Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 55
AN OUTSIDER'S VIEW OF MEN AND THINGS.
MAN has a desire to revenge himself on that which pleases him. Hence the contempt felt for the comedian. This being charms, diverts, distracts, teaches, enchants, consoles me, transports me into an ideal world, is agreeable and useful to me. What evil can I do him in return? Humiliate him. Disdain is a crushing blow, so I will crush him with disdain. He amuses me, therefore he is vile. He serves me, therefore I hate him. Where can I find a stone to throw at him? Priest, give me yours. Philosopher, give me yours. Bossuet, excommunicate him. Rousseau, insult him. Orator, spit the pebbles from your mouth at him. Bear, fling your stone. Let us hurl stones at the tree, hit the fruit and eat it. Bravo! down with him! To repeat poetry is to be infected with the plague. Wretched play-actor! we will put him in the pillory for his success. Let him follow up his triumph with our hisses. Let him collect a crowd, and yet create a solitude around him. Thus it is that the wealthy, termed the higher classes, have invented for the actor that form of isolation known as public applause.
The vulgar herd is less brutal. They neither hated nor despised Gwynplaine. Only the meanest calker of the meanest crew of the meanest merchantman, anchored in the meanest English sea-port, considered himself immeasurably superior to this amuser of the "scum," and believed that a calker is as superior to an actor as a lord is to a calker. Gwynplaine was, therefore, like all comedians, applauded and kept at a distance. Truly, success in this world is a crime, and must be bitterly expiated. He who obtains the medal has to take its reverse side as well.
For Gwynplaine there was no reverse side. In one sense, both sides of his medal pleased him. He was satisfied with the applause, and content with the isolation. In applause, he was rich; in isolation, happy. To be rich, to one of his low estate, means to be no longer wretchedly poor, to have neither holes in his clothes nor cold at his hearth, nor emptiness in his stomach. It is to eat when hungry, and drink when thirsty. It is to have everything needful, including a penny for a beggar. This paltry wealth, enough for liberty, Gwynplaine now possessed. So far as his soul was concerned, he was opulent. He had love. What more could he want? Nothing.
You may think that, had the offer been made to him to cure his disfigurement, he would have jumped at it. But he would have refused it emphatically. What! to throw off his mask and have his former face restored, to be the creature he had perchance been created, handsome and charming? No, he would not have consented to it. For what would he have to support Dea upon? what would have become of the poor child, the sweet blind girl who loved him? Without his disfigurement, making him a clown without parallel, he would have been a common mountebank, like any other; a common athlete, a picker up of pence from the chinks in the pavement, and Dea would, perhaps, not have had bread to eat. It was with deep and tender pride that he felt himself the protector of the helpless and heavenly creature. Night, solitude, nakedness, weakness, ignorance, hunger, and thirst—the seven dread jaws of poverty—yawned about her, and he was Saint George fighting the dragon. He triumphed over poverty. How? By his deformity. By means of his deformity he was useful, helpful, victorious, great! He had but to show himself, and money poured in. He was a master of crowds, the sovereign of the mob. He could do everything for Dea. He supplied her every want; her desires, her tastes, her fancies,—in the limited sphere in which wishes are possible to the blind,—he gratified.
Gwynplaine and Dea had been, as we have already shown, a Providence to each other. He felt himself raised on her wings, she felt herself carried in his arms. To protect the being who loves you, to give what she requires to her who shines on you as your star, can anything be sweeter? Gwynplaine possessed this supreme happiness, and he owed it to his deformity. By it he had gained the means of livelihood for himself and others; by it he had gained independence, liberty, celebrity, internal satisfaction, and pride. In his deformity he was invulnerable. The Fates could do nothing beyond this blow in which they had expended their whole force, but which he had converted into a triumph. This greatest of misfortunes had become the summit of Elysium. Gwynplaine was imprisoned in his deformity,—but with Dea. And this was, as we have already said, to live in a dungeon in paradise. A wall stood between them and the living world. So much the better. This wall protected as well as enclosed them. What could harm Dea, what could harm Gwynplaine, with such a fortress around them? To deprive him of his success was impossible. They would have to deprive him of his face. Take his love from him? Impossible! Dea could not see him. The blindness of Dea was divinely incurable. What harm did his deformity do Gwynplaine? None. What advantage did it give him? Every advantage. He was beloved, notwithstanding its horror, and, perhaps, for that very reason. Infirmity and deformity had, by instinct, been drawn towards and united with each other. To be beloved, is not that everything? Gwynplaine thought of his disfigurement only with gratitude. He was blessed in the stigma. With joy he felt that it was irremediable and eternal. What a blessing that it was so! While there were high-ways and fair-grounds, and journeys to take, and people below, and the sky above, they were sure of a living. Dea would want for nothing, and they would have love.
Gwynplaine would not have changed faces with Apollo. To be a monster was his happiness. He was so happy that he felt compassion for the men around him. He pitied all the rest of the world. No man's nature is wholly consistent; so, although he was glad to live within an enclosure, he lifted his head above the wall from time to time, but only to retreat again with even more joy into his solitude with Dea, having drawn his comparisons. What did he see around him? What were those living creatures of which his wandering life showed him so many specimens, changed every day? Always new crowds, but always the same multitude; ever new faces, but ever the same misfortunes. Every evening every known phase of human misery came within his notice.
The Green Box was popular. Low prices attract the low classes. Those who came were the weak, the poor, the insignificant. They rushed to Gwynplaine as they rushed to the gin-shop. They came to buy a pennyworth of forgetfulness. From his platform Gwynplaine passed these wretched people in review. His mind was absorbed in the contemplation of each successive form of wide-spread misery. The physiognomy of a man is moulded by conscience, and by the tenor of his life, and the result is a host of mysterious excavations. There was not a pain nor an emotion of anger, shame, or despair, of which Gwynplaine did not see the trace. The mouths of those children were hungering for food. That man was a father, that woman a mother, and behind them might be seen families on the road to ruin. There was a face already marked by vice and contact with crime, and the reasons were plain,—ignorance and poverty. Another showed the stamp of original goodness, obliterated by social pressure, and turned to hatred. On the face of an old woman he saw starvation; on that of a girl, prostitution. The same fact, and although the girl had the resource of her youth, all the sadder for that! In this crowd were hands but no tools; the workers only asked for work, but work was wanting. Sometimes a soldier came and seated himself by the workmen, sometimes a wounded pensioner; and Gwynplaine saw the grim spectre of war. Here, he read lack of employment, there, man-farming,—slavery. On some brows he saw a gradual return to animalism,—that slow return of man to beast, produced in those in the lower walks of life by the good fortune of their superiors.
There was a break in the gloom for Gwynplaine. He and Dea had a loop-hole of happiness; the rest was damnation. Gwynplaine saw above him the thoughtless trampling of the powerful, the rich, the magnificent, and the great of the earth. Below, he saw the pale faces of the disinherited. He saw himself and Dea, with their blessings, so paltry in appearance, so great to themselves, between these two worlds. That which was above went and came, free, joyous, dancing, carelessly trampling everything and everybody under foot; above him, the world which treads; below, the world which is trodden upon. It is a fatal fact, and one indicating a profound social evil, that happiness should crush misery. Gwynplaine comprehended this gloomy fact thoroughly. What a destiny! Must a man needs drag himself along through mire and corruption, with such vicious tastes, such a total abdication of his rights, or such abjectness that one feels inclined to crush him under foot? Of what butterfly can this earthly life be grub? What! in this vast crowd of ignorant, starving creatures, scarcely able to distinguish good from evil,—the inflexibility of human laws producing marvellous laxity of conscience,—is there no child that grows but to be stunted, no virgin that matures but for sin, no rose that blooms but for the slimy snail?
Gwynplaine shuddered as he saw the foaming wave of misery dash over the crowd of humanity. He himself was safe in port, as he watched the wrecks around him. Sometimes he buried his disfigured head in his hands and dreamed. What folly to expect to be happy! What an idle dream! Strange ideas arose within him. Absurd notions flitted through his brain. Because he had once succoured an infant, he felt a ridiculous desire to succour the whole world. The mists of reverie sometimes obscured his individuality, and he lost all ideas of proportion so far as to ask himself the question, "What can be done for the poor?" Sometimes he was so absorbed in the subject that he unconsciously uttered his thoughts aloud. Ursus shrugged his shoulders and looked at him wonderingly.
"Oh, if I were powerful, would I not aid the wretched?" Gwynplaine would exclaim, continuing his reverie. But what am I?—A mere atom. What can I do?—Nothing."
He was mistaken. He was able to do a great deal for the wretched. He could make them laugh; and, as we have said before, to make people laugh is to make them forget. What a benefactor to humanity is he who can bestow forgetfulness!