YDS: 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


June 15, 2013

Decoding Les Miserables and the superhero

les_miserables_ver11One 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, as well as the latter’s despised campaigns against racism and antisemitism,  and their glorification of the common man. Today these [red or pink] villains are called “secular progressives”–perhaps a code word for “the Jews.”  (See https://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 reactionary 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. [For more on Hugo and the Prometheans see https://clarespark.com/2013/08/13/victor-hugos-93-and-condorcet/.]

"Victor Hugo en mage"

“Victor Hugo en mage”

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.

British production

British production

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 https://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.

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