Saturday, November 22, 2008

Les Miserables (2)

So, romantic epic or an epic romance? What's the difference? Why does it matter? Right names matter. An epic is not the same thing as a romance. A romance is a love story, which Les Miserables is not. What is an epic? First of all the epic is an invention of the ancient Greeks, specifically Homer. The Greek work 'epos' means that which is spoken or sung in words. The first epics, the Iliad and Odyssey recounted the heroic deeds of great men and were probably sung or chanted to music by professional poet-singers. The Iliad is the first tragedy; the Odyssey is harder to describe. It is the story of the strange and wonderful adventures of one of the warriors of the Iliad, Odysseus, who, following the fall of Troy, just wants to go home and never have to fight or be a hero again. Unfortunately, he has managed to offend one of the gods, Neptune, who thereupon becomes his implacable enemy. Sound familiar? Sounds like Jean Valjean and Javert does it not? Javert is not a god, to be sure; the god, in this case is the Law and Javert is merely one of its honest, honorable and uncorruptible servants--like the Gatekeeper in the great parable at the heart of Kafka's Trial. But the Law, in Hugo's novel as in Kafka's tale, is indistinguishable from Maistre's: if order is all you care about, anything goes.

Jean Valvjean has no home: that's what he is trying to find or create. For a time he thinks he has found one as Father Madeleine, mayor of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, a town that had had no future until he comes along and gives it one by reinventing its single industry. For a time all is well. No one thinks to inquire into the past of their great benefactor. And no one

One day, Jean Valjean hears about some poor bastard who is being accused of being Jean Valjean; if he (the poor bastard) can't prove that he isn't Jean Valjean, he will end his days as a galley slave. Jean Valjean responds heroically. As he sees it, he must either leave the poor bastard to his fate, or abandon the people of this town, whom he has saved from abject poverty, by obeying the dictates of the categorical imperative that his conscience is now in the process of making its own. After an inner struggle that turns his hair white, he decides to save the poor bastard at the expense of the town; utility, the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is considered only be rejected.

So once more, Jean Valjean is on the lam with Javert and the Law in hot pursuit. He is caught, escapes (no one, including the author) knows quite how, buries the money he has made in business, is retaken, returned to the galleys, escapes again (some of the details are supplied, this time, but much is left unexplained), makes his way to Paris (with money, acquired who knows how), disappears. All of which happens with lightning speed, just a few pages, which is very unnusual in this novel which is now about one-quarter of the way to its conclusion, the death and burial of the hero.

The Iliad ends with the burial of Hector, Breaker of Horses, but this is not a conclusion; the war will continue, as it must, because that is the will of the Gods--an arbitrary and capricious lot, as Homer makes perfectly clear. At the end of Les Miserables, the reader knows that the war for liberty and equality will continue, as it must--not because it is the will of God, as Hugo believes, but because that is the will of an increasingly well-informed people (as Hugo also believes).

The warriors of the Iliad know what they are fighting for: by being in the forefront of battle, they justify their privileged positions back home. The hero of this book is not fighting for anything but the right to be left alone; the battle that's being fought--over his head, so to speak--is Hugo's (and that of the liberal left, generally) for liberty (the rights set forth in our Bill of Rights, for example) and equality (equality before the law and equality of opportunity).

Since Jean Valjean himself is apolitical, what made the political bite of this book so painful that the Catholic Church wanted to have every copy confiscated and burned (and would have if it had the power)? What I think the Church found objectionable in this novel was the role of the narrator--Hugo--not the tale he is telling: the teller, not the tale. Hugo is very busy throughout the novel telling the reader what it all means; you would never know that Les Miserables is 'about' the on-ward march of history toward the destined goal of democracy if Hugo hadn't been constantly telling you so.

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