But do you know why we are always more just and more generous toward the dead? The reason is simple. With them there is no obligation. They leave us free and we can take our time, fit the testimonial in between a cocktail party and a nice little mistress, in our spare time, in short. If they forced us to anything, it would be to remembering, and we have a short memory. No, it is the recently dead we love among our friends, the painful dead, our emotion, ourselves after all! (2.17).
Jean-Baptiste's issues with commitment raise an interesting question about his relationship with you. By the end of the novel he will have delivered five monologues over six chapters - what gives? Is this a friendship the two of you have, or are you a mere acquaintance? And why does a man who eschews responsibility and obligation taken such a serious interest in you?
How beautiful the canals are this evening! I like the breath of stagnant waters, the smell of dead leaves soaking in the canal and the funereal scent rising from the barges loaded with flowers. No, no, there’s nothing morbid about such a taste, I assure you. On the contrary, it’s deliberate with me. The truth is that I force myself to admire these canals (3.4).
Looks like the setting is pretty important. Jean-Baptiste’s morbidity is part of the reason he chose to settle in what he thinks of as Dante’s hell. So it’s fitting that 1) the place reeks of death, and 2) Jean-Baptiste takes pleasure in this.
Be it said, moreover, that as soon as I had re-won that affection I became aware of its weight. In my moments of irritation I told myself that the ideal solution would have been the death of the person I was interested in. Her death would, on the one hand, have definitively fixed our relationship and, on the other, removed its compulsion. But one cannot long for the death of everyone or, in the extreme, depopulate the planet in order to enjoy a freedom that cannot be imagined otherwise (3.29).
Here we see some restraint on the part of Jean-Baptiste, who very wisely notes that he cannot kill off everyone in the world just to make himself happy. On the other hand, by isolating himself - but placing himself "above" all others and condemning them all to a life of guilt and slavery - he’s certainly killing off what we think of as essential human values.
If I had been able to commit suicide and then see their reaction, why, then the game would have been worth the candle. But the earth is dark, cher ami, the coffin thick, and the shroud opaque. […] Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. […] So if there were the least certainty that one could enjoy the show, it would be worth proving to them what they are unwilling to believe and thus amazing them. But you kill yourself and what does it matter whether or not they believe you? You are not there to see their amazement and their contrition (fleeting at best), to witness, according to every man’s dream, your own funeral. In order to cease being a doubtful case, one has to cease being, that’s all (4.3).
We have to talk about Camus’s prior novel, The Plague, for just a moment. In The Plague there’s this character named Father Paneloux, a devoutly religious man who, towards the end of his life, starts to doubt. The priest finds himself in the a predicament: should he receive medical help from a doctor, or trust in God? The doctors are all trying to figure out if Paneloux has the plague, but they can’t decide, so their diagnosis is uncertain. When Paneloux finally dies, his diagnostic index card reads, "Doubtful Case." This, of course brings us back to Paneloux’s religious doubts. The point is, we can use The Plague to contradict Jean-Baptiste’s point here: if one ceases to be, we can argue, one can still be a doubtful case. Actually, Jean-Baptiste himself contradicts this point when he later discusses martyrdom: martyrs, he says, will never be understood after their death. Their reasons will be manipulated and misinterpreted. Plus there was that whole Jesus thing – his death was bastardized to no end, according to Jean-Baptiste.
Then it was that the thought of death burst into my daily life. I would measure the years separating me from my end I would look for examples of men of my age who were already dead. And I was tormented by the thought that I might not have time to accomplish my task. What task? I had no idea. Frankly, was what I was doing worth continuing? But that was not quite it (4.21).
Jean-Baptiste will later explain his reason for not wanting to die: he loves himself too much. So it’s not that he’s doing anything extremely valuable, it’s just that he’s a giant egotist.
Despairing of love and of chastity, I at last bethought myself of debauchery, a substitute for love, which quiets the laughter, restores silence, and above all, confers immortality. At a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see; the mind dominates the whole past, and the pain of living is over forever. In a sense, I had always lived in debauchery, never having ceased wanting to be immortal (5.7).
This is a lousy solution to Jean-Baptiste’s "awareness" problem. Debauchery bestows immortality because it is essentially a distraction – no one is going to ponder the hypocrisy of man’s fundamental duplicity during a debaucherous act.
Wasn’t this the key to my nature and also a result of the great self-love I have told you about? Yes, I was bursting with a longing to be immortal. I was too much in love with myself not to want the precious object of my love never to disappear. […] Because I longed for eternal life, I went to bed with harlots and drank for nights on end. In the morning, to be sure, my mouth was filled with the bitter taste of the mortal state. But, for hours on end, I had soared in bliss (5.7).
And that’s the thing about distractions: they’re momentary. This is the existential version of an awkward morning after.
You know that even very intelligent people glory in being able to empty one bottle more than the next man. I might ultimately have found peace and release in that happy dissipation. But, there too, I encountered an obstacle in myself. This time it was my liver, and a fatigue so dreadful that it hasn’t yet left me. One plays at being immortal and after a few weeks one doesn’t even know whether or not one can hang on till the next day (5.9).
This scenario makes a great metaphor; Jean-Baptiste would be immortal, but his body just won’t let him.
When we are all guilty, that will be democracy. Without counting, cher ami, that we must take revenge for having to die alone. Death is solitary, whereas slavery is collective. The others get theirs, too, and at the same time as we – that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and heads bowed (6.16).
It’s difficult to reconcile this statement with the fact that, being a judge-penitent, Jean-Baptiste sets himself above everyone else. This hardly sounds like democracy, even though what he’s doing is declaring his and everyone else’s guilt simultaneously.
You would arrest me then; that would be a good beginning. Perhaps the rest would be taken care of subsequently; I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate – an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to come forth (6.28).
This is a far cry from Jean-Baptiste’s earlier desire for immortality. It’s not that he wants immortality, it’s that he doesn’t want to die. These are actually different things. Death is not a solution to wanting immortality. But death is a solution to not wanting to die, because once you’re dead, you can’t fear it anymore – as Jean-Baptiste so charmingly points out.