The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

The Modern Beggar

S.D. Chrostowska

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

In his unfinished work on nineteenth-century Paris seen through the smoke and mirrors of rising consumer culture, the critic Walter Benjamin noted Victor Hugo’s heroic portrayal of the beggar, most memorably in Les Misérables, a literary monument of popular commiseration.1 Its hero, Jean Valjean, is, after all, as Hugo characterizes him, “the beggar who gives alms,” whose rags-to-riches story is overwhelmingly rags, or what we now simply call “poverty porn.”

In 1868, Hugo received a letter of supplication from an unknown young writer freshly arrived in the City of Lights from Montevideo, Uruguay:

Yesterday at the post office I saw an errand boy holding in his hands l’Avenir National with your address and so I resolved to write to you. Three weeks ago I sent off the 2nd Canto to Mr. Lacroix so that he could print it with the 1st. I preferred him to the others, because I had seen your bust in his bookshop, and I knew that was your bookseller. But until now he has not had time to look at my manuscript, because he is very busy, he tells me; and if you would write me a letter, I am quite sure that through showing it to him he will be more prompt and read the two cantos as soon as possible to have them printed. For ten years I have cherished the desire to come and see you, but I did not have the money.

Incredibly, the aspiring author concluded his note with a self-assured reprise of his appeal:

You would not believe how happy you would make a human being, were you to write me a few words. Could you also promise me a copy of each of the works you are going to bring out in the month of January? And now, having come to the end of my letter, I look upon my audacity with more composure, and I tremble at having written you, I who am still nothing in this century, whereas you, you are Everything. Isidore Ducasse2

For all we know, Hugo replied to this out-of-the-blue request: All six cantos of The Songs of Maldoror were published by Lacroix within a year, the author, Ducasse, having chosen to publish them under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont.

Around 1860, beggary became bohemian. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx counted beggars “alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie…vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jail-birds, escaped galley-slaves, rogues, mountebanks, lazzaroni [idlers], pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers,” as part of “the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French term the bohème.”3 For Marx, this comédie humaine represented a regressive social element, the lumpenproletariat. Easily manipulated, lacking everything down to “class consciousness,” it had nothing to contribute to the coming proletarian revolution.

But aspiring writers—Marx’s literati—soon found themselves honored under another name, in another social category. They were also flâneurs, poor and lazy strollers-about-town who did not hesitate to waste time as though in defiance of the fruits of capital all around them. It is thanks to another writer of the French Second Empire, Charles Baudelaire, who extolled the flâneur as the modern metropolitan artist-poet, that poverty was refashioned as creative, as bohemian in our post-Marxian sense. The greatest admirer of this facet of Baudelaire was again Benjamin. He saw the poet’s “modern heroism” as having been conjured out of misery like a “monstrous provocation.”4 The author of Les fleurs du mal, whom Arthur Rimbaud was among the first to recognize as the rightful “king of poets” (roi des poètes), had, “in the guise of a beggar,” Benjamin wrote, “continually put the model of bourgeois society to the test.”5

Yet even beggars have many guises. They have long been cast among human archetypes, a fixture of civilization whose existence is predicated on individual material want. Before anyone had heard of public welfare, their social function of blessing in exchange for assistance had already made an institution of alms giving. This fluid reciprocity held together by religious belief has not survived capitalist modernity. Mendicancy, meanwhile, has grown and assumed new forms.

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  1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 771.
  2. Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), letter to Victor Hugo, November 10, 1868, in Lautréamont, “Maldoror” and the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, trans. Alexis Lykiard (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 1994), 255–56, translation modified.
  3. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Marx/Engels Collected Works (Moscow, Soviet Union: Progress Publishers, 1979), 11:149, translation modified.
  4. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 117, 322.
  5. Ibid., 338. In Paris Spleen (1857–67), Baudelaire engages in reversals of the compassionate attitude toward beggars. In “Let’s Beat Up the Poor!” he follows through on his summons and gets pummeled in turn. The beggar is deliberately pushed to revolt, for “the only man who is worthy of liberty is the man who knows how to take it,” and thereby proves himself the equal of his assailant. Lest the cruelty of his “gift” belie its corrective benefit, he concludes, “With my strong medicine, I had thus given him back both his pride and his life”—an act reminiscent of Diogenes’s “biting his friends to save them.” After sharing his purse, he makes the man promise to apply the same treatment to his like. In another fragment, Baudelaire speculates on the consequences and motives of a friend’s conscious gift of a high-denomination counterfeit coin to “a poor beggar who held out his cap tremblingly,” with eyes expressing “something like…that deeply complicated sentiment that can be seen in the tearful eyes of dogs being whipped.” The possibilities extend from short-lived luxury to arrest and prison. The friend’s act is initially put down to an experiment for “criminal pleasure,” finally to an attempt to win gratis the heart of God—the first rationale a calculated wickedness, the second, a stupid, unredeemable evil. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen and La Fanfarlo, trans. R.N. MacKenzie (New York, NY: Hackett, 2008), 99, 58–59. For the importance of the beggar in the nineteenth century as the figure of poverty par excellence who is nonetheless “untimely” relative to the worker, and the association of both with the disruptive temporality of revolt or revolution, see “The Beggar and the Promised Land of Cannibalism,” the introduction to Patrick Greaney’s Untimely Beggar: Poverty and Power from Baudelaire to Benjamin (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), xviii–xix.

S.D. Chrostowska is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities, York University, Toronto. Her books include Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland, and Russia, 1700–1800; Permission; and Matches: A Light Book.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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