The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Essays

The Modern Beggar

S.D. Chrostowska

Detail. Q Train by Nigel Van Wieck; courtesy of the artist, Instagram @nigelvanwieck,

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.1Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 771. 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 Ducasse2Comte 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.

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.”3Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Marx/Engels Collected Works (Moscow, Soviet Union: Progress Publishers, 1979), 11:149, trans- lation modified. 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.”44xBenjamin, Arcades Project, 117, 322. 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.”5Ibid., 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.

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.

Introducing the Modern Beggar

The begging I call “modern” is not uniquely so. It is not a byproduct of meritocratic society, of the respectability bestowed on Randian self-interest and self-seeking, or of the goad of upward mobility and its correlate, greenback-riding ambition. Predating the universalism of meritocracy with its unfixing of social hierarchies, it has fed on meritocracy’s inconsistencies. “Modern beggars” have enough sense to know that proof of real merit can be worth less than its promise, especially when buoyed by favoritism and luck. What they ask for goes beyond what (“on merit alone”) is theirs to claim, or what a milieu to which they seek admission is prepared just then to give them. To improve their chances, they oblige others by gentle importuning. They already possess (or believe themselves to possess) cultural and other contributions to match their ambitions. Unlike classic beggars, they spring not from the economic margins but from the fringes of good society and target the very center of modern social life, where cultural wealth or capital is concentrated. To this extent, “modern beggary,” not seeing itself for what it is, is beggary by any other name.

And if we are about to stretch the meaning of mendicancy to its breaking point, there is nothing per se forbidding this in the word itself, which derives from mendum, the Latin for “deficiency” or “lack.” Like Baudelaire’s flâneur, who exhibited some of the same artistic-professional aspirations, the modern beggar lives modernity’s paradoxes, illusions, and dispersals of attention: the paradox of begging one’s way up, the illusion of fame right around the corner of the next appeal, the fleeting experience of fame, the fragility of recognition. Flânerie may be solitary, but it is animated by a passion for blending into crowds, “to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”66xCharles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London, England: Phaidon, 1964), 9 The modern beggar, meanwhile, is defined by a (real or perceived) lack of, and consequent need for, recognition as distinct and worthy. His kind seeks exposure rather than anonymity, and not in the street but in a profession or an art. The activity to which one abandons oneself is private—as private as a mendicant letter sent from an unknown writer to an established one.

From Mendicity to Mendacity

Ducasse’s letter to Hugo differs in one fundamental respect from the missives posted to Charles Dickens, another nineteenth-century pen-happy friend of the poor who, in 1850, consecrated an article to the topic: “The Begging-Letter Writer.” Even the great English miserabilist was not immune to bogus impotence, writing of his subject’s inventiveness:

He has besieged my door at all hours of the day and night; he has fought my servant; he has lain in ambush for me, going out and coming in; he has followed me out of town into the country; he has appeared at provincial hotels, where I have been staying for only a few hours; he has written to me from immense distances, when I have been out of England. He has fallen sick; he has died and been buried; he has come to life again, and again departed from this transitory scene: he has been his own son, his own mother, his own baby, his idiot brother, his uncle, his aunt, his aged grandfather. He has wanted a greatcoat, to go to India in; a pound to set him up in life for ever; a pair of boots to take him to the coast of China; a hat to get him into a permanent situation under Government. He has frequently been exactly seven-and-sixpence short of independence.…

He has been attached to every conceivable pursuit. He has been in the army, in the navy, in the church, in the law; connected with the press, the fine arts, public institutions, every description and grade of business. He has been brought up as a gentleman; he has been at every college in Oxford and Cambridge; he can quote Latin in his letters (but generally misspells some minor English word); he can tell you what Shakespeare says about begging, better than you know it.7Charles Dickens, “The Begging-Letter Writer,” The Literature Network, accessed October 13, 2017, http:// First published in 1850.

The humor of this Dickensian list notwithstanding, it is a finely wrought condemnation. The compositions in question are all of a piece, the work of “a set of lazy vagabonds…interposed between the general desire to do something to relieve the sickness and misery under which the poor were suffering, and the suffering poor themselves.” Responding to them might ease our conscience, but it does nothing to address the underlying issue, and is even a way of setting it aside. Worse, it “dirt[ies] the stream of true benevolence.” If “there is a plain remedy…in our own hands,” it is to keep them in our pockets. By the end, mendicity shades into mendacity. There is no mistaking the false mendicant, as opposed to the deserving poor: The letter betrays the falseness of the need. “The poor never write these letters. Nothing could be more unlike their habits.” The letters’ writers, in short, “are public robbers.”88xIbid.

Internet panhandling, or sponsor phishing, is only the latest and most advanced form of such beggary by correspondence, which the digital community readily shows up as fraudulent. Less blatant and questionable are fundraising campaigns or nudges for donations on websites (personal appeals from The Nation or Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales). They come from appellants who have our trust, with whom we might even have a relationship. Most importantly, though the message be urgent, we do not feel as personally petitioned and imposed upon as when in receipt of a handwritten note addressed specifically to us as individual public citizens. The author of Hard Times was sensible of the power of bleakness put into words and the relative privacy this approach, as incessant as it was, afforded the sender (not anonymity, of course, if he or she wanted to be helped). When submitted in honesty, written requests for money, food, or shelter went some distance to mitigate the shame of supplication. They were rags fabricated from words. In his career, Dickens cites only one such trustworthy case. What he omits from his survey are the apparently commonplace and sanctioned mid-nineteenth-century instances of “struggling aspiring writers” asking for support from “someone more established in their field.”9David Thomas, Beggars, Cheats and Forgers: A History of Frauds through the Ages (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword History, 2014), unpaginated. Here, presumably, the higher the literary quality of the begging-letter, the better its chances.

Destitution Spiritual Rather Than Material

What lack, then, if not a material one, is filled by the “modern” beggary practiced, if briefly, by Ducasse? It is the lack of sufficient social status or of what is called “cultural capital.” As such, it spurs a form of social begging intended to expand and upgrade the supplicant’s social network. Although the goals may be identical, the demonstrated inferiority of the asker disqualifies his or her asking as mere networking. Making shy and subtle overtures on social media, this brand of beggary does not make its purpose explicit to its targets. The semiotics of liking, sharing, commenting, following, and friending are too crude and insubstantial for it. The virtual totem poles they erect are still less stable than self-esteem. But neophytes can get their start online, hidden in plain sight. Because its advanced apprenticeship occurs offsite—off-Facebook, off-Twitter (which puts a word limit on solicitation)—we tend not to notice this social variety of begging. In fact—such is its image or habit—it likes to hide under rocks. And if we don’t detect it or are not in the habit of looking under rocks, we are barely prepared to concede its existence.

The practice I have in mind is immediately distinguishable from classical begging in this one respect: its relative public invisibility. But the differences run deep, so deep that one is tempted by euphemism to hide again what I insist on calling “beggary.” The most profound difference is that the activity in question consists in appeals ad influentiam predicated not on material hardship but a deficit of social recognition. Nor does it necessitate the demonstration of need (a need for cultural standing and recognition) for the sake of obtaining relief. Indeed, such a demonstration, if maladroit, can end up being counterproductive. Social begging relies heavily on private uses of language, on words carefully chosen, and rhetoric contrived to work the desired effects. Instead of material destitution, it proceeds from a destitution of spirit—a matter less of physical vulnerability and survival than of professional life and death, expressing a distress that is less obvious, less worthy of social assistance, yet that generally finds a more sympathetic ear among those who can alleviate it.

Demographically, modern beggary is concentrated in the middle class, whose internal gradations correspond roughly to the height of the stakes. It spreads among those in whom the manners and inhibitions of their social superiors are undeveloped, those anxious about being consigned to the sphere of professional mediocrity and cultural insignificance. This worry is of course known higher up—where wishes are likelier to come true, where one rises lightly, without scrambling, and falls only by effort. But even though the destitution of spirit afflicts them too, the privileged are compensated for their lack of professional success in other ways.

Let us look more closely into the nature of the modern beggar’s request. It is not on the order of a favor, which usually implies the asker’s ability to reciprocate someday. To the contrary, the relationship between supplicant and potential benefactor is asymmetrical in a given domain. The possible benefit and thus the motivation to the giver can be moral or ethical: doing a good deed, out of solidarity or perhaps because we were once in a similar situation, or fulfilling a professional duty. As with public begging, so here little more can be expected in repayment beyond a token of appreciation. In contrast to it, however, the expectation of gratitude is not perceived as a caveat or a string attached; the recipient would give much to become tightly attached to the donor in hopes of future gains.

The size of the donation correlates here inversely with the expectation of thanks. In this respect, public begging seems in fact less denatured. Given actual need rather than what is perceived as mere ambition, convention there guides the behavior of both parties: Empathy steps in to check the giver’s vanity, while the beneficiary’s display of gratitude is muted to the point of nonexistence by embarrassment or resentment at being reduced to accepting gifts so vanishingly small. Conversely, in the case of hand-to-hand donations so generous as to make the effusion of gratitude owed impossible to produce spontaneously, the expression of thanks is sometimes absent altogether, replaced by incredulity and amazement. In such instances, the givers’ vanity puts them in the beggars’ shoes to appreciate their own act as a dream come true. Given the anonymous nature of such gifts, the immense debt of gratitude is willingly shouldered by the beggar, without becoming a burden. There is even something of entitlement in this attitude, of being quits, based on the feeling that nameless society owes it to its poorest to right its wrongs.

Yet it would be false to conclude from this that begging is nontransactional. The transaction is just not of the kind that registers: gratitude for loose change, gratitude for a good word. The thanks “given back” are not currency recognized in the money economy; rather, they constitute a moral surplus, and moral capital for the original giver. Mitigating the beggar’s resentment against this moral benefit, which works to legitimate the giver’s material advantage, is that—as yet unmonetized—it does not constitute another’s net gain. “Those whose gratitude for receiving a benefit is transformed into devotion to the person who grants it, instead of degenerating into the usual hatred aroused by all benefactors, are aristocrats. Even if they walk around in rags.”10Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un texto implícito: Obra completa [Annotations of an implicit text: Complete works] (Bogotá, Colómbia: Villegas, 2006), sec. 831. The English translation of the quote is by the present author. These words, from a great conservative critic of modernity, might be taken to imply that begging is not inherently socially regressive (perpetuating relations of domination). Still, the beggars’ hypothetical dedication, unconnected to subservience, does not compel them to derive all of their self-worth from gifts. Even if they have nothing to offer in return, the sense of advancement is internalized as a power to assist others similarly in need.

What is granted to the modern beggar (as compared to the classic beggar) is not a favor but still only a request. But what can be beggarly about this variety of request? For one, the fact that it is submitted personally to a relative stranger. This stranger is someone known for having influence in a given domain, whose introduction or recommendation will get one a foot in whatever door. The request makes clear that what is asked is of enormous consequence to the supplicant, and that granting it would earn the giver infinite gratitude. This mismatch of proportions—“a great deal” on the one (receiving) hand, and the objectively “almost nothing” on the other—converts this gift, if made, into an act of charity.

The Beggar-Courtier

There is another feature of modern beggary’s appeal that is at odds with its public counterpart. It is often perceived by the solicited parties as asking for a lot because of the perceived potential benefit to the askers. As in a mirror, we value our assistance as they do: highly. The trouble they took to contact us suggests this is the case, and if at any point we suspect it might be otherwise, and discern a carelessness indicating a blanket request, we drop them directly. If we feel flattered and over- estimate the power we have to provide the succor asked of us, we are likelier to agree to help. If we underestimate that power, we are inclined to decline. The relatively high value the askers ascribe to what they ask of us, however, remains beyond doubt. And because traditional begging is never about asking for much, surely it must be some conceptual vagueness or confusion that has us unmask another’s initiation of contact, excessive courtesy, and payment of compliments as beggary. But this essay is no shelter for such narcissism of small differences; it is defensible only as a space for splitting hairs. And the point stands that the request of the modern mendicant is typically analogous in magnitude to that of the street beggar. Objectively, it is not very much. With the former as with the latter, a little sign of empathy, a littler guilt, a minute promise to give more next time, and a mental note that society is broken are the least we can summon afterward—given the smallness of our actual contribution.

At this point, you are likely to exclaim, But it’s no beggar you’re describing; it’s an ordinary parvenu, a run-of-the mill arriviste prior to arriving! “Social climbers,” we call them, who come up from the ground floor without wiping their shoes. While it is easy to file under this rubric the practice I have just set out, it is important to understand that all beggary is motivated by a vital need. This is the first distinction, even though both social climbing and social begging may be driven by careerism of one kind or another. Furthermore, the strain of beggary I have identified is incompatible with a lack of social grace, as it is mainly tact and elegance in asking that are behind its efficacy. (This, incidentally, is a point it has in common with public mendicity, where, again, all walks of life might wind up, and where good manners, as far as these can be discerned, are an asset and likelier to elicit our goodwill.)

Most importantly, however, just as genuine public beggars no longer arouse our contempt or trepidation (and only residual unease, diminished by illegal migrant labor, creeping precarity, displacement due to political upheaval), so the figure of the social mendicant should not be the source of discomfort or object of opprobrium. Not so parvenus, who incur derision and give offense because they still have not acquired the polish—and perhaps never will—necessary to wear their newfound status as the equals of their reluctant peers. Mores, social etiquette, after all, are the main sphere (alongside cultural taste and consumption) for making what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “distinctions.”11Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984). Parvenus end up where they don’t belong; their elective preferences lie elsewhere. As for beggars, given half a chance, they might end up where they fundamentally do fit in: among recognized professionals, creators, etc. Moreover, in the case of parvenus, ignorance of customs and conventions betrays social misalignment. In the case of beggars, facility with communication and a sense of the lay of the land signal proximity and lend them merit on credit.

Yet it is hard to deny that behind the modern beggar making her written or oral request to some powerful personage who can potentially raise her reputation is a social climber like any other, and that the figure’s defining feature is this desperate need to get ahead. Couched in earnest flattery, often personalized, padded with relevant credentials and name-droppings, flush with niceties and references to common acquaintances or friends, the honeyed idiom of the beggar cannot conceal its instrumental purpose, regardless of what it does. If to ingratiate oneself with someone whose opinion carries weight takes skill, the employment of that idiom tends to be transparent to the addressee.

A Shadow’s Shadow

Those born or who come easily into privilege are justified in wondering, Why put yourself out? Why risk losing your self-esteem? Why bother others? Why can’t you be satisfied with your place and let the merit of your work decide where to put you? Michel de Montaigne’s advice on managing one’s will follows these lines:

We have pleasures suitable to our lot; let us not usurp those of grandeur: our own are more natural, and by so much more solid and sure, as they are meaner. If not for that of conscience, yet at least for ambition’s sake, let us reject ambition; let us disdain that thirst of honour and renown, so base and mendicant, that it makes us beg it of all sorts of people.12Michel de Montaigne, “Of Managing the Will,” in Montaigne, Essays, vol. 3, trans. Charles Cotton, ed. William Hazlitt (London, England: Reeves and Turner, 1877), 320, translation modified using John Florio’s 1603 translation.

Wise counsel, vain advice. There is a time in everyone’s life when the hold of ambition over our will has the power to reduce us to begging. It is Shakespeare who, via Hamlet, opposes real to spiritual beggary, or genuine need to vain ambition: If ambition is indeed “but a shadow’s shadow,” as some claim, “Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows.”13 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London, England: Methuen, 1982), 2.2.263–64. Real beggars are not ambitious, but the ambitious are beggars at heart. It is easier for a beggar to be recognized as a man than for someone to be recognized as a beggar once he has come to be seen as a man. Those who have bestowed the title “human” do not like to err in this department, and thus a fall in status can be harder than the reverse.

Being so generalized, one wonders why begging should be humiliating at all—which, for the record, it is: The exposure, the refusal and receipt of alms, all demean. Humiliation is the fate of the strong, humility that of the weak (constitutionally or by force of habit) who are reduced to beggary. For the robust, the request is a vindicated demand. Having stumbled, they do not view themselves as frail. What they extract from us they deem their due, not dole (as do the feeble). And, having rebounded, back on their feet, they will—if meanness has not humbled them for good—come in time to regret their earlier vicissitudes, and spider-like to spin their injury into humiliation.

Three reasons for this humiliation spring to mind. First: Begging is seen, regardless of its ostensible objective, as being basically and ultimately about money. Second: When it comes to making money, we as a society believe in the virtuous fiction of going it alone; the ties that bind us to one another (the very same that social begging exposes and tests) are less obvious, more professionally shameful, when they abet our raise or rise, clashing with the myth of success as the fruit of cultivated autonomy and self-reliance. Third: Acts of begging are uncomfortable and marginalized; little institutional or infrastructural provision is made for them, little to facilitate and formalize oblations as professional obligations, as is the case with applications for funding or letters of reference requested by students wishing to advance their education and by academics seeking promotion. The steps of churches are hard, the sidewalk unprotected from scorn; the channels of influence are impounded by sluices, and another’s indifference makes one sore with ressentiment.

A Tangerine and Some Coins

In the age of e-mail, corresponding with others is technically easier, but for that reason less appreciated than it was in the age of letter writing, and more likely to encourage solicitations than substantial correspondence. While such mutually rewarding commerce still goes on, imploring a leg up from our superior would not be a way of initiating it. We know the suspicions we arouse, the impressions we leave behind, when we make a request: sloth and idleness, patheticness and antipathy, audacity and arrogance. There seems, in other words, to be no elegant way to beg for what could relieve a privation of spirit, no upright begging, no spotless way of going about it to banish the stigma once and for all. In such a context, making of beggary something worthwhile, something noble, something socially beneficial—culturally enriching and socially bonding, no less—would indeed beggar all belief.

Today’s Paris is fantastically rich in beggars of every stripe and predicament, from the physically able through the addicted to the tragic, polio-stricken beings sharing the netherworld with children, who find them fascinating, and stray dogs (those beggars of the animal kingdom), devoid of public assistance owing to their undocumented status; from the most creative, their hat and shoes guarding the sign Je suis l’homme invisible et je suis tout nu (I am an invisible man and I am completely naked), through the most active and entertaining, equipped with the loudest music or the most elaborate tales of ill fortune and woe, but also (let’s not mince words) the most appalling, who pose without scruple as starving Syrian refugees, to the most dire and passive—asleep—who wake up sluggishly to find by their side a tangerine and some coins. This cross-section offered by a ride on city transit at midday is only the visible face of a practice that spreads both laterally and vertically, as political upheaval and unemployment compound material want and affect populations previously protected by social expenditure, or as restructuring, disinvestment, and lack of public demand render unprofitable formerly remunerative labor, and make superfluous the skills of creators and professionals with considerable “cultural capital” to their names—in short, as ever more beings feel themselves destitute in what sustains their unique existence and identity.

This immiseration is the most modern condition, and mendicity a response to a growing problem, not a search for a solution where it can (naively) be expected. Because of the lack of mutual recognition by opposing ends of its spectrum—on the one hand, those reduced to begging who endure material want, and, on the other, those who think themselves better off inas-much as they do not make bad-faith claims to beggary, or are too privileged or too embarrassed to accept the title of beggar even as a symbolic act of solidarity—we have beggars to unite, yet no “Beggars unite!” The novels of Albert Cossery are the closest we might have to a manifesto. Still, the “Master” of Proud Beggars (1955) is no revolutionary. “Let them all become beggars,” he thunders. “Once we have a country where the population is composed entirely of beggars, then you’ll see what will become of this arrogant domination. It will crumble into dust.”14Albert Cossery, Proud Beggars, trans. Alyson Waters (New York, NY: New York Review Books Classics, 2011), 133.Through this refusal to “collaborate,” imperial capitalism takes on the character of an occupying force or a war machine. But though perversely romantically utopian, the scheme for subversion rather than an uprising contains no viable popular solution. And where such a solution is not envisioned, no revolution is, either, and the horizon is more, not less, of the same.

Full Disclosure

The time is ripe for a full disclosure. There was a period in my life, distant and brief, when I begged in public for money. I have consorted with those for whom begging was a mode de vie: picturesque clochards in Burger King crowns, surviving on handouts, lining up at soup kitchens with the rest of their stinking mass. I begged with them and drank with them what I made. And I learned (though not durably) to see the city from their eye level and picked up some of the carefreeness that in them is cut with wretchedness. Some years later, my uncertainty over future prospects given the state of my profession, combined with being poorly socialized, led me, little by little, to adopt social mendicancy—far from a last resort. Thus, for instance, I pleaded with my university’s administrators to find in its coffers funds to allow me to complete my studies. Since then, the barrel where I took up residence has become more crowded, while I myself have clambered out of it. Its inhabitants—birds of a feather—remain strangers to one another and, sadly, still do not recognize our common lot. I say “our” because I have kept up my beggarly resourcefulness. You will not see me on the pavement now—though my acquaintances keep warm my spot—but beggar I remain.

Dear to us are those who love us; the swift moments we spend with them are a compensation for a great deal of misery; they enlarge our life; but dearer are those who reject us as unworthy, for they add another life: they build a heaven before us whereof we had not dreamed, and thereby supply to us new powers out of the recesses of the spirit, and urge us to new and unattempted performances.15Albert Cossery, Proud Beggars, trans. Alyson Waters (New York, NY: New York Review Books Classics, 2011), 133.

We might pay lip service to Emerson’s conviction. In an access of ambition, we fancy ourselves refusés and (as one Romantic once put it) refuse to be “culture’s beggars,” living off the alms of the past, when we would rather be its debtors— and solvent. The cultural elites who are the past’s custodians represent it as common capital, as property belonging to everyone and thus no one. What they do not reveal is that, as its keepers, they alone have the password to the Aladdin’s cave where culture accumulates—and that, while we are free to draw on its fabled riches, we cannot contribute to it at will. Culture can do without our beggarly donations. The will nonetheless to try to leave our mark is where modern begging comes in.