Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Progress and Death in Les Miserables

"Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then there will be nothing left resembling ancient history; there will be no cause to fear, as at the present day, conquest, invasion, usurpation, armed rivalry of nation, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, a birth in hereditary tyrannies, a division of people by a congress, a dismemberment by the collapse of dynasties, a combat of two religions, clashing like two goats in the darkness on the bridge of infinity; there will be no cause longer to fear famine, exhaustion, prostitution through distress, misery through stoppage of work, and the scaffold, and the sword, and battles, and all the brigandage of accident in the forest of events; --we might almost say there will be no more events: we shall be happy; the human race will accomplish its law as the terrestrial globe does its law; harmony will be restored between the soul and the planet, and the soul will gravitate round the truth as the planet does round light."
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Now these words are spoken by Enjolras, the consummate revolutionary, so Hugo's own views may be more moderate. Still, Hugo has a myopic optimism when it comes to Progress, and indeed, by the end of the book we see no more of society's miserables. Eponine and Gavroche are dead, Cosette and Marius are married and rich, Thenardier is paid off beyond the dreams of avarice, and Valjean, though he will not use them,  has five hundred francs for his support. No, the suffering at the end is interpersonal -- the cruelty of Marius (and the less-witting but just as culpable cruelty of Cosette) to Valjean, Valjean's self-imposed exile. Marius has fought on the barricades not so much for freedom for the oppressed but because he thinks his own life isn't worth living, and in his rejection of Valjean as an ex-convict we see that he is actually pretty callow to the injustices of society. Even Marius's generosity is ill-considered -- the thousands of francs he throws at Thenardier to send him to America end up setting up that malefactor as a prosperous slave trader.

To be fair, nor does Valjean help out by not being entirely forthright about his situation. I writhed with frustration at the end of the book -- it always drives me nuts when characters create their own drama by being evasive out of a misplaced sense of nobility. "Oh, if only you'd said something sooner we could have avoided this whole situation!" Ah, but then we wouldn't have had a pretty chapter full of reconciliation, abject apologies, and touching grief, so agreeably cathartic for the reader who has watched Valjean suffer for 800 pages.

Valjean's end is touching, but Javert's is transformative. Valjean has shown Javert, the policeman who has hounded him for years, life-saving mercy, and has enlisted Javert to help him save the life of another -- and Javert, to his astonishment and horror, finds himself compelled by justice to show mercy as well. The man of iron, rigid, upright, and irreproachable, suddenly discovers that the Divine is not merely Sacred Authority and Order, but the Glorious Chaos of the love that moves the stars, the "anarchy about to descend from on high".
He was not accustomed to have anything unknown over his head; hitherto everything he had above him had been to his eye a clear, simple, limpid surface; there was nothing unknown or obscure; nothing but what was definite, coordinated, enchained, precise, exact, circumscribed, limited, and closed; everything forseen; authority was a flat surface, there was no fall in it or dizziness before it. Javery had never seen anything unknown except below him. Irregularity, unexpected things, the disorderly onening of the chaos, and a possible fall over a precipice, --all this was the state of the lower regions, of the rebels, the wicked and the wretched. Now Javert threw himself back, and was suddenly startled by this extraordinary apparition, --a gulf above him!
And Javert realizes another appalling fact: that he is human, and that to show mercy is to learn to feel. Javert, in his cold way, dies for love, and his death is far more compelling than the death of Enjolras the revolutionary, whose marble facade never cracks. Even in death Enjolras remains himself, statuesque to the end: "traversed by eight bullets, (he) remained leaning against the wall, as if nailed to it; he merely hung his head". But Javert throws himself into the whirling vortex, something new and truly revolutionary for him -- and may God have mercy on his soul.


Jenny said...

That first excerpt reads like the "end of history" memes of the late nineties. How sadly wrong they were.

Brandon said...

The revolutionaries frankly irritated me; I could never shake the sense that they were involved in it just because they were bored.

I like the contrast here: Javert is the ultimate anti-revolutionary, but, as you say, he, unlike the revolutionaries, is able to do something genuinely revolutionary.

MrsDarwin said...

It seems telling that for all the revolutionary whispers Hugo mentions, few of the working class get cameos at the barricade. And he's very critical of the revolution of 1848, which, according to him (I know nothing of it myself) was carried out by the mob -- the people committing a reflexive crime against themselves.

Enjolras seems incapable of change. He dies as he has lived. Javert is the one who changes from stone to flesh -- a painful transition -- and his death seems less a suicide than a sacrificial offering.

Reading the book, I really wished that I was more familiar with Paris, though I suppose that Paris of today bears little resemblance to the Paris of 1830ish. Hugo makes a point of saying that such and such set piece isn't there any more -- I wondered if those were places he was inventing for the story, or if readers really would have recognized them.

MrsDarwin said...

Incidently, I've realized that the slender red volume of my mother's was only Book IV of Les Miserables -- I found I remembered incidents therein such as Marius's indecision while watching the Thenardiers hold Valjean hostage, and his conversation or two with Eponine. I wonder what ever happened to the other four volumes? I'm sure they were never at our house.

mandamum said...

Your Book IV reminds me of my attempt to read Anna Karenina - I checked it out from the library, read it through, and only later realized it was only Book I (I think of 2?). So really I'm still missing the second half of the story, and thus whatever grand denouement awaits me at the end.

mandamum said...

Oh, and I love your description of "writhing" over the miscommunication at the end. I just re-read the very end (only! horrors!) of Les Mis after watching "One Grain More" and trying to recall the end of the musical and Valjean's end in the book. I was writhing too.

But it struck me as an easy ending for Marius and Cosette, because I'm pretty sure that no matter how indebted he felt toward Jean Valjean, he still would have been uncomfortable having him in the house.... This way, they can spend a huge chunk of emotion at his deathbed, and then remember him fondly, without having to deal with the nitty-gritty of actually living with him and his ... past. Kind of like when a story makes the fiance a jerk who plans to kill his affianced to make a political score (a la Princess Bride) or is just a womanizing jerk (a la Wedding Singer) so that the returning or new flame is justified in carrying her off, and we can cheer him unreservedly. Easy, no mess.