The imagery of water in Camus' la chute.
Abstract: This paper discusses the role of water imagery in Camus' last complete novel, and relates it to the experience of the absurd. The richness and complexity of meaning that is to be found in the Camus' carefully constructed metaphorical systems demonstrate his virtuosity as a literary philosopher.

Key Words

Absurdism, metaphor, embodiment
Article Type: Critical essay
Subject: Metaphor (Analysis)
Absurd (Philosophy) (Analysis)
Author: Belassie, James
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 22 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: La Chute (Novel)
Persons: Named Person: Camus, Albert
Accession Number: 288874224
Full Text: The imagery of water in La Chute

Existentialism. When they accuse themselves, one can be sure that it is always in order to condemn others. Judge penitents. (1)

Albert Camus, Carnets III

Camus's last novel, La Chute (2), has received, naturally, a great deal of literary and philosophical attention over the fifty-four years since its publication, and since there is no space here even to begin to summarise this canon of academic criticism my essay must unavoidably seem naive and ill-informed in this respect. To compound this problem, I intend to view the novel from a slightly different perspective than most of these commentators: rather than drawing out directly the explicit philosophical themes (many have commented on the obvious Christian imagery (3) and the importance of 'moral' themes like guilt, innocence, judgement, penitence (4)) or basing my discussion on the central allegory of the novel (the fall itself) I will examine a secondary, related, but far more pervasive system of imagery that runs through the work.

Not only the narrative but the entire philosophical content of the book, virtually every important development or intellectual diversion, is articulated in terms of imagery that centres around the element of water, and human 'interaction with' water, in its many forms.

It is clear how water is linked, on a literal level, to the most obvious aspect of 'the fall'--the leap Clamance failed to make over a bridge to save a drowning girl--and it is clear how this failure to leap led Clamance to conclude his 'guilt' and from there the guilt he claims is universally attached to the human race, which is his obsession, as 'judge-penitent', throughout the book. Given the close psychological link in Clamance's personal world between water and guilt, is it surprising that his monologue is infused--perhaps subconsciously--with a subtle and corresponding obsession with water symbolism?

Once a man who, like Camus himself, loved the freedom and 'transparency' of Mediterranean summers (5) (he mentions Sicily and the Aegean: 'leaping from one island to the next ... along the crest of the short, cool waves in a race of foam and laughter'), Clamance was 'most at ease' high above 'a sea that was still visible and bathed in sunlight.' Perhaps, then, his preoccupation with water existed even before he encountered the girl on the bridge, but nonetheless it is this encounter which turns his preoccupation into a paranoid obsession that emerges one night 'two or three years' later ('I went up on the Pont des Arts. to watch the river'), in the form of a laugh which he hears 'coming out of nowhere except the water.' From then on, he doesn't return to the river--he avoids water and is nervous of high places but is not finally overwhelmed until, on the top deck of a cruise ship, he realizes that the shout he heard 'many years earlier echoing across the Seine. had not ceased to travel across the world. that it would continue to wait for me on the seas and rivers, in short, wherever there was the bitter water of my baptism.' (6) He finally realises he is 'not cured'; he is 'still trapped'; he has to 'resign' himself to it. Of what, by what, and to what, is left conspicuously ambiguous. It is my suggestion that this 'what' is of deep philosophical significance to Camus and it is precisely the meaning that is dissolved in the 'water symbolism' that saturates the novel.

Clamance seems to equate his 'resignation' with the 'little ease' (7) he accepts in his final ironic display of penitence--only a step away from martyrdom in fact--abandoning the 'blue smoke' of Paris and the twinkling Seine and settling in Amsterdam, submitting voluntarily to the bitter rain and fog, the grey ocean and dreary canals which give the greatest possible contrast to the clear blue Aegean with its 'virginal' air where he was innocent. (8) And, in keeping with his true commitment to his new state, he manages to take satisfaction in his new surroundings: 'I like the breath of stagnant water, the smell of dead leaves steeped in moisture ... it's a conscious decision for me: in truth, I force myself to admire the canals.'

Having briefly introduced Clamance's personal relation to water within the novel I now wish to explore the wider significance of this type of imagery in Camus's thinking, and its relation to even broader cultural archetypes to which we are all subject. If a work of art or philosophical doctrine is to endure it must not rely on images or premises that are too specific culturally or historically. Despite the overwhelming tendency of most commentators to discuss Camus's work in relation to intellectual and political events specific to twentieth-century Europe, I find his writing much more enduring, and 'universal' in scope than many of his contemporaries', especially the existentialists. His visceral attention to the natural world, ancient mythology, the human body and in this case that most central, life-giving and pervasive of all the elements--water--is crucial in underpinning the broad and enduring appeal of his philosophical concerns, and that is why I believe it needs more consideration.

For these reasons I have decided to assume that Camus has given this primacy to water imagery precisely because of the intimate physical relation with it w e must all, as humans, inevitably experience. If it is central to Clamance's life it is no less central to ours--it is an aspect of his condition, just like his guilt, which we have no choice but to share; as he says, 'we're all in the same boat'.

To help focus my discussion of water imagery as a metaphor for (and concrete aspect of) our shared 'humanity' I have sketched four aspects of our experience of water, which appear loosely to correlate with van Deurzen's model of the four dimensions of existence. I wish there was space to expand this half-formed idea more eloquently, but this inarticulate table will have to suffice. I hope it a t least hints at the complexity and profundity of Camus's choice of imagery and the different levels of meaning with which the novel imbues water:

This table is nothing meaningful--there are a hundred ways to conceptualise and 'summarise' this image, all equally reductive and destructive. I only hope to show that there is potentially more depth to Camus's water imagery than has commonly been suggested. Buss notes, in the introduction to his translation, that the water which 'plays a central. symbolic role in The Fall ... is not a purifying element [in the Christian sense] but one that seems to bring guilt.' (9) In fact, for Clamance, water appears to do both--purify and contaminate--but there is so much more to it than this, just as there is so much more to The Fall than a book about judgement and human shame. The metaphor functions not just at this level of cultural (religious) symbolism but at many more tangible--embodied, instinctive--levels as well.

There is a moment in the essay Summer in Algiers when Camus describes lyrically a certain type of embodied encounter with the sea: 'In Algiers no one says "go for a swim" but rather "indulge in a swim". The implications are clear.' (10) A little further on he comments on the significant change that comes over one's perception of the world 'when you are at water-level.' Visual perspective is lost, our tactile grounding is compromised and we have more difficulty perceiving our surroundings as a whole. We recognise colour vividly ('against the sharp white background of the Arab town the bodies describe a copper-coloured frieze'), but shape and form are blurred, and the concerns of land and air--our natural elements--seem far off, inaccessible and foreign, from our new vantage point. Water is not our element: to immerse ourselves in it is to surrender ourselves to it and lose all sense of our significance; yet it seems that for Camus, the need for it and the attraction to it--to plunge into it, sit by it, sail across it--is a deeply ingrained and inescapably 'natural' part of human existence.

Could it be that this paradox mirrors the kind of 'absurd' paradoxes that concerned Camus in his pre-war period? The kind of paradoxes he highlights in The Myth of Sisyphus?

I can negate everything of that part of me that lives on vague nostalgias, except this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion. I can refute everything in this world surrounding me that offends or enraptures me, except this chaos, this sovereign chance and this divine equivalence which springs from anarchy. (11)

Are we not creatures drawn to meaning systems--religious, philosophical, professional or political movements--that appear to offer clarity and a s table ground for human existence but which on close inspection are seen themselves to be based on comforting illusions, which crack beneath us like ice and plunge us into the depths of absurdity? Viewed in this way, the 'fall' away from the stability of land, bridges and cliffs into the blinding, shifting waves would come to symbolise the necessary birth (or baptism) of the 'absurd man'. In addition, it is difficult to think of a more apt allegory for the state of constant 'defiance and revolt' (12) Camus demands of the absurd individual than one who finally forsakes the false surety of land and abandons himself to the true uncertainty of the water; imagine the drowning man kicking and struggling to the bitter end, as all drowning men surely do, not in the least discouraged by the pressing awareness of the futility of his struggle but rather, ludicrously and irrationally, spurred on by it. This is the example of the absurd spirit.

Clamance's spirit is not, however, abandoned to the absurd. He does not leap from the bridge, but crosses it and continues on his way. Would it be unjustified to suggest that, in having him cross the bridge, Camus is painting Clamance instead as an existentialist figure (one in particular, in fact, as Buss has pointed out (13))? Let me elaborate, turning again to The Myth of Sisyphus:

Restricting my discussion to existential philosophies, I see that every one of them, without exception, proposes evasion. By way of a unique kind of reasoning, they start out from the absurd and move over the ruins of reason, in a universe that is closed and limited to the human; [there] they deify what crushes them and find a reason for pinning their hopes on what impoverishes them. (14)

Camus here describes a journey--an intellectual journey over something that, once completed, leaves us with the feeling that a choice has been made. Something has been leapt over--evaded--not leapt into: this is Camus's primary criticism of the existentialists in The Myth of Sisyphus, that they came to the brink and leapt across, or backed away, to 'safety'; and it seems also to be Clamance's primary accusation, one which he himself acknowledges:

Despite his clinging to firm ground, Clamance knows about the potential freedom and joy to be found in leaping into, rather than across, the waves and he knows the regret of one who has not leapt. The contradiction of his denial often bubbles up:

There is just one other important and extremely atmospheric passage I want to mention, in connection with all this, which occurs a little down the same page, just at the end of the novel.

I would like to suggest that this can be read as part of the allegory of the fall: in the leap off the bridge into the water, into life, into absurdity, the moment of 'purity' would be the moment of true freedom between life and death; the ecstatic, ephemeral feat of sinking, floating between today and tomorrow, the surface and the murky bed. And it is the knowledge that we will end up there in the mud--tomorrow--with our 'mouths full of dirt', that would enable us to appreciate the beauty and purity of our present suspension.


Camus, A. (1936). Summer in Algiers. Trans. O'Brien, J. London: Penguin, 2000.

Camus, A. (1941). The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. O'Brien, J. London: Penguin, 2000.

Camus, A. (1956). The Fall. Trans. Buss, R. London: Penguin, 2006.

Camus, A. (1989). Carnets, vol. 3. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

Cruickshank, J. (1960).Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. New York: Oxford UP.

Raskin, R. (2001). Camus's critiques of existentialism. Minerva--Internet Journal of Philosophy 5 (2001): 156-165.

Thody, P. (1989). Albert Camus. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.


(1) 'Existentialisme. Quand ils s'accusent on peut etre sur que c'est toujours pour accabler les autres. Des juges penitents.' (Camus 1989).

(2) I will refer to it from now on i n its English translation by Robin Buss (2006) as The Fall. All quotes are taken from this edition.

(3) 'As the title indicates ... La Chute is full of Christian symbolism. It is also a book which deals more fully than any other of Camus's works with the commandments of Christianity.' (Thody 1989, 79-80).

(4) 'The atmosphere which pervades the novel is one of guilt, uncertainty and ambiguity.' (Cruickshank 1960, 183).

(5) See, for example, the essay Summer in Algiers: 'when I spend some time far from that town, I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments.' (Camus 1936).

(6) Could this be a reference to the point at which he changed his name to Jean-Baptiste? It suggests a definite point of conversion; or a conversion, at any rate.

(7) As opposed to the 'ease' he formerly felt on the 'high ridges' ...

(8) If Paris was where Clamance lived out his earthly existence ('with impunity', of course, although 'the dirt makes us starchy'), and the Greek islands of the Aegean were where he felt 'pure', the metaphor is clear--earth and heaven contrasted with the 'dead' Zuyder Zee and Amsterdam's 'concentric circles of hell.'

(9) Camus 1956, xii.

(10) Camus 1936, 128.

(11) Camus 1942, 51.

(12) Raskin 2001.

(13) 'There is much in Clamance that suggests a satirical portrait of Satre.' (Buss 2006, x).

(14) I have quoted Raskin's (2001) translation because its wording serves my point better than O'Brien's. The corresponding passage in O'Brien's translation is at page 35 (Camus 1942).

James Belassie's background is in music. He is in his final year of training at NSPC. Contact: 40 Langdale Gate, Witney, OX28 6EY. Email:
Water as an object-     An element in its most tangible, liquid form,
in-itself               to dive (fall) into; be submersed in; float
(Physical)              on; be reflected in, cooled, refreshed,
                        soaked, washed by. To experience the watery
                        feel/smell/taste of rain, rivers, snow, sea
                        channelled into our bodies through taps,
                        bottles, baths, clouds, waves.

Named 'bodies' of       Rivers, canals, oceans, lakes, bounded by
water, contained        shores, coasts, ports, beaches. To be
within boundaries,      controlled and manipulated from afar ('from
defended                above'), indirectly, intangibly. Resources to
(Personal)              be utilised. Forces to be defended against,
                        separate from.

Unnamed expanses        The sea; the fog, clouds, rain, snow; waves,
of water, more          tides. Intangible nouns which often come to
abstractly perceived,   double as verbs; things we do (or become),
always shifting,        things which happen to us. Oceans drawn on
uncontrolled,           maps, that facilitate voyages, that
impersonal,             communicate with unknown continents, exotic
elemental, leading      pleasures. Water which flows or drips or falls
outwards, bigger        (but 'over there', not onto me), freezes,
than us                 stagnates, collects, disperses.

Poetry, mood-           Entities and images which belong not to
imagery, meta-          individuals and individual experience but to
imagery of water        the world and its collective unconscious. Mood
(Spiritual)             imagery--'depressing', 'dreamy' fog; 'soft',
                         'sweet ', 'fresh' drizzle; 'purity' and
                         'laughter ' of the Aegean. 'Meta-imagery'--
                        the Underworld; purification (holy-water,
                        baptism); 'spiritual' thirst-refreshment; also
                        spiritual drowning--after hearing the laugh
                        Clamance was 'dazed and gasping for breath...
                        then I went into the bathroom to drink a glass
                        of water.'; Chaos--Genesis 1:2. ([dagger])

(([dagger]) Note how the spiritual quality of this level of imagery
refers back so closely to the first, tangible, level, much as it has
been suggested that the spiritual 'dimension' of existence is closer
to the physical dimension than any other.)

(([dagger]) Note how the spiritual quality of this level of imagery
refers back so closely to the first, tangible, level, much as it has
been suggested that the spiritual 'dimension' of existence is closer
to the physical dimension than any other.)

'Throw yourself in the water again so that I might have once more
   the opportunity to save us both!' A second time--huh! That would be
   rash! Just imagine, dear colleague, if someone were to take us at
   our word. You'd have to do it. Brr ... The water's so cold. But
   don't worry. It's too late now, it will always be too late. Thank

I am happy--happy I tell you--I forbid you not to believe that I am
   happy, I am happy to die! Oh! Sun, beaches, and the trade winds
   blowing across the islands: youth, the memory of which brings
   despair! Excuse me, I'm going back to bed. I'm afraid I got
   overexcited, though I'm not crying.

Look at the snow falling. I must go out! Amsterdam sleeping in the
   white night, the canals of dark jade under their little snowy
   bridges, the empty streets and my muffled steps: it would be
   purity, a fleeting moment, before tomorrow's mud. Look at the huge
   flakes fluffed up against the window panes. It's the doves, surely.
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