In “Asteroid City,” directorial control competes with the free play that gives life to cinema.
Camus and the Antiracists
Dave Chappelle has many routines that make fun of racists, including his satirical Frontline documentary “Clayton Bigsby,” about a character who is America’s only black KKK leader and also happens to be blind. The bit is brilliant in part because it simultaneously turns on its head and endorses the idea of “color blindness.” Chappelle operates in the tradition of the great comedians who understand that while argumentation is a cudgel for the brain, humor is a dagger to the heart.
Chappelle has made a career out of exposing the absurdity, hypocrisy, and viciousness of those motivated by hate. Lately, he’s expanded his repertoire not only to make fun of racists but “anti-racists” as well, along with other sensitivity enforcers. Perhaps that’s why his recent comedy specials Sticks and Stones and The Closer were panned by the critics but wildly popular with the public.
One good comedian is more valuable to society than a hundred public intellectuals because nothing exposes power like a joke at its expense. In an era when reason degenerates into ideology and thinking into cant, perhaps only a Dave Chappelle can save us, for the tyrant can endure anything except being laughed at.
Malcolm Muggeridge argued that the architecture of gothic churches properly captured in their spires our desire to be godlike and in their gargoyles a mocking derision of our pretensions. Rightly concerned about the perils of racism, our new anti-racists are all spire and no gargoyle. They need to be mocked. Chapelle shows one way to do that. And Albert Camus shows another.
Camus in the 1950s identified the sickness that was then Europe’s central problem. Nowhere is this analysis made more clearly than in his novel The Fall (1956). It takes as its epigraph a passage from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Camus wanted us to see the main character of his novel, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, as representing “the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.” Clamence was “an empty prophet for shabby times.”
But Clamence’s time may have been too soon, for the aggregated vices that Camus identified in the 1950s have become more pronounced now in the empty prophets of our own shabby times, specifically in our self-appointed antiracists, who enjoy the peculiar status of being—by their own confessions—racist antiracists. Camus has much to teach us about them, for The Fall operates as a reverse confessional with the priest as the penitent who, rather than seeking absolution, wants only to implicate us in his guilt. With this inverted symbol Camus recognizes that power often wears a priestly frock.
Consider the name Jean-Baptiste Clamence, which is not the character’s true name but the one he adopts after having given up his “double life” as a lawyer for the role of “judge-penitent.” The name is one of the many religious allusions that abound in Camus’s novel, and here it relates directly to the book’s title: we have fallen and what’s worse, if Nietzsche is to be trusted, in trying to be God we killed Him. For Nietzsche this meant that we had to create “new festivals of atonement” and “new sacred games” in order “to be worthy of the deed.” Clamence’s name indicates that Camus takes Nietzsche seriously: we baptize ourselves into our own clemency and thus make ourselves morally pure. This ritual of moral self-purification begins with acts of self-mortification and ends in self-justification, self-sanctification, and, finally, self-apotheosis.
Clamence gets to feel good about himself because he’s acting the virtuous man. “After playing the part, I would take my bow.” Behind that public persona, however, he “was always bursting with vanity,” for the point of the act was to elicit the admiration of a fawning public. Clamence needed recognition and esteem to satisfy the demands of his ego. “I admitted only superiorities in me and this explained my good will and serenity. When I was concerned with others, I was so out of pure condescension, in utter freedom, and all the credit went to me: my self-esteem would go up a degree.”
Camus carefully charts this unfolding of the ego, and the drama of its spiritual movement, through a series of Clamence’s “falls.” Although a successful Parisian lawyer, one who acts on behalf of the poor and oppressed, Clamence comes to apprehend the performative nature of his virtue. He tips his hat to a blind man on the sidewalk; he degrades women in the bedroom even as he fights for their rights in the courtroom; he visits people on their deathbeds but ignores them while they’re alive and healthy. He specializes in virtuous emotions and actions that “come cheap.” As Plato argues in The Republic, such acts are only apparently just, for one is acting simply to get the social rewards and honors that attend the performance.
But Clamence falls in the garden of public regard, for people are fickle and harsh in their judgments. The first fall involves an interaction with a motorcyclist who coldcocks him in the middle of the street, causing bystanders to make fun of Clamence. He “had collapsed in public.” Constantly replaying the scene in his head results in several days of chewing “bitter resentment.” This leads to an epiphany: “I wanted to dominate in all things,” he realizes, but after getting humiliated in public “it was no longer possible for me to cherish that fine picture of myself.” The mirror of public opinion distorts, and honesty requires that Clamence sees himself not as virtuous but as nursing a desire for domination that results from resentment.
The second fall occurs when a woman he seduced reports to her friends that his performance was “deficient.” Impressed by her judgment but distressed by her candor, he works to seduce her again and, once successful, begins “to mortify her in every way.” When he contrasts this desire to dominate her with his high-minded speeches in court, he can “no longer deceive [himself] as to the truth of [his] nature,” for “no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.”
The final and decisive fall happens when crossing a bridge over the Seine. He had just left the bed of one woman and now sees another standing at the bridge’s edge. He contemplates seducing her but moves on. Seconds later he hears the sound of a body hitting the water and, even though he tells himself he has to “be quick,” he feels “an irresistible weakness” steal over him. His refusal to engage in serious risk to save a particular person reveals the hypocrisy of his abstract and sentimental humanitarianism. He acts virtuously in front of an audience but couldn’t perform the act when no one was watching. Haunted by this failure, by his fear that “the water is too cold,” Clamence gives up his “double-life” to take on the role of “judge-penitent.”
The task of the judge-penitent is simple: since it is not possible to avoid judgment, you must thoroughly and relentlessly judge yourself. Only then will the judgment of others lose its sting. Clamence initially attempts to deal with the problem of judgment through ironic detachment and loutish debauchery, but he realizes that the solution lies in throwing himself into the teeth of judgment. Self-abasement both helps you avoid judgment and gives you the authority to judge others. You can disarm the judgment of others only if you preempt them:
Inasmuch as one couldn’t condemn others without immediately judging oneself, one had to overwhelm oneself to have the right to judge others. Inasmuch as every judge someday ends up as a penitent, one had to travel the road in the opposite direction and practice the profession of penitent to be able to end up as a judge.
The transformation requires there be no possibility of innocence. The judge-penitent lives in a world of sin without grace, of confession without forgiveness.
The monological form of the novel reflects Camus’s desire to make the reader simultaneously Clamence’s confessor and the object of accusation. The mode of address becomes more intimate through the course of the book, for Clamence is the mirror Camus holds up to the reader. Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he is the image of all and of none. This is what I am, Clamence is saying, and this is what you are. Clamence “imperceptibly” passes from the “I” to the “we,” for “we are in the soup together. However, I have a superiority in that I know it and this gives me the right to speak. You see the advantage, I am sure. The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.”
Like Zarathustra, Clamence has substituted honesty for grace, and just as Nietzsche argued in Daybreak, with God dead we had to extend grace to ourselves—but the fonts have run dry and the new priests have no interest in refilling them, in no small part because they profit from withholding the cleansing waters. They’ll extract indulgences but never let you out of purgatory. “They believe solely in sin, never in grace” even though “grace is what they want.” Instead of forgiveness we end up “with power and the whip.” The reverse confessional requires compulsion and conformity: “In short, you see, the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself. When we are all guilty, that will be democracy.”
Our contemporary anti-racists are judge-penitents. A key metaphor in the novel is subjection to “the little ease,” a medieval torture device designed as a cage in which the accused could neither stand nor lie down. By being placed in a permanently cramped position the accused would come to confess his guilt. In our time, intellectuals begin by accusing themselves, submitting to the “little ease” of the idea of systemic racism, whereby they accept their guilt and engage in public acts of self-judgment and self-flagellation. Those public demonstrations generate the right to judge others, and even though acts of repentance can achieve no absolution, forgiveness is not the point. The right to judge, and thus the right to rule, is the point. Only by thoroughly judging themselves and finding themselves guilty can they justify their claim to judge the rest of us, who, not surprisingly, are more guilty. We are “being forever judged without a sentence ever pronounced.” And the more they accuse themselves, the more they are justified in judging others.
To exercise this power they can’t let themselves off the hook, for if anti-racists could overcome their own racism this would acknowledge the possibility of innocence in the world. It suggests we could overcome our racism too, rendering them useless. Like Clamence they “refuse to entertain for a second such a hypothesis,” for then their “reasoning would collapse.” While innocence would consist in “stretching joyously,” the humorless judge-penitents “cannot assert the innocence of anyone,” as Camus’s character narrates, “whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. Every man testifies to the crime of all the others—that is my faith and my hope.”
The logic of the reverse confessional demands that guilt be universal and intractable. Nonetheless, Camus recognizes that innocence is what we deeply crave, even if “he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.” Better the rebels maintain their accusations than allow even one moment of innocence. Like Clamence, they’ve achieved the umwertung all werte whereby “modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress.”
Contemporary anti-racism operates not only as a religion but as a religion specifically opposed to religions that offer to adherents possibilities of grace and forgiveness, with the concomitant possibility of sanctification. If we were capable of such regeneration, our judge-penitents would be left with nothing to do. Their messianism—for they are white saviors of oppressed blacks—would be a god that fails. They’ve yielded to Clamence’s central temptation, to “dominate at last, but forever. Once more I have found a height to which I am the only one to climb and from which I can judge everybody.”
This need for elevation (and hence to be seen), this obsession with superiority, this desire to save, the impatience that demands the kingdom of God now is what Camus rightly diagnoses as the spiritual disorder of our age. Although it’s the shortest path to feeling good about oneself, this is a recipe for destruction. As Camus puts it in The Rebel:
The men of Europe, abandoned to the shadows, have turned their backs upon the fixed and radiant point of the present. They forget the present for the future, the fate of humanity for the delusion of power, the misery of the slums for the mirage of the eternal city, ordinary justice for an empty promised land. … They no longer believe in the things that exist in the world and in living man; the secret of Europe is that it no longer loves life. Its blind men entertain the puerile belief that to love one single day of life amounts to justifying whole centuries of oppression. That is why they wanted to efface joy from the world and to postpone it until a much later date. Impatience with limits, the rejection of their double life, despair at being a man, have finally driven them to inhuman excesses. Denying the real grandeur of life, they have had to stake all on their own excellence.
Camus thus identifies the spiritual cause of our political sickness, and also the therapies we need. One therapy is simple in theory but difficult in practice, especially in an age of distraction and resentment: to love life, to embrace the present as good and filled with joy and meaning. Instead of abandoning ourselves to the shadows, like critical theorists who seek to efface joy from the world, we should enjoy dwelling among real things with real people. We’d all be in a sorry state if we had to stake everything on our own excellence or had to feel guilty for loving one single day of this precious and fleeting life that we’ve been given, one that’s too short to be fighting battles that can’t be won. It’s a world that, for all its ills, still elicits from us feelings of gratitude for its beauty and goodness, and that spurs in us the desire to enjoy that beauty and goodness. As Nietzsche well knew, joy negates resentment.
Camus also identifies a therapy of laughter, which makes itself heard after the experience with the motorcyclist and then resounds as a repeated chord. The need to silence the laughter signals the advent of Clamence’s vocation. Throughout the novel “laughter bursts out without a warning” and “snaps back” in Clamence’s face and humbles him. Even after his final embrace of his mission, “at long intervals, on a really beautiful night I occasionally hear a distant laugh and again I doubt. But quickly I crush everything, people and things, under the weight of my own infirmity, and at once I perk up.”
Laughter structures the calling of the judge-penitent. Prophets often try to ignore the voice that calls them, but this prophet attempts to silence the voice that mocks him. The new prophets hearken the utopia of pain declared by O’Brien in 1984, one that’s “founded on hatred” and results in a “merciless” world. It will be, Orwell writes, a society with “no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy.”
Laughter subverts power and self-regard, and it’s off the table for our anti-racists. Life to them is serious business; the world being badly made and the social world being manifestly unjust leaves them in a perpetual bad mood. Unlike comedians who express their anger in jokes, our contemporary agelasts nurse their anger because there is no reality behind or beyond power relations. Their mission to right the imperfection of the world permits no correction or doubt. Not only do they have no sense of humor, they cannot tolerate it in others. They try to crush everything under the weight of their infirmities, and the first thing they destroy will be humor. Jokes are more necessary than ever, however, because jokes are the way to prick the balloon of vanity that inflates with power. The judge-penitents are dogmatists, so they cannot be reasoned with. Argument will get you nowhere with them, so laughter must have its chance.
Camus also suggests the difficult solution of getting off the cross you’ve climbed on—the one that allows others to see you from a distance—and taking one upon your shoulders instead. The contemporary obsession with empathy would be more convincing if people didn’t make such a show of it. There’s no social benefit to sleeping on the floor “in order not to enjoy a comfort of which [your] friend has been deprived” if there’s no one there to see it.
Yet true virtue means engaging in personal acts of self-sacrifice instead of sacrificing innocents on the altar of your jealous god. And if this is so, if getting off a cross to take one up means genuine risk and self-sacrifice, then it also means admitting that there is no courage or sacrifice involved in being an anti-racist on our campuses, for there is never any risk or sacrifice in taking the surest path to power. But to know this particular person and make no assumptions about him or her based upon group membership—who has time and interest enough for that? Much easier to take the course of Jean-Baptiste Clamence: make your compassion abstract; close your ears to the sound of a body hitting the water and triumph at last.
For Camus the response to the disorder of our age is love freely given and sacrificial—the only way to save one’s life is to lose it. And that means, Camus demonstrates, that our rites, our responses to our fallenness, must take on baptismal form. This ritual cleansing is death to our old self followed by our rebirth. Our anti-racists ape the form of this baptism, but the rebirth is an intensification and not a negation of the sinfulness of those who enter the rituals.
Anti-racist training doesn’t transform people; it renders the ideology pure. It’s a baptism into guilt, not innocence. The people who most loudly confess their racism are those least likely to believe it about themselves. But they won’t be able to stop talking about it because they need to. The hollowness of the ritual is revealed in its need for repeated cleansings and for scapegoating, which the priests acknowledge, in advance, can never be efficacious, and therefore they can never claim enough victims or perform enough sacrifices.
Only a new immersion, Clamence says, could replace “the bitter water of my baptism” that was carried by the Seine into the “limitless expanse of the ocean” where it “waited for me” and “would continue to await me on seas and rivers.” Clamence pleads at the end of the novel “O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!” The novel thus contrasts true and false baptisms, true and false rituals of purification, and demonstrates the ego-expanding distortions of the rituals proposed by ideologues. Jean-Baptiste finally confesses his failure to baptize himself into his own clemency, leaving us without hope. Like Nietzsche, we are left to love our fate.
We are forever up against the same questions: how does self-love turn outward? How can broken people be fixed? How can wrong be forgiven? But the contemporary clerics of spiritual disorder regard us as sinners in the hands of an angry god, and since the power of the priests requires withholding absolution it will never be granted. These gnostic priests populate our campuses, our boardrooms, our media centers, and our halls of power. Like all megalo- and mono- maniacs, they’re terribly boring. Their conviction that the world is rotten results in the most dangerous human traits: smugness, an unwillingness to negotiate or compromise, an inability to be self-reflective, blindness to one’s own faults, and a conviction that all power may be placed in their hands because they alone can be trusted to use it to proper ends. Once they possess that power they are not only entitled but obligated to remove anything, or anyone, that gets in their way. They are, after all, on the right side of history.
Every age needs its comedians, and we need fearless ones who won’t quake at the empty gestures of the power merchants who are cloaked in the robes of anti-racism. Instead, the comics should make fun of these overly serious people in much the same way Dave Chappelle makes fun of old-fashioned racists. We give ideologues power when we take them seriously, but their power dissolves at the sound of laughter. Their lack of a sense of irony, their refusal to tell jokes, and their inability to see comedy in tragedy all testify to the need to mock them. Then, perhaps, on beautiful evenings, faint laughter may waft through the open window and remind them, as it does the rest of us, that the world is good, and we are the ones who are fallen. “But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!”
Jeff Polet is professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
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