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Characters

Jean-Baptiste Clamence Timeline and Summary

  • Jean-Baptiste meets you and offers to get you a gin. In introducing himself, he explains that he’s a Parisian ex-lawyer who now plays the role of judge-penitent, whatever that means.
  • He remarks on the barman and notes that he is a distrustful man. Seeds of suspicion are sewn in regards to an empty rectangle behind the bar, where a painting used to hang.
  • He speculates a bit about you and references the Holocaust as "one of the greatest crimes in history."
  • He walks you home to your hotel, explaining on the way that Amsterdam is like Dante’s depiction of hell. Jean-Baptiste cryptically remarks that he never crosses a bridge at night as the result of a vow he once made.
  • Jean-Baptiste tells you all about his earlier life in Paris, when he was successful, content, and woefully ignorant of his deeper character flaws. He used to love helping invalids and defending "noble" cases.
  • Jean-Baptiste explains that he is only happy living in lofty places, physically above others.
  • He discusses the pitfalls of friendship: too much responsibility, and you have to fake compassion.
  • Through several funeral-related stories, Jean-Baptiste establishes that people need tragedy as an apéritif.
  • He then tells you the story of the night on the bridge over the Seine, when he heard laughter coming from the water but saw no one there. That night, when he looked in the mirror, it seemed to him that his smile was "double."
  • Jean-Baptiste then began his period of discovery, in which he realized his whole life was a sham. All of his memories came flooding back to him as he discovered his hypocrisy and "fundamental duplicity."
  • He pauses in his narrative to talk about power. He likes islands, he says, because they’re easier to dominate. Also, we need absolute power in the world because it allows us to establish truth without debate.
  • He then discusses trade-signs, and says his would be that of a double-faced Janus reading "Don’t rely on it."
  • Jean-Baptiste reveals one of the memories which came back to him during his period of discovery, the "D’Artagnan" episode at the traffic light.
  • He then tells you all about his personal life before the bridge incident. He was successful with women, but treated them as mostly disposable objects while, at the same time, deriving enjoyment from their subjugation and love. He even had a rulebook for getting them into bed.
  • Finally, Jean-Baptiste relates to you the incident of the woman who jumped off the bridge into the Seine and his own failure to try and save her.
  • Back in Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste talks some more about Holland and the doves he imagines that fill the sky. He explains that the purpose of life is to avoid judgment – not to escape punishment, but to avoidjudgment.
  • That was the torture of his life after his "fall" – he started hearing laughter everywhere. He felt that everyone, even his "friends," were judging him. He was being condemned for his success and happiness.
  • No man, he argues, can stand this sort of judgment, which is why we are quick to judge others (so that they can not judge us).
  • He then discusses Dante’s idea of "neutral angels" and claims that men are neutral in the war between good and evil. We don’t need to wait for the Last Judgment, either, when today we have the scathing judgment of other men.
  • Jean-Baptiste jumps into a discussion of roles and role-playing. He could never take life seriously; he always felt as though it was a game, and he played is part accordingly, and spoke his lines well.
  • After his period of discovery, Jean-Baptiste fell into a state of morbidity. He was obsessed with the thought of his own death. He agonized over dying without confessing, because it would murder the truth. Now, however, this idea titillates him, and he has a stolen object at home that threatens to do just that.
  • He had an increasingly difficult time doing his job, because the thought of justice disgusted him.
  • His goal, he explains, was to maintain his own innocence. And the only way to do that is to accuse yourself in a certain way, which he has mastered.
  • Before this mastering, though, Jean-Baptiste went through a few phases. The first was his attempt to escape from men by spending time with women. But loving others proved difficult for this egotist, so he then tried debauchery.
  • That didn’t work either, since it provided only momentary lapses of judgment, rather than a permanent solution. He tried alcohol, but his liver wouldn’t cooperate.
  • Jean-Baptiste realized that he was afraid of freedom. He realized that he never got over the woman-drowning incident, and that it had been haunting him ever since. That was when he gave up Paris and moved to Amsterdam. He decided to live in "the little-ease."
  • Jean-Baptiste launches into a discussion of religion. We don’t need God to judge us, he says, because we judge each other just fine. God would only be useful if he could guarantee innocence, but there’s no innocence anymore, so He’s no good to us.
  • He even claims that Jesus Christ was guilty, which is why he allowed himself to be crucified. He spends some time talking about Luke’s gospel and the fact that, by censoring out Jesus’ words, Luke actually drew more attention to them.
  • Jean-Baptiste finds it ironic that God was all about forgiveness, but all men do these days is judge and condemn in His name.
  • He then declares himself "an empty prophet for shabby times," an "Elijah without a messiah." The worst fate of man, he says, is to be judged without a law, yet that’s what is going down every day.
  • Jean-Baptiste tells you the story of this one time, in prison camp, when was the pope. This is how he learned that we need to forgive the pope, since 1) he needs it badly, and 2) it’s the only way we can be above him.
  • He then has you open his cupboard to reveal the stolen van Eyck painting, "The Just Judges." He gives you six reasons as to why he will not return it.
  • He then explains his solution to the problem of judgment: slavery. Since universal slavery isn’t possible just yet, though, he makes do with a temporary solution: being a judge-penitent.
  • He then explains what his profession means, by using what he calls Copernicus’s "reverse the reasoning" tactic.
  • Then things get a little strange; Jean-Baptiste reveals that you have been his client all this time, and the "confession" he’s told is as much your story as it is his. It is the portrait of every man, but of no man in particular.
  • Come back in a few years, he says, and you will find him unchanged. He gets to act exactly the same way he did before in Paris, it’s just that now he admits to all his vices, he confesses them constantly through his profession.
  • This confession, explains Jean-Baptiste, gives him the right to judge you. And this gives him power. This lifts him up above you.
  • Jean-Baptiste looks outside and sees that it is snowing. He hopes for a fleeting moment that "there will be purity," that there is salvation coming. But then he admits that he doesn’t really believe this is possible.
  • He insists that you, like him, wish for the woman to throw herself off the bridge again, so he/you/everyone can have a chance of saving her again. But he knows it’s too late, and this he finds to be fortunate.

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