The murderer, flower for the courtesan. The prostitute, Clytie for the assassin-sun1. The eye of the damned searching languidly in Satan’s myrtle leaves.
What is this phenomenon? It is the need for the ideal. A terrible thing, I tell you. A sublime and frightful need. Is it an illness? Is it a balm? Both at once. This august need is, at the same time and for the same beings, a punishment and a reward; sensuousness full of expiation; punishment for faults, reward for sorrows. No one shirks from it. The hunger of angels felt by demons. Saint Theresa feels it, Messalina as well. This need for the immaterial is the most enduring of all. Bread is necessary; but before bread, the ideal is necessary. For a thief, for a prostitute, all the more reason. The more one drinks from the shadow, the more one is thirsty for the dawn. Schinderhannes makes himself into a bluebottle; Poulailler makes himself into a violet. Thence these darkly ideal weddings.
And then what happens? What we have just said.
Mire, but abyss. Here the human heart opens to unknown depths. Astarte becomes platonic. The marvel of the transfiguration of monsters through love is accomplished. Hell is gilded. The vulture is made into a bluebird. The horrible leads to the pastoral. You think yourself with Vouglans and Parent-Châtelet2; you are with Longus. Another step, and you fall into Berquin. A strange thing, to meet with Daphnis and Chloe in the forest of Bondy!
The nocturnal Canal Saint-Martin, where the knife-man pushes the passerby with his elbow and takes his watch, crosses the Tender before flowing into the Lignon. Poulmann3 calls for a ribbon; one is tempted to offer a shepherd’s crook to Papavoine 4. One sees wings of luminous gas gleam on horrible talons through the straw of a wooden shoe. All the fatalities combined have a flower as a result. The miracle of the roses happens for Goton. A hazy Hôtel de Rambouillet is superposed upon the forbidding silhouette of the Salpêtrière. The leprous wall of evil, seized with who knows what sudden flowering, gives a pendant to Julie’s garland. Petrarch’s sonnets, that swarm which prowls in the shadow of souls, dare to cross into the twilight on the side of these abjections and these sufferings, attracted by who knows what obscure affinities, as one sometimes sees a swarm of bees humming over a pile of manure from which, perceivable to them alone and mingled with the miasmas, the scent of some flower escapes. The den is made into a grotto. The gibbet is elysian. The chimeric thread of celestial marriages floats beneath the blackest vault of the human Erebus, and ties desperate hearts to monstrous hearts. Manon sends to Cartouche, across the infinite, the ineffable smile of Evirallina to Fingal. From one pole of misery to the other, from one gehenna to the other, from the prison to the brothel, the mouths of the shadows frantically exchange the kiss of the azure.
It is night. The monstrous Clamart grave5 opens; a miasma, a phosphorescence, a light emerges. It gleams and shivers; the top and the bottom float separately; it takes form, the head rejoins the body, it is a ghost; the ghost, watched in the shadow by wild fateful eyes, rises, grows, becomes blue, floats, and leaves for the zenith to open the door of the sun’s palace, where butteflies wander from flower to flower and angels fly from star to star.
In all of these strange concurring phenomena breaks out the inadmissibility of principle that is all of man. The mysterious marriage which we have just described, the marriage of servitude to captivity, exaggerates the ideal by the very fact that it is oppressed by all the most hideous weights of destiny. A frightening mixture. The meeting of these two formidable words where the whole of human life is tied together: to enjoy and to suffer.
Alas! and how not to let that cry escape? for these unfortunate women, to enjoy, to laugh, to sing, to please, to love, it exists, it persists; but there is a groan in the song, there is a screech in the laugh, there is putrefaction in the enjoyment, there is ash in the pleasure, there is night in the love. All of these joys are attached to their destiny with coffin nails.
What does that produce? they are thirsty for all of those mournful chimeric clarities, full of dreams.
What is tobacco, so precious and so dear to the prisoner? it is dream.
“Put me in the dungeon,” said a convict, “but give me tobacco.” In other words: plunge me into a grave, but give me a palace.
Press the whore and the bandit, mix Tartarus with Averne, stir the fatal vat of sludge, pile up all the deformities of matter; what emerges? the immaterial. The ideal is the Greek fire of the street gutter. It burns there. Its splendor beneath the impure water dazzles and touches the thinker. Nina Lassave6, with Fieschi’s love letters, kindles and fuels the somber Vestal lamp which every woman has in her heart, as inextinguishable for the courtesan as it is for the carmelite. That is what explains the word virgin, bestowed by the Bible upon the foolish virgins as well as the wise virgins.
It existed yesterday, it exists today. Here again the surface has changed, but the essence remains. In our days, we have varnished the frank harshness of the Middle Ages a bit. Ribald is pronounced lorette; Toinon answers to the name of Olympia or Imperia; Thomasse-la-Maraude is named Mme de Saint-Alphonse. The caterpillar was true, the buttefly is false; that is the only change. Rags have become chiffon.
Régnier said sow, we say doe. Different fashions, same morals. The foolish virgin is mournfully immutable.
Whoever sees this sort of anguish sees the extremity of human misfortune.
These are the black zones. The grim cloud bursts open there, the amassed evil dissolves into misfortune, the dismal torment of fate blows gusts of despair, a continual stream of ordeals and griefs overwhelms disheveled heads in the shadow; gales, hail, wild tumults, surges of distress roll, return, and swirl; it rains, it rains unendingly, it rains horror, it rains vice, it rains crime, it rains night, and yet we must explore this darkness, and we enter it, and thought attempts the difficult flight of a wet bird in this somber storm.
There is always a vague spectral fright in these low regions where hell breaks in; they are so little within the human order, and so disproportionate, that they create ghosts. And so there is a legend attached to this sinister bouquet offered by Bicêtre to the Salpêtrière or by the Force to Saint-Lazre. It is told at night in the cell blocks after the watchmen’s rounds have passed by.
It was a little while after the murder of Joseph the money-changer. A bouquet was sent from the Force to a women’s prison, Saint-Lazare or the Madelonnettes. In this bouquet was a white lilac which one of the prisoners chose.
One or two months passed by; the woman was released from prison. She was deeply infatuated, through the white lilac, with the unknown master she had given herself. She began to fulfil her strange function of sister, mother, mystical spouse, not knowing his name, knowing only his prisoner number. All of her wretched savings, religiously deposited at the prison office, went to this man. In order to engage herself more closely to him, she had taken advantage of the springtime to pick a real white lilac in the fields. This branch of lilac, attached by a sky-blue ribbon to her bedstead, was the companion of the branch of sacred boxwood which is never missing in these poor desolate alcoves. The lilac dried there.
This woman had, like all of Paris, heard about the Palais-Royal affair and the two Italians, Malagutti and Ratta, who had been arrested for the murder of the money-changer.
She thought very little about this tragedy, which did not concern her, and lived for her white lilac. The lilac represented everything to her, and she thought of nothing except doing “her duty” to it. One day, in the bright sunshine, she was in her room sewing some old clothes for her sad evening toilette. From time to time, she turned her eyes and looked at the lilac. At one of those moments, as her gaze was fixed on the little withered white bunch, she heard the bells sound four o’clock.
Then she saw something strange. A sort of red pearl emerged from the lower end of the dried lilac branch, grew slowly, detached itself, and fell on the white sheet of the bed. It was a drop of blood.
That day, at that same hour, Ratta and Malagutti had just been executed. It was clear that the white lilac had been one of the two. But which one? The poor woman had a cerebral shock where she lost her mind; she had to be locked up in the Salpêtrière. She died there. She would repeat unceasingly: “I am Madame Ratta-Malagutti.” Such are these somber hearts.
Prostitution is an Isis whose last veil has never been lifted. There is a sphinx in this bleak odalisque of the horrible sultan Everyone. All can open her dress, none can open her enigma. It is the masked Stark-Naked. A terrible specter.
Alas! in everything we have just described, man is abominable, woman is touching. Such unfortunate precipices! The abyss is friend of the dream. Once they have fallen, as we have said, their lamentable hearts have no other resource but dreams.
What brought them down is another dream, the dreadful dream of riches; a nightmare of glory, azure and ecstasy which weighs on the chest of the poor; the fanfare of gehenna; the triumphal arch of the fortunate shining in the immense night; a prodigious opening full of dawn! Coaches roll by, gold flows, lace trembles. Why couldn’t I have that too? A formidable thought.
The gleam of this sinister window dazzled them, this gust of grim vapor intoxicated them, they fell, they became rich. Richness is a fatal distant light; woman flies frenetically towards it. The mirror captures the lark. And so, they were rich. They too had their day of enchantment, their minute of festival, their lightning-flash.
They had the fever where modesty dies. They emptied the resounding cup full of the void. They drank the madness of oblivion. What a gentle cradling! what temptation! do nothing and have everything, alas! and also have nothing! not even oneself! To be a slave in the flesh! to be beauty for sale! from being a woman, fall to being a thing! They dreamed, and they had–which is the same thing, for all possession is a dream–the hotels, the carriages, the valets in livery, the suppers sparkling with laughter, the Maison d’Or, silk, velvet, diamonds, pearls, life startled with sensuality, all the joys. Oh! of how much greater value is the innocence of poor little barefoot girls at the edge of the ocean, who in the evening hear the cracked bells of the goats on the sea-cliffs!
Underneath the joys they savored, quick perfidies, there was a dismal tomorrow. The word love meant hatred. The invisible doubles the visible, and it is bleak. The same men who shared their intoxications, the same ones they gave everything to, received everything and accepted nothing. They were putting out roots into ashes. They were being deserted at the same time as they were being embraced. Abandonment was cackling behind the mask of the kiss.
And then, what do you want them to do? They must necessarily keep on loving.
Oh! if only they could, the poor women, if only they could remove their hearts, remove their dreams, harden themselves with an incurable hardness, freeze over forever, tear out their insides, and since they are refuse, become monsters! if they could stop dreaming! if they could ignore flowers, errace the stars, block off the top of the well, close off the sky! at least they would no longer suffer. But no. They have the right to marriage, they have the right to a heart, they have the right to torture, they have the right to the ideal. No cooling affects the inner fire. As frozen as they are, they burn. As we have said, this is at the same time their misery and their crown. This sublimity combines with their abjection to oppress and to raise up. Whether they want it or not, the inextinguishable does not go out. The chimera is indomitable. Nothing is more invincible than dreams, and dreams are almost all of man. Nature doesn’t allow itself to be insoluble. Contemplation, aspiration, love, are necessary. If needed, marble can give an example. A statue becomes a woman more easily than a woman becomes a statue.
The cloaca is a sanctuary despite itself. Its conscience is unhealthy; there is polluted air inside, the irresistible phenomenon is nonetheless achieved; all of the holy generosities blossom pallidly in its cave. Despair secretes pity, cynicism is repressed by ecstasy, the magnificence of goodness shines beneath infamy; this orphan creature feels herself to be a spouse, a sister, a mother; and this fraternity which has no family, and this maternity which has no child, and this adoration which has no altar, she throws them into the shadows. Somebody weds her. Who? he who is in the darkness. The other sufferer. She sees on her finger a ring made of the mysterious gold of dreams. And she sobs. Torrents of tears see the light. Dark delights.
And at the same time, we repeat, unheard-of tortures. She does not belong to the one she gave herself to. Everybody reclaims her. The brutal public hand holds the wretch and does not let her go. She would like to flee–flee where? flee from whom? You, us, herself, him whom she loves especially, the grim ideal man; she cannot.
And so–and here are the extreme despondencies–the unfortunate woman expiates, and her expiation comes from her greatness. Whatever she does, she must love. She is condemned to light. She must sympathize, she must help, she must devote herself, she must be good. The woman who no longer has modesty would like to no longer have love; impossible. The tides of the heart are fatal like those of the sea; the lights of the heart are fixed like those of the night. There are things in us which are impossible to lose. Abnegation, sacrifice, tenderness, enthusiasm, all of these sunbeams turn back upon the woman within herself, and attack her, and burn her. All of her virtues remain to avenge themselves upon her. Where she would have been a wife, she is a slave. She has the misery of cradling a bandit in the blue cloud of her illusions, and to disguise Mandrin in a starry rag. She is crime’s sister of charity. She loves, alas! she is subjected to her inadmissible divinity; she is generous and trembles to be so. She is happy with a terrible happiness. She returns backward into the outraged Eden.
These things within us which are impossible to lose are precisely what we do not reflect upon enough.
Prostitution, vice, crime, what do they matter.
The night thickens, but the spark persists. Whatever descent you make, there is light. Light in the beggar, light in the vagabond, light in the thief, light in the harlot of the street. The lower you sink, the more obstinate is the miraculous light. Every heart has a pearl, which is the same for the sewer-heart and the ocean-heart: love. No filth can dissolve God’s parcel.
So there, at this extremity of shadow, of despondency, of chill and of abandon, in this darkness, in this putrefaction, in these jails, in these quagmires, in this shipwreck, under the last layer of the heap of miseries, under the engulfment of public scorn which is ice and night; behind the whirling of these frightful snowflakes, the judges, the gendarmes, the turnkeys and the executioners for the bandit, the passers-by for the prostitute, crossing each other innumerably in this dirty gray fog which for the wretched replaces the sun; under these merciless fatalities, under this vertiginous tangle of vaults, some made granite, others made of hatred, at the lowest level of horror, at the center of the asphyxia, at the bottom of all possible blacknesses, under the fearful thickness of a deluge made of spit, there, where everything is extinguished, there, where everything is dead, something stirs and shines. What is it? a flame. And what flame? the soul. O wonderful prodigy! Sacred stupor! The proof is completed by the abyss.
1 Clytie, a sea-nymph beloved of Apollo, “god of the day,” who was abandoned by him and despaired. Her distress moved Apollo, who changed her into a sunflower.
2 Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchâtelet (1790-1836), doctor, hygienist, and moralist; author of several works, the most important being Of Prostitution in the City of Paris, considered in the light of morality, public hygiene, and administration.
3 Poulmann, guilty of fraud, armed robbery, and murder, executed on the 7th of February, 1844.
4 Louis-Auguste Papavoine (1784-1825) committed the inexplicable murder of two children he did not know; he alleged that he had mistaken them for children of the royal family. He seems to have been a bit mad.
5 The cemetery of Clamart was situated on the Rue du Fer-à-Moulin, in the Saint-Marcel neighborhood; the bodies of the ill who died in the hospitals were buried there. It was closed in 1793.
6 Nina Lassave had been Fieschi’s mistress. After his execution she became the barmaid of a café, and the mob rushed there to see her.