Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LES MISERABLES And The Meaning of 'Romantic'

I remarked in an earlier post that in romantic poetry the pronoun 'I' has weight, power, authority as never before. Or, to say the same thing a little differently, poets before Blake did not think of themselves as actors in their poems or that the poems they were writing were 'about' themselves as well as things; they wrote about things and people in an objective world independent of themselves. But when poetry becomes subjective it must also sound authentic; that pronoun 'I' has to be more than a place-holder. It is not enough for the poet-as-actor-in-the poem to talk about his or her feelings and thoughts; the poem itself must enact or dramatize them. If a poem is any good, it authenticates itself--like any other work of art. And how do they do that? Well, that's the enduring mystery that artists--and critics, if they are any good--never stop thinking about. (Critics used to think there were rules and they tried to apply them to Shakespeare's plays--which trampled them into the dust.)

Hugo the story-teller is a tremendous presence in Les Miserables. Sometimes he takes on the role of historian-- of his own times, one who is very much engaged: a partisan historian who is also something of a scientist, drilling down to get at the facts, down through the mud and geological strata deposited by the various attempts of right-thinking society to obscure or obliterate the vital currents of hot magma let loose by the great volcanic eruptions of '89 and '93 and Napoleon. Paris, France, like the Revolution, are shown to be a work in progress. Paris changes before our eyes. The maze of streets that Jean Valjean, with Cosset, lose Javert in, no longer exists, we are told, but has been replaced by something more 'modern.' This historian may take us on an extended tour of the battle of Waterloo or the sewers of Paris and these tours are always relevant. Do we really need to know quite so much? Do we need to know, for instance, how successive governments beginning (at least) in medieval times have rebuilt or extended the sewer system? That successive 19th century regimes have extended the system by 226 kilometers? That by dumping its shit into the rivers and the sea instead of using it as fertilizer, as in China, France is wasting half-a-billion Francs a year? "With this five hundred million you could cover a quarter of our budget outlays. Man is so smart that he prefers to chuck this five hundred million in the gutter. It is the people's very substance that is being carried away, here drop by drop, there in gushing torrents, by the miserable vomiting of our sewers into the rivers and copious vomiting of our rivers into the ocean. Every time our cesspools hiccup, it costs us a thousand francs. This has two results: the soil is impoverished and the water is contaminated." This is a good sample of Hugo's prose, colloquial, 'earthy' as we say, and about as close as he can get to the language of the people he is writing about. The point is clear: their lives and talents are treated--wasted-- by this society and its laws as if they were no better than shit.

The vast, labyrinthian Paris sewer-system is thus a possible metaphor for the underground world that Jean Valjean has been trying to escape from for most of the novel. And this is the inky-black world where he, his future son-in-law, Marius (slung, unconscious across his shoulders), and Thenardier, the villain of this fantastic and improbable tale meet. And wonder of wonders, it is Thenardier (the Minotaur of this labyrinth) who has the key to the grate that blocks their escape and--for completely villainous reasons--uses it to let them out. Where--yet another fateful meeting--they fall into the hands of Javert.
That's how things work in such wildly improbable, larger-than-life tales as Les Miserables and Homer's Odyssey. That's what makes them 'romantic.'

One final note: it is appropriate and not the least bit improbable that Thenardier should escape, finally, to America and become a slave trader. Hugo thought we deserved him. His two nameless boys, aged seven and five, long since abandoned, are last seen in the Luxembourg Gardens eating a bit of bread that they have managed to snatch from the water before one of the swans could get it.


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