Study Guide

The Fall Chapter 4

By Albert Camus

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Chapter 4

  • Jean-Baptiste starts this time by remarking on Amsterdam and claiming that he is one of very few people who can "show you what really matters here."
  • He has you stop to look at the landscape, which, with its ashes, gray dikes, and colorless sea, resembles "a soggy hell." Oddly enough, Jean-Baptiste finds it quite beautiful, especially since there are no people around – he is at last facing the vast, empty universe.
  • The sky of Holland, he remarks, is filled with millions of invisible doves, looking down at the cities below.
  • He stops when he notices that you seem to not understand what he’s saying. He admits that he’s not quite so lucid as he used to be.
  • In a side note, Jean-Baptiste remarks that he has "no friends, only accomplices."
  • How does he know this? Because the other day, on a whim, he decided to kill himself, in order to play a little trick on his friends.
  • It was at that moment that he realized, actually, he didn’t have any.
  • Then he realized that this doesn’t matter, since the only point in killing himself would have been to see the look on his friends’ faces afterward which, with his being dead and all, would be impossible.
  • He also can’t be sure that he has a soul, which would last after death. We can never be sure, he says, which is really too bad – the only way to convince others that you are serious is to kill yourself, and if you can’t be certain of a soul, then this can’t be your solution, since you won’t be around afterwards to enjoy it.
  • Although, now that he thinks about it, Jean-Baptiste figures this is probably for the best; if we could see our own funerals, we would suffer at seeing our friends’ indifference. No one really cares about you after you die.
  • The other problem with suicide, he says, is that people will apply stupid motives to it after the fact. Martyrs, he insists, will never be understood.
  • Jean-Baptiste then insists that he loves life – a lot – and that this is his biggest weakness. He loves himself so much that, even when he started discovering all these nasty truths about his own hypocrisy, he continued to forget his own failings.
  • Sure, he says, this is illogical, but being logical isn’t the point. The point is to avoid judgment.
  • This brings us to a discussion of judgment. (Hint: this discussion is important.) It’s not that he’s trying to avoid getting punished, he says. Punishment is fine, especially if there’s no judgment first, because then we can chock it up to "misfortune" and still pretend we are innocent.
  • But judgment is where the guilt comes in. And it’s hard to escape because, Jean-Baptiste says, "today we are always ready to judge as we are to fornicate" (4.6). If you want proof, he suggests you go listen to a conversation. Or read something. Anything. You’ll see judgment everywhere.
  • He realized all of this, he explains, as soon as he suspected that, maybe, he wasn’t so admirable after all. Through self-doubt, he made himself vulnerable to being judged by all.
  • Suddenly, all of his friends seemed to take on the role of judges. They were all laughing at him; they were all looking with a "hidden smile."
  • Jean-Baptiste also became aware that he had enemies. It was easy enough to accept the enemies who deservedly disliked him, but he had difficulty with the fact that there were enemies among the people he barely knew. How could someone be hostile toward him if they didn’t know him at all?
  • Probably, he thought, they hated him because he looked happy and successful.
  • This sort of thing was inevitable, he explains; the only way to be truly happy is to not be too concerned with others, but the only way people forgive you for being happy is if you’re concerned enough to share your successes with them.
  • It was even worse for him, he says, because he never suffered through others’ dislike until that day he became suddenly lucid (after hearing the laughter on the bridge); then he "received all the wounds at the same time" (4.9).
  • No man, Jean-Baptiste ventures, can stand this sort of suffering. That’s why people are so keen to judge others – in order to avoid being judged themselves. Spite is really just a defense mechanism.
  • Part of the problem is that every man believes he is innocent. So much so, in fact, that we’re all completely incredulous when someone suggests otherwise. (Jean-Baptiste uses as an example to illustrate his point, the story of a Frenchman who tried to lodge a complaint in prison – namely, that he was an exceptional case because he was innocent.)
  • We’re all so firmly convinced of our own innocence, Jean-Baptiste says, that we would condemn the rest of the world to prove it. That’s why criminals are always grateful if you tell them that their crime was the result of unfortunate circumstance, not of some innate fault on their part.
  • What people seem to be missing, he argues, is that being guilty because of an innate character flaw is no more or less your fault than being a criminal by circumstance.
  • And now for some advice: never believe your friends when they ask you to just be honest with them. Just pretend you like their new haircut, even if you don’t. And assure them all that, yes, you really are telling the truth, even if you’re not.
  • Jean-Baptiste then notes that we usually choose for friends those who are like us or who have the same weaknesses – we don’t want to hang out with those who are better than we are, because, of course, they would probably judge us.
  • Jean-Baptiste asks if you know Dante.
  • You do. (Dante is the nine circles of hell guy we talked about earlier.)
  • He explains that Dante believed in the existence of so-called "neutral angels." In the eternal fight between God and Satan, these guys were standing on the sidelines but not joining one side or the other.
  • This sort of Limbo, he says, is exactly where man is – we don’t have the energy to do good, but we also lack the energy to do evil.
  • You suggest that we need to have patience, to wait for the Last Judgment where, presumably, we’ll be told which side we’re on, either good or evil.
  • Jean-Baptiste says you are probably right, but points out that the entire human race is impatient. The fact that everyone is in a hurry is one of the reasons he had to become a judge-penitent.
  • Before he could switch professions, though, he had to deal with the night he heard the laughter coming from the water. He had to learn, he claims, to look inside himself. He had to realize that he was not simple – and this is no small discovery.
  • Finally, after an exhausting self-examination, he realized that he contained "the fundamental duplicity" of a human being. He wasn’t really modest; he only used modesty to help him shine. He wasn’t really humble; humility just helped him conquer. He wasn’t really virtuous; virtue just helped him to oppress others. It was through these seemingly harmless means that he got everything he wanted.
  • For example: Jean-Baptiste never complained when his friends missed his birthday. In fact, he used to mess with their calendars on purpose so that they would. This way, he could wallow in self-pity afterward.
  • Even all his "weaknesses" were beneficial at the end of the day. He was indifferent, so people loved him more. He was selfish, but that made him generous. (Remember how he used to help the blind across the street solely to make himself feel good?)
  • He used to appear loyal, but in reality betrayed every person he ever loved.
  • Those he hated most, he explains, were those he helped.
  • Mostly, he answers, he just couldn’t take anything seriously. The whole "humanity" thing just seemed like one big joke.
  • Since he couldn’t take it seriously, he would just pretend. He was, he explains, like the Dutchmen here in Amsterdam: present physically, but absent every other way.
  • It feels to him like a game of sport. You follow the rules, you pretend it’s life or death if you win or lose, but really, deep down, you know it’s just a game.
  • As such, he used to imagine people as playing roles. Only occasionally could he see a person speaking genuinely, really believing his lines, but this happened most typically with people who were about to die.
  • In short, he played his own part well – he did what he was supposed to do – but he did it with a removed indifference.
  • So his life continued on this way for a while – indifferent, that is, until, as Jean-Baptiste describes it, his metaphorical engine began to break down.
  • What happened is this: he started thinking about death.
  • He began doing things like counting the years until he would die, and looking for people his age who had already died.
  • Anyway, Jean-Baptiste was mostly concerned about running out of time, not that he was doing anything important anyway. Mostly, though, he was afraid that he would die without having confessed all his sins.
  • He’s not talking about confessing to God, he clarifies; he means confessing to another person. He hated the thought of dying and taking a lie with him, making it permanent by his death because no one would ever know the real story. He thought of it as "the murder of a truth."
  • Today, on the other hand, that idea doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, it rather delights him to think about a truth being murdered. He even has an object in his house, which, for three centuries, the police have been looking for. But he’ll tell you more about that later
  • In short, says Jean-Baptiste, he got over his fear of burying the truth. He soon came to realize that one lie, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t really matter. And, as far as confessing sins goes, he thinks dying is absolution enough.
  • And yet, still, the idea of death kept nagging at him. Every time he gave a compliment (all of which were lies, since he didn’t think well of anyone), he would agonize over the fact that he was lying and would probably die with that lie un-rectified.
  • His first solution was a simple one: tell everyone that your compliments have all been lies.
  • Fortunately, he decided this was not such a great idea. He also contemplated knocking over blind men on the street (whom he now decides he loathes), puncturing the tires on wheelchairs, and shouting insults at construction men.
  • Fortunately, he didn’t do any of those things either, or if he did, he’s forgotten them by now.
  • And another thing: the word "justice" used to send him into fits of rage, which is an inconvenient trait for a lawyer who has to use the word on a daily basis.
  • So he just took his anger out at everyone. He was particularly upset that he couldn’t act like a certain Russian landowner he so admired, a man who would beat the peasants who refused to bow to him, and also the peasants who did bow to him, because apparently both were insolent
  • He also used to go to "intellectual cafes," where everyone was an atheist, and mutter things about God, just to piss them off.
  • Jean-Baptiste pauses in his narration; he’s pretty certain you find all this childish, but he explains that, above all, he was trying to destroy his perfect reputation, the thought of which angered him to no end.
  • The solution was to make everything ridiculous, in the hopes of liberating himself from what he found to be oppressing.
  • For example, he continues, he was once giving a lecture to a group of young lawyers. He advised them to ally themselves with the criminal; defend the thief by exposing your own crimes, he told them, the crimes of the honest man.
  • The audience was at first quite disturbed, but then they decided to pretend the whole thing was a joke and just laughed at it.
  • This, says Jean-Baptiste, was not enough to calm him. Why? Because his goal – like everyone’s goal – is to be innocent. But accusing yourself this way isn’t going to do the trick. (Hint: important stuff here.)
  • So how do you prove your own innocence? You have to accuse yourself in a certain way, he says – which took him considerable time to perfect. Before he could master it, he had to fall into a state of utter despair.
  • But until that state, he continued to hear laughter, he says, and he couldn’t remove from the laughter its "benevolent, tender quality" which hurt him so much.
  • But enough of this. Looking out at the water, Jean-Baptiste notes that the sea is rising and your boat will be leaving soon. He again remarks that there are doves all over the sky of Holland.
  • You comment that he interests you, and he says that, if you want to be really interested, just wait until you hear him explain what a judge-penitent is.
  • But first, he has to tell you about debauchery.

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