The Clare Spark Blog

August 13, 2013

Victor Hugo’s “93” and Condorcet

Hugoquatrevingt-treize_The French Revolution at its most Jacobin extreme has been appropriated by Communists as a great bourgeois revolution that laid the groundwork for the absolutist morality of subsequent revolutions. This is a dangerous error for persons of libertarian beliefs, who also think kindly of progress, anti-racist policies, market economies, and feminism.

Hugo’s last novel, 93, published in 1874, lays out the moral quandaries of various factions in the French Revolution. It is notable that Ayn Rand admired this novel, and it affected her own We The Living (1937, see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/01/12/ayn-rands-we-the-living/).

In my view, Hugo is aligned in this book that focuses on the moral quandary of the civil war in France (the French Revolution centered in Paris, as opposed by the rural Vendée), with the anti-capital punishment of the Marquis de Condorcet, whose advanced Enlightenment ideas have yet to be realized in our own times. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety-Three and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquis_de_Condorcet .

Here is a key passage in the Hugo novel in which a ci-devant aristocrat, a fighter for the Republic, Gauvain, argues with his beloved teacher Cimourdain, who has gone over to Robespierre, Danton, and Marat as they operated in the Committee for Public Safety.

[Cimourdain:] One day, the Revolution will be the justification of this Terror.

[Gauvain:] Beware lest the Terror become the calumny of the Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,—these are the dogmas of peace and harmony. Why give them an alarming aspect? What is it we want? To bring the peoples to a universal republic. Well, do not let us make them afraid. What can intimidation serve? The people can no more be attracted by a scarecrow than birds can. One must  not do evil to bring about good; one does not overturn the throne in order to leave the gibbet standing. Death to kings, and life to nations! Strike off the crowns; spare the heads! The Revolution is concord, not fright.  Clement ideas are ill-served by cruel men. Amnesty is to me the most beautiful word in human language. I will only shed blood in risking my own.  Besides, I simply know how to fight. I am nothing but a soldier. But if I may not pardon, victory is not worth the trouble it costs. During battle let us be the enemies of our enemies, and after victory, their brothers.

[Cimourdain:] Take care!

At the end, Hugo’s novel starts to look like Melville’s Billy Budd (not published until 1924, but written between 1886-91). The same moral quandary is revealed, and the Melville dénouement somewhat resembles the ending of the Hugo novel. Gauvain liberates his Royalist ancestor the ci-devant Marquis de Lantenac (only because the aristocrat risked his life to rescue three peasant tots in a fire), and after a strenuous argument with his conscience, subsequently offering his own life instead. Cimourdain, as a representative of the Jacobins, condemns the court-martialed Gauvain to the guillotine, but then takes his own life from remorse at having violated the higher law. (In Billy Budd, Captain Vere’s enigmatic last words as he lies dying from a shot from The Athée are “Billy Budd.”)

In the series Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Bobby Goren, often read as demonic by the critics, opposes capital punishment, but must serve the superiority of the Law above people. Read the interaction between Cimourdain and Gauvain, for it is a persistent theme in American culture. Even in our supposedly anti-Stalinist democracy, we struggle with the same paradox. And Hugo’s final published novel is a page-turner, and completely absorbing, free from the long digressions of Les Misérables.

La Torgue castle

La Torgue castle

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