V. Hugo, Social Commentary, and Light
I'm now on my third try getting through Les Miserables and this time is the charm. I'm just not that much of a fiction guy and Hugo loves tangents, which makes his storytelling a bit dense at times. Don't get me wrong: his historical and philosophical asides are usually fascinating (though some of his sentence structures come off a bit trite) but I don't usually like being tied up with a long novel. Anyways, I have made the commitment and am really enjoying it. For those who have read it, I'm in the Saint Denis section right now.
One of the fascinating currents running through this work is his emphasis upon 'light.' It is a meditation for him. If 'the miserables' are his theme, then the ignorance of men's minds and the capacity for wickedness in their hearts is his diagnosis, and the call for light is the counter-theme and prescription. This enables him to bring together genuine sympathy for those who inhabit the underworld of Paris in the nineteenth century while recognizing that criminals are not mere victims. Here is a passage that I just read which I believe speaks profoundly:
Let us have compassion on the chastened. Who, alas! are we ourselves? who am I who speak to you? who are you who listen to me? whence do we come? . . . The earth is not without resemblance to a jail? Who knows that man is not a prisoner of Divine Justice?Look closely into life. It is so constituted that we feel punishment everywhere.Are you what is called a fortunate man? Well, you are sad every day. Each day has its great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for the health of one who is dear to you, to-day you fear for your own; tomorrow it will be an anxiety about money . . . one cloud is dissipated, another gathers. Hardly one day in a hundred of unbroken joy and of unbroken sunshine. And you are of that small number who are fortunate! At to other men, stagnant night is upon them.Reflecting minds make little use of this expression: the happy and the unhappy. In this world, the vestibule of another evidently, there is none happy.The true division of humanity is this: the luminous and the dark.To diminish the number of the dark, to increase the number of the luminous, behold the aim. This is why we cry: education, knowledge! to learn to read is to kindle a fire; every syllable spelled sparkles.But he who says light does not necessarily say joy. There is suffering in the light; in excess it burns. Flame is hostile to the wing. To burn and yet to fly, this is the miracle of genius.When you know and when you love you shall suffer still. The day dawns in tears. The luminous weep, were it only over the dark.-V. Hugo, p.854
Though I believe the correlation between light and education is lacking somewhat, I love the distinction he makes among men: those who are in the light, and those who are not. How do we cure the maladies of man? "Cannot the light penetrate these masses? Let us return to that cry: Light! and let us persist in it! Light! light (517)!"