Study Guide

The Fall Innocence

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Punishment without judgment is bearable. It has a name, besides, that guarantees our innocence: it is called misfortune (4.4).

A term like "misfortune" would "guarantee innocence" because it means that our guilt isn’t our own fault. As Jean-Baptiste argues, criminals don’t want to take responsibility for their crimes. Of course, Jean-Baptiste isn’t exactly begging to take responsibility for his own actions.

As for me, the injustice was even greater: I was condemned for past successes. For a long time I had lived in the illusion of a general agreement, whereas, from all sides, judgments, arrows, mockeries rained upon me, inattentive and smiling. The day I was alerted I became lucid; I received all the wounds at the same time and lost my strength all at once. The whole universe then began to laugh at me (4.9).

Jean-Baptiste makes it clear that the laughter he heard coming from the water had to do with his being judged and ridiculed. Now this part is interesting: he realized himself that he was morally reprehensible (for not trying to save the woman on the bridge). But he ascribes his self-judgment to others. That is, because he judges himself to be a jerk, he assumes the rest of the world sees him that way.

From this point of view, we are all like that little Frenchman at Buchenwald who insisted on registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: "Useless, old man. You don’t lodge a complaint here." "But you see, sir," said the little Frenchman, "my case is exceptional. I am innocent!"

We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself (4.10-11).

Jean-Baptiste will later question this need for innocence, with what is an essence a "Why bother?" attack. It’s much easier, he notes, to just proclaim your own guilt. Then you never have to get judged, and you can continue to act like a criminal.

You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you. […] one is surely no more responsible for being a criminal by nature than for being a criminal by circumstance (4.11).

Good point – and quite a modern one, too. What Jean-Baptiste is getting at is the classic Camus argument that we can’t punish criminals with say, the death penalty, because it’s not their fault if they’re murderers. In fact, Camus published an essay shortly after The Fall that says as much. How does the argument go? Let’s say you’ve got two murderers, murderer A and murderer B. Murderer A was cleaning his shotgun and accidentally killed his maid. Not his fault, right? Murderer B was abused as a child and learned that violence was the way to solve problems. Not his fault, right? So when Murderer B murders, isn’t he as much a victim of circumstance as Murderer A?

But those rascals want grace, that is, irresponsibility, and they shamelessly allege the justifications of nature or the excuses of circumstances, even if they are contradictory. The essential thing is that they should be innocent, that their virtues, by grace of birth, should not be questioned and that their misdeeds, born of a momentary misfortune, should never be more than provisional. As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment (4.11).

In Christianity, "grace" is the love or favor of God. As Jean-Baptiste says later, the only point of religion is for it to grant innocence – for God to bestow his grace. In Jean-Baptiste’s mind, to accept such "grace" means being irresponsible, because it’s basically a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. On the other hand, Jean-Baptiste’s solution – to just accept that you’re guilty and be OK with that – is just as irresponsible. "Taking responsibility" for your actions is about more than just saying, "Yup, sure, I’m guilty, I admit it," – it’s about making amends and a conscious effort to remedy your behavior, neither of which has even occurred to Jean-Baptiste.

I have never been really sincere and enthusiastic except when I used to indulge in sports, and in the army, when I used to act in plays we put on for our own amusement. In both cases there was a rule of the game, which was not serious but which we enjoyed taking as if it were. Even now, the Sunday matches in an overflowing stadium, and the theater, which I loved with the greatest passion, are the only places in the world where I feel innocent (4.18).

At first, this seems like an odd place for Jean-Baptiste to start talking about innocence. Basically, what he’s talking about here is his "fundamental duplicity" argument, where he decides that man is a liar and most of his actions are false. Because he is conscious of such falsity, Jean-Baptiste sees much of the world as a fictional play-set or a game. As such, he feels best when things are what they really seem – for example, in an actual play or literal game, like soccer. But what does this have to do with innocence? If Jean-Baptiste feels most innocent when things are what they seem (in plays or in games), then it means that his guilt has a lot to do with feeling duplicitous – with feeling like a liar.

You see, it is not enough to accuse yourself in order to clear yourself; otherwise, I’d be as innocent as a lamb. One must accuse oneself in a certain way, which it took me considerable time to perfect. I did not discover it until I fell into the most utterly forlorn state. Until then, the laughter continued to drift my way, without my random efforts succeeding in divesting it of its benevolent, almost tender quality that hurt me (4.27).

Accuse oneself in a certain way…a certain way…what the heck is he talking about? It’s important to see what’s going on here, so check out this line from later in the text: "It is essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all, […] in order to think it out at the start" (6.11). Yep – that’s the "certain way" he’s talking about. If you want more, check out Jean-Baptiste’s character analysis.

Can you imagine in that cell a frequenter of summits and upper decks? What? One could live in those cells and still be innocent? Improbable! Highly improbable! Or else my reasoning would collapse. That innocence should be reduced to living hunchbacked – I refuse to entertain for a second such a hypothesis. Moreover, we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, 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 (5.13).

Again, what we’ve got here is the reversal of cause and effect. Man is imprisoned, therefore he is guilty. This is the same argument that Jean-Baptiste put forth in his discussion of "little-ease."

What of it? Well, God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence, and I am inclined to see religion rather as a huge laundering venture – as it was once but briefly, for exactly three years, and it wasn’t called religion. Since then, soap has been lacking, our faces are dirty, and we wipe one another’s noses. All dunces, all punished, let’s all spit on one another and – hurry! to the little-ease! Each tries to spit first, that’s all. I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day. (5.15)

Remember, Jean-Baptiste’s main argument is that we should all declare ourselves guilty to skip the whole judgment thing. You might as well, this passage suggests, since man isn’t qualified anyway to declare you innocent – only God is. This is an important concept to Camus, and it goes a long way in explaining why he was so opposed to the death penalty.

Fifth, because those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb, because there is no more lamb or innocence, and because the clever rascal who stole the panel was an instrument of the unknown justice that one ought not to thwart. Finally, because this way everything is in harmony. Justice being definitively separated from innocence – the latter on the cross and the former in the cupboard – I have the way clear to work according to my convictions (6.10).

These are the last two reasons Jean-Baptiste gives for why he has not returned the stolen van Eyck panel to Ghent where it belongs. To understand it, you need a little background on the painting itself. The stolen panel in Jean-Baptiste’s cupboard features a bunch of guys on their way to see "the lamb," a.k.a. Jesus, who shows up in another panel of the same painting. Jean-Baptiste, ever brilliant, has physically separated the men from Jesus, which means he’s separated the "judges" from "the lamb," which means he’s separated justice from innocence.

I’m like that old beggar who wouldn’t let go of my hand one day on a café terrace: "Oh, sir," he said, "it’s not just that I’m no good, but you lose track of the light." Yes, we have lost track of the light, the mornings, the holy innocence of those who forgive themselves (6.26).

This is the problem with Jean-Baptiste’s "solution." Sure, admit you’re guilty and then you never have to suffer through judgment. Great, except then you eliminate innocence from the world. It sounds here as though Jean-Baptiste isn’t entirely satisfied with his way of operating.

Look, it’s snowing! Oh, I must go out! Amsterdam asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges, the empty streets, my muted steps – there will be purity, even if fleeting, before tomorrow’s mud. See the huge flakes drifting against the windowpanes. It must be the doves, surely. They finally make up their minds to come down, the little dears; they are covering the waters and the roofs with a thick layer of feathers; they are fluttering at every window. What an invasion! Let’s hope they are bringing good news. Everyone will be saved, eh? – and not only the elect. Possessions and hardships will be shared and you, for example, from today on you will sleep every night on the ground for me. The whole shooting match, eh? Come now, admit that you would be flabbergasted if a chariot came down from heaven to carry me off, or if the snow suddenly caught fire. You don’t believe it? Nor do I. But still I must go out (6.26-7).

Again, this is great evidence to support the theory that Jean-Baptiste is embracing a false and faulty solution. He claims to have abandoned innocence, but he still yearns for it. Remember, the doves have a lot to do with innocence and the Holy Ghost (see Symbols, Imagery, Allegory), so if Jean-Baptiste is all excited at the thought of the Holy Ghost coming to earth (i.e., divine intervention), then he can’t truly have embraced his "let’s just ditch innocence" theory. The fact that, as he says, he "doesn’t believe it" signifies the tragedy of his situation; he’s optimistic enough to hope for something better, but too cynical to believe it will ever happen.

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