Imaginations, Memories, and the Pandemic: An Ode to Jean-Baptiste Clamence

Arrival: The Fall

Wandering aimlessly at Centrum — alone, invisible, masked — I am lost in the distanced crowd of people lazily meandering around with no place to be. The pandemic really warped the sense of time and space. In an attempt to escape the paranoia of contracting the virus in a new, strange country, I slip into a desolate street and find myself staring at the vast expanse of one of the many canals of Amsterdam. Standing there, surrounded by the ghosts of memories imagined, I find myself reminiscing lines from Camus’ The Fall:

Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The bourgeois hell, naturally, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one passes through these circles, life, and hence its crimes become denser, darker. Here we are in the last circle. (10)

But Amsterdam isn’t my Hell — it is my surreal escape from an unexperienced history handed down to me like a dusty heirloom hidden in the attic, ominously carrying its presence in an absent weight that was always there but never quite acknowledged. I felt an unexperienced postcoloniality that became conscious in my awareness of it, in a land that was once one of the biggest colonial empires there ever was. This bourgeois hell was the pipe dream of a proletariat heaven back home in India. I caught myself floating around in the paradoxical conundrum of trying to find myself in the centre of these lands that ripped us of the very identity I was searching for. Coming from the outside, passing through these hierarchical circles, I became Jean-Baptiste Clamence, running; but he is also the ghost that haunts me in the unfolding of this juxtaposition of memory, identity and postcolonial experiences, befriending me in my isolation during a time as eerie and intangible as the world today, in a space that remains new and familiar all the same. 

The Fall hosts a protagonist conversing with a stranger at a bar — the stranger in question being the reader. It was foundational in the formation of most of my imagined memories of Amsterdam, and in its stark contrast with my lived experience during the pandemic, this opposition remains the crux of an ongoing conversation akin to the one that carries the narrative in the novel. Given the coming together of my present being on the receiving end of this narration, this novel in its re-reading became a Socratic dialogue on postcolonialism, memory and identity, compelling me to find cathartic expression in writing this essay.

Memory: The Dream Imagined

Holland is a dream, monsieur, a dream of gold and smoke—smokier by day, more gilded by night. And night and day that dream is peopled with Lohengrins like these, dreamily riding their black bicycles with high handlebars, funereal swans constantly drifting throughout the whole land, around the seas, along the canals. (9)

My father’s memories of Amsterdam were so close to his heart that before my departure to the city, I lived vicariously through his imaginations. He’d quote places recalled through the books he read, recounting instances and excerpts like they were old friends he met on extensive world tours. I was the first from my family to travel outside the country for academic pursuits — the anxiety about the pandemic was strong, but the dream of a better life in the West was stronger. Grandmothers and aunts would call me and ask me where I was going but never bother to enquire what I would be doing there; simply because the latter didn’t matter. It was the dream of going, of leaving the (dis)comforts of this monotonous homeland to find footing in the colder, whiter, more aesthetic West. Stories of cousins who had found home in the US poured in, of friends who were seeking promotions in their jobs to be sent to Europe – all these anecdotes were laced with the implication that I was indeed privileged enough to escape the Third World. It made me uneasy, pressured me to love Amsterdam preemptively, grabbing onto the glorified imaginations that clung to my memories like wet clothes to dry skin — the memory of a past determined to hold onto a memory of the future. 

As a hope for the future, these imagined memories remained in distanced proximity, visible yet out of reach, socially distanced like the people around me. In my lived memory, the reality of the world continued to remain very different. The pandemic in its strange way has dislocated time itself, and in this dislocation, the space between the imagined and lived remains in sharp contrast.

Isolation: Experiencing Culture from a Distance

In my opinion no one meditated in cellars or prison cells (unless they were situated in a tower with a broad view); one just became moldy. And I could understand that man who, having entered holy orders, gave up the frock because his cell, instead of overlooking a vast landscape as he expected, looked out on a wall. (17)

Time made no sense here. Days were constantly painted in a shade of grey, even the air seemed to be veiled in it. I was probably one of the few people wearing a mask. My eyes often searched for someone who could accompany me in my masked (in)visibility; I was only greeted with peculiarity, amusement, even an occasional scorn. Perhaps this was in my head, perhaps this was untrue, perhaps it wasn’t. I started to wonder if it wasn’t just the mask, if maybe the colour of my skin, the frizz of my hair, the bush of my eyebrows contributed to it; there was no doubt that I wasn’t from here. It wasn’t the culture shock I anticipated, the culture around wearing a mask — to wear it or not to wear it became the question. The isolation was a given, but I didn’t realise how othered it made me feel.

***

From hearing their heavy tread on the damp pavement, from seeing them move heavily between their shops full of gilded herrings and jewels the color of dead leaves, you probably think they are here this evening? …You are wrong. They walk along with us, to be sure, and yet see where their heads are: in that fog compounded of neon, gin, and mint emanating from the shop signs above them. (9)

On an impulse to live the life that I had envisioned through my imagined memories, I made a trip to Cafe Alto before the next lockdown was imposed, in the hope for a recreation of Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s memories of the time spent at the Mexico City Bar. My imagined memories had no account of the paranoia of the pandemic, but I was there, and I was tempted. Two drinks and a live set later, the paranoia eased despite frequently reaching for the sanitiser. My head was indeed in a fog compounded by neon and gin. Walking back, a friend reminisced how packed the street would’ve been if not for the pandemic. Ghosts of people, treading busily on the damp pavement, moved through me as my imagined memory came alive for a brief moment, living itself through the cold, desolate street that I walked on.

Identity: Dualities and Displacement

My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double … (25)

I lied to my parents for most part, reassuring them that the dream was alive, living and breathing despite the lockdown. Friends would ask me how “Amsterdam life” was, if I was a changed person and scrutinised me on calls to figure out if I had picked up an accent. I’d play along but as I snapped back to reality, I’d sink into sadness because none of their expectations were met – did my own lack of a new identity disappoint me? It was strange to realise that the land I was seeking a new identity in was the same one that reminded me of how Indian I was. A man walked up to me in the street, stopped me, and asked me if I was Indian; on confirmation he lauded himself for his observation and promptly walked away – all while I was wearing my mask. Was it that evident that I was non-White and South Asian just by the mere sight of my eyes? 

I found myself wondering if I would’ve been aware of my unexperienced history of belonging to an ex-colonised country if not for the distanced proxemics of the pandemic. Perhaps my identity would’ve not boiled down to the way I looked, dressed and spoke. Perhaps social interaction would’ve allowed me to be more me and less my place of origin. I was confronted with the quandary of discovering my own identity in the company of my solitude. Was I then to disregard my identity and the singularity of where I was from, or was I to conform to the plural affiliations of a nation and culture that I experienced from a distance? The question of one’s identity was more a choice to make than a discovery to realise. The awareness of my own displaced identity became magnified through the isolation and contrast between my lived and imagined memories — though the answer probably lay within the interstices of these lines.

As Jean-Baptiste reminisced on a past devoid of an awareness of himself from the confines of a dingy bar, I sat alone in my unfamiliar studio apartment listening to the electrical buzz that filled the silence of my room, reminiscing on the life I could’ve lived if not for the pandemic. My father’s words kept ringing in my ears as my imaginations blurred past: “Don’t come back. Europe is the place to be, it is safer there.” 

***

Jean-Baptiste Clamence is a paradoxical character. He speaks of doing right, of the sheer satisfaction of doing good but is lost in the beliefs of dominance and superiority. He is the 21st century coloniser – aware of his own unexperienced histories yet yearning for its ignorance. He lived as a lawyer in Paris, blissful in his existence, satisfied by life until he watches a woman kill herself and does nothing about it. It wasn’t apathy but rather self-preservation that stops him from saving the woman. The guilt haunts him as he escapes to Amsterdam where he spends his time confined within Mexico City Bar levying advice to anyone he encounters. He is in constant conflict with himself, for his beliefs are strongly rooted in his colonial nature but he is also extremely aware of the consequences of it, though seldom feeling like he is in the wrong.  

Reading Clamence’s commentary is uneasy. The paradox of being a reflection of him versus his desired domination placed me in a conflicting position. It was hard not to imitate him, but it was also easy to feel disaffection towards him. The hegemony of the novel is quite clear — he speaks, and he intends for you to listen. But I was stuck in a flux of temporality, inhabiting the space between the two. 

His transformation is only evident in his concealment of his colonial desires. Clamence’s transformation in the novel felt like it could be traced against the world’s transformation from decolonization to postcolonialism – the hegemonies remain intact, and the powers still distributed unequally. He goes from being the epitomised white man to the white man who epitomises himself. Confined in the bar, as I am confined in a room in this unfamiliar, ex-colonial land, I wonder if the fear of becoming rings true in Paulo Freire’s words, “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors” (45). Has the desire to imitate (or rather, to dominate) driven me to realise my imagined memories?

In Clamence, I find everything that I would not want to be, but I also find everything that I perhaps already am. In choosing an identity, with the awareness of an unexperienced colonial history, with the presence of the pandemic, I would then perhaps choose to remain in silent contemplation. 

Journey: Stagnated Yet Lost

Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance? (92)

As I navigate this instability of conflicted identity and memory, perhaps Amsterdam is too. What imagined memories can we be left with? The city remains faltering within the cracks of unused spaces as the domestic looms as the most dominant space of safety. Our imagined futures will then look a lot like the novel itself — confined within a stagnated present, we all become Jean-Baptiste Clamence and the pandemic our witnessed suicide. Perhaps our futures lie in the imaginary of a proleptic death as we are stuck within a death-life metaphor of the present. I choose to end this essay, as Camus ends his book:

But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately! (ibid.)

 

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Fall. Translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, 1957.

Freire, Paulo. “Chapter 1.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum, 2005, pp. 43-69.