Sunday, October 29, 2006

Assommons les Pauvres!

"Assommons les Pauvres!" [or, "Let's Beat Up the Poor!"]

a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire; translated from the French by Edward K. Kaplan.

'For two weeks I had shut myself up in my room, and I had surrounded myself with the books fashionable at that time (sixteen or seventeen years ago); I speak of books dealing with the art of making nations happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours. I had thus digested -- swallowed, I mean -- all the ramblings of all those managers of public happiness -- of those who advise all the poor to become slaves, and those who persuade them that they are all dethroned kings. -- It will not be considered surprising that I was then in a state of mind bordering on vertigo or idiocy.

Yet I thought that I sensed, shut deep within my intellect, the dim seed of an idea better than all the old wives' formulas I had recently perused in the encyclopedia. But it was only the idea of an idea, something infinitely hazy.

Then I went out quite thirsty. For a passionate craving for shoddy books begets a proportional need for the open air and refreshments.

As I was about to enter a tavern, a beggar held out his hat, with one of those unforgettable looks that would topple thrones, if mind could move matter, and if a hypnotist's eyes could ripen grapes.

At the same time, I heard a voice whispering in my ear, a voice I knew well; the voice of a good Angel, or of a good Demon, who accompanies me everywhere. Since Socrates had his good Demon, why shouldn't I have my good Angel, why shouldn't I have the honor, like Socrates, of acquiring my certificate of insanity, signed by the insightful Lelut and the sagacious Baillarger?

The difference between the Demon of Socrates and my own is that his would appear to him only to forbid, warn, suggest, and persuade. That poor Socrates had only a prohibitive demon; mine is a great approver, mine is a Demon of action, or Demon of combat.

This is what its voice whispered to me: "He alone is equal to another, if he proves it, and he alone is worthy of freedom, if he can conquer it."

Immediately, I pounced on the beggar. With a single punch, I shut one eye, which became, in a second, as big as a ball. I broke one of my nails smashing two of his teeth, and since I didn't feel strong enough to beat up the old man quickly, having been born fragile and not well trained in boxing, with one hand I grabbed him by the collar of his outfit, and I gripped his throat with the other, and I began vigorously to bounce his head against a wall. I should admit that beforehand I had examined the surroundings with a glance, and I had ascertained that in that deserted suburb, for a long enough time, I was beyond the reach of any policeman.

Having next, with a kick directed to his back, forceful enough to break his shoulder blades, floored that weakened sexagenarian, I grabbed a big tree branch lying on the ground, and I beat him with the obstinate energy of cooks trying to tenderize a beefsteak.

Suddenly, -- Oh miracle! Oh delight of the philosopher who verifies the excellence of his theory! -- I saw that antique carcass turn over, straighten up with a force I would never have suspected in a machine so peculiarly unhinged. And, with a look of hatred that seemed to me a good omen, the decrepit bandit flung himself on me, blackened both my eyes, broke four of my teeth, and, with the same tree branch beat me to a pulp. -- By my forceful medication, I had thus restored his pride and his life.

Then, I made a mighty number of signs to make him understand that I considered the debate settled, and getting up with the self-satisfaction of a Stoic sophist, I told him, "Sir, you are my equal! Please do me the honor of sharing my purse. And remember, if you are a true philanthropist, you must apply to all your colleagues, when they seek alms, the theory I had the pain to test upon your back."

He indeed swore that he had understood my theory, and that he would comply with my advice.'

[1864]