One of the first distinctions taught me by Alexander Saxton, my adviser at UCLA (and confirmed by other scholars) was that a drastic transformation had taken place between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the wake of the American and French Revolutions: that the politics of family and deference to one’s “betters” had given way to “mass politics,” symbolized most famously by the log cabin campaigns of Andrew Jackson and his successors in the Jeffersonian agrarian tradition. Federalists (like Washington and Hamilton) were out and democrats were in, even if they held slaves and adored Sir Walter Scott’s romances.
This point is lost on those who blame mass politics and mass culture (both supposedly appealing to the irrational mob) for all the dictatorships of the 20th century. Among these was George Orwell, whose Nineteen Eighty Four is unintelligible without taking into account the new technology that enabled the successful snooping of Big Brother. Similarly, the Frankfurt School critical theorists blame technology and bureaucratic rationality (i.e., modernity as controlled by irreligious mass culture) for the Holocaust.
Nor without “traditional” fear of the undeferential masses can we understand the turn toward the classic tradition advanced by Robert Maynard Hutchins and his ‘moderate’ colleagues, who, as early as 1939, hoped to reinstate deference to a natural aristocracy to defeat the atheistic reds and their glorification of the common man. (See http://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/.)
I have spent the last several weeks plowing through Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), a melodrama so appealing that it was adapted for both stage and film. What I most strongly take away from this monstrosity of a tale/sermon/philosophical treatise/military history is Hugo’s attempt to make himself, the conservative Romantic, the true superhero of the tome. It is he who kills off his rival in fatherly strength and determination, Jean Valjean at the end, leaving himself, the author, as the major survivor. On display throughout are Hugo’s ostentatious learning, deference to God as the prime mover of human events, the efficacy of a change of heart in redeeming criminals, ingenious plotting, and detailed descriptions of the Paris poor, their furniture, rags, songs, and schemes including early nineteenth century French insurrections/émeutes. The epic novel is a reproach to Prometheus and his Enlightenment offspring, though many of its images are poetic and memorable.
Hugo, no less than Jean Valjean threading his way through the treacherous Paris sewers with the wounded lawyer Marius on his back, is navigating his way between monarchism and republicanism, taking us back to the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church advanced the higher law that invariably trumped earthly “pettifoggers.” Amor Vincit Omnia. Ask Robert Maynard Hutchins and the other pseudo-moderate men.
It is so ironic that during last year’s Tony Awards (referring to 2011 productions), members of the Broadway musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, presented themselves as revolutionaries and republicans singing “One Day More” (http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/lesmiserables/onedaymore.htm) as if the author, without ambivalence, favored republican principles and the mass politics that enabled them in Europe and America. Hugo was no Marat, no ami du peuple. Rather, the escape artist (like both Valjean and Thenardier) was torn between his parents whose politics were opposed to one another. Hugo chose absolutism, not the stern Hebraic demand to choose inside a dualistic world.*
But don’t tell that to the post 1960s back-to-nature generation, like Victor Hugo, those stalwart enemies to “jewified” modernity, held to be masked, ambiguous, and unintelligible (with the exception of geniuses like himself). For many, Les Misérables is the Communist Manifesto of social democracy, but with a variation. It appears that God and the State have merged. The State, assuming the status of a deity, is the author of human events. The Good King is back, and the Good King is a superhero. (For a related recent blog see http://clarespark.com/2013/05/30/nostalgia-for-the-middle-ages/.)
*I am indebted to Steve Chocron for this point about Judaism and the necessity constantly to choose the right path when all choices are fraught with ambiguity.