Saturday, February 21, 2009
The Fall by Albert Camus and Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground
I find it curious that so many commentators seem to compare Camus’s The Fall with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. That seems a quite false comparison to me. The Fall always leaves me, somehow, with a feeling of hope. Clamence is most certainly a deeply flawed individual, and his story of his fall is a painful one. However, he does not compare to the Underground Man in Notes from Underground, who is, it seems to me, almost a cartoon of nihilistic rage. I have no patience at all with Dostoevsky’s piece of propaganda and, although it is a wonderful piece of writing and it does throw some light on the character of the Underground Man, to my mind it singularly fails to convince as a piece of philosophy because the didacticism of Dostoevsky’s argument overwhelms everything else. There is none of that in The Fall. It is more real, and more human. Or perhaps I mean it is more human, and more real.
And, as Camus knew, the true banality of evil, and the cause of our Fall, is not so often the things that we do, but the things that we don’t do. Clamence’s inaction, his inability to help the suicidal woman, begins his Fall. It is inevitable, and it is real. It comes out of the disconnection that we all of us, sometimes, feel.
The Underground Man, on the other hand, is always reacting. He is trying to gain revenge on his old friends. He is trying to, first help, then humiliate Liza. Where Clamence’s troubles come from passivity, the Underground Man’s comes from activity. That is the difference, and that is why Clamence is a better judge (judge-penitent) of our human situation. Clamence stands for us all; the Underground Man, and his failures, are uniquely his own.
True disconnection does not come from failure, or anger, or pride, or any of the sins that Dostoevsky ladles on to the poor Underground Man. True disconnection is the state in itself: it is both cause and effect. That is what I take from The Fall.
And, because of that, it must also, ultimately be the cure. Just as antidotes to poisons are based on the introduction of tiny particles of that poison into the body in order to build resistance, so must the fallen learn and understand his disconnection, work with it, embrace it until, at last, it becomes a form of connection. That, as we leave The Fall, is what Clamence is attempting to do.