"The Laugh" (Albert Camus ; The Fall)
"(...) What ? What evening ? I’ll get to it, be patient with me. In a certain way I am sticking to my subject with all that about friends and connections. You see, I’ve heard of a man whose friend had been imprisoned and who slept on the floor of his room every night in order not to enjoy a comfort of which his friend had been deprived. Who, cher monsieur, will sleep on the floor for us ? Whether I am capable of it myself ? Look, I’d like to be and I shall be. Yes, we shall all be capable of it one day, and that will be salvation. But it’s not easy, for friendship is absent-minded or at least unavailing. It is incapable of achieving what it wants. Maybe, after all, it doesn’t want it enough ? Maybe we don’t love life enough ?
Have you noticed that death alone awakens our feelings ? How we love the friends who have just left us ? How we admire those of our teachers who have ceased to speak, their mouths filled with earth ! Then the expression of admiration springs forth naturally, that admiration they were perhaps expecting from us all their lives. But do you know why we are always more just and more generous toward the dead ? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation. They leave us free and we can take our time, fit the testimonial in between a cocktail party and a nice little mistress, in our spare time, in short. If they forced us to anything, it would be to remembering, and we have a short memory. No, it is the recently dead we love among our friends, the painful dead, our emotion, ourselves after all !
For instance, I had a friend I generally avoided. He rather bored me, and, besides, he was something of a moralist. But when he was on his death bed, I was there — don’t worry. I never missed a day. He died satisfied with me, holding both my hands. A woman who used to chase after me, and in vain, had the good sense to die young. What room in my heart at once! And when, in addition, it’s a suicide ! Lord, what a delightful commotion ! One’s telephone rings, one’s heart overflows, and the intentionally short sentences yet heavy with implications, one’s restrained suffering and even, yes, a bit of self-accusation !
That’s the way man is, cher monsieur. He has two faces: he can’t love without self-love. Notice your neighbors if perchance a death takes place in the building. They were asleep in their little routine and suddenly, for example, the concierge dies. At once they awake, bestir themselves, get the details, commiserate. A newly dead man and the show begins at last. They need tragedy, don’t you know; it’s their little transcendence, their apéritif. Moreover, is it mere chance that I should speak of a concierge ? I had one, really ill favored, malice incarnate, a monster of insignificance and rancor, who would have discouraged a Franciscan. I had even given up speaking to him, but by his mere existence he compromised my customary contentedness. He died and I went to his funeral. Can you tell me why?
Anyway, the two days preceding the ceremony were full of interest. The concierge’s wife was ill, lying in the single room, and near her the coffin had been set on sawhorses. Everyone had to get his mail himself. You opened the door, said “Bonjour, madame,” listened to her praise of the dear departed as she pointed to him, and took your mail. Nothing very amusing about that. And yet the whole building passed through her room, which stank of carbolic acid. And the tenants didn’t send their servants either; they came themselves to take advantage of the unexpected attraction. The servants did too, of course, but on the sly.
The day of the funeral, the coffin was too big for the door. “Oh my dearie,” the wife said from her bed with a surprise at once delighted and grieved, “how big he was !” “Don’t worry, madame,” replied the funeral director, “we’ll get him through edgewise, and upright.” He was got through upright and then laid down again, and I was the only one (with a former cabaret doorman who, I gathered, used to drink his Pernod every evening with the departed) to go as far as the cemetery and strew flowers on a coffin of astounding luxury. Then I paid a visit to the concierge’s wife to receive her thanks expressed as by a great tragedienne. Tell me, what was the reason for all that ? None, except the apéritif.
I likewise buried an old fellow member of the Lawyers’ Guild. A clerk to whom no one paid attention, but I always shook his hand. Where I worked I used to shake everyone’s hand, moreover, being doubly sure to miss no one. Without much effort, such cordial simplicity won me the popularity so necessary to my contentment. For the funeral of our clerk the President of the Guild had not gone out of his way. But I did, and on the eve of a trip, as was amply pointed out. It so happened that I knew my presence would be noticed and favorably commented on. Hence, you see, not even the snow that was falling that day made me withdraw.
What ? I’m getting to it, never fear; besides, I have never left it. But let me first point out that my concierge’s wife, who had gone to such an out lay for the crucifix, heavy oak, and silver handles in order to get the most out of her emotion, had shacked up a month later with an overdressed yokel proud of his singing voice. He used to beat her; frightful screams could be heard and immediately afterward he would open the window and give forth with his favorite song : “Women, how pretty you are !” “All the same !” the neighbors would say. All the same what ? I ask you. All right, appearances were against the baritone, and against the concierge’s wife, too. But nothing proves that they were not in love. And nothing proves either that she did not love her husband. Moreover, when the yokel took flight, his voice and arm exhausted, she — that faithful wife — resumed her praises of the departed.
After all, I know of others who have appearances on their side and are no more faithful or sincere. I knew a man who gave twenty years of his life to a scatterbrained woman, sacrificing everything to her, his friendships, his work, the very respectability of his life, and who one evening recognized that he had never loved her. He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen — and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death. Hurray then for funerals !
But I at least didn’t have that excuse. I was not bored because I was riding on the crest of the wave. On the evening I am speaking about I can say that I was even less bored than ever. And yet ... You see, cher monsieur, it was a fine autumn evening, still warm in town and already damp over the Seine. Night was falling; the sky, still bright in the west, was darkening; the street lamps were glowing dimly. I was walking up the quays of the Left Bank toward the Pont des Arts.
The river was gleaming between the stalls of the secondhand booksellers. There were but few people on the quays; Paris was already at dinner. I was treading on the dusty yellow leaves that still recalled summer. Gradually the sky was filling with stars that could be seen for a moment after leaving one street lamp and heading toward another. I enjoyed the return of silence, the evening’s mildness, the emptiness of Paris. I was happy. The day had been good: a blind man, the reduced sentence I had hoped for, a cordial handclasp from my client, a few liberalities, and in the afternoon, a brilliant improvisation in the company of several friends on the hardheartedness of our governing class and the hypocrisy of our leaders.
I had gone up on the Pont des Arts, deserted at that hour, to look at the river that could hardly be made out now night had come. Facing the statue of the Vert-Galant, I dominated the island. I felt rising within me a vast feeling of power and — I don’t know how to express it — of completion, which cheered my heart. I straightened up and was about to light a cigarette, the cigarette of satisfaction, when, at that very moment, a laugh burst out behind me.
Taken by surprise, I suddenly wheeled around; there was no one there. I stepped to the railing; no barge or boat. I turned back toward the island and, again, heard the laughter behind me, a little farther off as if it were going downstream. I stood there motionless. The sound of the laughter was decreasing, but I could still hear it distinctly behind me, come from nowhere unless from the water. At the same time I was aware of the rapid beating of my heart. Please don’t misunderstand me; there was nothing mysterious about that laugh; it was a good, hearty, almost friendly laugh, which re-established the proper proportions. Soon I heard nothing more, anyway. I returned to the quays, went up the rue Dauphine, bought some cigarettes I didn’t need at all. I was dazed and had trouble breathing.
That evening I rang up a friend, who wasn’t at home. I was hesitating about going out when, suddenly, I heard laughter under my windows. I opened them. On the sidewalk, in fact, some youths were loudly saying good night. I shrugged my shoulders as I closed the windows; after all, I had a brief to study. I went into the bathroom to drink a glass of water. My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double ...
What ? Forgive me, I was thinking of something else. I’ll see you again tomorrow, probably. Tomorrow, yes, that’s right. No, no, I can’t stay. Besides, I am called in consultation by that brown bear of a man you see over there. A decent fellow, for sure, whom the police are meanly persecuting out of sheer perversity. You think he looks like a killer ? Rest assured that his actions conform to his looks. He burgles likewise, and you will be surprised to learn that that cave man is specialized in the art trade. In Holland everyone is a specialist in paintings and in tulips. This one, with his modest mien, is the author of the most famous theft of a painting. Which one ? I may tell you. Don’t be surprised at my knowledge. Although I am a judge-penitent, I have my side line here: I am the legal counselor of these good people.
I studied the laws of the country and built up a clientele in this quarter where diplomas are not required. It wasn’t easy, but I inspire confidence, don’t I ? I have a good, hearty laugh and an energetic handshake, and those are trump cards. Besides, I settled a few difficult cases, out of self-interest to begin with and later out of conviction. If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves were constantly innocent, cher monsieur. And in my opinion — all right, all right, I’m coming !— that’s what must be avoided above all. Otherwise, everything would be just a joke."