Vice, Crime, and Poverty
How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld
by Dominique Kalifa
Pub Date 16 Apr 2019
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Beggars, outcasts, urchins, waifs, prostitutes, criminals, convicts, madmen, fallen women, lunatics, degenerates—part reality, part fantasy, these are the grotesque faces that populate the underworld, the dark inverse of our everyday world. Lurking in the mirror that we hold up to our society, they are our counterparts and our doubles, repelling us and yet offering the tantalizing promise of escape. Although these images testify to undeniable social realities, the sordid lower depths make up a symbolic and social imaginary that reflects our fears and anxieties—as well as our desires. In Vice, Crime, and Poverty, Dominique Kalifa traces the untold history of the concept of the underworld and its representations in popular culture. He examines how the myth of the lower depths came into being in nineteenth-century Europe, as biblical figures and Christian traditions were adapted for a world turned upside-down by the era of industrialization, democratization, and mass culture. From the Parisian demimonde to Victorian squalor, from the slums of New York to the sewers of Buenos Aires, Kalifa deciphers the making of an image that has cast an enduring spell on its audience. While the social conditions that created that underworld have changed, Vice, Crime, and Poverty shows that, from social-scientific ideas of the underclass to contemporary cinema and steampunk culture, its shadows continue to haunt us.
Dominique Kalifa is professor of history at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon–Sorbonne, where he is the director of the Center for Nineteenth-Century History. His many books include La véritable histoire de la “Belle Époque” (2017).
"Dominique Kalifa is one of the best French cultural historians of his generation and a worthy successor to Alain Corbin at the Sorbonne. Vice, Crime, and Poverty examines the urban ‘underworld,’ not in the twentieth-century sense of organized crime but as an imaginary shaped discursively in the nineteenth century by a widespread if morbid fascination with the apparent dangers of urban life."
-Edward Berenson, author of Europe in the Modern World