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You are back at Mexico City, though the narrator doesn't come right out and say it. Instead, Jean-Claude simply begins: "What is a judge-penitent?"
But he’s not going to tell you. Yet. First, you need some background.
A few years ago, he says, he was a successful lawyer in Paris with a penchant for what he calls "noble cases."
Work went easily for him, because he knew he was "on the right side" and because he hated judges.
The feeling of being in the right, he says, is a powerful motivator. It keeps men moving forward. But when you take it away, men become "dogs frothing with rage."
In fact, he says, a lot of crimes are committed because the perpetrator can’t bear to be wrong.
Case in point: a man who killed his wife because he deceived her. He was furious that her being alive meant that he was not virtuous (because he was deceiving her). His way of feeling better about himself was to kill her. And then Jean-Baptiste defended him in court.
This, he says, was a noble murderer.
Jean-Baptiste goes on to describe how moral he was in Paris. He never took a bribe, he never tried to flatter, he never charged the poor a fee, and he never boasted of his virtues to anyone. He speaks of "aiming higher" but says he’ll come back to that in a minute.
For the moment, he’d like to establish that, contrary to appearances, he’s not bragging, even now, because he doesn’t take credit for his previous virtues.
But mostly, he says, back then, he was satisfied. He was happy, enjoyed himself and his life, and even helped blind people across the street.
He loved it so much, he says, that he used to race other people who were trying to help the blind and basically push them out of the way to get to the blind person first.
Jean-Baptiste also liked providing directions and giving alms. Far from feeling bad for the beggars, he used to exult at seeing them, though he is embarrassed about this in retrospect.
He used to love it when bad things would happen – like a bus breaking down – because then he could offer people rides in his car.
Jean-Baptiste gives several more examples of this "altruism", and then he gets back to the notion of "aiming higher."
On "the supreme summit," he says, "virtue is its own reward" (2.8). This summit is the only place he can live. He likes to feel above other people.
He takes this metaphor and makes it literal; he likes to be in places that are physically above people, like busses and not subways, on the top deck as opposed to the lower. He even sees something criminal in those who go exploring deep caves.
Most of all, Jean-Baptiste explains, being a lawyer satisfied this need for loftiness. It meant his neighbor would always owe him, but he would never owe his neighbor. It meant no one would ever judge him. And he could be like God, which is not a bad gig.
Also, living "aloft" meant he could be seen and admired by many; after all, he says, fame is one of the reasons men commit murder.
But his method was superior; killing makes you famous for a day or two in the headlines, but being a top-notch defense lawyer kept him famous for longer, and without the high cost.
He really had the best deal; the judges would judge, the criminals would be criminals, and he would just hang out and bask in his lawyerly glory.
That, he says, was Eden for him (in the sense that Eden = paradise. That was easy, he said. Back then, he never had to learn how to live. He just knew instinctively how to go about his life.
He was living the dream, which he further details.
Jean-Baptiste says repeatedly that he was "in harmony with life," that he was very natural in his existence. He didn’t reject any part of life, rather he accepted all of it, its irony, its splendor, and its slavery.
And it wasn’t just that he was smarter than everyone else, oh no – such "certainty" doesn’t mean anything, because every man feels that way. He felt more as though he had been singled out for greatness.
Why? Because of his modesty. Since he was so impressive, he knew such magnificence couldn’t be the result of chance alone. He had to think some higher power ordained it that way. This belief is made even more extraordinary by the fact that Jean-Baptiste had no religion.
Anyway, he says, he’s probably exaggerating. Sure, he was all "soaring on the wings of elation," but he was never really satisfied. He used to just hop from one ecstasy to another, without ever being fulfilled.
At times of such rapture, he says, he would sometimes seem that he "at last understood the secret of creatures and of the world" (2.15). But then his exhaustion would pass, and he would lose whatever knowledge he had almost grasped.
Jean-Baptiste pauses in his story to call over the barman (or "ape" as he’s still referring to him). He begs you to drink up with him, as he desperately needs your friendship.
Surely, he ventures, you know what that’s like – the need for understanding and friendship?
Of course, beggars can’t be choosers, so he’s made himself satisfied with just understanding (and he’s not pushing for friendship).
Friendship, he says, is a bit more complicated than understanding. And once you have it, you have to deal with its baggage.
Let’s say you have a friend. Your friend won’t call you every night to check and make sure that you’re OK. Instead, he’ll call when you’re busy with something important.
Family is even worse. They telephone you as though they’re shooting with a rifle at you)
(By the way, if you’re reading your text and are confused by the fact that Jean-Baptiste exclaims, "Oh, the Bazaines," furrow that brow no further. François Achille Bazaine was a French military officer known for being a traitor. When Jean-Baptiste notes the deadly-rifle-shot-phone-calls of family members, he’s actually calling out those relatives as traitors.)
But back to his reminiscing. Jean-Baptiste knew this guy once, he says, whose friend was in prison. The guy used to sleep on the floor so that he wouldn’t have any luxuries that his jailbird buddy didn’t. "Who," Jean-Baptiste wonders, "will sleep on the floor for us?" (2.17). He even wonders if he’s capable of that himself.
Maybe, Jean-Baptiste ventures, we don’t love life enough. After all, he says, it is only death that rouses our feelings. We get all mushy over people, but not until after they die.
He goes on to explain why this is: we can be nice as peaches to the dead simply because we have no obligations to them. They’re not inconvenient, since you can mourn them any time you please.
For an example: Jean-Baptiste had a friend. The friend was boring. Then he got sick. Jean-Baptiste went to his deathbed and held his hand, and the friend died thinking he had a good friend.
Another example: a woman used to chase after Jean-Baptiste. Then she committed suicide, which Jean-Baptiste thinks was a good thing. His heart overjoyed, more so when he could accuse himself – even just a little bit – for being responsible.
That’s just how it goes, he says; man can’t love anyone without first loving himself.
Jean-Baptiste describes an apartment building that only comes alive when the concierge dies and the residents get all spruced up for his funeral. People need tragedy.
Speaking of concierges who died, he had a concierge once – who died. And he went to his funeral, even though in life the man was insignificant and not altogether pleasant, (he uses the term "malice incarnate").
Jean-Baptiste declares that people go through all this sort of pomp and circumstance (extravagant flowers on the grave, and ceremonies) because tragedy is an "apéritif." (Apéritif = alcoholic beverage served as an appetizer. The question is…what’s the main course?)
But enough about death (for now). Jean-Baptiste talks about his workplace, where he used to make a point of shaking hands with everyone, mostly so that he would be missed if absent.
That one can be missed is problematic, though, when Jean-Baptiste thinks about concierge who died. It turns out that his grief stricken wife had moved on a month later.
While we might be inclined to judge, Jean-Baptiste remarks that we can’t know for sure if she was in love with this new guy, or the husband who died.
He knows another man, who realized after twenty years of marriage he didn’t love his wife; he had just been bored, and so he made up a new life for himself.
This is the way with all of us, Jean-Baptiste thinks; we get bored and so we make up drama and partake in constructions like funerals and war.
But he himself, back when he was successful lawyer, didn’t have such a problem. He wasn’t bored.
And now we’re getting to the heart of The Fall. Jean-Baptiste recalls one warm, autumn night by the Seine (river in Paris). He’s strolling along towards his home, happy because he helped someone earlier in the day.
He’s on a bridge overlooking the Seine and just about at the peak of his "I am man, hear me roar" egotism, when he hears a laugh behind him.
He spins around only to see no one
He looks over the edge of the bridge – but no boats. And yet, he still hears laughter, which seems as though it’s coming from the water.
And suddenly, he’s aware of his rapidly beating heart.
Jean-Baptiste pauses in his narrative to clarify: the laugh wasn’t sinister in any way, it was actually perfectly good-hearted. But the fact that it had no source was unnerving.
Back in the flashback, a very disturbed Jean-Baptiste runs home and phones his friend, who doesn’t answer. (This is the case with friends, as he explained earlier.)
Jean-Baptiste is alone and distraught when, outside his window, he hears a laugh again, coming from the sidewalk under his window.
He hurriedly looks outside and sees a group of rowdy kids saying good night to one another.
Jean-Baptiste then goes back inside, has some water, and looks in the mirror, only to find that he is smiling. Not just a normal smile, either. He says: "It seemed to me my smile was double…" (2.24).
Then Jean-Baptiste suddenly pulls out of his flashback and, still sitting with you at the bar in Amsterdam, bids you good night. He’ll see you again tomorrow, but for now he has to go hang out with that guy in the corner who is a victim of the justice system.
Actually, Jean-Baptiste concedes that the man is a killer and an art thief. In fact, he’s responsible for one very famous painting theft, which Jean-Baptiste may tell you about, some time in the future.
After all, says Jean-Baptiste, he’s built up a fair clientele here in Amsterdam, mostly because he’s got an energetic handshake.
He’s been picking up cases here for a while, and firmly believes that each case should be argued individually; if everyone were always sentenced the same way, he says, then "decent people" would start thinking they were actually innocent.
(It sounds like he’s saying there shouldn’t be a divide in the law between guilt and innocence, or any hard and fast rules of punishment, since guilt and innocence are not black and white matters. Even "decent people" are guilty of something, which is why everything has to be case-by-case.)