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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

*****Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery

    • Author, Albert Cossery (1913-2008), is an Egyptian born French writer. Born in Cairo, he moved to Paris after WWII and remained there for the rest of his life.
    • first published in French in 1955
    • translated from the French in 1981 by Thomas W. Cushing.
    • NYRB edition: revisions and introduction by Alyson Waters.
    • Considering the topic of this book, here are two similar, but interesting articles on Albert Cossery and his indolent life style:
    My Thoughts
    To fully appreciate Cossery’s dark humor, one must let go of traditional concepts of poverty and understand it as an alternative to an hypocritical oppressive society.  One must recognize it as a choice made after careful reflection, not an undesirable situation.  Only then can one fully comprehend the magnitude of corruption Cossery is ridiculing . It is one that causes intelligent people to make a conscious decision to forgo all material comforts and sanitation. To live, instead, as a homeless street person - a proud beggar. The idea being, it is better to live a life of filth, drug addiction, prostitution, "legal" subjugation and social scorn, then it is to live within the laws of an oppressive institution. It is the struggle Cossery depicts thru Nour El Dine as exemplified by Gohar

    • Cairo slums, Egypt 
    Main Theme
    • poverty as an ideal
    • material world as repressive and confining
    • self-discovery
    Main Characters
    • Proud Beggars:
      • Gohar:  Brothel Bookkeeper and hashish addict who has given up his life's work as a University professor to live the free life of the impoverished. Dreams of living in Syria where hashish is legal. 
      • El Kordi:  A lazy desktop revolutionary.  Works for the Ministry, which is a professional job but is poor due to laziness and substandard wages. Dreams of freeing his self-professed girlfriend, Naila, from a life of prostitution. 
      • Yeghen: poet and drug dealer 
    • Other Characters
      •  Nour El Dine:  corrupt police officer/inspector; closet homosexual 
      • Set Amina: brothel owner 
      • Naila:  prostitute at Set Amina's and supposed girlfriend of El Kordi 
      • Murder of Arnaba- while murder is not a human character and Arnaba (a prostitute at Set Amina's) is, the author treats Arnaba's murder as more of a character than he does Arnaba.  She has no value in the lives of even the police officer. Her murder alone is significant; not the fact that she was murdered, or ever was an actual person.
    • bildungsroman:  a type of novel where the protagonist grows emotionally, morally and/or spiritually; a literary device .  In the novel, it refers particularly to Nour El Dine, whose way of life and philosophy of life is greatly changed.
    • ephebe: a you man of Greek origin entering manhood 
    • pederasty: sexual relations between two males; especially when one is younger 
    • saltimbank: street performer
    p.  11    "El Kordi troubles always had this morbid, merciless character. Now he seemed to be carrying all the world's troubles, but it was only a state that he assumed from time to time so as to believe in his own dignity. For El Kordi deemed that dignity was the prerogative only of suffering and despair. It was his reading of Western literature that had deranged his mind so."

    p. 16      Gohar: "The freedom of thought that accompanied his new job was an inexhaustible source of joy, a boundless, generous joy. The infinite human resources of a brothel in the native quarter kept him in perpetual ecstasy How far he was from the sterile, deadly games of men and their hazy idea of life and reason. The great minds he had so long admired now appeared to him as vile corrupters, stripped of all authority. To teach life without living it was a crime of the most detestable ignorance."

                   "Once we have a country where the population is composed entirely of beggars, then you'll see what will become of this arrogant domination, it will crumble into dust. Believe me."

    In his University life Gohar taught history. It was a history he once believed in, but found to be false, which deeply disturbed him. He became so disillusioned with the broken and corrupt system that employed him, he decided to move as far away, philosophically, from it as possible. He quit his job and redefined his life choices. He decided what was most important to him - what he needed to exist happily and at peace with himself. That is a life free of material needs and from a life of corruptible a proud beggar.

    p. 33    "Riches excuse everything...The poor did not have the right to misbehave."

    p. 34    "She was skilled in the art of distilling sadness; she spun misery like a spider its web." 

    p. 37     Yeghen's mother: 
    "No force in the world could shake her stubbornness in misfortune. She enjoyed her sadness, not understanding that one can laugh despite the gravest deprivations."   Cossery  may be making two statements here:
    • some people do not feel alive unless they are miserable and making everyone around them miserable. Laughter at oneself can have the same effect (feeling alive), while making one happier.
    • It is not necessary to look at everything too seriously.  Humor and peace seem to go together.
    " She could not understand his insensitivity to what she felt to be the only dignity in the universe: submission in misfortune."  Yeghen's Mother wanted, and tried, to feel dignity in her poverty.

    p. 52     Nour El Dine:  "The unremitting repression of his aesthetic tendencies in the exercise of his duty made him bitter and unjust. However, he was in the service of the law; he had the prerogative to see that it was respected, and to punish the guilty. Unfortunately, the feeling of this power had begun to crumble; he no longer believed in the efficacy of the cause he was serving. That was serious."

    Nour El Dine Inspector job made him feel like he was powerful. He identifies with this power.

    p. 67    Gohar:  What a road he'd traveled in so few years! That rigid morality that he had taught, that he had believed in as in an inalienable richness, had revealed itself to be the most baneful conspiracy hatched against an entire people. It was merely an instrument of domination destined to hold the poor in awe...From now on he belonged to the mass of hunted men, thrown back to the borders of horror but relentlessly animated by a healthy confidence in life." 

    p. 96     "For a long time he confined himself to disillusioned contempt. But contempt is only a negative position leading nowhere." 

    p.           Gohar:  "I simply refuse to participate in this immense charade."

    p. 99     "He could, at least, defend himself against Samir's hatred and sarcasm, but how could he respond to this monstrous indifference, more ferocious than the most implacable hatred."  I agree, hatred is worse than indifference. If a person is filled with hatred, they can always forgive and/or relent, but once the point of indifference is attained, there is little chance for a change of heart. Indifference can hurt one more than hate.

    p. 101    "He was one-eyed, but his one eye was worth several, it sparkled with such murderous malice."  An example of Cossery's skill at characterization.

    p.110    "To be illiterate!  What an opportunity to survive in a world doomed to massacre!"

    p. 110    "...the primacy of the male." Couldn't resist illustrating a little of that misogyny...

     p. 111    Gohar: "He wondered what would have become of him, and what his behavior would have been, if he had committed this crime in the distant past when he was stuck in honors and respectability! Most certainly he would have considered himself a monster and would have let himself be consumed with remorse, while at present, nothing had any importance. Even a crime left him indifferent. Wasn't this appreciable progress, a sign that he was on the right track?...This murder had cut the last bonds that still attached him to his past lies. Happy Deliverance! He was not longer a slave to ridiculous pangs of conscience. His newly acquired certainty that all tragedy was laughable prevented him from condemning his act."  This is the depth to which Cossery develops his characters philosophy: it is better to be able to murder without guilt, than to live in society, as is. A powerful statement.

    p. 122    El Kordi walking in the European expensive, and popular, part of the city Gohar lived in when he was a university professor:  "All these busy men...sullen faces...hostile...morbid...agonizing monotony... Something was lacking in this noisy throng: the humorous details by which human nature could be recognized. This crowd was inhuman...anguish...He already missed the muddy streets and dirty hovels where a banished people mocked their oppressors. There was more hope in the tin shacks of the slums than in this opulent city. Was this, then, that fantastic city where the relentless enemies of the people lived, lurking in their inviolable hideouts.? The citadel of oppression was not a happy place. The riches displayed in store windows, the dull majesty of the buildings, the rectilinear rigor of the sidewalks-all this seemed to forbid the least-frivolous thought. El Kordi now understood why Gohar had abandoned this city and its sad comfort."

    p. 144 
    Gohar: There are two realities: "First, there is the reality born of deception, and in which you are struggling like a fish caught in a net...The other is a smiling reality reflecting the simplicity of life. For life is simple, Inspector. What does a man need to live? A little bread is enough."
    Yegen: "A little hashish too."

    p. 156  " Nour El Dine was beginning to waver. He, who had never questioned the sacred power that he held, was beginning to wonder where truth lay. He was no longer sure of anything....All the time he had been compiling the facts accusing Gohar (of Arnaba's murder), he had felt he was dealing with explosive material that, once ignited, would leave only rubble behind. But he also felt that out of this rubble would come peace, the peace that he had felt in Gohar's presence and that at this moment he lacked terribly."

    p. 161  "Perhaps you must become a man with no limbs to know peace.. Do you realize the impotence of the government against a limbless man? What can it do to him?"

    The concept that, when you have nothing to lose, you can do anything.

    p. 162   The truth is, "Life, real life, is childishly simple. There is no mystery. There are only bastards."

    p. 163    Nour El Dine's conversion: "...Gohar was right. To live like a beggar was to follow the path of wisdom. A life in the primitive state, without constraints. Nour El Dine dreamed of how sweet a beggar's life would be, free and proud, with nothing to lose. He could finally indulge in his vice without fear or shame. He would even be proud of this vice that had been his worst torment for years."

    This is how Cossery makes the theory of the Proud Beggar plausible. Nour El Dine's vice was simply the fact that he was a homosexual. If he could not live true to himself, what was the point in living at all? As Gohar said, "I simply refuse to participate in this immense charade."  Suddenly, the theory of the proud beggar begins to make more sense. This is the genius of Cossery's writing. As sophomoric and overtly idealistic the philosophy seems, it becomes very real when one understands the significance of the situation.


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