Thursday, September 9, 2010

Learning Virtue from the French II: Les Miserables and Why I'm not a Populist

I have a hard time defining myself politically, which means I have a hard time explaining myself, even to myself.  Last time I wrote on this theme I wrote about the play, Death of Danton and how it reminded me to be cautious about "virtue" as a political trait.  I meant using "virtue" as a measure of purity and inclusion/exclusion.  The French Revolution cannibalized itself, and out comes Napoleon, and off we go on a dizzying ride through republic, monarchy, empire, republic, monarchy, empire, culminating (currently) in the Fifth Republic.   The Fifth Republic is younger than I am, and almost as old as the Third Republic was when it died an unnatural death in 1940.

But I digress (When do I not?).  Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables, is set in one of the more rambunctious periods:  the late 1820s and early 1830s.
This is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict freshly out of prison after serving nineteen years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. The original sentence was five years; unsuccessful escape attempts and the resulting additional time pushed it to a grand total of nineteen years. He believed that his sentence was grossly out of proportion to his crime, and by the time of his release he had built up a tremendous bitterness toward society. This bitterness was only intensified by the rejection and scorn which he experienced in attempting to find work and lodging immediately after his release; he was determined to have his revenge against society and against God in some form or fashion. But an unthinkable act of mercy and generosity by a saintly small-town bishop drastically alters the trajectory of Valjean’s life. From that point on, Valjean determines to live as an honest man, and through the rest of the story he struggles–quite imperfectly at times–to become an honest man. Javert, an extremely zealous police chief who once supervised Valjean’s work gang, is never far behind, and is determined to have Valjean back in prison for breaking parole. Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, the owners of an inn in Montfermeil, are also pursuing Valjean for their own corrupt and dishonest ends. The story takes us from one end of France to the other, from the very top of Parisian society to the very bottom, from Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830 and the student-led uprising of 1832 which serves as the story’s climax. --Submitted by Joseph Derbes
 Hugo (it would almost be worth growing old to be such a marvelously grumpy old man) was certainly sympathetic to the underclasses, but sympathetic to them in a way I've grown to suspect.  Babelfish translates Les Miserables to "Poor Wretches".  This may be sympathy, but it is hardly empathetic to describe persons as wretches.    "Poor, poor, you".  Uh, uh.  Not me.

The students leading the uprising are described thus: 

"  Other groups of minds were more serious. In that direction, they sounded principles, they attached themselves to the right. They grew enthusiastic for the absolute, they caught glimpses of infinite realizations; the absolute, by its very rigidity, urges spirits towards the sky and causes them to float in illimitable space. There is nothing like dogma for bringing forth dreams. And there is nothing like dreams for engendering the future. Utopia to-day, flesh and blood to-morrow.

These advanced opinions had a double foundation. A beginning of mystery menaced "the established order of things," which was suspicious and underhand. A sign which was revolutionary to the highest degree. The second thoughts of power meet the second thoughts of the populace in the mine. The incubation of insurrections gives the retort to the premeditation of coups d'etat....

What were these Friends of the A B C? A society which had for its object apparently the education of children, in reality the elevation of man.

They declared themselves the Friends of the A B C,--the Abaisse,-- the debased,--that is to say, the people."

They gave a party, and nobody came:

The immediate temptation is to blame the "debased," and we all do it. It's the people's fault for not knowing where their best interests lie. So we preach to them, using the dreaded word "should". I get preachy on occasion. Perhaps I'm getting too preachy now. If you're resenting that, you understand my point--apologies for my manner.  Everyone resents being patronized, and sometimes that resentment leads to people deciding to drink tea rather than coffee.

There have been those  who have played on that resentment forever  a very long time.  And often they've adopted the term populist to describe themselves.  Witness Tom Watson, one of the forces behind the "People's Party" in the 1890s.  Good stuff in the essay behind the link, but bad stuff too, and as the headnote indicates Watson's frustration led him to lash out--not at the source of oppression, but at the other victims of it.

Oops.  Back to the French.  Not very long--this has gone on too long already.  But--I have to get Threnedier into this.  And of course, the voice of truth.. Threnedier's wife.  I see Threnedier as the consummate politician.. the John Boehner, if you will.  "Servant to the Poor, Butler to the Rich"

 Don't you just love to hate him? (Truth be told, putting this video up is the motive force behind this post).


TheraP said...

Hello amike! Still waiting...

Wow! There's an edit feature here!


I don't know about motives sometimes; I wonder sometimes if they even count.

I have seen people work 'with' the poor.

I have seen people work 'for' the poor.

Hell, except in the context of children, you cannot even campaign in this country to help the 'poor'.

As long as the disadvantaged are receiving some help, I don't care.

I think the most important thing about Hugo or Dickens is that they depicted the poor and the powerless; they did not ignore them.

By the way, I love essays like this.

Amike said...

Hello Thera. Hope you're going to come play with us.

@Arthur: I love David Shipler's book "The Working Poor, Invisible in America," in part because he lets the poor tell him what they want done, and takes what they say seriously. Well worth a read, MHO. There's a looooong (but not too loooooooong) video of him speaking to students at Case Western Reserve. I think you'll find it at.