Monday, March 4, 2013

Les Miserables: It's Over. It's Done. And?

I've done it! I have completed the unabridged edition of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo! Victory is mine!

Now what am I supposed to do with all my spare time?

I've updated my quotes blog post. Both of them, actually. Go crazy with all the gloriousness that is Victor Hugo. The guy is verbose, but his verbosity paints the most profound images, details the darkest abyss of the human experience, and elevates the soul. I even found beauty in his description of the sewers.

What is Les Mis to me now, having finished the book, seen the play, and watched the movie? Beyond the obvious story of redemption, Les Mis is an opportunity to understand the human experience, to look deep into the soul of man and glimpse his revolutionary spirit, his determined spirit. It is an opportunity to come to know that the salvation of man comes because of love. It is the opportunity to understand that what we believe is right can sometimes turn out to be only an illusion, a ideological fiction that we tell ourselves to perpetuate the status quo. 

I hated, at times, the ridiculousness of Marius and Cosette's courtship. It made me want to throw up a little in my mouth every once in a while. But, despite the apparent lovie-dovey-ness of it all, their relationship exemplifies a love built on admiration, borderline obsessive infatuation (not entirely healthy), and respect. In contemporary relationships, I think we miss that aspect. Too often, serious relationships are built on desire and lust and forego the powerful dimension of admiration.  

As a sociologist, Les Miserables demonstrates the impact of inequality and exploitation. It illustrates the damages inflicted upon a society when women and children are exploited, forgotten, or abandoned. A society cannot progress when it ignores the needs of the poor and needy, when it turns out the child to beg in the streets or run in gangs. It cannot progress when women are viewed as half or less of a person, enslaved because of their gender, and seen as "the weaker sex." Poverty is inherently unjust. It creates animals out of man, creatures of darkness out of those who were once lovers of light. It was structural failings that led to Fantine's descent into the urchin world, Thenardier's fiendish extortion, and Jean Valjean's initial crime. It is why Victor Hugo wrote that so long as such things exist, "there shall be a need for books such as this." 

Here's what Anne Hathaway had to say about her opportunity to portray Fantine: "Playing Fantine, having to connect with the darkness of life, and I think maybe more to the point, the unnecessary suffering that human beings can inflict on each other, I would have loved to have gone home and forgotten about that everyday, but you just can't because it exists. And it exists for millions of men and women throughout the world. I think this film changed me because it made me more compassionate and more aware."

One cannot read Les Miserables without being changed, without shedding tears out of sadness and joy, without feeling a desire to ameliorate the suffering of his fellow man. Perhaps you can. I could not. "He who does not cry cannot see."

As Jean Valjean arrives at the barricade, he is described by one student as, "a man who saves others." He had arrived at a critical juncture, giving another the chance to leave the barricade and live. His life, his mission, was salvation. I want to be a man who saves others. And  in so doing, I want to be a man who saves himself. 

Hugo writes, "The book the reader has now before his the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting poing: matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end" (1242). Les Miserables is a book, a story about progress, change, and hope. Is that not what God, in whatever form we conceive Him to be, expects from us? 

As I have read, I have found intimations of my own experience within the lives of these now hallowed characters. In his final moments, Javert is torn between two lives he never thought possible. "Before him he saw two roads, both equally straight; but he did see two; and that terrified him -- he who had never in his life known anything but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory. One of these two straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one" (1320)? I find myself in such a predicament as of late. None of this Robert Frost nonsense. Both paths are equally straight and equally frightening. What does one do in such a case? "He looked for but could no longer find himself" (1321). "To have the unknown over his head, he was not accustomed to that" (1326). Powerful words. Frightening reality. Perhaps that is why Javert took his own life. He could not bear the thought of contradictory realities. I see before myself two equally terrifying roads, but unlike Javert, I see some hope. I see some consensus, even if it is illogical consensus.

And so, Les Miserables is to me a story of inner peace, even when such peace takes lifetimes to achieve. We cannot be whole with a shattered conscience. We are either entirely Jean Valjean, or we are nothing. To be honest with oneself is the last demon he must exorcise from his being. Only then does dying not become terrible; only then does living mean everything. It is a shame not to live. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Les Mis Quotes, Part II

You can read part one here. The post was just getting excessively long, and I figured that two post would make things more accessible. You seriously need to read all of these. Words have power, my friends.

Pg. 934-935: "What a great thing, to be loved! What a greater thing still, to love! The heart becomes heroic through passion. It is no longer composed of anything but what is pure; it no longer rests on anything but what is elevated and great. An unworthy thought can no more spring up in it than a nettle on a glacier. The lofty and serene soul, inaccessible to common passions and common emotions, rising above the clouds and shadows of this world, its follies, its falsehoods, its hatreds, its vanities, its miseries, inhabits the blue of the skies, and no longer feels anything but the deep subterranean commotions of destiny, as the summit of the mountains feels the quaking of the earth.
"If no one loved, the sun would go out."

Pg. 986: "When you know and when you love you will still suffer. The day dawns in tears. The luminous weep, but only over the dark ones."

Pg. 999: "Knowledge is a viaticum, thought is of primary necessity, not only grain but truth is nourishment. Through fasting from knowledge and wisdom, reason becomes emaciated. As with stomachs, we should pity minds that do not eat. If there is anything more poignant than a body agonizing for want of bread, it is a soul dying of hunger for light."

Pg. 1000: "We who believe, what can we fear?
"There is no backward flow of ideas any more than of rivers.
"But those who do not want the future should think it over. In saying no to progress, it is not the future that they condemn, but themselves. They are giving themselves a melancholy disease; they are inoculating themselves with the past. There is only one way of refusing tomorrow, and that is to die.
"No, no death -- that of the body as late as possible, never that of the soul -- is what we desire."

Pg. 1001: "We do not know the diseases of the ancient civilizations, we know the infirmities of our own."

Pg. 1004: "Love has no middle term; either it destroys, or it saves. All human destiny is this dilemma. This dilemma, destruction or salvation, no fate proposes more inexorably than love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; coffin, too. The same sentiment says yes and no in the human heart. Of all the things God has made, the human heart is the one that sheds most light, and alas! most night."

Pg. 1026: "There is an expansion of thought peculiar to the proximity of the grave; being near death makes us see the truth."

Pg. 1128: "There is nobody who has not noticed it in himself, the soul -- and this is the marvel of its complicated unity and ubiquity -- has the wonderful faculty of reasoning almost coolly in the most desperate extremities; and it often happens that disconsolate passion and deep despair, in the very agony of their darkest soliloquies, weigh subjects and discuss theses. Logic mingles with convulsion, and the thread of syllogism floats unbroken in the dreary storm of thought."

Pg. 1148: "What are the convulsions of a city compared to the emeutes of the soul? Man is a depth still more profound than the people."

Pg. 1155: "Great griefs contain dejection. They discourage existence."

Pg. 1190-1191: "Equality, citizens, is not all vegetation of one level, a society of big blades of grass and little oaks; a neighborhood of jealousies emasculating each other; civilly, it is all aptitudes having equal opportunity; politically, all votes having equal weight; religiously, all consciences having equal rights. Equality has an organ: free and compulsory education. The right to the alphabet, we must being by that. The primary school obligatory for everyone, the highest school offered to everyone, such is the law. From identical schools spring an equal society. Yes, education! Light! Light!

Pg. 1279: "The pupil dilates in the night, and at last finds day in it, even as the soul dilates in misfortune, and at last finds God in it."

Pg. 1320: "Before him he saw two roads, both equally straight; but he did see two; and that terrified him -- he who had never in his life known anything but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory. One of these two straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one?"

Pg. 1394: "We have all had these moments of trouble, in which everything within us is dispersed; we say the fist things that come to mind, which are not always precisely those that we should say. There are sudden revelations we cannot bear, that intoxicate like a noxious wine."

Pg. 1396: "It is not enough to be happy, we must be satisfied with ourselves."

Pg. 1397: "Your heart is not as quickly lacerated when you are at peace with yourself."

Pg. 1398: "To live, I once stole a loaf of bread; today, to live, I will not steal a name."

Pg. 1458: "It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live."