I’M EMBARASSED to be in bed when you arrive. It’s nothing, just a little fever that I’m treating with gin. I’m accustomed to these attacks. Malaria, I think, that I caught at the time I was pope. No, I’m only half joking. I know what you’re thinking: it’s very hard to disentangle the true from the false in what I’m saying. I admit you are right. I myself … You see, a person I knew used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to hide rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden. I’ll let you choose the pigeonhole that suits me.
But what do I care? Don’t lies eventually lead to the truth? And don’t all my stories, true or false, tend toward the same conclusion? Don’t they all have the same meaning? So what does it matter whether they are true or false if, in both cases, they are significant of what I have been and of what I am? Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object. Well, make of it what you will, but I was named pope in a prison camp. Sit down, please. You are examining this room. Bare, to be sure, but clean. A Vermeer, without furniture or copper pots. Without books either, for I gave up reading some time ago. At one time, my house was full of halfread books. That’s just as disgusting as those people who cut a piece off a foie gras and have the rest thrown out. Anyway, I have ceased to like anything but confessions, and authors of confessions write especially to avoid confessing, to tell nothing of what they know. When they claim to get to the painful admissions, you have to watch out, for they are about to dress the corpse. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. So I put a stop to it. No more books, no more useless objects either; the bare necessities, clean and polished like a coffin. Besides, these Dutch beds, so hard and with their immaculate sheets—one dies in them as if already wrapped in a shroud, embalmed in purity.
You are curious to know my pontifical adventures? Nothing out of the ordinary, you know. Shall I have the strength to tell you of them? Yes, the fever is going down. It was all so long ago. It was in Africa where, thanks to a certain Rommel, war was raging. I wasn’t involved in it—no, don’t worry. I had already dodged the one in Europe. Mobilized of course, but I never saw action. In a way, I regret it. Maybe that would have changed many things? The French army didn’t need me on the front; it merely asked me to take part in the retreat. A little later I got back to Paris, and the Germans. I was tempted by the Resistance, about which people were beginning to talk just about the time I discovered that I was patriotic. You are smiling? You are wrong. I made my discovery on a subway platform, at the Châtelet station.
A dog had strayed into the labyrinth of passageways. Big, wiry-haired, one ear cocked, eyes laughing, he was cavorting and sniffing the passing legs. I have a very old and very faithful attachment for dogs. I like them because they always forgive. I called this one, who hesitated, obviously won over, wagging his tail enthusiastically a few yards ahead of me. Just then, a young German soldier, who was walking briskly, passed me. Having reached the dog, he caressed the shaggy head. Without hesitating, the animal fell in step with the same enthusiasm and disappeared with him. From the resentment and the sort of rage I felt against the German soldier, it was dear to me that my reaction was patriotic. If the dog had followed a French civilian, I’d not even have thought of it. But, on the contrary, I imagined that friendly dog as the mascot of a German regiment and that made me fly into a rage. Hence the test was convincing.
I reached the Southern Zone with the intention of finding out about the Resistance. But once there and having found out, I hesitated. The under taking struck me as a little mad and, in a word, romantic. I think especially that underground action suited neither my temperament nor my preference for exposed heights. It seemed to me that I was being asked to do some weaving in a cellar, for days and nights on end, until some brutes should come to haul me from hiding, undo my
weaving, and then drag me to another cellar to beat me to death. I admired those who indulged in such heroism of the depths, but couldn’t imitate them.
So I crossed over to North Africa with the vague intention of getting to London. But in Africa the situation was not clear; the opposing parties seemed to be equally right and I stood aloof. I can see from your manner that I am skipping rather fast, in your opinion, over these details which have a certain significance. Well, let’s say that, having judged you at your true value, I am skipping over them so that you will notice them the better. In any case, I eventually reached Tunisia, where a fond friend gave me work.
That friend was a very intelligent woman who was involved in the movies. I followed her to Tunis and didn’t discover her real business until the days following the Allied landing in Algeria. She was arrested that day by the Germans and I, too, but without having intended it. I don’t know what became of her. As for me, no harm was done me and I realized, after considerable anguish, that it was chiefly as a security measure. I was interned near Tripoli in a camp where we suffered from thirst and destitution more than from brutality. I’ll not describe it to you. We children of the mid-century don’t need a diagram to imagine such places. A hundred and fifty years ago, people  became sentimental about lakes and forests. Today we have the lyricism of the prison cell. Hence, I’ll leave it to you. You need add but a few details: the heat, the vertical sun, the flies, the sand, the lack of water.
There was a young Frenchman with me who had faith. Yes, it’s decidedly a fairy tale! The Du Guesclin type, if you will. He had crossed over from France into Spain to go and fight. The Catholic general had interned him, and having seen that in the Franco camps the chick-peas were, if I may say so, blessed by Rome, he had developed a profound melancholy. Neither the sky of Africa, where he had next landed, nor the leisures of the camp had distracted him from that melancholy. But his reflections, and the sun, too, had somewhat unhinged him. One day when, under a tent that seemed to drip molten lead, the ten or so of us were panting among the flies, he repeated his diatribes against the Roman, as he called him.
He looked at us with a wild stare, his face unshaven for days. Bare to the waist and covered with sweat, he drummed with his hands on the visible keyboard of his ribs. He declared to us the need for a new pope who should live among the wretched instead of praying on a throne, and the sooner the better. He stared with wild eyes as he shook his head. “Yes,” he repeated, “as soon as possible!” Then he calmed down suddenly and in a dull voice said that we must choose him among us, pick a complete man with his vices and virtues and swear allegiance to him, on the sole condition that he should agree to keep alive, in himself and in others, the community of our sufferings. “Who among us,” he asked, “has the most failings?” As a joke, I raised my hand and was the only one to do so. “O.K., Jean-Baptiste will do.” No, he didn’t say just that because I had another name then. He declared at least that nominating oneself as I had done presupposed also the greatest virtue and proposed electing me. The others agreed, in fun, but with a trace of seriousness all the same. The truth is that Du Guesclin had impressed us. It seems to me that even I was not altogether laughing. To begin with, I considered that my little prophet was right; and then with the sun, the exhausting labor, the struggle for water, we were not up to snuff. In any case, I exercised my pontificate for several weeks, with increasing seriousness.
Of what did it consist? Well, I was something like a group leader or the secretary of a cell. The others, in any case, and even those who lacked faith, got into the habit of obeying me. Du Guesclin was suffering; I administered his suffering. I discovered then that it was not so easy as I thought to be a pope, and I remembered this just yesterday after having given you such a scornful speech on judges, our brothers. The big problem in the camp was the water allotment. Other groups, political or sectarian, had formed, and each prisoner favored his comrades. I was consequently led to favor mine, and this was a little concession to begin with. Even among us, I could not maintain complete equality. According to my comrades’ condition, or the work they had to do, I gave an advantage to this or that one. Such distinctions are far-reaching, you can take my word for it. But decidedly I am tired and no longer want to think of that period. Let’s just say that I closed the circle the day I drank the water of a dying comrade. No, no, it wasn’t Du Guesclin; he was already dead, I believe, for he stinted himself too much. Besides, had he been there, out of love for him I’d have resisted longer, for I loved him—yes, I loved him, or so it seems to me. But I drank the water, that’s certain, while convincing myself that the others needed me more than this fellow who was going to die anyway and that I had a duty to keep myself alive for them. Thus, cher, empires and churches are born under the sun of death. And in order to correct somewhat what I said yesterday, I am going to tell you the great idea that has come to me while telling all this, which—I’m not sure now—I may have lived or only dreamed. My great idea is that one must forgive the pope. To begin with, he needs it more than anyone else. Secondly, that’s the only way to set oneself above him …
Did you close the door thoroughly? Yes? Make sure, please. Forgive me, I have the bolt complex. On the point of going to sleep, I can never remember whether or not I pushed the bolt. And every night I must get up to verify. One can be sure of nothing, as I’ve told you. Don’t think that this worry about the bolt is the reaction of a frightened possessor. Formerly I didn’t lock my apartment or my car. I didn’t lock up my money; I didn’t cling to what I owned. To tell the truth, I was a little  ashamed to own anything. Didn’t I occasionally, in my social remarks, exclaim with conviction: “Property, gentlemen, is murder!” Not being sufficiently big-hearted to share my wealth with a deserving poor man, I left it at the disposal of possible thieves, hoping thus to correct injustice by chance. Today, moreover, I possess nothing. Hence I am not worried about my safety, but about myself and my presence of mind I am also eager to block the door of the closed little universe of which I am the king, the pope, and the judge.
By the way, will you please open that cupboard? Yes, look at that painting. Don’t you recognize it? It is “The Just Judges.” That doesn’t make you jump? Can it be that your culture has gaps? Yet if you read the papers, you would recall the theft in 1934 m the St. Bavon Cathedral of Ghent, of one of the panels of the famous van Eyck altarpiece, “The Adoration of the Lamb.” That panel was called “The Just Judges.” It represented judges on horseback coming to adore the sacred animal. It was replaced by an excellent copy, for the original was never found. Well, here it is. No, I had nothing to do with it. A frequenter of Mexico City —you had a glimpse of him the other evening—sold it to the ape for a bottle, one drunken evening. I first advised our friend to hang it in a place of honor, and for a long time, while they were being looked for throughout the world, our devout judges sat enthroned at Mexico City above the drunks and pimps. Then the ape, at my request, put it in custody here. He balked a little at doing so, but he got a fright when I explained the matter to him. Since then, these estimable magistrates form my sole company. At Mexico City, above the bar, you saw what a void they left.
Why I did not return the panel? Ah! Ah!
You have a policeman’s reflex, you do! Well, I’ll answer you as I would the state’s attorney, if it could ever occur to anyone that this painting had wound up in my room. First, because it belongs not to me but to the proprietor of Mexico City, who deserves it as much as the Archbishop of Ghent. Secondly, because among all those who file by “The Adoration. of the Lamb” no one could distinguish the copy from the original and hence no one is wronged by my misconduct. Thirdly, because in this way I dominate. False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones. Fourth, because I thus have a chance of being sent to prison—an attractive idea in a way. Fifth, because those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb, because there is no more lamb or innocence, and because the clever rascal who stole the panel was an instrument of the unknown justice that one ought not to thwart. Finally, because this way everything is in harmony. Justice being definitively separated from innocence—the latter on the cross and the former in the cupboard—I have the way clear to work according to my convictions. With a clear conscience I can practice the difficult profession of judge-penitent, in
which I have set myself up after so many blighted hopes and contradictions; and now it is time, since you are leaving, for me to tell you what it is.
Allow me first to sit up so I can breathe more easily. Oh, how weak I am! Lock up my judges, please. As for the profession of judge-penitent, I am practicing it at present. Ordinarily, my offices are at Mexico City. But real vocations are carried beyond the place of work. Even in bed, even with a fever, I am functioning. Besides, one doesn’t practice this profession, one breathes it constantly. Don’t get the idea that I have talked to you at such length for five days just for the fun of it. No, I used to talk through my hat quite enough in the past. Now my words have a purpose. They have the purpose, obviously, of silencing the laughter, of avoiding judgment personally, though there is apparently no escape. Is not the great thing that stands in the way of our escaping it the fact that we are the first to condemn ourselves? Therefore it is essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all, without distinction, in order to thin it out at the start.
No excuses ever, for anyone; that’s my principle at the outset. I deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion, the extenuating circumstance. With me there is no giving of absolution or blessing. Everything is simply totted up, and then: “It comes to so much. You are an evildoer, a satyr, a congenital liar, a homosexual, an artist, etc.” Just like that. Just as flatly. In philosophy as in politics, I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty. You see in me, très cher, an enlightened advocate of slavery.
Without slavery, as a matter of fact, there is no definitive solution. I very soon realized that. 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. I used to whisper it in bed in the ear of my sleeping mates and it helped me to drop them I would slip it … Tchk! Tchk!
I am getting excited and losing all sense of proportion. 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 without of course going so far as to die for it, but nevertheless taking a few risks. I must be forgiven such rash acts; I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that freedom is not a reward or a decoration that is celebrated with champagne. Nor yet a gift, a box of dainties designed to make you lick your chops. Oh,  no! It’s a chore, on the contrary, and a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting. No champagne, no friends raising their glasses as they look at you affectionately. Alone in a forbidding room, alone in the prisoner’s bog before the judges, and alone to decide in face of oneself or in the face of others’ judgment. At the end of all freedom is a court sentence; that’s why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you’re down with a fever, or are distressed, or love nobody.
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. Besides, that word has lost its meaning; it’s not worth the risk of shocking anyone. Take our moral philosophers, for instance, so serious, loving their neighbor and all the rest—nothing distinguishes them from Christians, except that they don’t preach in churches. What, in your opinion, keeps them from becoming converted? Respect perhaps, respect for men; yes, human respect. They don’t want to start a scandal, so they keep their feelings to themselves. For example, I knew an atheistic novelist who used to pray every night. That didn’t stop anything: how he gave it to God in his books! What a dusting off, as someone or other would say. A militant freethinker to whom I spoke of this raised his hands—with no evil intention, I assure you—to heaven: “You’re telling me nothing new,” that apostle sighed, “they are all like that.” According to him, eighty per cent of our writers, if only they could avoid signing, would write and hail the name of God. But they sign, according to him, because they love themselves, and they hail nothing at all because they loathe themselves. Since, nevertheless, they cannot keep themselves from judging, they make up for it by moralizing. In short, their Satanism is virtuous. An odd epoch, indeed! It’s not at all surprising that minds are confused and that one of my friends, an atheist when he was a model husband, got converted when he became an adulterer!
Ah, the little sneaks, play actors, hypocrites—and yet so touching! Believe me, they all are, even when they set fire to heaven. Whether they are atheists or churchgoers, Muscovites or Bostonians, all Christians from father to son. But it so happens that there is no more father, no more rule!  They are free and hence have to shift for themselves; and since they don’t want freedom or its judgments, they ask to be rapped on the knuckles, they invent dreadful rules, they rush out to build piles of faggots to replace churches. Savonarolas, I tell you. But they believe solely in sin, never in grace. They think of it, to be sure. Grace is what they want—acceptance, surrender, happiness, and maybe, for they are sentimental too, betrothal, the virginal bride, the upright man, the organ music. Take me, for example, and I am not sentimental—do you know what I used to dream of?
A total love of the whole heart and body, day and night, in an uninterrupted embrace, sensual enjoyment and mental excitement—all lasting five years and ending in death. Alas! So, after all, for want of betrothal or uninterrupted love, it will be marriage, brutal marriage, with power and the whip. The essential is that everything should become simple, as for the child, that every act should be ordered, that good and evil should be arbitrarily, hence obviously, pointed out. And I agree, however Sicilian and Javanese I may be and not at all Christian, though I feel friendship for the first Christian of all. But on the bridges of Paris I, too, learned that I was afraid of freedom. So hurray for the master, whoever he may be, to take the place of heaven’s law. “Our Father who art provisionally here … Our guides, our delightfully severe masters, O cruel and beloved leaders …” In short, you see, the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself. When we are all guilty, that will be democracy. Without counting, cher ami, that we must take revenge for having to die alone. Death is solitary, whereas slavery is collective. The others get theirs, too, and at the same time as we—that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and heads bowed.
Isn’t it good likewise to live like the rest of the world, and for that doesn’t the rest of the world have to be like me? Threat, dishonor, police are the sacraments of that resemblance. Scorned, hunted down, compelled, I can then show what I am worth, enjoy what I am, be natural at last. 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. But I’m not being crazy; I’m well aware that slavery is not immediately realizable. It will be one of the blessings of the future, that’s all. In the meantime, I must get along with the present and seek at least a provisional solution. Hence I had to find another means of extending judgment to everybody in order to make it weigh less heavily on my own shoulders. I found the means.
Open the window a little, please; it’s frightfully hot. Not too much, for I am cold also. My idea is both simple and fertile. How to get everyone involved in order to have the right to sit calmly on the outside myself? 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. And so what? you ask. Well, here’s the stroke of genius. I discovered that while waiting for the masters with their rods, we should, like Copernicus, reverse the reasoning to win out. Inasmuch as one couldn’t condemn others without immediately judging oneself, one had to overwhelm oneself to have the right to judge others. Inasmuch as every judge some day ends up as a penitent, one had to travel the road in the opposite direction and practice the profession of penitent to be able to end up as a judge. You follow me? Good. But to make myself even clearer, I’ll tell you how I operate.
First I closed my law office, left Paris, traveled. I aimed to set up under another name in some place where I shouldn’t lack for a practice. There are many in the world, but chance, convenience, irony, and also the necessity for a certain mortification made me choose a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth. I set up my office in a bar in the sailors’ quarter. The clientele of a port-town is varied. The poor don’t go into the luxury districts, whereas eventually the gentlefolk always wind up at least once, as you have seen, in the disreputable places. I lie in wait particularly for the bourgeois, and the straying bourgeois at that; it’s with him that I get my best results. Like a virtuoso with a rare violin, I draw my subtlest sounds from him.
So I have been practicing my useful profession at Mexico City for some time. It consists to begin with, as you know from experience, in indulging in public confession as often as possible. I accuse myself up and down. It’s not hard, for I now have acquired a memory. But let me point out that I don’t accuse myself crudely, beating my breast. No, I navigate skillfully, multiplying distinctions and digressions, too—in short, I adapt my words to my listener and lead him to go me one better. I mingle what concerns me and what concerns others.
I choose the features we have in common, the experiences we have endured together, the failings we share—good form, in other words, the man of the hour as he is rife in me and in others. With all that I construct a portrait which is the image of all and of no one. A mask, in short, rather like those carnival masks which are both lifelike and stylized, so that they make people say: “Why, surely I’ve met him!” When the portrait is finished, as it is this  evening, I show it with great sorrow: “This, alas, is what I am!” The prosecutor’s charge is finished. But at the same time the portrait I hold out to my contemporaries becomes a mirror.
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. However, I have a superiority in that I know it and this gives me the right to speak. You see the advantage, I am sure. The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the burden. Ah, mon cher, we are odd, wretched creatures, and if we merely look back over our lives, there’s no lack of occasions to amaze and horrify ourselves. Just try. I shall listen, you may be sure, to your own confession with a great feeling of fraternity. Don’t laugh! Yes, you are a difficult client; I saw that at once. But you’ll come to it inevitably. Most of the others are more sentimental than intelligent; they are disconcerted at once. With the intelligent ones it takes time. It is enough to explain the method fully to them. They don’t forget it; they reflect. Sooner or later, half as a game and half out of emotional upset, they give up and tell all. You are not only intelligent, you look polished by use.
Admit, however, that today you feel less pleased with yourself than you felt five days ago? 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. On the contrary, I have settled into it and found there the comfort I was looking for throughout life. I was wrong, after all, to tell you that the essential was to avoid judgment. The essential is being able to permit oneself everything, even if, from time to time, one has to profess vociferously one’s own infamy. 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.
Since finding my solution, I yield to everything, to women, to pride, to boredom, to resentment, and even to the fever that I feel delightfully rising at this moment. I dominate at last, but forever. Once more I have found a height to which I am the only one to climb and from which I can judge everybody. At long intervals, on a really beautiful night I occasionally hear a distant laugh and again I doubt. But quickly I crush everything, people and things, under the weight of my own infirmity, and at once I perk up.
So I shall await your respects at Mexico City as long as necessary. But remove this blanket; I want to breathe. You will come, won’t you? I’ll show you the details of my technique, for I feel a sort of affection for you. You will see me teaching them night after night that they are vile. This very evening, moreover, I shall resume. 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.
They rise slowly; I already see the first of them arriving. On his bewildered face, half hidden by his hand, I read the melancholy of the common condition and the despair of not being able to escape it. And as for me, I pity without absolving, I understand without forgiving, and above all, I feel at last that I am being adored!
Yes, I am moving about. How could I remain in bed like a good patient? I must be higher than you, and my thoughts lift me up. Such nights, or such mornings rather (for the fall occurs at dawn), I go out and walk briskly along the canals. In the livid sky the layers of feathers become thinner, the  doves move a little higher, and above the roofs a rosy light announces a new day of my creation. On the Damrak the first streetcar sounds its bell in the damp air and marks the awakening of life at the extremity of this Europe where, at the same moment, hundreds of millions of men, my subjects, painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work.
Then, soaring over this whole continent which is under my sway without knowing it, drinking in the absinthe-colored light of breaking day, intoxicated with evil words, I am happy—I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death! Oh, sun, beaches, and the islands in the path of the trade winds, youth whose memory drives one to despair! I’m going back to bed; forgive me. I fear I got worked up; yet I’m not weeping. At times one wanders, doubting the facts, even when one has discovered the secrets of the good life. To be sure, my solution is not the ideal. But when you don’t like your own life, when you know that you must change lives, you don’t have any choice, do you? What can one do to become another? Impossible. One would have to cease being anyone, forget oneself for someone else, at least once. But how? Don’t bear down too hard on me. I’m like that old beggar who wouldn’t let go of my hand one day on a café terrace: “Oh, sir,” he said, “it’s not just that I’m no good, but you lose track of the light.” Yes, we have lost track of the light, the mornings, the holy innocence of those who forgive themselves.
Look, it’s snowing! Oh, I must go out! Amsterdam asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges, the empty streets, my muted steps—there will be purity, even if fleeting, before tomorrow’s mud. See the huge flakes drifting against the windowpanes. It must be the doves, surely. They finally make up their minds to come down, the little dears; they are covering the waters and the roofs with a thick layer of feathers; they are fluttering at every window. What an invasion! Let’s hope they are bringing good news. Everyone will be saved, eh?—and not only the elect. Possessions and hardships will be shared and you, for example, from today on you will sleep every night on the ground for me. The whole shooting match, eh? Come now, admit that you would be flabbergasted if a chariot came down from heaven to carry me off, or if the snow suddenly caught fire. You don’t believe it? Nor do I. But still I must go out.
All right, all right, I’ll be quiet; don’t get upset! Don’t take my emotional outbursts or my ravings too seriously. They are controlled. Say, now that you are going to talk to me about yourself, I shall find out whether or not one of the objectives of my absorbing confession is achieved. I always hope, in fact, that my interlocutor will be a policeman and that he will arrest me for the theft of “The Just Judges.” For the rest—am I right?—no one can arrest me. But as for that theft, it falls within the provisions of the law and I have arranged everything so as to make myself an accomplice: I am harboring that painting and showing it to whoever wants to see it. You would arrest me then; that would be a good beginning. Perhaps the rest would be taken care of subsequently; I would be decapitated, for instance, and I’d have no more fear of death; I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd, you would hold up my still warm head, so that they could recognize themselves in it and I could again dominate—an exemplar. All would be consummated; I should have brought to a close, unseen and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness and refusing to come forth.
But of course you are not a policeman; that would be too easy. What? Ah, I suspected as much, you see. That strange affection I felt for you had sense to it then. In Paris you practice the noble profession of lawyer! I sensed that we were of the same species. Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance? Then please tell me what happened to you one night on the quays of the Seine and how you managed never to risk your life. You yourself utter the words that for years have never ceased echoing through my nights and that I shall at last say through your mouth: “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!