Study Guide

The Fall Guilt and Blame

By Albert Camus

Guilt and Blame

I also liked – and this is harder to say – I liked to give alms. A very Christian friend of mine admitted that one’s initial feeling on seeing a beggar approach one’s house is unpleasant. Well, with me it was worse: I used to exult. But let’s not dwell on this (2.5).

If we look closely at the way he tells his stories, we can clearly see that Jean-Baptiste feels shame at his earlier actions. When he says, "But let’s not dwell on this," it sounds a lot like embarrassment.

Yet I must admit that I ceased to walk along the Paris quays. When I would ride along them in a car or bus, a sort of silence would descend on me. I was waiting, I believe. But I would cross the Seine, nothing would happen, and I would breathe again (3.2).

Jean-Baptiste felt shame to such a degree that he allowed it to dictate his actions. Indeed, shame still dictates the way he lives his life – that’s what his confession is, after all; a way to deal with his self-disgust.

I learned at least that I was on the side of the guilty, the accused, only in exactly so far as their crime caused me no harm. Their guilt made me eloquent because I was not its victim. When I was threatened, I became not only a judge in turn but even more: an irascible master who wanted, regardless of all laws, to strike down the offender and get him on his knees. After that, mon cher compatriote, it is very hard to continue seriously believing one has a vocation for justice and is the predestined defender of the widow and orphan (3.18).

For Jean-Baptiste, guilt is inextricably tied to power. It seems that, before the fall, defending the guilty was his means to superiority, whereas afterwards, condemning the guilty is his means. Either way, Jean-Baptiste puts himself in positions of judgment for the sole purpose of feeling all-powerful.

Oh, I don’t feel any self-satisfaction, believe me, in telling you this. Upon thinking of that time when I used to ask for everything without paying anything myself, when I used to mobilize so many people in my service, when I used to put them in the refrigerator, so to speak, in order to have them at hand some day when it would suit me, I don’t know how to name the odd feeling that comes over me. Isn’t it shame, perhaps? Tell me, mon cher compatriote, doesn’t shame sting a little? It does? Well, it’s probably shame, then, or one of those silly emotions that have to do with honor. It seems to me in any case that that feeling has never left me since the adventure I found at the heart of my memory (3.31).

Jean-Baptiste claims to feel shame at his prior behavior, but how can we possibly believe this is true, given his conclusion that, actually, he acts just the same now that he used to? It seems the only thing he feels shameful of is his previous lack of awareness, not his behavior, since his actions haven’t changed one bit.

I meant to defend the thief by exposing the crimes of the honest man, the lawyer in this instance. I explained myself very clearly on this point:

"Let us suppose that I have accepted the defense of some touching citizen, a murderer through jealousy. Gentlemen of the jury, consider, I should say, how venial it is to get angry when one sees one’s natural goodness put to the test by the malignity of the fair sex. Is it not more serious, on the contrary, to be by chance on this side of the bar, on my own bench, without ever having been good or suffered from being duped? I am free, shielded from your severities, yet who am I? A Louis XIV in pride, a billy goat for lust, a Pharaoh for wrath, a king of laziness. I haven’t killed anyone? Not yet, to be sure! But have I not let deserving creatures die? Maybe. And maybe I am ready to do so again. Whereas this man – just look at him – will not do so again. He is still quite amazed to have accomplished what he has" (4.25-6).

Jean-Baptiste proclaims his client’s innocence by condemning himself as guilty. What he has done is to make "guilty" and "innocent" relative terms – a far cry from the way most of us think about justice.

Then I realized, calmly as you resign yourself to an idea the truth of which you have long known, that that cry which had sounded over the Seine behind me years before had never ceased, carried by the river to the waters of the Channel, to travel throughout the world, across the limitless expanse of the ocean, and that it had waited for me there until the day I had encountered it. I realized likewise that it would continue to await me on seas and rivers, everywhere, in short, where lies the bitter water of my baptism. Here, too, by the way, aren’t we on the water? On this flat, monotonous, interminable water whose limits are indistinguishable from those of the land? Is it credible that we shall ever reach Amsterdam? We shall never get out of this immense holy-water fount. Listen. Don’t you hear the cries of invisible gulls? If they are crying in our direction, to what are they calling us? (5.12).

It’s passages like this one that make critics go into super-metaphor mode about birds in The Fall. Look at how Jean-Baptiste goes from talking about his own guilt to an image of baptism to gulls. Now, as you’ll see us argue in Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory, doves in The Fall are supposed to be all about the holy spirit, the grace of God, forgiveness, innocence. Here it sounds like gulls have a lot to do with guilt – Jean-Baptiste hears the gulls and is reminded that, oh, right, there was that whole letting-the-woman-die thing back there.

The real reason is that [Jesus] knew he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of, he had committed others – even though he didn’t know which ones. Did he really not know them? He was at the source, after all; he must have heard of a certain Slaughter of the Innocents. The children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place – why did they die if not because of him? […] I am sure he could not forget them. And as for that sadness that can be felt in his every act, wasn’t it the incurable melancholy of a man who heard night after night the voice of Rachel weeping for her children and refusing all comfort? (5.16).

Camus uses Jean-Baptiste to take one of his own classic arguments – that every man is guilty of murder, even if by lack of action – to the absolute extreme. Now even Jesus is a murderer, though indirectly.

No excuses ever, for anyone; that’s my principle at the outset. I deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion, the extenuating circumstance. With me there is no giving of absolution or blessing. Everything is simply totted up, and then: "It comes to so much. You are an evildoer, a satyr, a congenital liar, a homosexual, an artist, etc." Just like that. Just as flatly. In philosophy as in politics, I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty (6.12).

This fits with Jean-Baptiste’s two claims, the first that he has become God, and the second that the concept of forgiveness itself no longer exists. Jean-Baptiste himself is the replacement for God, and he chooses not to forgive.

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