Notes from the Underground

Scott McLemee reviews Vice, Crime and Poverty by Dominique Kalifa.

April 26, 2019

This week Variety, the entertainment industry's paper of record, took its readers "Inside the True-Crime Boom Taking Over Prestige TV" -- the very phenomenon that inspired a BBC report earlier in the month asking, "Is our growing obsession with true crime a problem?"

By then Forbes magazine's website had already explained "What One Researcher Discovered About America's True Crime Obsession" -- namely, that "purposefully exposing oneself to violence can serve as an 'inoculation.'" This explanation does not seem like a noteworthy advance in the behavioral sciences. But it does confirm the point Bart Simpson makes in responding to his sister's distress at the mayhem of Itchy and Scratchy cartoons: "If you don't watch the violence, you'll never get desensitized to it."

The notion of a "true-crime boom" -- whether as the source of a "growing obsession" or its product -- becomes almost excruciatingly silly in the light of Dominique Kalifa's Les Bas-fonds: Histoire d'un Imaginaire (2013), now available in English translation from Columbia University Press as Vice, Crime and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld. Crime sells and it always has, especially murder. Publishers were churning out pamphlets full of gory details for a near-insatiable market no later than the 16th century; speeches delivered from the gallows by the condemned were recorded and rushed into print as broadsides. The true-crime genre is an almost inevitable corollary of mass communications; the main thing to have changed in 500 years is the delivery system.

But Kalifa, a professor of history at the University of Paris, finds an inflection point in how crime was depicted and understood that began around 1840 and spanned much of the industrialized world in the following decades: a fascination with bas-fonds, or "the lower depths" -- the dark, foul underside of society, where crime is the norm and every sordid potential of human nature can be indulged. The term "slum" would also apply, but it lacks the incredible density of associations and overtones carried by "the lower depths."

In its earliest usage, bas-fonds applied to areas that were prone to flooding and, "therefore," Kalifa notes, "swampy and unhealthy." As an urban setting, it implied an open sewer, both literally and figuratively -- one contaminating the inhabitants at every level. The novelist Eugène Sue, whose sensational international best-seller Les Mystères de Paris was among the most widely imitated novels of the century, referred to "this infernal race that peoples the prisons and penal colonies, and whose blood reddens the scaffolds.”

A blurring of any distinction between the place and the population runs throughout the texts Kalifa draws on, which include novels, police memoirs, newspaper articles by undercover reporters and pleas by social reformers. “Gothic, black, dark, obscure, muddy and feverish, the city of shadows, disorder, violence, poverty and blood!” wrote a prominent French journalist in 1843 who described "the “intersections of houses, dead-end and forked streets, mazes, crossroads [as] … great muddy and bloody spaces in which various tricksters of both sexes were stewing.” A chief of police described “humid and infected backstreets, with houses the color of mud,” occupied by “human vermin among whom the most monstrous crimes were engendered.” The hellish connotations of "the lower depths" are suggested by one observer's comparison to a “common pit into which the bodies of men, women and children, in frightful promiscuity, mingle in the fermentation of death.” And the well-bred visitor cannot escape the horror simply by leaving. As one writes, “something of the faded and cadaverous impregnates your clothes, your hair, your beard, and which all the strongest fragrances can hardly dissipate.”

The variety and sheer quantity of material Kalifa quotes are impressive, and even this brief selection may give some idea of how vivid the descriptive passages can be. But his aim is not to document life on the underside of Paris or London -- to confirm or fill out the mental pictures a reader may have taken from Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens. His concern is less the correspondence to reality of these depictions than how they rapidly they appear, accumulate and reinforce one another within a few urbanized societies and then spread across the globe. Eugène Sue's melodramatic saga of life in the lower depths of Paris very quickly becomes the template for novels about the mysteries of London, Pittsburgh and Buenos Aires.

At the same time, those living at the very bottom of society ("the dangerous classes," as one locution calls them) are commonly referred to with expressions such as "street Arabs" or "Apaches," implying that they belong to another race. Fairly elaborate fantasies develop about the structure and hierarchy of the social order of this hidden world. Some of the stories are marked as fiction, others as works of social science.

The lower depths constitute a social imaginary -- part of the "repertoire of collective figures and identities that every society assembles at given moments in its history," writes Kalifa, through which its members "perceive … groups, classes and categories" to "hierarchize their divisions and elaborate their evolutions." (The use of "imaginary" as a noun could be called a bit of jargon, though I am made wary of doing so by the author's reference to "jargon" as originally meaning the slang used by criminals to communicate among themselves.) The stock of images and ideas originally accumulating around "the lower depths" developed, in part, out of the lingering anxieties of middle and upper classes at the violence unleashed during the French revolution. They were also an attempt to understand and control the chaotic social impact of industrialization. Kalifa makes explicit that the lower depths, while a social imaginary, were not make-believe:

The essential elements were quite real: the frightful poverty that was crushing the new proletarians, the insalubrity, the promiscuity, the absence of a horizon other than the one sketched by depression, the suffering or revolt. Nevertheless the general focus on vice, 'demoralization' and transgression did arise from fantasy. The intention was clear: to stigmatize the intolerable, to remove responsibility from the elites and to reaffirm the values that underlay the dominant identity.

But the effects of this particular social imaginary also included urban renewal projects, social programs and other developments that eventually made the full-frenzy moral panic of the mid-19th century obsolete -- although elements of it resurface when social problems are treated as more or less organic pathologies. (Any distinction between "the lower depths" and "the underclass" is bound to be one of nuance.) And as if to pre-empt the think pieces about "our growing obsession" with true crime on demand, Kalifa acknowledges the pleasure mixed up with the horror of gazing into the lower depths: "There is the desire to lose yourself, to go to the limit of debauchery, to descend, to encounter the obscure part of yourself that you habitually try to elude; to face up to evil, the dirty, the perverse, the damned" -- the reality you try to escape "which at the same time becomes a powerful motif, even a cultural myth."


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