Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.
Down and Out in Paris and London – what a cliche title. Yet as you can see from the above epitaph, this account of the impoverished and employed slaves breaks so many popular assumptions about the depraved degenerates and wandering vagabonds of our societies. It is disheartening to even consider that the brilliant reason for presenting this account in a first-person narrative is not because it was necessarily experienced by the author (which it could have been) but rather so people will, for perhaps only a moment, put their prejudices aside and see the reality of this life; not only of its existence but of its essence.
Readers may note that while reading certain books, their mind may start wondering; reading the words but not registering them, then feeling like they’re trying to recollect a particular thirty second period of a redundant commute. Orwell does not write these books. He has an incomparable talent.
The literary split of the narrative, obviously defined by the separation of the two cities, serves to clearly illustrate Orwell’s thesis about social hierarchy and its inherent haughtiness. His experience in the Parisian restaurant industry serves as a metaphor for what is more literally articulated by his experience in London.
As a plongeur in Paris, the narrator describes first-hand how restaurants, and presumably other institutions of employment, prosper from the illusion of quality service and refinement. It is not only the tablecloths, lighting fixtures, waiter prostration, etc. that build this illusion, but the perspective of the patrons as well. Apparently it is rare, if not impossible, to find a French waiter in Paris. Why? Perhaps it is because they don’t want to serve their own countrymen, feeling that it somehow is below their station as Frenchmen. However, I also wondered if it reinforces the prejudice of the French customer who may want to entertain the notion that other races are naturally created for servitude. If this is true, than why would a restaurant manager hire waiters who would turn the customer off to their illusory station and drive them from the establishment? It’s in his best interest to reinforce the illusion of innate worth.
Orwell further explains how different posts find pride in their work; the cook in being a working man and not a server like waiters, a kitchen hand, or plongeur, only able to associate his pride with his willingness to do anything and do it efficiently. Despite having equal pride, fixed to various instances of human qualities, the caste system develops.
To my reading, these hierarchical systems, which organize the employees and define the relationship between employee and patron, are transient and bolster no claim to the innate worth of any class. Managers in restaurants are only powerful because their place within the system controls the money and labor; yet every link in the chain is important for the machine to work. Similarly, the divide between the rich, or even middle-class workers, and the tramps is necessary for the machine to work. The construction of the hierarchy props up a false sense of a person’s intrinsic value. Even if that value is based on power, all one has to do is break down the social construct and the “powerful” become powerless beyond their own natural ability. Their worth, when isolated and removed from the system, is no different than the tramp or plongeur.
If race and nationality are bricks in the illusive value system, so is religion and charity. Orwell describes casual houses and Salvation Army locations as monetarily free, almost, but expensive in dignity, natural behavior and religious imitation. These prices, like money, only serve to make the benefactor richer in their own self-righteousness. If there goal was to simply feed and house the vagabond, one would think them satisfied to this end alone. When in reality, their satisfaction comes from knowing they “tried” to right the spirit of the tramp.
This compels me to discuss a much broader and equally fallible stigma. The attitude toward vagrancy, even today, is soaked with contempt. After all, homeless people are simply too lazy to get a job and waste all their money on intoxicants. It doesn’t seem possible, within the realm of popular consciousness, to consider that these vagabonds are denied “conventional employment” because of stereotypes rather than merits. Regardless, to be shown anything less than shameless gratitude for the scraps from the higher class’s table is blindingly infuriating. Why? Doesn’t this mean that those of the higher classes see those below them as dependent children? or people who should see themselves as worthless parasites on society?
The most fortitudinous characters of the middle and upper classes wouldn’t be able to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps from these horrid conditions and in the face of a scornful society which depends on instilling artificial value in place of natural worth. Furthermore, those who have nothing are shown to be sharing the pennies they have amongst themselves, caring for one another, while the “noble sympathizers” and “honorable souls” ask for a man’s dignity in exchange for the same pennies which are of little value to them. What is valuable is reinforcing their own claim to a righteousness they have artificially defined themselves. Perhaps the higher classes are the dependent ones, the parasites on humanity. In order to justify their excess and simultaneously quench this ravenous desire to see themselves as “good” people, they feed on the drudgery and loathsome existence of the homeless. Those in higher classes will call those in the lower to pick themselves up, but what being would wish away their own sustenance? Consider this:
A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.
To save their place in the hierarchy, the educated and wealthier classes depend on the plongeurs and degenerate of the world to stay in their place. If anything about this caste system was natural, it wouldn’t necessitate this social “order” to maintain it. If there were anything real about the current system, the logical discord of discouraging vagrancy by encouraging inhumane practices, of putting out one fire with another, would not exist.
I know this sounds malicious; as though those in the upper classes are generally hateful. I don’t intend to make that argument and neither does Orwell. This is as flawed in reasoning as to assume that all vagabonds are innately worthless. Yet this acknowledgement should not, and does not, serve as a crutch. It is not enough to settle for being “faultless” in driving this machine. The machine itself is absolutely corrupting for both the degenerate and the blessed. It is understandably attractive for those with power and assets and soothing for the “down and out” to be understood. Whether at fault or not, and whether victimized or not, it is important to see the other as they really are and not accept trivial prejudices that relieve us of natural responsibility for our fellow man.
Orwell’s storytelling is fluid, captivating and oftentimes entertaining. His social philosophies are digestible and, in this case, very personable. But do these qualities matter if we pass them off? Is there any value if our ears are closed and our minds hardened? Simply put, can you walk in the soleless boots of a tramp, work in a sweltering cellar kitchen, and then look to the person who’s place your taking and see your equal? Your self?
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