Essay—Art and Moral Choice (Issue 4)

Summary Art and Moral Choice tells the story of The Fall and of the story behind The Fall that took place between the author, Albert Camus, and his French compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre. Philosophymagazine is proud to proclaim Albert Camus—Man of the Twentieth Century. As the American journalist Charles Rolo wrote—Camus is a man of unshakeable decency. I want to be the perfect actor. —Albert Camus

May I, monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding?  I fear you may not be able to make yourself understood by the worthy ape who presides over the fate of this establishment.  In fact, he speaks nothing but Dutch.  Unless you authorize me to plead your case, he will not guess that you want gin.  There, I dare hope he understood me—that nod must mean that he yields to my arguments.  He is taking steps—indeed, he is making haste with prudent deliberation.  You are lucky—he didn’t grunt.  When he refuses to serve someone he merely grunts.  No one insists.  Being master of one’s moods is the privilege of the larger animals.  Now I shall withdraw, monsieur, happy to have been of help to you.  Thank you—I’d accept if I were sure of not being a nuisance.  You are too kind.  Then I shall bring my glass over beside yours.

Mexico City.  So begins one of the great novels of the Twentieth century—The Fall written in 1956 by the French writer, philosopher and Nobel laureate, Albert Camus (1913-60).  The abstract given on the back cover of the book perfectly describes it—Mordant, brilliant, elegantly styled, The Fall is a novel of the consciousness of modern man in the face of evil.  In a seedy Amsterdam bar named Mexico City, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, an expatriate Frenchman, indulges in a calculated confession.  He recalls his past life as a respected Parisian lawyer, a champion of noble causes and, privately, a libertine—yet one apparently immune to judgment.  As his narrative unfolds, ambiguities amass—every triumph reveals a failure, every motive a hidden treachery.  The irony of his recital anticipates his downfall—and implicates us all.

Fighting Injustice.  Camus was born in Algeria to a Spanish mother and a French father who was killed in 1914 at the start of World War I—whereupon Camus was raised in poverty by his illiterate mother.  Tuberculosis plagued Camus from early in life and forced an end to his soccer career and his studies at the University of Algiers.  It also limited his other youthful passions including involvement in the theatre as a playwright, director and actor.  After university he turned to journalism, and his reporting of Muslim problems brought action from the Algerian government—and also marked the beginning of his public life in which he never ceased to fight against injustice.

Theatre of the Absurd.  Camus wrote many plays, essays and novels including The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, The Stranger and The Plague.  The Myth of Sisyphus describes a method for confronting circumstances absent of meaning.  And whereas Sisyphus tackles the question of suicide, The Rebel concerns itself with the justification of murder.  Both essays meet extreme situations head-on, thereby insisting on a firm moral stance.  The Stranger tells the story of an emotionally detached man who kills another man and is sentenced to death, not so much for the crime itself, but more for not crying at his mother’s funeral.  The Plague tells the story of everyday life under siege—allegorizing both Camus’ tuberculosis and the French Résistance against their German occupiers during World War II.  Camus was tragically killed in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960 in France while at the summit of his power and with his life still before him.  A manuscript found in the wreckage of the crash entitled The First Man was subsequently published by his daughter in 1994.

Setting the Scene.  Camus lived in very unsettling times.  The century began with the discovery that light and energy exist in discrete packets or quanta.  The thirty years hence produced both relativity and quantum theory—resulting in a loss of scientific determinism.  As the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-76) wrote—The violent reaction to the recent developments of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that the foundations of physics have started moving, and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.

The Holocaust.  The outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the Russian revolution in 1917 brought a dramatic end to society’s deterministic march towards peace and prosperity.  Economic structures began to crumble as the Great Depression rolled through Europe and North America.  Hitler swept away the masses of weak-minded Germans in his campaign for new world order, thus giving rise to the Holocaust and the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

One Fixedpoint.  The unsettling scientific and societal losses sent many searching for solid ground, which they seemingly found by reverting to deterministic philosophical disciplines like empiricism and positivism.  But Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) put forth another option, namely existentialism.  Rather than seeking the certainty of external authority, existentialism advocates turning to the internal authority of the self.   As Sartre put it—There can be no other truth to take off from this—I think, therefore I exist (ie. the Cartesian cogito).  There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself.  Every theory which takes man out of the moment in which he becomes aware of himself is, at its very beginning, a theory which confounds the truth, for outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable, and a doctrine of probability which is not bound to a truth dissolves into thin air.  In order to describe the probable, you must have a firm hold on the true.  Therefore, before there can be any truth whatsoever, there must be an absolute truth; and this one is easily arrived at; it is on everyone’s doorstep; it is a matter of grasping it directly.

No Exit.  Sartre was born in Paris to a German mother and a French father.  In his autobiography, he openly denounces his family and the affluent, middle-class, materialistic society into which he was born by stating that he hated his childhood and everything that remained of it.  In his first major essay Being and Nothingness Sartre characterizes humans as beings free to create the world by accepting responsibility for their actions without reference to societal or religious morality.  But in his later essay Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre shifts the emphasis from individual subjectivity to social determinism by arguing that the influence of society is too great, and that individual freedom and power can only be restored via revolutionary action.

Generalizing and Choosing.  The great French artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) once said that genius is merely the art of generalizing and choosing.  Existential art is that for which causality breaks down and structures of reality lose their coherence.  The idea here is to turn the observer into a participant by inducing a state of vertigo whereby meaning can be only achieved subjectively.  In fact, the entirety of existentialism rests on this simple premise—that we avoid freedom by convincing ourselves we have no subjective choice.  This is what Sartre means when he says that any man who sets up a determinism is a dishonest man.  Sartre also compares art and moral choice by claiming that there are no a priori values—either aesthetic or moral.  We cannot say that a brushstroke is correct or not, but only that value emerges in the subsequent coherence of the painting.  Similarly, an accountant or lawyer cannot consider himself to be acting morally simply because he follows the rules.  As soon as we agree on right and wrong, the pedants spring into action and argue for the correctness of their position—not based on subjective morality, but merely on objective logic.  This is the cancer that pervades our thinking.

The Fall.  Camus and Sartre became friends during the war.  In 1952 Camus attacked the revolutionary violence of Stalinist Russia in The Rebel.  The review published in Sartre’s journal harshly criticized Camus for so-called preaching pedantic morality—thereby ending the friendship of these two great men.  Most sided with Sartre in the dispute, leaving Camus a disillusioned outsider—whereupon he wrote The Fall in an attempt to extract a measure of artistic revenge.  In the novel Clamence exposes his own failings so as to insulate himself from judgment, thus freeing him to implicate others.  During the course of his bizarre monologue, Clamence openly questions our existence—I sometimes wonder what future historians will say of us.  It seems to me a single sentence should suffice for modern man—He fornicated and read the papers.  After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.

Conclusion.  May I, monsieur, offer my risk management services without running the risk of intruding?  I fear we may not survive unless we begin shifting our focus from petty everyday concerns to artistic and philosophic concerns.  As the great historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94) wrote—All it takes is time for a planet to perish.