This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #5.

Alexander the Great and Diogenes by Gaspar de Crayer

Alexander the Great and Diogenes by Gaspar de Crayer

‘Every stranger and beggar comes from Zeus.’ The greatest adventure story of Antiquity might have ended badly were it not for a beggar, who was the hero in disguise. Dressed in a tattered outfit upon his return to Ithaca, equipped by Athena with sack and staff, the king Ulysses profits by the belief in the wandering poor’s divine protection and by the Greek code of hospitality towards strangers to reclaim his throne. At the time, a beggar’s blessing was (grudgingly) valued, and he was welcome; today it is anything but, and he is shunned or sent packing. Yet if the intervening millennia undermined this figure’s social function and hurt its image, the very process of accommodating mendicancy and assuming social responsibility for its relief seem only to have magnified it.

Whether reviled or regretted, beggary has since time immemorial been associated with material want. Although the historical record on the subject is sparse, the practice has its origins in settled, agrarian societies with private property and stratified by wealth. In cultures more egalitarian by happenstance or design where these conditions are missing, begging has no objective reason to exist. Where all have more or less equal means, no matter how meager, it finds no economic support.

Dwelling in or moving between them, sedentary or itinerant, the beggar presents as the poorest of the poor. While the classic image is that of a man filthy, lame, foul, raggedly clad, the abundance of used and discarded clothing has done much to alter it. By the end of the last century, the once mandatory raggedness—a credential serving to elicit others’ compassion—disappeared from the unprepossessing ensemble of beggarly attributes. What defines the beggar these days is no longer torn, threadbare, or patched garments, complete with grimy shoelessness or footwear on its way to disintegration. It is, rather, his particular habitus, likewise a cross-cultural constant: the concrete request—written, spoken or unspoken—for food or money, combined with full or partial prostration before potential patrons.

It is these customs, acts, and gestures, not the slovenly, crippled look, that set the beggar apart from the rest of the poor. The finer the line between begging and indigence becomes, the more absolute it appears to those in real danger of crossing it. No self-respecting poverty falls as low as beggary, which on top of material destitution adds mischief, helplessness, and resignation. As long as they think it below them, the poor maintain a pride in their unrewarded ability and strength of character—proof that they deserve better. Those, however, whose actual or alleged material need is legible in self-abasement (still symbolized by rags but no longer requiring them) are not so salvageable, and consequently merit their own social category. The performance of relative material privation rendering the needy at once abject and relatable bestows on them a special distinction, acts as a special sanction, and ensures our perpetual negligence of them.

Since the needy are not confined to a class, ‘beggar’ is not a class-bound category; virtually anyone can, in principle, find themselves on the street soliciting passersby for money. The highborn, it is true, will always find a usurer and in case of madness will be taken care of. A clever kid might learn street smarts like a good ‘Gavroche,’ or apprentice in a trade that will assure his livelihood. As for the country boy or girl come to the city without a penny to their name, their charms needn’t go to waste if a head-hunter of sorts finds them a bed to turn tricks into profit. Aside from those cases, protected against even worse misfortune by their birth, youth, and naivety, all are candidates for beggars whom fortune keeps in reserve.

Although it addresses itself to relative social betters and draws its recruits from across the social spectrum, panhandling has only a distant and—we are quick to say—metaphorical cousin in high society. What happens there seems to belong only there. At elevations where indirect, trickle-down forms of material benefit thrive, parasitism maintains the pretense of good breeding, and the tools it uses to impress and put at ease those hardest to impress and versed in deception differ from those whose immediate superiors live lower down. The performance of desperate need is strictly forbidden, the willingness to exchange services for tangible gifts a must. At least in the prelude, skilled sycophants appear to ask for something, something big even, but one they seemingly can do without; they plead as though reluctantly, pushed by circumstances with which they had nothing—and will have nothing further—to do once fortune smiles on them. Refinement separates them from ordinary schnorrers. They put forward their obsequious and discreet leg, making a pretense of devotion to potential benefactors and their readiness for anything (and for keeping it secret). This kind of beggary is as old as power and lust, and it thrives in a world where everything inside and outside oneself seems to be for sale once the right buyer has been found. Despite its upper-class veneer and higher stakes, we recognize in it the contours of devalued life.

Meanwhile, beggars we can all agree on are not simply what we call bums—not on account of Sitzfleisch, not in reference to bumming, but, to the contrary, an unwillingness to get up, a torpor so yawning as to render them incapable of it, and (on grounds psychological or constitutional) a lack of initiative and motivation to raise their own standard of living. Tramps are people whom the state is supposed to help, if they let it. They have maintained their dignity only because they represent the antithesis to ‘the meaning of life’ however defined. They have our sympathy for existing without hope, without aspiration, for checking out without making the voyage to nothingness, still hanging on for no apparent reason other than numbness or indolence. We need them as buffers against nihilism and the abyss. Some, particularly the most barefaced, malodorous, and semi-nude, seem to have descended from the spirit of Diogenes of Sinope, and to live on, for an indeterminate time (decades sometimes), outside the circuits of desire and consumption sucking up all the world’s air. They mock our ‘choices,’ and repudiate our compromises like the gaunt wolf does the well-fed dog in Jean de La Fontaine’s fable (or is this just another myth?). Their being is so minimal that it makes no material difference. They do not register on any of the metrics of modern life; in their persistence they are ancient and eternal. Though they may not always have a place for them, shelters are never a permanent option for anyone who still values their freedom. Even in the dead of winter, urban outreach programs to get them to come out of the cold fail in part because of their ‘stubbornness’ on this point. There are, in other words, the noble poor who (for whatever reason) never stoop to begging, and the ignoble rest who beg non-stop.

It is predominantly the sight of those latter that irritates. There are many kinds of abuses, multiple ways in which the modest entreaty of the beggar can get on our nerves: the repeat beseeching of the boomerang beggar or the beggar who forgets our offering (we feel offended); the importuning ingratitude of one who, given something, instantly asks for more, or the irksome presumptuousness of another we habitually relieve (it saps our joy); the obstinacy of the beggar who does not take no for an answer (not just the greatest nuisance but a violation of consensual terms); the intimidation and aggression of the beggar fed up with their lot (‘I could have picked your pockets but instead I ask’); as well as, let’s not forget, the all-too-common zeal that forces upon us, at the most inopportune moments, entertainments we would rather do without. This litany of petty grievances and annoyances is like the myriad of excuses; they proliferate the more we are aware of their insufficiency.

In the form of busking, beggary can be transformed by the young and promising or manifestly talented bodies of its practitioners into, simply, a way to make an extra buck or even a living—by sporting a histrionic get-up, practicing an instrument, a song, or a dance. In such cases, as long as it retains the trappings of work, it remains respectable, although in its assimilation to spectacle it loses its moral function and leads us away from questioning our values and habits and towards amusement and (invariably semi- to silent) applause. The busker, whom we presume honest, upright, hardworking, and only temporarily down on their luck due to location or vocation, whom we imagine either selling their skills on the street and in subway corridors as a last resort to patch a hole in their budget or to raise money for self-advancement, or else not selling anything at all but, rather, displaying their talents for reasons (again) of location or vocation: intolerant landlord or neighbors, upcoming gig, love of live audiences, etc. This, especially if done with unfeigned passion, de-greases the busker considerably. It is their apparent lack of artifice and pretense that helps us get over any residual embarrassment (on their behalf, we like to think) and wins them our respect. They are descendants of the beggar-musicians of yore, cranking their hurdy-gurdies from town to town and airing their accordions in the courtyards of tenements.

A step down from buskers are street punks. They, even more than their entertaining kin, have the advantage of youth, which softens the head-shaking disdain many feel for them, leaving only concerned disapproval. As a social type originally restricted to men, the ‘punk’ has left his mark up and down the social ladder—from a kept boy toy for an older man in a position of power in Antiquity (equivalent to ‘catamite’) to a (sexualized) road-kid for a vagabond or a female prostitute—before finally settling somewhere mid-way and off to the side: a lifestyle choice open to both sexes, or neither. A symbol of disaffected, unwashed, drug-addicted youth with a penchant for ostentation, bodily mutilation, and taking up the pavement in packs flanked by mongrels, the punk remains a brazen fixture of urban space and an archetype of revolt against conventions, reappearing reliably over the last two generations as a déjà vu, virtually without variation.

Given the trademark hairdo and outfit characteristic of fans of punk-rock within this group, the punk is routinely suspected of disavowed privilege; their experiments in living on the wild side and unclean appearance, as schematic and repetitive as these are, betoken an excess of leisure and a spoiled imagination. Anyone with a culture, even one sub-mainstream, cannot be so badly off. In effect, the punk’s taking to the streets is seen, at best, as insufficiently motivated by material need, at worst, as a caprice of adolescence, a juvenile rebellion against parents or institutions as perennial as it is prodigal, as predictable as it is tantamount to biting the hand that feeds. The lived conflict between the alternative lifestyle and actual need is evident in their casualness, to the point of neglect, towards money: punks seem to prefer hanging out idly to making a proper, direct alms-request, and any cash that comes their way is converted into a substance that is not food or saved for some other nefarious purpose. Their disregard for money is a counter-cultural statement, combined with vague allegiance to the black flag of anarchy.

Quite apart from these recognizable social types, and how beggary is admixed in each of them, we believe we know a beggar when we see one. We trust our knowledge of people, and understand that begging can be hidden, can come in disguise—dissimulation that has less to do with dishonesty than with shame at being reduced to it. Even if such begging can be hard to spot, we trust ourselves to apply the term literally to those who might prefer we do so metaphorically.

Real mendicancy, its truthful, accountable, and un-ignorable form, we insist, stems from material destitution. Beggars play to this principle by parking themselves (authorities permitting) near the foundations of our civilization: at the portals of churches and other expensive establishments. Their proximity to these palaces of Western consumption and Christian dispensation, where the rich come to expend their surplus and the faithful to pay lip service to universal compassion, obliges their clients to pay them some mind. Although clearly a stratagem, those not annoyed by it forgive such obvious calculation as a challenge, going so far as to imagine it a practice of social criticism on the lowest rung of articulacy. Yet inducing guilt at our privilege carries certain risks, as a series of pre-rehearsed rationalizations of indifference to beggars compete for our attention, with each repetition acquiring the integrity of principles and the solidity of true beliefs.

Among the best known and, not incidentally, least-sophisticated of such excuses are those limited to that particular beggar. When no obvious root of their indignity can be detected (by which we inevitably mean a handicap, visible like blindness or deafness, represented by the peddling of sign-language cards), we spy behind the verbal appeal and collection box or hat a myriad of bogus, shady, and illicit affairs: they will use the money to buy alcohol or narcotics; they are accomplices and victims, working for gangs whose ringleaders pocket all pickings; they are not really needy, just slackers perfectly capable of finding honest work; they are impostors; they are professionals (all signs of mendicant professionalism being anathema to credibility, except perhaps in the case spotted on Berlin’s Weidendammer Bridge, begging clad as a mendiant à l’ancienne). While our judgment may be spot-on, there is nothing quite like the gut-wrenching feeling of cowardice upon passing one we have let down, even as we prop up our resolve with the argument that steps taken past a beggar are steps taken to combat beggary.

Observe closely your own reactions to all manner of beggars you come across. (But first, since their lowly position often renders them indistinct and invisible, learn to notice them by playing spot-a-beggar.) You will soon see that you judge them, applying moral categories to each one. You may make a point of offering to buy food in lieu of handing over money, as a way of testing them. We require our beggars to be justified even when we cannot justify their existence. Those of them who sense this tell the best hard-luck stories: simple and doleful briefs from hell that, no matter how credible and cogent, are not meant to be believed. Each is different, each scores differently in the areas of sincerity, authenticity, forsakenness, and helpability. Because their plight, of which we haven’t the slightest clue, can have different origins—it may be due to accidents and external causes, or to character flaws and self-created circumstances—not all beggars are morally equal. They are, if anything, all equally low.

Little has changed since the dawn of modernity about our gut assessment of those who look healthy (meaning corpulent) and keep some furry pity-magnet by their side—now just another mouth to feed, canine typically, not the handy ferret of old that could catch some rats in return for donations, or the bear who danced for his supper. They are mere stuffing for an ageless stereotype: ‘sturdy Beggars,’ wrote Bernard Mandeville, who ‘deceive People with a pitiful Tone and an outward Shew of Misery, and as soon as they are out of sight, lay by their Cant, indulge their Appetites, and enjoy one another.’[1] The stereotype then feeds a family of prejudices, such as the idea that benevolence is actively disabling to those not already mentally or physically disabled.

The one charge that fits well within this sequence of more or less veiled accusations, but that cannot be levelled against public beggary, is that of theft. The two occupations are categorically different. And yet, in one respect, they could not be more alike: because the issue around which both turn is money, because they are both desperate ways of acquiring it, they are both nervous-making. If the presence of beggary instills guilt about having too much, the threat of larceny (‘Beware of pickpockets!’) provokes fear of losing too much. Thanks to the association of both with the pursuit of money, they are comparable and even connected in our minds, if only because it is eminently reasonable that a beggar, poorly recompensed for his disgrace as he is, should eventually, one day, turn thief.

Nonetheless, by the clear light of sober thought, the distinctness and even opposition of theft and beggary has the aura of a sacred truth. For money is a sensitive topic that can tie our mind into knots. Beggars depend on our charity and profit by consent; they are figures of weakness more than cunning, deserving of our (however reluctant) commiseration, similar to invalids with whom they have a habit of coinciding in the welfare-less tracts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and the global South. Thieves, meanwhile, prey on weakness and earn by our inattention; they are a menace to be punished and ostracized from the community in which they crop up. Each robbery committed on a single person, owner and thus theft-prone, is potentially a robbery of all. A thief’s targeted job sows general disquiet; a beggar’s general plea for indulgence touches scarcely anyone.

There are many grounds on which we can condemn the phenomenon of mendicity, grounds like structural inequality and the failure—whose symptom it is—of the state to ensure the welfare of its citizens. These, however, are not grounds for condemning individual beggars, whose blame for the miserable lot that society, whether by its structuring logic or habituation, ensures for them must perforce be minimal. In one sense, by a kind of metonymic leap from the low place they occupy in space to psychic immaturity, beggars resemble minors. They are not so much constitutionally unfit as they are beings whom life has not prepared to face the challenges thrown in their path. They plant themselves close to the ground because they have never properly grown up. When they share their spot with children, we hold them responsible for abusing them, but the truth of the matter is that all who beg are children we have failed to protect.

The sight of a child begging is the sorest and sorriest of all. Instead of a palm held out timidly for money, we see a finger pointed at us in mute accusation. In Homer’s day, beggars performed the service of blessing those who gave; in ours, they wish us a nice day even when left empty-handed. In thus diluting the value of their blessing, they ease our conscience and lose the little power they have over us.

The sight of an elderly beggar is only slightly less demoralizing. Never mind the poet’s waxing romantic about him as a living “record which together binds / past deeds and offices of charity, / else unremembered, and so keeps alive / the kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years”; or as the patron of “that first mild touch of sympathy and thought / in which they found their kindred with a world / Where want and sorrow were”; or as “a silent monitor,” making our own present boons “felt.”[2] To point out that encountering beggars leaves us self-critical, reflecting on our privilege and on the injustice of inequality, and that such reflection is a very good thing, and that the existence of extreme poverty laid bare has, in effect, clear social and moral benefits, is grotesquely question-begging. When out of sight, beggars appear human enough: as degraded, deformed images of ourselves. When accosting us in numbers greater than one, they take on a different guise, marginally human: brutalized, one-dimensional, automatic actors, haunting our world without consequence. They can make us feel ambivalent: simultaneously good and bad about ourselves, both altruistic and inadequate, secure and culpable. Like the squeaky hinge heard whenever poverty’s great gate swings open as if to embrace the new arrivals, mendicancy is an ‘effect’ of a much bigger social problem, an epiphenomenon to which we are always-already accustomed. The noise is unfortunate and, when too loud, grating, but never painful enough to shock us into doing something about it—really doing something, such as oiling the gate.

We do not fool ourselves—or do we?—by thinking that an act of munificence shown towards a beggar might turn their life around. We know that mendicity lives in the Slough of Poverty. Centuries of managing it as a blight and as many centuries of consensus about needing to cure it have not only failed to eradicate the social and material bases of mendicancy, they have seen them grow. Not too long ago, we realized that poverty worldwide had reached staggering proportions. In our time, finding a solution to begging necessarily falls by the wayside, its reduction barely scratches the surface of the problem and is less likely to lift beggars out of poverty than to keep them there. We feel that we can afford to ignore beggary because we cannot possibly afford to eliminate poverty equally, which is to say for all.

And so, because we cannot fix everything about poverty, we do nothing about its most glaring part. This perfectly transparent psychological accommodation and social inertia towards mendicancy in the era of advanced capitalism follows millennia of fear, condescension, and resentment, and no end of efforts to make it ‘go away.’ It is easy to forget that, after many lean years as an ascetic Christian practice under the Roman Empire, begging attained a measure of success as the hallmark of a religious vocation towards the end of the Middle Ages. The various new mendicant orders enjoyed a license to beg in return for spreading the Gospel. Friars vowing poverty who had nothing to lose to begin with could go abroad freely collecting from the rich and the poor alike. Others, like Thomas Aquinas, belonged to the clerisy and forwent title and wealth to do so. Yet as their economic eccentricity went against the crusading Church’s financial needs, this official toleration was short-lived.[3] In Marx’s telling of modern history, the expropriation of peasants with the breakup of feudal estates made beggars of the sturdy nascent proletariat unable to find work. The Renaissance saw ‘The fathers of the present working class … chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers [as though] it was entirely within their powers to go on working under the old conditions which in fact no longer existed.’[4]

Beginning in the early-modern period, reforms aimed at mendicancy have principally been repressive: the willy-nilly confinement of beggars, lumped in with other social undesirables like lepers, vagabonds, and the mentally ill in prisons, hospitals, and workhouses; their banishment beyond village and city limits; vagrancy laws aimed at the wandering poor, as well as the direct criminalization of begging in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—all were meant to counteract the perceived threat to public safety of the ubiquitous ‘gypsy’ lifestyle.[5] And in our day, following decades of inconspicuous mendicity, public tolerance is once again on the retreat. Even Pope Benedict XVI, praising the Mendicants at length for ‘renew[ing] the courage of thought,’ mentions the practice of begging only once and in scare quotes.[6] Its global spike is prompting municipalities to bring back such tried-and-true methods as citywide prohibitions, permits, the creation of begging-free zones, and such progressive measures as the imposition of begging etiquette, or outlawing alms-giving.[7] Where the bans have remained in force, as in England, they have not always been uniformly enforced. In India, as behooves a former colony, begging is tried in special courts and carries the penalty of incarceration.

As something technically solvable while seemingly eternal, mendicancy is proof of the bankruptcy of old utopias that we did well to discard. The beggar’s face spans the aegis of redemption, but the battle for which it is meant has not yet broken out. As Theodor Adorno, citing his friend and intellectual vagrant Walter Benjamin, put it: ‘So long as there is still a single beggar . . . there is still myth,’ still ideology that fatidically naturalizes all persecution. ‘Only with the last beggar’s disappearance would myth be reconciled,’[8] or rooted out. Against this myth, the beggar’s utopia is one in which there is no beggary, or at least one in which beggars no longer have to beg to live. There is no haven for beggars in all the utopias imagined in the wake of Thomas More for the simple reason that, in the no-place, beggars have no place. The utopian happiness of those who are the unhappiest on earth—and beggars surely qualify—would be a utopia in utopia. The only utopia worthy of the name.

[1] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, vol. 1 (London: J. Tonson, 1724), p. 165.

[2] William Wordsworth, “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” from the 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads by him and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Indeed, Wordsworth worried that the “HOUSES, misnamed of INDUSTRY” where English beggars were put to work threatened with extinction this class of elderly vagabond.

[3] For more on begging by Christian monks and friars, see for instance Daniel Caner, Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), and Andrew Jotischky, The Carmelites and Antiquity: Mendicants and Their Pasts in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[4] Karl Marx, Capital A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 896.

[5] See, for example, Michel Foucault, ‘The Great Confinement,’ in Foucault, History of Madness, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa, ed. J. Khalfa (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 44–77; Olwen Hufton, ‘Begging, Vagrancy, Vagabondage and the Law: An Aspect of the Problem of Poverty in Eighteenth-Century France,’ European History Quarterly 2.2 (1972): pp. 97–123; and Beate Althammer, ‘Transnational Expert Discourse on Vagrancy around 1900,’ The Welfare State and the ‘Deviant Poor’ in Europe, 1870–1933, ed. B. Althammer, Andreas Gestrich, and Jens Gründler (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 103–125.

[6] Benedict XVI, General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall, Wednesday, 13 January 2010, https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20100113.html#.

[7] Ian Wylie, ‘Reach Out, Raise Money or Remove: How Should Cities Deal with Street Begging?,’ The Guardian, 29 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/nov/29/how-should-cities-deal-with-street-begging-homelessness.

[8] Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (New York: Verso, 2005), pp. 199–200, sec. 128 (‘Regressions’). The fragment by Benjamin is from The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), p. 400 (sec. K6,4).

 

S.D. Chrostowska teaches humanities and social and political thought at York University and is the author of the critical-philosophical fragments Matches (2015), the novel Permission (2013), and Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland, and Russia, 1700–1800 (2012). She is also co-editor of Political Uses of Utopia (2017).


 

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