These great spectacles of deformity are full of instruction. Is it ugliness? No. It is horror. Where does ugliness begin? With the dwarf. Only the small is ugly. Social misery is a giant. It belongs to Dante and not to Callot. It has the terrifying beauty of greatness. A hole is ugly; an abyss is grand. What is a mountain? A hump. We laugh at Polichinelle under his hunch; do we laugh at Enceladus under Etna? The epic silhouette of the hunchbacked titan sinks majestically into the azure; its sublime deformity carves itself out against the stars.
To go in-depth into misery, and to lament over it, and to console it, and to ease it, and to heal it, is useful. To whom? To the miserable? Yes, and to the happy. To remove misery would be to remove hatred. To crush hatred would be to save the world.
Beware of comparison; it is relentless. Moral miseries are no less indignant than material miseries. Their ignorance is what made them the miseries that they are. Is their ignorance their fault? They hold a grudge against everything that is not themselves. The monster hates.
The essence of the monster is anger. Envy is lava, and it boils. That suffering is menacing. Whatever gnaws away at the inside will burn the outside. Why am I like this, and others aren’t? What have they done, and what have I done? Down with beauty and happiness! A misery is a deformity; a deformity is a volcano. Every lump will erupt.
Beware of latent Vesuviuses. There is a profound danger there. A thief, a prostitute: they are cripples. One’s integrity has a limp, the other’s modesty has a limp. A vice is a patch of dandruff. Open moral hospitals—that is, schools. Treat these illnesses. Cauterizing with light, what an admirable cure!
The study of misery is therefore necessary; but just as the study of a cadaver requires that it be disinfected, the study of misery requires that it be sublimated.
Decomposition becomes idealized if one can see the soul through it. The sacred penetration of light sanctifies the patch of shadows. In the presence of that monstrosity, prostitution, forget Venus, remember Eve, substitute respect of women for mockery of courtesans, purify yourself by the disappearance of sarcasm, and you will feel tears forming instead of laughter. You will form recesses within yourself that will make you greater. Show the wound, out compassion for the wound itself, but show the heavens at the same time. One eye upon man, the other upon God. The two gazes complete each other.
Horror, so be it; caricature, never. Otherwise there is no greatness. This is the price of the epic. Hide nothing, say everything; that frankness is light. Nothing is small, if spoken of grandly. Homer is in Thersites as well as Priam. Things that would be unharmonious on earth lose their dissonance in widening themselves to the heavens. Ugliness dissolves into greatness. The infinite pierces through everywhere, and causes a grimace mingled with the constellations to become formidable. The rictus of a fishwife becomes the mask of Nemesis.
The social Ananke is of such a dimension that whatever is hideous in the details is blurred in the broad fog of the ensemble. Nowhere does the unmeasurable appear with more terrible slopes. There, the unattainable complicates the inaccessible. If you wish to know the depth of human misfortune, you must cast your probe into the misery of women. Mulier dolorosa1.
We insist upon this. In a work like this one, analysis is not always enough; one must continue to the point of dissection. One must see the bare bone, the live muscle, the flesh with its blood, the network of veins, the arteries, all the somber ties of the organism, how vice hinges upon idleness, the open viscera, the nerves, the fibers, the trembling and the palpitation, the entrails, the inside of the heart. The intestine is open; look. Analysis and dissection are two different teachings which double each other as they confront each other. The crucible yields one result; the scalpel yields another.
In social matters, where everything is an illness and cries out for a remedy, the painting must sometimes be a flaying in order to be effective.
And then everything is explained. Fate and passion, each in its compartment, can be seen with the naked eye. The organism is one fact, attraction is another. How appetite is different from need, how longing is different from hunger; these nuances, which have worlds between them, are revealed. The stomach and the belly are two different things. The stomach cannot do evil.
Once the skin has been removed, there is no more mystery. The instructive interior appears. The whys tell their secrets; the question marks take off their masks; one finds the lost keys of shadowy old locks which would not open before. To gaze upon evil is to vanquish it. You come, you see, you triumph. Veni, vidi, vici2. Undoubtedly some problem remains, an X, an unknown. A certain quantity of sacred shadow persists. But all that can be known is learned, all that can be healed is studied. One touches the limit; one goes as far as God lets man go.
So let us put the cadaver on the table. The social Vesalius3 has an equal right to his duty. Let us write the history of the inside. Let us open up all of these formidable questions: the thief, the murderer, the prostitute. Besides, why would we stand back? Clio is not Araminthe. Philosophy is not a prude; it is as pure as the stars, and that is enough for it. The sort of prudery that veils a wound, that mistakes an ulcer for a nudity, is inept. What would the science of orthopedics be if it lowered its eyes before the spine? Whoever wants to be a healer must dare to look. There is supreme chastity in a fulfilled duty.
And then, is social history forbidden to do what political history does? Is one of them less made of bronze than the other? Is the colossal horror open to some, closed to others, and does Juvenal have less of a right to enter than Tacitus? Isn’t there a fine lesson and a moral profit in showing how Soufflard4 borders on Caligula, and in breaking down the sequences of the abyss? The Countess of Soissons5 is friends with La Voisin. The same wild beast howls above and below; the Medici widow is ferocious but impure. Charles IX dreams—of what? of a massacre, or of an orgy? The short skirts and the white knees of the maids of honor are visible through the balcony gate of Saint-Barthelemy; the first among palaces and the last among hovels, the Louvre and the lupanar (brothel), have the same root: loup6 (wolf).
So what does official academic pedantry want from us? Do the historiographers themselves, with Guichardin at their head, hesitate to speak of Joan of Naples and Lucretia Borgia? If Poppaea is part of history, so is the pretty oyster-seller; the transition from Faustina to Margot is ready-made; Cleopatra is the first arch of the bridge; Jenneton is the second. What right does Agrippina have that Chignon-la-Rousse doesn’t? Since you are telling the story of Semiramis, why should we not tell the story of Catin? What, for the same woman you can say the ending but not the beginning? The Countess Du Barry, so be it. But Jeanne Vaubernier, hush. Mattress for mattress, I like Mimi Rosette’s as much as Messalina’s. Why should the cot hide itself when the royal purple has no shame? In such cases, from the pallet to the throne there is only the distance from Scarron to Maintenon, and the ragged stocking is as good as the silk slipper. In the face of history, Theodora’s imperial gynaeceum is on familiar terms with the Bancal house7, and the golden moon six palms in diameter which had two diamonds the size of eagle’s eggs for eyes, and which softly lit Eudoxia’s alcove, knows just as much about opprobrium as the verdigris candle in the Rue du Pélican8. Ignominy is equality.
Gilding on top of crimes doesn’t last. Procopius himself, after deifying Justinian, is forced to write a last chapter, to put the crowning moment in the pillory, and adds a postscript of shame to all that glory. Justinian, demigod; erratum, read:monster.
All depravities form an equilibrium, and none has the right to look down upon another. No stain is allowed to put on airs. From the tiger to the jackal there is only a claw. Let us therefore put all of history on the same level. When we have described the partition of Poland, we are on a level with Gueulemer, Babet, and Claquesous’ gang. The slattern of the Pomme du Pin, who after all killed nobody, can very well come onstage after Queen Caroline’s kisses with Nelson, unless it would be an improvement for Caroline to have Caracciolo’s finger pointed at her in the cold ocean moonlight9. What! I have named Octavia, Tullia, Brunnehaut, Agnes the Bloody, Mary of Scotland, Louise de Valois10, Bonne de Barry, and I must not name Fouillenbruche! Is it out of dignity? Is it out of respect for the drop of ink which is in the point of my pen? Since it was black enough to write the name of Marguerite de Bourgogne, it is quite capable of writing this name: Ninon. What! Christina of Sweden, naked upon her black velvet mattress, does not offend modesty, and the lovely Bourbonnaise causes a scandal! Is elevated style more at ease with the Duchess of Lognueville’s bed than with Zozo-Gisquette’s? Do you have time to purse your lips once you have pronounced this obscenity: Catherine II11? Does prostitution rise in rank when it becomes a czarina? Is high rank an extenuating circumstance in matters of depravity? Is infamy more presentable when it comes from the high nobility? So be it. Glorify the crowned heads of prostitution at your ease; but let us weep over Marion and Manon.
Leave us our deep and fratenal pity. The daughter of the people was hungry. The agony of the soul began with the agony of the flesh. While Parent-Duchâtelet records, Jeremy may sob. There is a bit of tomb in this alcove; whoever pushes back the sheet of this bed is disturbing a shroud; a prostitute is a dead woman.
Every man is habitually very indulgent for himself, allows himself everything, concedes himself everything, pardons himself everything, makes the arm of every possible bad action pass through the breadth of his sleeves, admires the gentility of his vices, calls his faults by all sorts of pretty paternal nicknames, caresses them, fattens them, raises them, accuses himself of nothing, blames himself for nothing, is black and thinks he is white, marvels graciously at himself; but he has a virtuous spare conscience which he uses for others.
Whatever the individual does, the community does. From one class to another people condemn one another, and keep absolution for themselves only. Those above look down on those below; those below detest those above. The cellar says: the attic is filthy; the attic says: the cellar is dark.
We are all the attic, and we are all the cellar, and when we look at others we look at ourselves. Deep down, we feel it, we admit it in the intimacy of monologue; and we hate the sincere philosopher who creates confrontations. Ugliness dislikes mirrors.
Nevertheless, let us hold up the mirror. Let us show Claudine Ronge-Oreille to Fredegund. There, Madame, does your majesty see herself?
1 Sorrowful woman.
2 “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Quote by Julius Caesar telling the Roman Senate of his victory over Pharnaces, king of Pontus.
3 Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), famous anatomist from Brussels who was one of the first to systematically practice the dissection of the human body. A social Vesalius must therefore study in all its organs, in all its elements, that is to say proceed with a dissection of society; but dissection is only possible on cadavers and society is a living body.
4 Soufflard, a criminal at first condemned to prison, who after his liberation became one of the leaders of a fearsome gang which committed numerous thefts and some murders in Paris. The whole gang was arrested and its two leaders, Soufflard and Lesage, were condemned to death. But Soufflard did not climb the scaffold. He poisoned himself in his cell with a strong dose of arsenic and refused to reveal how he had procured it. This was in 1839.
5 Olympe Mancini (1640-1708), one of Mazarin’s nieces; she married the Count of Soissons. She became a widow in 1673 and was accused of poisoning her husband; the fact that she had relations with Catherine Deshayes, the widow Monvoisin called La Voisin, famous as a palm reader and especially as a poisoner, gave credit to the accusation against the Countess of Soissons.
6 While lupanar comes from lupa which means both she-wolf and prostitute, it is not unanimously agreed that the name of the Louvre comes from lupara because of the presence of wolves in the places where the Louvre was built. According to Littré, lupara or lupera, “whose origin and meaning nobody knows,” was the name of a château located outside of Paris which became the Louvre.
7 The Bancal house, a house of ill repute in Rodez, where the former magistrate Fudalès was murdered on the 19th of March, 1817. This crime was one of the most famous cases of the Restoration. Procopius (late 5th century-562), high-ranking functionry in the court of the emperor Justinian I. He wrote a history in defense of the emperor, then later, a secret history which is not only a pamphlet against Justinian but against his wife Theodora and his general Belisarius.
8 This street went from the Rue de Grenelle-Saint-Honoré (currently Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau) to the Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs.
9 Francisco Caracciolo (1752-1799), Neapolitain patriot, became an admiral of the Neapolitan Republic and after the surrender of Naples he was given up to the royalists by one of his servants. He was claimed by Nelson, who upheld the royalty and was dominated, not by Queen Marie Caroline, but by the queen’s favorite, Emma Lyon, an English adventuress who had become Lady Hamilton, the wife of the English ambassador. She was at that point Nelson’s lover. Caracciolo was hanged from the yardarm of a ship; his body was thrown into the sea. The king of Naples, coming from Sicily, was struck by a vision of this body on the water and asked what the dead man wished of him. “A Christian tomb,” answered the chaplain. The tomb was granted.
10 Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina, wife of Nero, who in the year 62 had her put to death. — Tullia, daughter of Servius Tullius and wife of Tarquinius Superbus. In 534 BC, she pushed her husband to kill Servius in order to seize the throne. — Brunnehaut (Brunhilda of Austrasia), who, as the outcome of her bloody rivalry with Fredegund, met her end tied to the tail of an unbroken horse in 613. — Agnes the Bloody: Agnes of Austria, wife of King Andrew III of Hungary, had over a thousand people put to death to avenge her father’s murder. She herself was murdered in 1364. — Mary of Scotland: Mary of Lorraine, daughter of Claude, Duke of Guise; her second husband was King James V of Scotland. Widowed for a second time, she violently persecuted the Protestants of her kingdom. There was a popular uprising. Mary was stripped of her regency and died as she was calling French troops to her aid (1560). — Louise de Valois: Louise de Savoie, wife of Jean de Valois and mother of François I; a greedy woman of depraved morals who misappropriated Treasury funds to satisfy personal vengeances, but who did not do a bad job at directing the affairs of the kingdom as regent.
11 Marguerite de Bourgogne, wife of Louis le Hurin, who had her put to death for the crime of adultery. — Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), daughter of Gustavus Adolphus. She abdicated in 1654 and in 1657 she had her favorite, Monaldeschi, assassinated at Fontainebleau. — The Duchess of Longueville (1619-1679), sister of the Grand Condé (Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé), who had an important role in the Fronde disturbance. — Catherine II the Great (1729-1796), wife of Peter III, empress of Russia after her husband’s death, and a woman of irregular morals.