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When you arrive at his house the next day, Jean-Baptiste is in bed with a fever. He mentions that he has attacks like this, probably because he got malaria when he was the pope.
Yes, that’s right, he says, though he is "half-joking." He suggests that it’s difficult for you to figure out when he’s telling the truth and when he’s lying, and you are probably justified in this confusion.
He knew a man once, he explains, who believed people belonged to one of three groups: those who never lied because they hated hiding things, those who lied because they had to hide things, and those who liked to lie and to hide things. But he’ll let you decide which of those he is.
Who cares anyway? he adds, since lies always lead to the truth. It doesn’t matter if his stories are true or false if they lead to the same conclusion. Truth can blind us, he says, whereas lies embrace their objects.
Jean-Baptiste explains; he was "named" pope when he was in prison camp. Meanwhile, he asks you to sit down and then describes his house as you see it: bare, clean, no furniture, no pots and pans, and no books (he gave up reading, he says, because he used to read only half a book, which he found wasteful and disgusting).
While books don’t interest him, he is genuinely interested in confessions.
Authors, says Jean-Baptiste, write confessions in order to avoid genuinely confessing. When they claim that they’re getting to the "painful" or "emotional" episodes, that’s when they’re really "dressing up the corpse," so to speak, elaborating and exaggerating until they’re mostly telling lies. "Believe me," he says, "I know what I’m talking about."
And now he goes back to explaining how he was named pope. It all happened in Africa, during WWII.
So Jean-Baptiste is part of the French army but he’s not active and he ends up back in Paris. He would have been done with his duty except he suddenly realized he was "patriotic" when he saw a stray dog take to a German soldier and follow after him. Jean-Baptiste, who always liked dogs ("because they forgive"), immediately felt rage at the German soldier. He resolved to do more on behalf of France.
So he tries getting more involved with the French resistance, but finds that subversive basement-dwelling isn’t his cup of tea.
Next he ends up in North Africa, with the intention of moving on to London, and makes his way to Tunisia.
He stops to remark that, yes, he’s leaving out some important details, but cleverly adds that he’s leaving them out so that you will notice them all the more.
In Tunisia the Germans arrest him and that’s how he ends up in prison camp. (It wasn’t pleasant, but he’ll spare you the details.)
While in prison, he meets a young Frenchman who has faith (though he admits this is hard to believe, given the time and circumstances). In addition to having faith, this man is also melancholy, and a little odd.
Jean-Baptiste refers to this young Frenchman jokingly as "Du Guesclin," a knight and big-deal French military hero from the 14th century.
Finally, one day, "Du Guesclin" comes to his fellow prisoners and declares that they need a pope – a pope who "live[s] among the wretched." li>
He says that they should choose from amongst themselves, and that they should choose whoever has the most failings.
Completely as a joke, Jean-Baptiste raises his hand. Du Guesclin is all, "Great, you’ll do just fine," and he calls Jean-Baptiste by name, except back then, Jean-Baptiste explains, he had a different name. But he won’t tell you what it was.
Jean-Baptiste, having been elected, took his post rather seriously for the next few weeks; he acted the part of a leader and gave orders.
He realized in doing so that being the pope wasn’t easy. He had a hard time maintaining equality even among his closest comrades. As a result kept playing favorites.
But it all came full circle when he drank the water of a dying comrade. (Meanwhile, he comments in an aside, the crazy Frenchman who wanted a pope in the first place was already dead.) Anyway, he figured the dying guy was dying anyway, so he might as well drink the man’s water – even though he loved the guy.
Basically, he convinced himself that had to stay alive, so he could continue to be the pope for everyone else. He was really being selfless, you see.
And this is how Jean-Baptiste came upon his pope-related revelation: one has to forgive the pope. First of all, the pope needs forgiveness more than any of us and, second of all, it’s the only way to be above him.
Jean-Baptiste stops suddenly to ask you if you’ve closed the door to his house. Every night, right when he is about to fall asleep, he has to get up and check the door. It’s not that he’s afraid of theft – he’s too ashamed to own anything – it’s that he’s worried about himself, and he needs the peace of mind.
Also, he likes to lock himself inside so he can be master and commander of his own universe.
Now he asks that you open his cupboard and look at the painting inside. It’s called "The Just Judges," and Jean-Baptiste is shocked to see that you don’t know what this is.
(Back-story, some of which Jean-Baptiste explains to you, some of we’re providing: "The Just Judges" is a famous painting, or rather panel, that’s part of a larger panel painting called "the Ghent Altarpiece" or "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." (For more about this painting, check out Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory.)
Jean-Baptiste reminds you that, back in the cathedral in Belgium, the panel was replaced by a copy.
Anyway, he says, here’s the original, lying in his cupboard. But he himself didn’t have anything to do with its theft.
Remember back to the very beginning of the novel, when he pointed out the blank spot on the wall behind the bar Mexico City where a picture used to hang? And he said he was there for its being hung and for its being taken down? And that man in the corner who was an art thief? Right, well that was all referring to this painting. It’s just that, in a seedy bar in the red-light district, no one knew what it was. It wasn’t until Jean-Baptiste told the "ape" barman/owner that it was a stolen painting that the guy got nervous and agreed to let Jean-Baptiste take it home.
You ask Jean-Baptiste why he didn’t return the painting, and he provides you with six reasons.
1) It doesn’t belong to him – it belongs to the proprietor of the Mexico City bar; it’s not his to give back.
2) They’ve got a perfectly fine copy of the painting back in the cathedral in Ghent. No one who goes to look at the panel can tell that it’s a fake, so what good would having the original do?
3) This way he gets to have power. Only he knows who the true judges are, he explains, whereas everyone else is admiring the false ones.
4) By harboring the painting, he’s risking his being sent to prison, which is an attractive thought for him.
5) The judges depicted in the panel are on their way to meet the Lamb (another name for Jesus), but there isn’t such a thing anymore since there’s no more innocence in the world. As such, whoever stole the painting was acting according to justice, though he didn’t know it at the time. (In other words, for one reason or another, the Bishop deserved to have his panel stolen.)
6) Lastly, Jean-Baptiste argues that, with the judges locked up in his cupboard, "everything is in harmony." Justice, in his cupboard, has been completely separated from innocence, which is on the cross.
And now, since you’re leaving, he figures it’s just about time to tell you what a judge-penitent is.
Well, he says, he’s currently practicing this profession, and his office is the bar Mexico City. Although really, he can work from anywhere.
In fact, argues Jean-Baptiste, he is always working; he breathes his profession as a judge-penitent.
So he hasn’t just been talking at you for fun, he says, these past five days; his words "have a purpose."
Technically, avoiding judgment is impossible, since we are always the first to condemn ourselves.
The solution, explains Jean-Baptiste, is to condemn everyone, in order to "spread it thinner," so to speak. (It’s like if your teacher was mad at you for not doing your homework, and your solution was to make sure no one else did their homework either.)
So no excuses, says Jean-Baptiste, for anyone. He ignores good intentions and extenuating circumstances. He doesn’t forgive. He simply tallies up everything you are and let’s you know the total of your crimes. He is, he explains, an advocate for slavery.
We need slavery, continues Jean-Baptiste. Without it, we have no solution. Back when he was Mr. Perfect Alpha-Male lawyer, he used to talk about freedom all the time. He would use the word as a weapon.
But now, older and wiser, he realizes that freedom is not a reward or a gift – rather, it is a chore, a "long-distance run." Freedom is solitary, and it is exhausting. Freedom is standing alone before the judges, and freedom ends with a court sentence. And that is why no one can bear it.
This is why man chooses to be a slave. He chooses a master, and since God isn’t fashionable anymore, he has to find someone else to serve.
This launches him into a digression on God. He discusses the way that moral philosophers, supposedly atheists, rail against God in their intellectual endeavors, but still pray when they are alone. In this way, he claims, they’re not really any different than Christians.
Regardless, he says, there is no more God to serve as our master. So, to avoid freedom, men invent their own rules, devise other masters, ask to be beaten and enslaved by their own institutions.
What these men want is grace, happiness, and surrender. Even Jean-Baptiste himself used to dream of an all-consuming love that would end in death. Marriage, he explains, is just another form of slavery.
In the name of avoiding freedom, man should be disciplined. Make things simple. Make "good" and "evil" arbitrary terms, and then discipline man in this arbitrary way.
And all to avoid the horror that is freedom. After all, says Jean-Baptiste, he discovered on the bridge that night that he, like everyone else, is deathly afraid of freedom.
Interestingly, this is the one thing we all have in common. That we desire slavery makes us all similar, but in addition, slavery itself is collective. It unifies us, because we can all be servants together.
And that’s a big part of what he does in Mexico City; he invites his "clients" to submit to slavery – it’s just that he sometimes has to pretend that such slavery is freedom. (Remember in Chapter One when he said we should call our slaves free men, just to make them happy?)
His goal is also, he explains, to extend his judgment to others (again the "spreading thin" idea – this way there’s less judgment left for him).
But he has to be careful in judging others. There’s always the danger that laughter will burst out somewhere. By passing judgment on everyone else, he runs the risk that his judgment will come back and slap him in the face.
Fortunately, he’s discovered the solution: reverse the logic. He can’t condemn others without judging himself first, so the idea is to heap judgments on himself in order to justify judging others. That’s why he’s a judge – someone who condemns others – but also a penitent, someone who recognizes and judges his own crimes.
And now he’ll tell you a little more about how he operates and how he ended up in Amsterdam.
The first thing he did was to close his law offices in Paris and pick a new city. He chose Amsterdam for its canals, fogs, and crowds, in part because he was trying to humiliate himself. He also liked that it was a city frequented by all sorts of men.
Then he set up his office in a bar, where he would sit and wait for "the wandering bourgeois."
And then what? Well, he says, practicing his profession largely consists of making a public confession himself. He doesn’t crudely accuse himself; rather, he skillfully navigates through his crimes, filling his confession with digressions and distractions. He focuses in the details that he has in common with the client to whom he is confessing, and he constructs and adds to it as he sees fits.
And then, at the end of the day, he’s built an image of a man who is every one, but no one in particular. It’s a mask, he says, lifelike, but stylized.
And then he holds this image up – the image of a man whom he has constructed in his confession – as a mirror to his client. He begins by saying, "I am the scum of the earth" but very gradually eases into "We are the scum of the earth" and so tricks his client.
Although he uses the word "we," Jean-Baptiste insists that he has all the power here. He has the advantage, because the more he judges himself, the more right he has to judge you, and the more you are led down the road of judging yourself.
Don’t believe him? Just start your own confession; he’ll listen and sympathize.
You laugh, and Jean-Baptiste tells you that, indeed, he knew from the start that you would be a difficult client. Yet he maintains that you will come around to his side eventually. Intelligent men, he says, always make more difficult clients.
Jean-Baptiste wants you to admit that you are less pleased with yourself than you were before you met him. He is also certain that you will come back to him someday and that, when you do, you will find him unchanged.
Why? Because he’s happy this way. He has accepted that he is duplicitous instead of getting upset about it.
He was wrong earlier, he says, when he claimed that the purpose of life was to avoid judgment. This isn’t true. The idea is to allow yourself to do everything, as long as you confess your horrible nature from time to time.
So, actually, he doesn’t live his life differently from the way he used to in Paris; he lets himself do whatever he wants. He still loves himself. He still uses others for his own selfish means. The difference is that, this time, he knows his flaws instead of pretending he’s a virtuous man. And that allows him to function without hearing the laughter coming from the water.
Now he’s at his peak, he says, the ultimate height of superiority. He can judge everybody from this vantage point. Sure, once in a while he hears that laugh, once in a while he doubts for a moment, but the feeling quickly passes.
Anyway, he concludes, he’ll be waiting for you at Mexico City should you decide to return. Basically, he says, he gets off on winning men over, on seeing them break down when they realize that they, too, are implicated by Jean-Baptiste’s confession. It makes him feel like God.
Jean-Baptiste finally gets out of bed (he was lying down with fever when you arrived, remember?) and starts moving around. Why? So that he can be higher than you, he explains. Nights like this, he goes and walks along the canals, looking up at the invisible doves which he believes fill the upper air of Amsterdam.
When dawn breaks and the men of the city start to wake, he feels above them all and is elated.
Jean-Baptiste calms down a bit and decides he will get back into bed. He admits that, sure, his solution isn’t the ideal one. But he doesn’t have much of a choice.
He asks that you not be too hard on him, and remembers a beggar who once grabbed hold of his hand in a café and said, "you lose track of the light." We’ve all lost track of the light, Jean-Baptiste tells you, we’ve lost track of the innocence of those who are able to forgive themselves.
Then he’s all, "Hey! Look! It’s snowing!" He decides he has to go outside and frolic in it, since there will be purity in the white snow, at least for a minute or two before it gets muddy and brown again in Amsterdam.
Jean-Baptiste then describes the falling flakes as the descent of the doves he’s been talking about –they’re finally coming down to earth.
If the doves really are coming down to earth, says Jean-Baptiste, this means that he will be saved. It means that everyone will be saved. All possessions will be shared by all men, as will all hardships – every night, he says, you will sleep on the ground for him. (Remember this "sleeping on the ground" bit from Chapter One?)
But Jean-Baptiste pulls back. You don’t believe such salvation is possible, and quite frankly, neither does he. Even these little outbursts of his are "controlled," so you shouldn’t take them too seriously.
As Jean-Baptiste readies himself to hear your confession, he admits a little dream of his: he’s always wanted to have a policeman as a client, so that he will be arrested for the theft of "The Just Judges." That’s really the only thing he could be arrested for, he decides – none of the rest of his "crimes" would do it.
That would really be the best, he thinks, to be arrested and decapitated. He would be saved, because he would have no more fear of death.
And then, he continues to fantasize, after his execution, you could hold his head up, and everyone would recognize themselves in the head, and he would be powerful as an example. His career as a false prophet would finally come to a close.
Alas – you are not a policeman, and he knows this.
Ah, instead it seems that, in fact, you are a lawyer. From Paris of course, just like Jean-Baptiste. He figured as much.
He asks you to tell him the story of what happened to you one night on the Seine, and how it is you decided not to risk your life (that is, to save the drowning woman).
Jean-Baptiste insists that you are uttering the same words he has been uttering for years: "O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!" (6.29).
Don’t worry, though, he says, as he shudders at the thought of being granted his wish and actually having to brave the icy water. We will never get a second chance. It’s too late.