The Law of Alms

The demand of the beggar is the demand of the gods (137-142)

“Generosity is an obligation because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people.” (Mauss, 18)

(This post is part of the Art as Gift Project)

The beggar signifies the absolute demand of the other, which is the unquenchable thirst for the gift, for alms. The giving of alms to the beggar is within a sacrificial structure. Sacrifice is different to a pure gift – it is giving is in the form of destruction, hoping for a benefit. Mauss calls the sacrifice “the present made to the gods.” Alms are a calculated sacrifice.

The poor, marginal people excluded from the process and circulation of wealth, come to represent the gods or the dead. The look of the beggar or of the poor is one of incrimination, accusation, a demand from the other. You must pay, i.e. give to stop the spirit from coming back to haunt you. The giving of alms is in order to “get in good graces and make peace with it.”

The persecution of the beggar
Counterfeit Money is marked by misfortune from the moment of the first encounter. The condition of the poor man is on account of misfortune, he is destitute, speechless. The absolute demand of the other that the beggar gives, is communicated through his eyes. His look accuses and frightens the two friends, who are persecuted by the law, by justice, in the face of which they are in turn destitute. The poor man has nothing to give, he can only demand restitution in the disquieting mute eloquence of his look, which communicates humility and reproach. Baudelaire likens this look of the beggar to that of a beaten dog. Elsewhere he invokes the image of the dog and the poor to define his “urban muse,” “his poet’s inspiration as painter of modern capital and of the modern capital.” (143) Saying the poet shares the same fate of exclusion as the dog and the poor.

The trial of Counterfeit Money
The demand of the poor man embodies the figure of the law. The two friends are indebted and guilty as soon as the beggar silently looks at them. “They are on trial, they appear before the donee’s court as before the law.” (144) They treat with gratitude whoever accepts their payment in order to acquit themselves of their debt.

The story is a trial, a process [procession, walk]. The two friends walk for the length of the story, which also contains the time of a judicial procedure: incrimination [the meeting with the beggar], law [the giving of the gift] judgment [“I will never forgive him”]. In meeting the beggar they are before the law.

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