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, www.nigelvanwieck.net.

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.

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