, not actual honesty – the key is to force others to condemn themselves.”

    This is a great essay about a great book, and I appreciate the parallels with 8½. But you seem to be saying that Fellini has the same remonstrative aim as Camus, that he’s asking his viewers to measure themselves (and come up short). Maybe it’s only that Guido’s failings are so different from my own, but I didn’t see this in the film. I’m not saying there’s no personal element for the viewer. A character says, “How presumptuous to think that others may benefit from a narration of all the errors you’ve made.” We’re clearly supposed to disagree, and I do. But surely Fellini’s ‘lesson,’ if one can use that word, is more about learning to appreciate what’s important, despite other people’s flaws and one’s own.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are certainly shades of difference between the two, but think the general reaction is similar - if you learn to appreciate what's important then there is a sense of implicit condemnation of the way things were, which I think is essential for anyone at any point. Both Fellini and Camus construct false accounts, but I don't think either expects the viewer to follow in their footsteps and create grandiose false accounts for others to see but, instead, to take a truthful, private account of themselves. Camus is coming from the use of the Sisyphean struggle as an allegory for man's pointless struggle that is nevertheless worth performing, so for him to simply espouse giving up the struggle and become a slave is a contradiction of that point. In fact, his espousal of mutual slavery seems to imply a choosing of that slavery, so even that is a false escape from judgment. Camus' ultimate point, at least assuming The Fall is at root an ironic account of a pointless attempt to escape the Sisyphean struggle, is to take a meaningful account of one's life and engage in that struggle. Both Guido and Jean-Baptiste work to avoid the struggle, but neither seems to solve anything, and I take a very similar 'lesson' from both works, the same that you take from 8½. To me they're not so different, I don't know how you feel about it. It's a bit different between the two, because Guido completely fails and even kills himself, possibly in a dream, while Jean-Baptiste succeeds completely, but only in a compromise which sees him bound to his past sins without ever finding absolution, which may be the 'real-world' equivalent of Guido's dream death. Now, if I'm reading Camus wrong and he thinks this life that Jean-Baptiste is living is the best, well, it has the same effect on me - I choose not to live it, but think about my own life all the same.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Beautifully said, and they really are similar! Both offer catharsis through fantastic versions of their own experiences. Both are effective, but the effects on me are where I see a difference. If Camus’ point is “to take a meaningful account of one's life and engage in that struggle,” it’s also true that he’s convinced that what I need to take account of is my own guilt. Fellini doesn’t care what it is (guilt, sadness, adversity) that’s getting in my way. I’m certainly not saying I’m flawless, of course, just that Fellini doesn’t care if I am or not, so his message applies to a wider range of problems. The Fall inspires me to be a better person. 8½ works on deeper levels where I don’t always know what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure it involves love and hope. I may already be a better person. Time will tell.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think Jean-Baptiste's obsession with guilt is as much of a ruse by Camus as anything else in the story. In fact, I think the idea of this universal guilt is what pushes him into this absurd cycle of reasoning to begin with. If you remove this idea of sin then he no longer needs to be penitent, he just needs to do the right thing moving forward. He uses the idea of his guilt as a crutch, but I think what he most clearly exhibits is that this idea of inescapable guilt is something that only results in an array of absurd possibilities. If he were to ditch this idea of guilt that he carries along as both a crutch and the impairment which requires itself as a crutch then he would be faced only with the decisions of the present. He couldn't even be a judge penitent without his sins, so he would be open to that judgment which he so fears and would actually be forced to account for his present actions. This is what he, in his present scheme, escapes: through his past sins he escapes culpability for his present ones. This is, in essence, the same process that Guido tries and fails at. Both, to me, lead to a similar state of being. Guido's situation is easier to see hope in to me only because of the people around him, the people that Jean-Baptiste doesn't let you see (and has probably willfully rid himself of - he is far more proactive than Guido), but I don't think either are capable of reciprocating so those outside elements seem moot to me. Both works show people whose situations are hopeless if they stay they way they are because they attempt to atone for or at least divert attention from present mistakes by admitting past ones, with Guido playing the sad case who can't get out of his own way and Jean-Baptiste playing the diametric opposite - he gets out of his own way but doesn't ever go anywhere.

    ReplyDelete
  5. “Both works show people whose situations are hopeless if they stay they way they are…”

    But I don’t think The Fall is about Jean-Baptiste as a character (the way 8½ is about Guido) at all. Of course he’s incapable of change because he’s a manifesto, a parable, a signpost. His twisted obsession with guilt is a device to get me to think about my place in the world (and my present sins). Maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘guilt’ in my last comment, if that implies past actions. Camus is clearly concerned with my current behavior. And he has high standards!

    And as for Guido, he’s probably not going to change either, simply because people rarely do. But he does at least reach a point where (dead or not!) he understands what’s important. The feeling of hope I feel is not for him though, but for me and anyone else who can benefit from his “deformed footprint.”

    ReplyDelete