Study Guide

The Fall Power

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Let’s pause on these heights. Now you understand what I meant when I spoke of aiming higher. I was talking, it so happens, of those supreme summits, the only places I can really live. Yes, I have never felt comfortable except in lofty places. Even in the details of daily life, I needed to feel above (2.9).

Jean-Baptiste feels above others by choosing lofty physical locales. If this is the case, then what is he doing in Amsterdam? For those of you who haven’t trekked over there yet, the city is actually below sea-level and protected by dikes – otherwise it would be under water.

I am well aware that one can’t get along without domineering or being served. Every man needs slaves as he needs fresh air. Commanding is breathing […]. In another way, it is convincing. Somebody has to have the last word. Otherwise, every reason can be answered with another one and there would never be an end to it. Power, on the other hand, settles everything (3.6).

Even though Jean-Baptiste is in his supposedly "enlightened" state, he’s still lying to himself about his reasons for acting. In other words, he loves power because it makes him personally feel like God, not because he honestly believes that power is what makes the world function.

The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. As it is not so easy as the detective novels might lead one to believe, one generally relies on politics and joins the cruelest party. What does it matter, after all, if by humiliating one’s mind one succeeds in dominating everyone? I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression (3.17).

Jean-Baptiste identifies two stages in his lust for power: the first was wanting it but not realizing it, and the second, during his "discovery" period, was wanting power and finally becoming aware of it. Think about his feelings of power now as he tells you his confession.

On my own admission, I could live happily only on condition that all the individuals on earth, or the greatest possible number, were turned toward me, eternally in suspense, devoid of independent life and ready to answer my call at any moment, doomed in short to sterility until the day I should deign to favor them. In short, for me to live happily it was essential for the creatures I chose not to live at all. They must receive their life, sporadically, only at my bidding (3.30).

If this is his rubric, it’s unlikely that Jean-Baptiste will ever be happy. And yet, at the end of his confession, he declares that he is happy. Make that "happy unto death!" Has he achieved his desire to have control over everyone?

Prophets and quacks multiply; they hasten to get there with a good law or a flawless organization before the world is deserted. Fortunately, I arrived! I am the end and the beginning; I announce the law. In short, I am a judge-penitent (5.22).

When Jean-Baptiste speaks of his Copernicus-like reasoning as "the solution," it's likely he means not only for himself, but for the entire world.

Of what did it consist? Well, I was something like a group leader or the secretary of a cell. The others, in any case, and even those who lacked faith, got into the habit of obeying me (6.7).

Jean-Baptiste derives power as a religious figure – the pope – and yet even those who lack faith obey him. This echoes his earlier description of himself before his "fall," when he believed in some higher order, yet had no religion.

And in order to correct somewhat what I said yesterday, I am going to tell you the great idea that has come to me while telling all this, which – I’m not sure now – I may have lived or only dreamed. My great idea is that one must forgive the pope. To begin with, he needs it more than anyone else. Secondly, that’s the only way to set oneself above him ... (6.7).

Interesting. Jean-Baptiste claims that forgiveness is one way to get power, and yet he is against forgiveness himself; he merely "tallies up" the crimes of others and tells them what they are – he judges without forgiveness, condemns, and does not believe in grace.

Thirdly, because in this way I dominate. False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones (6.10).

This is one of Jean-Baptiste’s reasons for harboring the stolen van Eyck panel in his cupboard. That he derives power from concealing the truth, essentially for lying to the world, is a great example of how extreme his value system is.

When I get to "This is what we are," the trick has been played and I can tell them off. I am like them, to be sure; we are in the soup together. However, I have a superiority in that I know it and this gives me the right to speak. You see the advantage, I am sure. The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the burden (6.21).

If what Jean-Baptiste says is true – that the more he judges himself, the more he gets to judge you – then his whole confession has just been about getting power over you.

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