Life became less easy for me: when the body is sad the heart languishes. It seemed to me that I was half unlearning what I had never learned and yet knew so well – how to live. Yes, I think it was probably then that everything began (3.2).
Memory has to do with Jean-Baptiste’s transformation; after all, the whole process comes about when he was reminded of an event he forgot. Knowledge, then – more specifically in this case, memory – is dangerous, and powerful enough to change the life of Jean-Baptiste.
I know mine in any case: a double face, a charming Janus, and above it the motto of the house: "Don’t rely on it." On my cards: "Jean-Baptiste Clamence, play actor" (3.9).
Transformation is built into Jean-Baptiste’s character and the duplicity of his nature.
Along with a few other truths, I discovered these facts little by little in the period following the evening I told you about. Not all at once nor very clearly. First I had to recover my memory. By gradual degrees I saw more clearly, I learned a little of what I knew (3.11).
"Learning" in this case has to do with awareness; Jean-Baptiste isn’t so much gaining new knowledge as he is becoming aware of truths he already knew. In a nutshell, that’s what his "transformation" really is – increased awareness.
My friends hadn’t changed. […] But I was aware only of the dissonances and disorder that filled me; I felt vulnerable and open to public accusation. In my eyes my fellows ceased to be the respectful public to which I was accustomed. The circle of which I was the center broke and they lined up in a row as on the judge’s bench. In short, the moment I grasped that there was something to judge in me, I realized that there was in them an irresistible vocation for judgment. Yes, they were there as before, but they were laughing. […] every one I encountered was looking at me with a hidden smile (4.7).
And here’s that increased awareness we were just talking about. Jean-Baptiste gets what’s going on – he admits that those around him don’t change at all, rather his perception of them is what changes.
No one, ever again, would know the truth on this point, since the only one to know it was precisely the dead man sleeping on his secret. That absolute murder of a truth used to make me dizzy. Today, let me interject, it would cause me, instead, subtle joys (4.21).
So how does increased awareness change Jean-Baptiste’s opinion of truth? Well, when Jean-Baptiste becomes aware of man’s "fundamental duplicity," his opinion of "truth" shifts. He decides that truth is boring. We actually have to use lies to get at what’s real. (He says all this later in the text.) In that case, forget the truth.
You are wrong, cher, the boat is going at top speed. But the Zuider Zee is a dead sea, or almost. With its flat shores, lost in the fog, there’s no saying where it begins or ends. So we are steaming along without any landmark; we can’t gauge our speed. We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It’s not navigation but dreaming (5.1).
Jean-Baptiste’s comments on the surroundings in Amsterdam aren’t accidental; they’re actually fairly charged with meaning. We can apply his comments on your literal movement to the way that, metaphorically, he’s moving you through his confession.
Once upon a time, I was always talking of freedom. At breakfast I used to spread it on my toast, I used to chew it all day long, and in company my breath was delightfully redolent of freedom. With that key word I would bludgeon whoever contradicted me; I made it serve my desires and my power. […] After all, I did on occasion make a more disinterested use of freedom and even – just imagine my naïveté – defended it two or three times […] I must be forgiven such rash acts; I didn’t know what I was doing (6.13).
Along with "truth" and "innocence," "freedom" is one of the concepts that Jean-Baptiste reconsiders during his transformation. If he uses freedom to serve his interest before his "fall," then he uses slavery for the same means after.
Covered with ashes, tearing my hair, my face scored by clawing, but with piercing eyes, I stand before all humanity recapitulating my shames without losing sight of the effect I am producing, and saying: "I was the lowest of the low." Then imperceptibly I pass from the "I" to the "we." 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 (6.21).
Jean-Baptiste’s entire confession has been a transformation. Or, in friendlier terms, he’s been messing with you.
Now I shall wait for you to write me or come back. For you will come back, I am sure! You’ll find me unchanged. And why should I change, since I have found the happiness that suits me? I have accepted duplicity instead of being upset about it. […] I permit myself everything again, and without the laughter this time. I haven’t changed my way of life; I continue to love myself and to make use of others. Only, the confession of my crimes allows me to begin again lighter in heart and to taste a double enjoyment, first of my nature and secondly of a charming repentance (6.22).
Jean-Baptiste’s transformation has been one of the mind, not one of action. It is at this point in the narrative where, as readers, we have to question whether Jean-Baptiste has been fundamentally changed or not.
"O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!" A second time, eh, what a risky suggestion! Just suppose, cher maître, that we should be taken literally? We’d have to go through with it. Brr ...! The water’s so cold! But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately! (6.29).
Oh boy. Just read "What’s Up With the Ending?" for our thoughts on this one.