In an Amsterdam bar called Mexico City, Jean-Baptiste Clamence was involved in a strange dialogue, strange because he addressed an unidentified silent listener who never answered his questions or commented on his remarks. Clamence, in his forties, talked daily for five consecutive days with the stranger whom he had met in Mexico City bar. The subject of this one-sided dialogue was Clamence, specifically his fall from innocence to sin.
The judge-penitent illuminated his past experiences, clarified the inner motives behind his actions, and imposed his feigned friendliness, his humorous sarcasm, his false humility, his black bitterness, and the cruelty of his lucidity on his listener. Clamence related that at one time he had to feel superior in order to make his life bearable. To relinquish his seat to someone else in the bus, to help a blind person across the street, or to give up his theater seat so that a couple could sit together—all of these incidents created in him a feeling of superiority, resulting in his regarding himself as a type of superman. His sense of superiority kept him in harmony with people around him, with life in general. He attained a certain state of happiness as a mechanical human being who could anticipate what was expected from him and live up to the pleasant image other people had of him. He lived on the surface of a life of words and gestures, but he never touched reality through the people he knew, the books he read, the places he visited, the women he possessed briefly. As a lawyer, he realized that the monotony of modern life had turned human beings into puppets, had made them completely anonymous. Disgusted with their anonymity, they committed crimes, their only means of attracting attention.
Then one evening at the Pont des Arts in Paris, Clamence heard laughter behind him; he turned around but nobody was there. It was Clamence laughing at himself, a sarcastic and triumphant laughter that chilled his existence. Something broke in him; his image of himself was shattered, and he became aware of his double face. He went home to escape from the laughter, but he could still hear it under his window. His existence as he knew it had received a dangerous blow. The same evening, he watched his reflection in the mirror, and it seemed to him that his smile had become double. This laughter started Clamence’s fall from innocence to sin. Somehow his usual confidence in himself and his actions had been shattered. The nonexistent sarcastic laughter suddenly made his mind lucid, a lucidity that showed him the absurdity of his own existence. The recognition of his lucidity, powerful and convincing, channeled his thinking into a different direction. He gave up his position as lawyer. Human beings pretend to be equal and innocent, but nothing was more natural in them, he concluded, than a constant desire to judge: It makes them feel above others. Clamence left his position as lawyer because he saw the fraud in concepts of innocence and guilt. He soon realized, however, that he was still playing the same game and had only changed his part. Clamence, who had formerly felt in harmony with life and superior to others, fell to the other extreme: He constantly accused himself, insisted on his self-accusations, which elevated him to a new level of superior feeling. He achieved the same satisfaction as before, only from a different, perhaps more cowardly, personal position.
Clamence practiced a kind of Pascalian diversion and self-deception. He used the power of his mind not to get to know himself but to drift away constantly from his authentic self. His desire to maintain a feeling of superiority turned into an existential necessity. Diversion carried him through the recognition of his own absurdity and provided him with moments of ephemeral satisfaction.
Clamence’s diabolic laughter menaced his existence. Occasionally, it would creep up behind him and threaten him. Not only the laughter but also the memory of the woman who drowned herself lurked like a lion in the back of his mind. One night in November, two or three years before he heard the laughter, Clamence was crossing a bridge in Paris shortly after midnight and saw the slim figure of a woman bent over the railing. When he had crossed the bridge, he heard a loud splash followed by several cries. He did not return to the bridge, informed nobody about the incident, and avoided the newspapers for several days afterward. In this case again, as always, Clamence had avoided the existential decision. He had closed his ears to the immediate choice and had walked home that evening the same way he always went. Clamence had only one weapon to overcome those moments of despair and failure in the past: the power to forget.