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.