Study Guide

The Fall Religion

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Do you have any possessions? Some? Good. Have you shared them with the poor? No? Then you are what I call a Sadducee. If you are not familiar with the Scriptures, I admit that this won’t help you. But it does help you? So you know the Scriptures? Decidedly, you interest me (1.8).

How interesting that Jean-Baptiste judges you by religious standards, given that he destroys religion later in his confession…

For we are at the heart of things here. Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? (1.14).

Read Shmoop’s "Setting" for a thorough description of this quote.

I refused to attribute that success to my own merits and could not believe that the conjunction in a single person of such different and such extreme virtues was the result of chance alone. This is why in my happy life I felt somehow that that happiness was authorized by some higher decree. When I add that I had no religion you can see even better how extraordinary that conviction was. Whether ordinary or not, it served for some time to raise me above the daily routine and I literally soared for a period of years, for which, to tell the truth, I still long in my heart of hearts (2.15).

Jean-Baptiste effectively says "I’m so amazing, there must be a higher power who crafted me by hand." This is satire at its finest; Jean-Baptiste’s only inclination toward belief in a higher power comes not from deference or humility, but from egotism.

Believe me, religions are on the wrong track the moment they moralize and fulminate commandments. God is not needed to create guilt or to punish. Our fellow men suffice, aided by ourselves (5.14).

And yet, divine power is linked to judgment in The Fall. Jean-Baptiste himself, by acting the role of judge-penitent, takes on what he admits is a God-like stature.

What of it? Well, God’s sole usefulness would be to guarantee innocence, and I am inclined to see religion rather as a huge laundering venture – as it was once but briefly, for exactly three years, and it wasn’t called religion. Since then, soap has been lacking, our faces are dirty, and we wipe one another’s noses. All dunces, all punished, let’s all spit on one another and – hurry! to the little-ease! Each tries to spit first, that’s all. I’ll tell you a big secret, mon cher. Don’t wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day (5.15).

In this passage, Jean-Baptiste identifies the sole purpose of religion as guaranteeing innocence. But, at other times, he has cited God’s usefulness as a master, someone to satisfy our need for slavery. According to Jean-Baptiste’s logic, these are opposite things. To be imprisoned in servitude is to be forever guilty. So how can we reconcile these two thoughts?

But today – set your mind at rest – their Lord is neither in the attic nor in the cellar. They have hoisted him onto a judge’s bench, in the secret of their hearts, and they smite, they judge above all, they judge in his name (5.20).

Jean-Baptiste notes the hypocrisy in religion. Men claim to be acting in God’s name, he says, but actually act against His wishes.

In solitude and when fatigued, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet. When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters – an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah, choked with fever and alcohol, my back up against this moldy door, my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment (5.22).

In van Eyck’s painting, John the Baptist appears twice. In one panel, he has his finger pointed toward the divine figure. Jean-Baptiste can be seen as a perversion of John the Baptist, a man with no God to serve, a man who takes the place of God himself.

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence one must choose a master, God being out of style (6.14).

Jean-Baptiste has presented a solution to this problem – himself! He’ll tell people what to do; he’ll be everyone’s master. But who is Jean-Baptiste’s God? Who is telling him what to do? He’s judging himself, but he can effectively become his own master? Probably not. It looks like that’s your job.

This is why, très cher, after having solemnly paid my respects to freedom, I decided on the sly that it had to be handed over without delay to anyone who comes along. And every time I can, I preach in my church of Mexico City, I invite the good people to submit to authority and humbly to solicit the comforts of slavery, even if I have to present it as true freedom (6.17).

This goes back to Jean-Baptiste’s earlier discussion in Chapter Three about "slavery with a smile." Have slaves, he says, but let them think that they are free men. He is doing the same thing in his profession as a judge-penitent, and he claims to have just done the same thing with you.

Should I climb up to the pulpit, like many of my illustrious contemporaries, and curse humanity? Very dangerous, that is! One day, or one night, laughter bursts out without a warning. The judgment you are passing on others eventually snaps back in your face, causing some damage (6.18).

If Jean-Baptiste still fears laughter, it means that he still fears judgment. His whole claim to be a judge-penitent is therefore bogus. He may be willing to judge himself by confessing all to you, but he is certainly not ready for you to judge (i.e., laugh at) him.

I can’t do without it or deny myself those moments when one of them collapses, with the help of alcohol, and beats his breast. Then I grow taller, très cher, I grow taller, I breathe freely, I am on the mountain, the plain stretches before my eyes. How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits. I sit enthroned among my bad angels at the summit of the Dutch heaven and I watch ascending toward me, as they issue from the fogs and the water, the multitude of the Last Judgment. […] And as for me, I pity without absolving, I understand without forgiving, and above all, I feel at last that I am being adored! (6.24).

This is a great reversal of Jean-Baptiste’s original point that Amsterdam is like Dante’s hell. It is through his judgment of you (which he pretends is a confession of his own crimes) that he turns his own hell into a heaven.

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