Jean-Baptiste begins by thanking you for your curiosity. (Remember his whole discussion about understanding and friendship? You might want to go back and check that out again.)
Anyway, because of your curiosity, he’ll continue with his story.
About that laugh: he thought about it, he says, for a few days after the mysterious night, but then he forgot it happened.
Still, though, he stopped walking along the water in Paris. Every time he crossed the Seine, he would get nervous.
He also started having some health problems. He oscillated between being excited and being depressed. Life got tough. He started "unlearning" how to live – something which, as he claimed earlier, he had never had to learn in the first place.
Even tonight, now, as he’s talking to you, he feels a little under the weather, maybe because of the heavy air. He suggests you go for a walk, and you agree.
Jean-Baptiste admires the deathly smell of decaying foliage along the canals; not that’s morbid at all, he explains. It’s just that he forces himself to like it.
He also likes Sicily, and islands in general, because "it is easier to dominate them." (It’s important to remember that he has a penchant for islands.)
Jean-Baptiste stops to admire a house, topped by the heads of two black slaves. It used to belong to a slave dealer, he explains, and he remarks on how much things have changed since then.
Jean-Baptiste explains that everyone is either a slave or a master. Man needs slavery because he needs to command. That’s why we have wives (!).
Power, he argues, can be quite useful. Let’s say you’re having an argument. Without power, you’ll just argue back and forth ad infinitum. But if one person has authority, instead of saying, "This is my opinion," he can say, "This is the truth."
Jean-Baptiste moves on to talking about his own power. When others serve him, he says, it must always be with a smile. An unhappy maid will ruin his life.
Why? Because if you look at a servant, and he is unhappy, then you start to doubt that you yourself are in the right.
And when you do have slaves, he adds, you should call them free even though they are not. It’s a courtesy you can do for them, and it will keep them happy.
After all, he says, no one likes to be labeled as what they are. Slaves don’t want to be called slaves, humanists don’t want to be called humanists. We should avoid trade-signs altogether, since they lead to self-examination.
Hell, he posits, is probably full of trade-signs which pigeon-hole its occupants.
To prove his point, Jean-Baptiste asks you to stop and think about what your trade-sign would be.
You say nothing.
Never mind, says Jean-Baptiste, but he’ll tell you what his own sign would look like: a double-faced Janus, a motto of "Don’t rely on it," and a business card reading "Jean-Baptiste Clamence, play actor."
(Note: Janus was the Roman God of doorways and is portrayed as having two faces back to back, looking in opposite directions.)
And now for a short story, presumably to explain his choice:
Back in Jean-Baptiste’s Paris glory days, when he used to help the blind, he would always tip his hat to them afterward. This made no sense since, of course, the men couldn’t see.
Then why did he do it? It was his bow, he says, for the public – hence the label "play-actor" he imagines on his trade-sign.
He then admits that, despite his earlier claim of modesty, in Paris he was always "bursting with vanity." He considered himself above all others, more intelligent, skillful, and sensitive.
He was also, he says, a better lover than everyone else.
And all his altruism? He admits that, actually, it was "pure condescension." He did it to up his self-esteem.
All these truths, he says, he came upon little by little in a period of discovery that all began with the night he heard the laugh in the darkness of the water.
A lot of these realizations had to do with memory. Before the laughter incident, he was a master of forgetting. Everything just "rolled off" him.
Forgetfulness was useful in more ways than one. For example, rather than trying to forgive an offense against him, he could just forget about it.
Anyway, this forgetfulness was all before the night with the laughter. After that, his memory started kicking in, and he rediscovered a forgotten incident…
But before he tells us about that one particular incident, he’s going to give you some other examples of memories which returned to him.
(Yes, time can get a bit tricky here. You can check out Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory for a full discussion when you’re done with the plot summary.)
So, this one day, in the period of discovery that came after the laughter episode, Jean-Baptiste is sitting in his car at a stoplight. The light turns green, he takes too long to move, and everyone starts honking at him to get a move on.
Now this reminds him of an event he had otherwise forgotten.
One day, Jean-Baptiste was sitting at a stoplight. When the light turned green, he couldn’t move because a motorcycle in front of him had stalled.
Jean-Baptiste very nicely asked the motorcycle guy to move, and the motorcycle guy responded with an obscenity.
When the biker, increasingly frustrated, threatened to beat Jean-Baptiste to a pulp, Jean-Baptiste, rose to the occasion.
He got of his car, but before he could even raise his fist, some random man from the crowd rushed forward, called Jean-Baptiste "the lowest of the low," and acted the part of a noble musketeer. This innocent bystander refused to let Jean-Baptiste hit a man who, because he was sitting on a motorcycle, was at a disadvantage.
(Jean-Baptiste refers to this man, jokingly, as "D’Artagnan," a French musketeer who was, as you might expect, rather noble. For more on D’Artagnan and the musketeers check out our module on The Three Musketeers.)
Then, the man on the motorcycle suddenly un-stalled his ride, punched Jean-Baptiste in the ear, and drove off.
Jean-Baptiste was left dazed in the crowd and feeling bad about the whole incident. As he got in his car and drove off, the noble guy from the crowd called him a "poor dope."
Jean-Baptiste admits that it took him a while to forget this particular event. Sure, he says, he didn’t, you know, fight back in any way, but he insists to you that he was not a coward.
Mostly he was just embarrassed, because he happened to be wearing an elegant blue suit at the time. Also, he fell down in public, which does not help his "I’m the ultimate alpha male" image.
Afterwards, he fantasized about what he could have done, had he not been a ninny. Namely, this fantasy involves punching the noble D’Artagnan guy, pursuing the motorcycle guy in a wild car chase, and finally giving him the good pounding he "deserves."
Now, back to the present in Amsterdam where, as Jean-Baptiste points out, it’s raining. He steers you under a portico for shelter.
There. Now that you’re stopped under a portico together, he can continue his story.
Jean-Baptiste eventually got himself to forget all about the motorcycle incident. Except that, after the laughter episode, when memories started flooding back to him, he had to deal with it all over again.
When he looked back on this particular memory and reflected, he "realized what it meant." When he dreamed of beating the pulp out of the man on the motorcycle, what he was really dreaming of was being "a complete man," a man respected professionally but also respected for his character. (He goes so far as to say "half Cerdan and half de Gaulle" – both French, the first a famous boxer and the second a general in WWII.)
He realized that, having been humiliated in public, that dream was forever out of reach. He could never be the perfect man. If he were the perfect man, he wouldn’t be concerned with something petty like taking revenge on the motorist.
Jean-Baptiste then started applying what he learned to his life as a whole. He realized that his desire wasn’t really to altruistically help people so much as it was to take over the world.
He then claims that every intelligent man dreams of taking over the world.
In his professional life, Jean-Baptiste realized he was defending the guilty only so long as their crimes didn’t harm him in any way. If someone ever did harm him, then he would become a judge, and also bent on revenge (the motorist incident being a prime example).
Of course, this is a rather self-destructive realization to have when you’re a lawyer. It made it quite difficult for Jean-Baptiste to do his job properly.
Since it’s still raining in Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste would like to tell you about another discovery, which, like the motorcycle episode, he recollected only after the laugher in the dark, during his period of "discovery."
This one is about sex. But first, we need some background on Jean-Baptiste’s love life.
He always "succeeded" with women, though he never really strived to make himself or the woman happy.
There was no deception in his relationships, he says. He didn’t genuinely love any of them, but he loved them as much as the phrase "I love you!" really entails, which isn’t much
Despite appearances, he wasn’t a misogynist; in fact, he thinks women are better than him.
True love, Jean-Baptiste thinks, happens two or three times in a lifetime, and the rest is "vanity or boredom."
It’s not that he was hard-hearted; he had plenty of emotions, it’s just that they were mainly about himself. In fact, his one great love is himself.
Basically, relationships for him were physical.
Now, for a little "what if" scenario: let’s say he were attracted to a friend’s wife. Jean-Baptiste explains adamantly that he had principles – it was not OK to sleep with a friend’s wife.
So what would he do? Simply stop being friends with the guy.
H can see nothing in love but the physical, and views this propensity as a definite weakness.
And yet, this "weakness" helped him out considerably. Women, seeing that he was a typical bad boy, were all the more attracted to him – they wanted to tame him, where no other woman could
Women served a dual purpose: 1) they satisfied his sexual desire, and 2) they satisfied his need to gamble. He saw interactions with women as a game, a pleasant diversion from the otherwise boring society in which he lived.
He even says he’d give up ten conversations with Einstein just to have sex.
Now he reveals his methods:
Women like conversation; you have to talk to them.
They don’t want you to admit that, really, you just want a physical relationship. So don’t mention that.
Pretend to be different roles, like the "I’m so tired of love!" guy, or the "You give me a mysterious happiness that no other woman ever has" man.
Have a speech ready in which you assert that getting involved with you is a bad idea.
This worked quite well for him: not only did he get to have power over others, but he got to validate his love for himself (he was proving how attractive he was every time he bedded another woman).
He found it so satisfying that he would always try to rekindle severed relationships, mostly to prove to himself that he still had control over the woman in question.
Many times, he would make them promise to never love another man, again to stroke his own ego, though honestly he couldn’t imagine a woman loving someone else after him anyway.
It wasn’t until they made such a vow that he could bring himself to break up with them.
So we can now move on to this one specific, sex-related story he was going to tell us (which, as you recall, occurred in his period of discovery after the laughter incident).
The woman in this story isn’t particularly impressive, but Jean-Baptiste found her attractive for her "passive, avid manner." As was routine, they had a brief thing and then broke up.
A few weeks later, however, Jean-Baptiste discovered that she had been talking trash about him.
He felt deceived. The next time he saw the woman, he immediately charmed her into getting involved with him again.
And then he decided to utterly humiliate her. Finally, when in the midst of an unspecified degrading act, she praised him aloud, he decided he could let her go.
Jean-Baptiste pauses. If you are appalled, he says, you need only search your own history to find a similar story.
When he remembered that story, he said, he used to laugh at it – a peculiar laugh, the same kind he heard by the river that night in Paris. And he was laughing, he explains, at much of his life – especially his speeches to the court.
His speeches to women, he says, were not as full of lies as his speeches to the court. He calls the act of love "a confession," something instinctual rather than calculated. (Odd, seeing as he’s got a whole rulebook for this sort of thing.)
He declares that, because of the lying in court, he was more worthy in his personal life than in his profession. In seeing himself interact with other people – namely women – he had a harder time lying to himself about his true nature. You can’t be a hypocrite in your pleasures, he claims.
Jean-Baptiste admits that he used to have a hard time breaking up with women, but it wasn’t because he was compassionate. It was just that he wanted to be loved and felt he deserved the affections of others.
Still, as soon as he won a woman’s affection, he would "be aware of its weight" – presumably the responsibility that came with being loved. The best solution, he thought, would just be for her to die. Then he would be loved, but free.
He felt the best when he could be loved but also have this sort of freedom, the freedom to go and come as he pleased.
Jean-Baptiste adds that, back then, the only way he could really be happy was to feel that everyone else in the world lived only to serve.
Not that he’s proud of this now, he confesses. He feels this odd stinging sensation which he thinks might be shame.
And while he’s on the subject of shame, he would like to finally tell you about that one memory he’s been putting off. This particular episode happened a few years before the laughing incident, but it wasn’t until after the laughing incident that he remembered and reflected on it.
Meanwhile, the rain has stopped, so it’s time for you two to leave the portico. Jean-Baptiste invites you to walk him to his home.
Jean-Baptiste tells you the following story. It’s a rainy night in November and he’s returning to his house on the Left Bank in Paris. He has just left his mistress, and he’s in a good mood.
Then, he as he crosses the bridge over the Seine, he sees a figure leaning out over the water. It is a woman, dressed in black, staring at the river.
He passes her, walks about fifty yards, and then, from behind him, he hears the sound of a body hitting the water.
Jean-Baptiste stops, but he doesn’t turn around. He hears a cry, repeated a few times and moving further and further downstream, and then it stops. He thinks something along the lines of "too late," and remains still and listening.
Finally, he continues his walk home through the rain and never tells anyone what happened.
Jean-Baptiste suddenly halts in his story because you have just arrived at his house. He bids you good night, and you make plans to meet tomorrow night at Mexico City (the bar, remember?).
Before you go, you ask Jean-Baptiste what happened to the woman in the story. He doesn’t know, he answers, since he didn’t read the papers for the few days following the incident.