Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Victor Hugo's Romantic Epic, LES MISERABLES (1862)

This a a huge book and not just because of the number of pages it contains (1195 not including notes, in the Modern Library edition from which I have just emerged, blinking my eyes, as if from a vast cavern); it has a huge subject, post-revolutionary France (or Europe or the World), or: the human condition and the progress of the eighteenth century's enlightenment project in the nineteenth. (Whew! What a mouthfull.) I don't suppose many of you have read it, or will (here I am, at 77, just getting round to it) which is too bad because it is, as I now realize, the one book that just about says it all on the subject of modernity--or about as a much as anyone could have said on this subject in 1862. If there is one book that Joseph de Maistre. the great enemy of modernity, would have hated and feared beyond any other, this is it.

Size or heft, back then, was no deterrent. "In Paris, bookstores sold every copy within three days. Factory workers pooled their money to buy shared copies. Conservatives denounced a book that represented a criminal as a hero. Pope Pius IX placed Les Miserables on the Church's Index of proscribed books, and copies were publicly burned in Spain. In Paris and all around the world, Les Miserables solidified Hugo's reputation as the champion of the poor and the enemy of tyranny. The novel was devoured by everyone from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to soldiers on both sides in the American Civil War." Dickens and Scott had had that sort transatlantic popular readership as well.

Some other big books were appearing at around this time:Moby Dick was published in 1851, The Origin of Species in 1859. What do these books have in common? They posit an entirely natural world in which god is irrelevant. Schopenhauer's World As Will And Idea(1819) which eliminates God altogether, was beginning to be taken seriously at this time. None of these writers would ever be as popular with the masses as Hugo, and especially Les Miserables. Why? Because Hugo, in this book at least, never swerves from his belief in a providential God.

Les Miserables is permeated by a philosophy of history. History, it says repeatedly, is the same as Providence which is the same as destiny, is on the side of enlightenment and democracy. What looks like chance or randomness in history is really the will of God with his thumb on the scales. So to speak. Such a view of history is very convenient for a novelist, a 19th century novelist at any rate: the reader can feel that the coincidences, accidents, chances that knit the novel together, connecting high and low, good and evil, great and small, and moves the grand design of the plot along to its appointed destiny is not a mere fabrication of the novelist's but a figure in the larger carpet of history. When the plot connects people who would never in the real world connect, and when wonderful things happen as a result, it is not novelistic artifice or sleight of hand, not a mere deus ex machina, but a reflection of how things actually are. Yet Hugo, as a passionate prophet of modern enlightenment, also believed in modern science as its agent. I don't know how it is for other religions, but modern science is enlightening in ways that are not only incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy, as Maistre understood very well, but probably also with Hugo's vague faith in divine providence.

Victor Hugo died in 1885. He could never have imagined that the worst was yet to come, that Joseph de Maistre's Executioner would come into his own in the 20th century, that the lights would go out in 1914 and stay out for more than 30 years (and a lot longer than that in Russia and China.) He knew that explosions like the French Revolution create demons, as supernovas create metals, but neither he nor anyone else could have predicted Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot. He thought that the energies released or generated--the fears, hopes, hatreds--by that revolution would work themselves out in the 19th century. No such luck.

When we first meet the hero of this novel, Jean Valjean at the house of the superlatively wise and good Bishop of Digne, Monseignor Bienvenu, he is a partially literate peasant who has spent the last nineteen years as a convict and a galley slave. It is the year of Waterloo, 1815. He is in his early forties. Somehow or other during those 19 years, he had managed to learn how to read, but he is still an inarticulate and savage animal. That same year, he pops up in another town and invents a process that changes its single industry from a marginal business to a profitable one. The town, enriched by his industry and good works, makes him its Mayor. Having literally reinvented himself, he is no longer a virtually illiterate peasant but an educated man of the world.

I know of no other novel of that century whose hero is so very nearly superhuman. Like Edward in King Lear, Jean Valjean can appear or disappear at will. He has the strength four ordinary men and perfect presence of mind--he never loses his cool, no matter how desperate his situation. He can climb walls like Spider Man and get out of tight spots like Houdini. His conscience, or moral imagination, is superhuman as well thanks to the shock of his encounter with Bishop Bienvenu, a man whose character--a cross between Socrates and Jesus--Hugo has devoted the first 50 pages of the book developing. The action of the novel is determined at key points by this conscience.

Why epic, why romance? Stay tuned.

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