Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Nov 8, 2005

Les Miserables

This is an interesting time to be reading this book by Victor Hugo. Apart from its heroic characters and interestingly twisty plot, Les Miserables is full of social commentary that centers around France, and most notably, Paris.

To an American, that is to say, me, Hugo's Franco-centric view of European (and even global) politics seems strange beyond belief. Hasn't it been decades since France was a real power-player on the global scale? It's useful to recall that there was once a time when Paris was the center, not necessarily of politics, progress, and thought, but of fashion.

In literary terms, England and America drove the theme of the past two centuries, socialism (from Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany) provided the plot (a plot is conflict, after all), and France provided the style, driving not so much the shape of events, but the shape of their portrayal.

So why is this an interesting time to be reading Les Miserables? Why, precisely because of that social commentary. Paris today is overwhelmed by riots very similar to the 1830-1832 uprising in Victor Hugo's book. Its population of young people--gamin and revolutionaries in Hugo's book, government-supported indigents today--are much the same. Hugo's revolutionaries fought against the stagnant leftovers of the monarchy in the name of socialism, and these modern youths are striking out against . . . what?

Here is where the case differs. The modern Parisian "revolutionaries" appear to have no ideology. They battle against a nameless stagnation whose source they do not know, in the name of an ideal they do not comprehend. If I could give words to them, the stagnation they are fighting is France's long night of socialism, multiculturalism, surrender. In dread, though, I realize that the name of what many of them seem to be fighting for is Islam. The Caliphate.

The Monarchy.

Paris, and with her France, seems to be swinging from one night to another. In the chaos of the in-between years a bit of freedom creeps in, and, like a shot of adrenaline, lends legitimacy to the "new" theories, sustaining them for a while and making it seem as though this revolution might have been right. Always they eventually fail. In a sense, this is good . . . even if these current, unlikely revolutionaries are partially successful, another revolution will come along to displace them shortly. It is also bad: a permanent, institutionalized civil war is not something anyone wants to hope for, least of all as an improvement!

Paris! Look at where you have been! Monarchy doesn't work. Socialism doesn't work. It's time to try something new. To stop swallowing your own tail like an Oroborus that goes 'round and 'round without ever getting anywhere.


Myrhaf said...

My biggest problem with Victor Hugo (who I otherwise love) is that he takes 20 pages to say what he could have said in 2 pages. It's like he gets going on something and his mind is so fertile that he can't stop until he's beaten the topic to death. It feels like he's showing off.

Jennifer Snow said...

Pretty much. Reading one of his mini-essays always left me groaning, "GET BACK TO THE DRAMA ALREADY!" Ayn Rand commented on that in The Art of Fiction, I think.

I suppose the novel wasn't really a mature art form at the time, though, so he can be somewhat excused for his esthetic mistakes.