A matter to reflect upon, and to come back to the general point of view: woman is a minor in the conditions where the social order accepts her, and infamous when the social order rejects her. Revered or decried. One could almost say that woman is outside the law. And yet woman is our mother.
Worthy of pity in either case, and also worthy of respect. Even rejected, even infamous? Yes, because the infamy is our doing rather than hers; yes, because the infamy is a result of her weakness. In the old world as it is, there is an outburst of forces that all tend to bend woman down. A wind of fury and blindness blows upon her. The lowered head of woman accuses us. Her infamy is our opprobrium. Woman has this mark, which proves nothing except our violence and her misery. It is the fold of the reed under the hurricane.
As long as we exist, these dreadful problems touch us all; let us have pity, if only out of egoism; the duty of our civilization is to tackle them clearly, to subject them to the ceaseless work of progress, and and to make a perpetual effort upon all the points that resist the solution. Don’t hide from yourselves the fact that the soiled woman reaches the entirety of society. The expansion of a drop of oil.
This enormous prostitute who goes from the top to the bottom of civilization, who is called Isabeau de Bavière above our heads and Fanchon la Cogne beneath our heels, this giantess of vice, with her dismal nickname of Joy, is she not appalling?
The burden of the girl of the people under the social Ananke is particularly heartrending. The girl of the people who gives herself up is vanquished. Under all the iron hands that seize her, her freedom is so minuscule that she is almost not responsible. She has the right to stand up, and to demand an accounting, and to spit her ignominy back in fate’s face; she has the right to put the public’s scorn on trial before God. In her degradation, she retains an unfathomable and sinister innocence.
There is an aspect of human sacrifice in prostitution, which is the origin of some of its terrible aspects.
The fermentation of all the ancient social vices radiates an unhealthy vapor across civilization. The old world, finished or finishing, appears as a bleak moral solitude. The philosopher prowls there, barely daring to approach all the nocturnal forms he glimpses.
The hour is somber. This is the cauldron. The cauldron of the Brocken1, the cauldron of the Haremuir heath2; the great fateful vat of the old world. The flame licks the bronze; the boiling is monstrous. Throw the newborn into it, throw blonde hair, throw gray hair, throw the mother, throw the child, throw the virginity of poor girls, throw that toad shame into it, throw cries and tears, throw hunger, throw night. All the old human society simmers in its depths; the blaze burns merrily below it. Lightning and thunder. The hideous masks of darkness grow purple in the glare of the inferno, the obscure frenzy of the Furies appears in the smoke; Ignorance, Misery, and Crime join hands around the mystery. There is confused dancing in the glimmering. Who dances? The creatures of the abyss. And in the twilight, under the flight of bats, under the cries of owls, before the immensity of the shadows crumbling from the heavens, the three specters, shaking their rags, spreading the blackness of their terrible arms upon the horizon, haggard, wild, gleeful, say to the murderer passing by: “You are king!”
These realities of subterranean social evil have the strange and hideous peculiarity that it is impossible to gaze upon them for long without believing they are dreams. The more they are studied, the more shocking they are. The more you touch them with your finger, the more you are tempted to say, “It cannot be.” Under the observer’s eye, they take on little by little the character of the impossible. Their discrepancy with human nature takes away their believability; they exist, alas! but at such a degree that the horrible seems absurd, and you think you are seeing a sort of phantom fact. Observation is made complicated by bemusement. This whole underside of civilization takes shape like a vision before the thinker’s gaze. It seems made to be contemplated at the same time by Sainte-Foix, drunk at the bottom of the refuse-collector’s cart, and by John from the top of Patmos. Forms of darkness pass; there is a meteor, number 113; one hears Lacenaire’s3 burst of laughter in the prison of Bicêtre; bunches of keys clink in the shadows like the bells of mountain goats; the outlines of a cavern are mingled with the stars; everything floats, rolls, shakes, dissipates and reforms, is it rock? is it smoke? breathe it, and you are asphyxiated; if it fell upon you it would crush you. Doors open and close and push the shadows back; one hears grates creaking; prison coaches leave at a trot; one glimpses gendarmes; turnkeys come and go; calm clerks, with their serge sleeves, write; one catches sight of the insides of offices, cold men, judges, dossiers, open files on lecterns, ranks of folios bearing dates and letters of the alphabet, the legs of tables, armchairs, and chairs, among which all the curses and all the blasphemies wind their flares. One sees depths; one hears the froth of a torrent towards which Mingal is heading, carrying a bag; something is sticking out of a hole in the bag, it is a woman’s foot. The bush where Papavoine4 is hidden trembles; a wind of upheaval mixes the specters; Henriette Cormier plays with a ball that is the head of a child. A chaos of glittering knives is grimly dominated by two red posts; the exaggeration of the shadows adds to the horror; the bestiality of vices shows itself; the vicious man howls, the hypocrite caterwauls, human faces expand into leopards’ faces; drunkards go by singing; they are descending from the Courtille5, they are falling into Cocytus; they are joyful; they waltz, they eat, they drink; Castaing clinks glasses with the Ballet brothers; the women are in low-cut dresses, everyone has masks, they raise up the wolf to kiss it; “Let’s dine!” cries a voice; “Let’s dance!” cries another; there is an orchestra; the laughter is immense; at one end Musard’s fiddle-bow, at the other the Archangel’s sword; and the apocalypse borders on the Carnival.
Isn’t it dreadful? What do you say to having all of that beneath you?
Are they only crimes, debaucheries, vices, attacks, sacrileges, ambushes, thefts, murders, perversities? No. They are sufferings. This wound that laughs is horrible. These men are unfortunate, these women are desperate, their joy is the hideous surface of devastation, these monsters are the sick. And as long as these sick people are in civilization, civilization will be sad. Society will be like Byron hiding his clubfoot. It will have the incurable melancholy of underlying misery on its face. Certain pallors betray the illness externally. The perceptive won’t be mistaken about them; a philosopher is a doctor. So be happy! Up with the smile, down with the ulcer. Hiding a deformity is not getting rid of it. If you don’t admit your plague, are you the less plague-ridden? It is time to take a side. Do we want to heal it, yes or no?
We repeat, no study is equal in greatness to the contemplation of the tremendous chasms which evil opens in the human race. Whoever dreams of closing them must dare to sound them. Theft, ignorance, prostitution, misery, are so many places to fall, so many dizzying gaps, so many horrible cavernous mouths where millions of living beings fall in a black snow. These slopes of the abyss attract the thinker. They attract whoever wants to see the dragons of dreams, whoever has tremendous curiosity. They attract whoever has pity. Are you merciful? Come, and look. Afterwards we will weep; afterwards we will decide. In order to wish to lean over these depths, it is enough to feel moved and touched by these immensities of bitterness, and to have a tear to give to the ocean.
1 The Brocken, the highest of the Hartz mountains. German legends made it the meeting place of supernatural spirits who, every year on the night of the first of May, celebrated an infernal festival there: Walpurgis night. Witches’ sabbats were also alleged to take place there. Walpurgis night is one of the scenes in Goethe’sFaust.
2 The Haremuir heath, in Macbeth, where the three witches salute Macbeth, who was Thane of Glamis, and predict that he will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland. (Macbeth, Acts I and III.)
3 Pierre-François Lacenaire (1800-1835), journalist, poet, but especially a deserter, thief, forger, and murderer, whose accomplices were Avril and Martin.
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 Courtille: a neighborhood of Paris which was once part of Belleville, and which derived its name from the courtils or small gardens attached to peasants’ houses. A bucolic spot that became a strolling ground for Parisians and where the dance-halls were numerous. At Carnival time, the masses went there to drink, dance, and have fun. They spent the night of Mardi Gras enjoying themselves, and at daybreak on Ash Wednesday, the masks, the tired faces, and the rumpled clothes descended in a noisy procession from the Courtille to the Parisian boulevards, surrounded by a great crowd of curious onlookers attracted by the picturesque spectacle.