Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, Spring 1957

Mel Stack

Books in Review

The Metaphysical Revolt


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 131–134.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Fall
by Albert Camus
Alfred Knoff, New York. $8.50.

Albert Camus’ latest novel, The Fall consists solely of a monologue – a voice throwing out epigrammatic ideas. There is little character development or unfolding of plot. Thus even with Camus’ expert craftsmanship and wry humor, the action begins to lag after a few dozen pages. The reason for the novel’s form, however, resides in the ideas Camus holds as an existentialist.

It is most important to realize that Camus is unique among existentialist writers. Camus is primarily a great creative artist, a moralist, without much interest in the more academic philosophic discussions that other existentialists – Kierkegaard, Herzen, Nietzche, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre – were and are concerned with: language, knowledge, Being, time, consciousness, etc. Thus there is no basic work in which to find Camus’ existentialist philosophy; one must extract it from his novels and essays.

His first major essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, states the fundamental problem which he has since refined and attempted to solve. The world is chaotic, not governed by law, hostile. Man, on the other hand, is reasonable; and, further, he is always trying to instill his reason into the unreasonable universe. This relationship is an absurd one, because strive as man will he can never succeed in ordering the world.

What to do in the face of this absurdity? That is the problem that must forever haunt man. Can suicide or murder solve anything in their respective protest and anger? Camus thinks not, because they escape, evade the absurd relationship by destroying one of its terms, man. Camus in working the problem out, rejects other solutions – hope, despair, longing for the eternal – all because they, too, turn out to be escapes from the absurd situation.

Then what can be the solution? Surely, man is not to mope along without any comment on this madness of his, this impossible attempt to structure a world that can never be structured. No, Camus thinks that by a passioned revolt against this primary condition of man, man can rise above his condition. This means facing the absurd relationship defiantly, with full knowledge of its absurdity, and, even while aware of the impossibility of overcoming the chaos of the world, constantly striving to usher in the reign of order and justice.

Now, the obvious fact in the analysis of Camus’ is its supra-historical approach; it is above classes, social movements, history. That is its peculiarity. Camus’ heroes move within history, his justifications lie outside its realm. Later we shall see how this methodology contributes to the technique and mood of The Fall. Let us continue with “metaphysical revolt.”

This description of “metaphysical revolt” may seem esoteric, but this is because Camus never even attempts to define it. He only indicates by example, by describing various types of revolt in the Kierkegaardian indirect communitive method. Don Juan and the conqueror in The Myth of Sisyphus, the St. Justs of history in The Rebel, The Stranger and The Plague, and the judge-penitent of The Fall – every one, in a particular way and in varying degrees, represents the absurd hero. And this makes it difficult indeed to extrapolate a scientific definition in a short piece of literary criticism.

Yet, if we investigate Camus’ examples more closely, we will find a shifting meaning in that “metaphysical revolt.” From the defiant, proud, unconquerable heroes that Camus wrote about in the middle ’40s, his illustrative characters today have become more subdued, less objectionable; and likewise the tone is more “pessimistic,” approaching “despair.” Camus’ original hero is Sisyphus himself – tragic, but overpoweringly majestic in his tragedy:

His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing ... Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition ... The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory ... Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile ... The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

And the modern Sisyphus is the working class (although this is only hinted at in the section dealing with Sisyphus: “the workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks ... It is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious”). The hero is powerful and deeply rooted in social life; he comes alive, vibrant and self-confident in the struggle to scale the heights.

Incidentally, only once again, in The Plague, does this proud nobility emerge as the dominant tone. That allegory concerning a town doomed by the Black Plague can be interpreted on many levels, from a description of absurd life to a denunciation of the penal system and the death penalty to a scathing indictment of modern capitalist society. On all levels, one finishes the book with the feeling that the struggle is still ennobling, worthwhile, good, even while being tragic.

A decade has passed since the heroic stage of the Resistance days and the immediate post-war period. A decade in which Camus has honestly tried to live up to his ideas as a creative artist and as a socialist. But it has been very trying. He has seen his close collaborator Sartre cynically toying with the Stalinists (he reacted violently over this, breaking with his friend in a bitter exchange over Sartre’s refusal to publicize the existence of concentration camps in Russia); he has also deeply felt the absence of the expected awakening of the masses. As a result he has retreated further and further into his shell. To paraphrase one of Camus’ sayings: not that he has been unfaithful to the humiliated; only he has tended to concentrate mainly on the beautiful. And his last novel, The Fall, shows the tiredness, the retreat.

At the same time, there are still flashes of the old combativeness, skill and moral indignation in The Fall. Like this:

Have you at least heard of the spitting-cell, which a nation recently thought up to prove itself the greatest on earth? A walled-up box in which the prisoner can stand without moving. The solid door that locks him in his cement cell stops at chin level. Hence only his face is visible and every passing jailer spits copiously on it. The prisoner, wedged into his cell, cannot wipe his face, though he is allowed, it is true, to close his eyes. Well that, mon chere, is a human invention. They didn’t need God for that little masterpiece.

But in general, the mood of The Fall is more resigned and less concerned with the struggle for social justice. The voice that speaks to you is of a former well-known Parisian lawyer who has gained the insight that his whole life was self-deception, all his good acts and kind deeds a sham, covering his cowardly self-love. He has moved to Amsterdam to reign as the judge-penitent of confessors at the Mexico City bar. This is a far cry from Sisyphus.

This shift in tone is closely related to the idea of the absurd relationship, or rather, it tends to develop out of that idea. To simply state that we live in a hostile and strange world is a platitude, not even necessarily an existentialist platitude. It only becomes the basic existentialist category when extended to making the world ungoverned by law. Once this is done, the path leads straight to obscurantism and withdrawal, and there is no turning back.

First, in an unlawful way there is no longer any logical way in the long run to relate to society and the flow of social change; you are left rootless, aimless, able to move in any old direction. There cannot be any consistent connection between your philosophy and politics; any attempt being wholly arbitrary and unstable. A random example: Heidegger flirted with the Nazi movement, Marcel was baptized a Roman Catholic in mature life, Sartre began rationalizing Stalinist barbarities, Camus alone remained a staunch moral defender of democracy. If the world isn’t governed by law, then how can you tell whether Heidegger or Marcel or Sartre or Camus is right? There is no way except appeal to the spirit.

Further, there arises an inseparable division between the isolated individual in a social setting and social man. How can you relate to the social matrix and social change if we are all mere objects one to the other? All the groping subjects facing this mad world do not fit into a social grouping and the tendency is to reject the concept of social grouping. As Sartre once put it, “Hell is other people.” But by a saving grace, Camus holds back. He compartmentalizes the problem: in one compartment is the lonely individual and the chaotic world; in the other niche is the social struggle for a better world. By creating the dichotomy and not recognizing it, Camus does not have to bother solving it. He merely forgets one or the other, depending on his mood. During the Resistance Days he was the social man; today he is the Creative Artist with his judge-penitents.

The philosophers of existentialism have even gone one step further. They, of course, also reject all notion of a lawful world where past and present have an influence on determining future events, where one can predict developments, causally explain events, and participate in the flow of things. And they turned to phenomenology, to describing Being in its ahistorical context, concentrating on universal constant conditions which they believe make up the structure of human experience as such.

Camus has not formally gone this far. But the same methodology underlies all his works. And even though he maintains a critical attitude towards present life, even though he views history as a struggle where instrumentality, choice, and pragmatic tests rule, this methodology, in its denial of social determinism, leads the existentialist toward a hostile attitude in regard to social man. The existentialist is lead back towards nihilism. And that is the real danger. It is also where Camus’ The Fall is pointed.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 13 January 2020