Of Beggars and Men

Recently I visited an exhibition in Paris about Victor Hugo’s spiritualist table-rapping while he was in exile from the Second Empire on the island of Jersey (supposed rationalists in politics are not necessary rationalist in everything, or indeed in anything, else). After leaving Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges I walked down the rue du Pas de la Mule towards the Boulevard Beaumarchais. It is a short street, full of shops selling expensive trinkets, mostly execrable, to well-heeled tourists. There is also an art gallery on the street with such atrocious paintings that, were bad taste a crime, the owners and their clients would be sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  

On the sidewalk in front of one of the trinket shops was stretched a woman, in her late fifties I should judge, dressed not in rags exactly but in a variety of layers of clothing that somehow suggested peasant-type rags. (I thought it was very well-judged, if indeed it was a performance.)  Lying beside her was a metal crutch; she lay halfway between her side and her front so that if she turned her head upwards she could look at the people passing her, but this she did only intermittently. Instead she extended her arms in front of her, joining her hands in a gesture of supplication, shaking as if in the grip of some neurological disorder. It must have been physically exhausting to keep it up. In front of her was a paper cup into which passers-by could put their coins.

I found this at once disturbing, fascinating and irritating. I secreted myself into a doorway and observed her and passers-by for about twenty minutes. The performance – if that is what it was – continued without the slightest interruption or indication that it was anything other than genuine, and it could therefore be described as truly professional. I did not perform a scientific survey, but I should estimate that not more than 1 per cent of passers-by gave her any money.

It is not that the others failed to notice her. Rather, they walked round her in much the way that people skirt a natural obstacle, though a few did so with a downward glance of disdain, as if avoiding something unpleasant such as dog droppings. A few others showed themselves curious, not quite believing that a person such as she, or such a situation, could still exist; they were not the ones who gave money, however, who mostly let it fall into her paper cup and hurried on, as if either embarrassed or shamed into donation.

Why did this spectacle disturb and irritate me? I had no means of knowing the woman’s true economic position. Where did she live, in what circumstances and with whom? What did she eat, how much money would she have had without begging? How much did she make by prostrating herself on the rue du Pas de la Mule? Did she have collaborators (as she must have had if she were as incapacitated as she wanted people to believe)? Did she have to hand over a part of her takings to the beggar’s equivalent of a pimp? Though I should have liked to know these things I lacked the determination to find them out; in the absence of such knowledge, I felt a little guilty at supposing her a fraud.

And even if she were a fraud – even if in fact she were perfectly able-bodied – hers was an unenviable way to make a living; in a modern society, indeed, it is difficult to think of less enviable ways. So just as a person who constantly makes up symptoms and illnesses from which he does not really suffer is seen by doctors as suffering from the illness of making up symptoms and illnesses, so a fraudulent beggar is seen (by me at any rate) as worthy of compassion, for I cannot rid myself of the thought that anyone who resorts to such a practice must have a wretched existence. I have never really believed in tales of beggars who ride in Mercedes and reside in mansions; and even if they existed, the fact is that most beggars are – well, just beggars.

Perhaps it is mistaken to give to beggars, especially in a rich country, as it is to encourage beggary; but unfortunately this is abstract reasoning and beggars are people, not abstractions. A donation gives relief or pleasure (perhaps a malicious pleasure if the beggar is a fraud), but to pass a beggar by without giving when one is perfectly able to do so is to harden one’s heart by means of a chain or reasoning that justifies meanness. I am reminded that Doctor Johnson, who was neither rich nor unaware of the perils both economic and psychological of dependent idleness, and who was a true liberal in economic matters, never passed a beggar without giving him something.

Be this all as it may, I have noticed since my last visit to Paris (less than a year ago) a large increase in the number both of beggars and people living in Metro stations, many of which now smell of people who have not washed for weeks or months. Many of the residents are alcoholic, many are obviously schizophrenic, and a large proportion (apart from the alcoholics) obviously foreign.

Why this sudden increase? Naturally, the numbers of residents in the Metro are still very small by comparison with the numbers of passengers on the Metro: a few hundred, perhaps, compared with several millions. But does the increase in the numbers of residents in the Metro signify a shift to the left of the bell-curve of income, so that there are disproportionately more people who are truly destitute? Paris certainly looks prosperous enough, despite the crisis, and property prices are rising; by comparison with Anglo-Saxon countries, luxuries seem not only of superior quality but more widely distributed and consumed.

Or is it that the authorities look less unfavorably upon beggary, and that what was formerly kept out of sight is now allowed into the daylight? Or is it that, despite high unemployment, France continues to attract large numbers of immigrants, destitution in France being preferable to whatever conditions prevail at home? Parisian friends told me that there are now true bidonvilles, or favelas, on the outskirts of Paris, though personally I did not see them. By way of contrast, I did not encounter a single beggar while spending a week in Istanbul recently.

I have no solution to offer, but if there were one I am pretty sure M. Hollande would not find it. He was elected to power promising change; the French satirical weekly, La Canard enchainé, says he has kept his promise. 2012 has become 2013.