The doctor was on the point of turning into the second-class saloon, when he remembered that a large cargo of emigrants had come on board the night before, and he went down to the lower deck. He was met by a sickening smell of dirty, poverty-stricken humanity, an atmosphere of naked flesh (far more revolting than the odour of fur or the skin of wild beasts). There, in a sort of basement, low and dark, like a gallery in a mine, Pierre could discern some hundreds of men, women, and children, stretched on shelves fixed one above another, or lying on the floor in heaps. He could not see their faces, but could dimly make out this squalid, ragged crowd of wretches, beaten in the struggle for life, worn out and crushed, setting forth, each with a starving wife and weakly children, for an unknown land where they hoped, perhaps, not to die of hunger. And as he thought of their past labour—wasted labour, and barren effort—of the mortal struggle taken up afresh and in vain each day, of the energy expended by this tattered crew who were going to begin again, not knowing where, this life of hideous misery, he longed to cry out to them: “Tumble yourselves overboard, rather, with your women and your little ones.” And his heart ached so with pity that he went away unable to endure the sight.

Pierre and Jean by Guy de Maupassant, tr. by Clara Bell, [1888]2006, chap. IX.

This excerpt could be read as an allegory of how human beings live together and, since it takes place on a ship, it would be tempting to classify it as another instance of the “ship metaphor”. Against this, it could be argued that Pierre and Jean is a naturalist or realist novel and, therefore, that the scene depicted above consists exactly of what it described, and nothing else: the pathetic life of poor emigrants as observed by a bourgeois protagonist (obviously shaken by the experience).
In any case, I find the original French version to be harsher, more striking:

En y pénétrant, il fut saisi par une odeur nauséabonde d’humanité pauvre et malpropre, puanteur de chair nue plus écœurante que celle du poil ou de la laine des bêtes. Alors, dans une sorte de souterrain obscur et bas, pareil aux galeries des mines, Pierre aperçut des centaines d’hommes, de femmes et d’enfants étendus sur des planches superposées ou grouillant par tas sur le sol. Il ne distinguait point les visages mais voyait vaguement cette foule sordide en haillons, cette foule de misérables vaincus par la vie, épuisés, écrasés, partant avec une femme maigre et des enfants exténués pour une terre inconnue, où ils espéraient ne point mourir de faim, peut-être. Et songeant au travail passé, au travail perdu, aux efforts stériles, à la lutte acharnée, reprise chaque jour en vain, à l’énergie dépensée par ces gueux, qui allaient recommencer encore, sans savoir où, cette existence d’abominable misère, le docteur eut envie de leur crier : « Mais foutez-vous donc à l’eau avec vos femelles et vos petits ! » Et son cœur fut tellement étreint par la pitié qu’il s’en alla, ne pouvant supporter leur vue. (PDF, p. 117; Project Gutenberg; Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Pierre et Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel. It was first published in the very beginning of 1888. The way Maupassant depicts the emigrants’ constant but vain effort to improve their existence while remaining hopelessly blinded to their own purposelessness reminded me of another novel, Journey to the end of the night, written nearly half a century later by another French author, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Here’s the specific excerpt I’m thinking about:

It’s no use trying, we slide, we skid, we fall back into the alcohol that preserves the living and the dead, we get nowhere. It’s been proved. After all these centuries of watching our domestic animals coming into the world, laboring and dying before our eyes without anything more unusual ever happening to them either than taking up the same insipid fiasco where so many other animals had left off, we should have caught on. Endless waves of useless beings keep rising from deep down in the ages to die in front of our noses, and yet here we stay, hoping for something… We’re not even capable of thinking death through. (Journey to the end of the night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, first published in 1932, tr. to English by Ralph Manheim in 1983, from an unpaginated offline digital edition).

This time, the description is not restricted to a specific social class but encompass all humanity: we all live in vain but we keep struggling, blinded that we are either by alcohol or by hope. Once more, I found the original French version to be somehow more effective (why “our domestic animals” when the French simply states “our animals”? also “crever” is more evocative, more violent than simply “dying”):

Quant au reste, on a beau se donner du mal, on glisse, on dérape, on retombe dans l’alcool qui conserve les vivants et les morts, on n’arrive à rien. C’est bien prouvé. Et depuis tant de siècles qu’on peut regarder nos animaux naître, peiner et crever devant nous sans qu’il leur soit arrivé à eux non plus jamais rien d’extraordinaire que de reprendre sans cesse la même insipide faillite où tant d’autres animaux l’avaient laissée. Nous aurions pourtant dû comprendre ce qui se passait. Des vagues incessantes d’êtres inutiles viennent du fond des âges mourir tout le temps devant nous, et cependant on reste là, à espérer (Voyage au bout de la nuit, par Louis-Ferdinand Céline, éd. Gallimard, Paris, p. 383)

While we’re at it, here’s Daniel Johnston performing the song “Life In Vain” two years ago at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, U.K. The song was originally recorded in 1993 and released the next year on the album Fun (official website). The lyrics can be find at Rejected Unknown (the official fan website). For some reason, I’ve always felt it was a comforting song.


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