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Il fut un temps où j’ignorais, à chaque minute, comment je pourrais atteindre la suivante. Oui, on peut faire la guerre en ce monde, singer l’amour, torturer son semblable, parader dans les journaux, ou simplement dire du mal de son voisin en tricotant. Mais, dans certains cas, continuer, seulement continuer, voilà ce qui est surhumain. Et lui n’était pas surhumain, vous pouvez m’en croire. Il a crié son agonie et c’est pourquoi je l’aime, mon ami, qui est mort sans savoir.
Le malheur est qu’il nous a laissés seuls, pour continuer, quoi qu’il arrive, même lorsque nous nichons dans le malconfort, sachant à notre tour ce qui’il savait, mais incapables de faire ce qu’il a fait et de mourir comme lui. On a bien essayé, naturellement, de s’aider un peu de sa mort. Après tout, c’était un coup de genie de nous dire: «Vous n’êtes pas reluisants, bon, c’est un fait. Eh bien, on ne va pas faire le détail! On va liquider ça d’un seul coup, sur la croix!» Mais trop de gens grimpent maintenant sur la croix pour qu’on les voie de plus loin, même s’il faut pour cela piétiner un peu celui qui s’y trouve depuis si longtemps. Trop de gens ont décidé de se passer de la générosité pour practiquer la charité. Ô l’injustice, l’injustice qu’on lui a fait et qui me serre le cœur.
There was a time when I didn’t know at one moment how I would make it to the next. Yes, one can make war in this world, imitate love, torture one’s fellow man, posture in the papers, or merely speak evil of one’s neighbor while knitting. But, sometimes continuing, simply continuing, is a superhuman feat. And he was not superhuman, you can take my word for it. He uttered his agony and that’s why I love him, my friend, who died without knowing.
Unfortunately he left us alone, to carry on, whatever transpires, even when we are stuck in discomfort, knowing in our turn what we know, but incapable of doing what he did and of dying like him. One tries of course to wrestle something from his death. After all, it was a stroke of genius to tell us: “You are no joy to behold, that’s a fact! Well, we can spare ourselves the details. We won’t liquidate it all at once, on the cross.” But too many people now scale the cross merely to be seen from a distance, even if they have to trample him who has been there so long in the process. Too many people have decided to dispense with generosity in order to practice charity. Oh, the injustice, the injustice that has been done him, it rends my heart.
–Albert Camus, La Chute (1956) in Théâtre Récits Nouvelles pp. 1533-34 (J. Grenier ed. 1967)(S.H. transl.)
About a year ago, I was in Ghent visiting a friend who took me on a brief tour of the city’s downtown attractions. We stopped in the cathedral of Saint Bavo and looked at the imposing alterpiece painted by Jan van Eyck, the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” which towers about 16 feet high and about 12 feet across, composed of a series of panels. All the figures on these panels have their gaze fixed on the center panel, where a lamb stands on an altar—a powerful piece of Gothic age allegory. On the far left is a panel which is usually called in English the “Just Judges,” though that’s a bit off—a more accurate rendering of the name would be more like the “Judges with Integrity” or the “Righteous Judges.” Now it turns out that these “Judges with Integrity” are fakes: the original was stolen in 1934, and after failing in efforts to retrieve it, the Cathedral installed a copy in its place. And subsequently, for security reasons, the Cathedral took down the whole altarpiece and replaced it with a copy. While reading about this, I learned that Albert Camus was fascinated by the story of the theft of this painting and had framed his final novel, La Chute or The Fall, on an account stemming from the painting’s theft.
I just finished reading La Chute and found that, indeed, the disappeared “Judges with Integrity” figure front and center in the work. In most of Camus’s novels we feel the scorching sun and heat of the Maghreb. But here he has removed the scene of action to a totally different environment—the sun can rarely be seen, the air is wet and laden with the sea. Water is everywhere. It is in the canal-laced city of Amsterdam, a place below water level, seemingly threatened with inundation at any minute. The story revolves around a Parisian lawyer who has obtained the missing van Eyck panel (confusingly, in the Café Mexico City in Paris) and continues to hold it. But in a sense, the theft of the “Judges with Integrity” is a broad metaphor for the book’s principal theme. Like the van Eyck masterpiece of which it is a component, Camus’s book shows a preoccupation with Christian allegory—and specifically, the images of the Ghent alterpiece. At what may be the most decisive passage of the novel, a dove appears—the image of the Holy Ghost portrayed by van Eyck at the vanishing point of the altarpiece. Clamence recognizes the image and explains its significance to the potentially dense and unschooled reader. But he chooses not to believe; he repudiates the offer of redemption. It’s not clear that we can equate Clamence with Camus on this point and several others. As the passage reproduced above suggests, the author feels the passion, power and truth of Christ’s original message. His repudiation is targeted at those who claim a role of intermediator but who offer society a fraudulent version of the original. But there is also some latent doubt: can the genuine message still be received and understood in this world of forgeries?
But what is the crime that lurks in the background of this work, gnawing away at its guts? The theft of the “Judges with Integrity” is of course an image for something else. Our society has a superficial commitment to justice, Camus tells us, the genuine article has been lost. What sits it its place is a crude fake. The central figure, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is the sole voice of this work. He speaks directly to the reader, unloading his life’s tale, his earlier professional zeal, his doubts and his crisis of conscience. Clamence seems to be swimming in a sea of nihilism. He struggles to believe, but he finds himself in a society full of counterfeits.
But the book is about judges, judgments, the law and justice—the narrator calls himself a “penitent judge.” And it opens with a devastating assessment of the society in which he lives. “Je rêve parfois de ce que diront de nous les historiens futurs. Une phrase leur suffira pour l’homme moderne: il forniquait et lisait des journaux. Après cette forte définition, le sujet sera, si j’ose dire, épuisé.” (“I sometimes wonder what historians of the future will say about us. One phrase will suffice for modern man: he fornicates and reads newspapers. After this sharp definition, I dare to say, the subject will be exhausted.”) But it’s clear from his accounting that Clamence once pursued his vocation with passion. He strove to serve his clients and to serve the ends of justice. After years, however, cynicism about both got the better of him.
Clamence is, however, ambiguous about what specifically has happened in society that has caused this swelling revulsion. Certainly World War II itself was a period both of surging idealism and disdain over the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazis. The problem in the back of Camus’s mind and which propels the narration is never overtly articulated. But it seems to me it has to be the Algerian war, and the severe moral compromises that it brought to the French intelligentsia—of both the left and the right. As emerges from a reading of Camus’s journalistic efforts and essays from this period, his particular concern was the spread of torture and the fact that few of France’s public intellectuals were prepared to take a principled stand against it. That, to be precise, is the “fall” at the center of this novel—a subject of immediate relevance to America today, where primitive political discourse is allowed to up-end discussion and resolution of a subject of compelling moral importance. Towards the end of Alain Resnais’s remarkable film “La guerre est finie” (1966) a passage occurs in which Resnais ties his film directly to Camus’s novel. Carlos, the protagonist, an aging veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who struggles through the movie with the consequences for his life and for society of the continued effort against Franco’s Spain, suddenly utters the words “la chute.” He pauses. What does this word really mean, he asks? Is it a comrade fallen in battle? Is it the biblical fall from grace? Is it man’s failure to achieve his potential? Carlos is, in this process, parsing the term the same way Camus does—and indeed the film’s theme closely tracks that of Camus’s novel. The terrible legacy of Algeria stands as an example for a broader phenomenon, the retreat of moral considerations against the rising torrent of partisan politics which subsumes and instrumentalizes everything else. Who can watch cable news broadcasts in America in the early twenty-first century and not see the same phenomenon in play?
But of course, Camus has rendered a powerful work of art—he has drawn a straight line from the Age of Faith and its values reflected so wondrously in the images of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” to the disillusionment, even despair of post-War Europe. It is simple to be caught up in Clamence’s flirtation with nihilism and to miss the other message carefully woven through this work: there is a real “Judges with Integrity” just as there is a fake. It may be lost for the moment, but its restoration can and should be an aspiration for humankind.
Some music for Camus’s La chute. First, from the age of van Eyck, listen to a performance of Mille Regretz by the Flemish composer Josquin des Prez. Then listen to the movement entitled “liturgie de dristal” from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time–a piece he composed and which was premiered in Stalag 8, a German concentration camp in Silesia where Messiaen was interned in 1941.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”