Les Misérables

We saw Les Misérables and although I do not like musicals it is interesting to pore over July Monarchy, the 1832 rebellion and 1848 as well as the emphasis on ambivalence in Hugo’s heroes (which Javert cannot handle). French history is instructive and I wish I knew it better as it might explain my institution, as well — some say we are like Mexico in the 1820s, but really we could be France in the 1850s or any modern nation-state in a moment of authoritarian peace after a set of civil wars following the revolution that has given it violent birth.

I read that the novel when new was criticized in Le Monde for containing such detailed instructions on organizing riots. Hugo was in exile on Jersey and when he heard rumors of the novel’s success he telegraphed the editor: ? and received the answer: !.

Most interesting to me about this film was that I saw it in the same theatre where I had seen Lincoln a few weeks earlier and where the latter film is still playing. That made two historical dramas about major 19th century conflicts over freedom and I thought: that 19th century is more heroic than later centuries.

What is as heroic in the 20th century? I am not talking about degrees of suffering. “Concentration camps” is not an acceptable answer nor is having defended Stalingrad. Nor having seen starvation, nor having undergone rationing. I am talking about heroic enterprises and ideals, not endurance.

Axé.

About these ads

13 Comments

Filed under Arts, Questions

13 responses to “Les Misérables

  1. N G

    What is as heroic in the 20th century? Good Question – perhaps Frida Kahlo’s marriage to Diego Rivera which she transcended by her art. She used to say that she had two accidents in her life, one in a streetcar and the other in a marriage to Diego. He was certainly your typical artistic roué and had many affairs during their marriage including one with her sister. Picasso was the same. The reason I’m thinking about Frida is my viewing of the Frida & Diego installation at the Ontario Art Gallery last night. Here’s the link.

    http://www.ago.net/frida-diego-passion-politics-and-painting

    For some strange reason, I started thinking about chicken jokes in Spanish after I viewed the exhibition and was dining on a chicken and goat cheese quiche in the Grange which is the member lounge for the art gallery. ¿Por qué el pollo cruzó la carretera? With answers like:

    “La soledad es la más profunda realidad de la condición de pollo. El pollo es el único ser que sabe que está solo, y el único que busca a otra.” (Octavio Paz)

    Or

    “ell pollo viaje a traves de la carretera para ver lo se puede. Vio’ el otro lado de la carretera. Despues, regresara’. En este manera, tiempo hace un circulo hasta eternidad.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

  2. Z

    Is dealing with Diego parallel to risking your life for an ideal, though? I am not saying, but asking.

    Pollo, I guess you can use that word for a living chicken but I am laughing because of visualizing a roast chicken crossing the road!!! :-)

  3. The Algerian independent movements?

    • Z

      Oh, that is a good one. I had also thought of civil rights in US, how those marches were actually quite like being on the barricades. Marchers were nonviolent but police were not, and there were all those night-riders who were not.

      • I thought about that one too, but until today I am not sure whether my image of the US in the 60s is accurate or influenced by myths, the TV, etc.

        I thought of Algeria because when I was on my 7th year at the Alliance, I had a professor probably 5 years older than me (I was 20 at the time), who unlike your typical Alliance prof, would smoke a joint before the class and then proceed to talk about things as diverse as Voltaire and Manu Chao in a period of 10 minutes. And at least for me, it made perfect sense. The following year, I skipped the Alliance and hired him as a private tutor, and he devoted a lot of time to Algeria.

        I couldn’t continue taking classes with him because he met a Slovakian woman and moved with her to some small Slovakian town the following year. Last I heard about him, he was still with the lady, they had both moved to Senegal, converted to Islam, and he made a living playing percussion in a band. Quite a character.

  4. Z

    My God, what a marvelous Alliance professor!

    Civil rights, it’s 50s too and has major semi military action. My thought is that those marches were like the French barricades. I am not talking about nice candlelit anti-Vietnam marches in coastal California, or the 1968 riots in Chicago which I sort of missed — the adults were freaking out about all the violence by this time, MLK and RFK had been assassinated earlier in the year and there was more going on, and they hid the televisions. But it is specifically the civil rights marches down here I am thinking of, which I think had a different character and also a different character from the march on Washington, which was too big to fail. The early ones were risky as all get out and dangerous, and people were killed although of course it wasn’t outright war in the streets as with France. Anyway, this is the specificity of the parallel that came to me. My hypothesis: these were not protest marches, they were the barricades of that age.

    • human

      Not outright war? But of course it was! I think your comparison to the barricades is even more apt than you are making the case for.

      • Z

        Human — I think you are right and I secretly think my barricade insight is brilliant. Civil rights was not that far removed in time from 1848 and … well. I am saying not outright war because SNCC and MLK were not armed and also because people from other countries tend not to believe me when I say how serious it was.

      • human

        The whole thing of being publicly unarmed was a tactic among many. And there were some civil rights fighters — I think we should use this word — who disagreed with it strongly. Negroes with Guns by Robert Williams is a primary text I’ve seen used to show this in undergrad classes. That worked very well.

        And, you know, there were the big public marches, but then there were other moments, less public. Like the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Because Dahmer had been registering blacks to vote at his store, Klansmen showed up at his house one night with guns and firebombs — their plan was to set the house on fire and then shoot Dahmer and his family as they ran out. Dahmer shot back at them, covering fire to give his family a chance to escape. They lived but he died of his injuries.

        If that’s not outright war, I don’t know what is! I agree with you a hundred percent that people would react strangely to hear it called that, but we can surely say it between ourselves and know it’s true. And maybe think about ways to get other people to see it, too, because I think this is politically important.

  5. human

    (SPOILERS for the movie if you care)

    One thing about this is what we think of as being heroic. And this is part of what actually bothers me a bit about the mass popularity of Les Miserables (the musical).

    Do you have to die to be heroic? Do you have to fail to be heroic? What if you die and fail, but it turns out that wasn’t actually necessary or of much use to anyone — is that heroic or just foolish? Are the students who die on the barricade heroic or just tragically young, naive, romantic, and foolish?

    I’m actually not talking about the real historical ones at this point, nor even the ones in the novel, but the students as they’re portrayed in the musical. So it can vary from one production to the next. The key question is, do they know what their chances are? In the movie, we see that they know their organizing has failed, the people haven’t risen, and they are “the only barricade left” as Enjolras tells them. They know they’re going to die, and to little purpose, because their revolution is going to fail — it’s already failed. They’re about to do the wise thing, and disperse to fight another day — you can see it in their faces. And then Gavroche starts to sing.

    So why do they do it? Why do they throw their lives away for an ideal and nothing more? (I’m leaving aside Marius because he’s an utter dork who’s decided he has to diiiiieee because he can’t have Cosette.) I think, as the movie presents the students, you could say that it’s because, having come as far as they have and believing as they do, dying for their ideals is the only satisfying emotional choice for them. Gavroche’s song brings their emotions to the fore, and that’s why they choose as they do. In a sense, you could argue they’re like Marius: they have to diiieee because they can’t have their successful revolution. But I think that’s a deeply cynical view of them and it’s not one that the movie shows, nor do I think it’s how Hugo saw the students. I think there’s also that spark of hope: because they do BELIEVE in the revolution, and so they have that spark of hope which is also fanned by Gavroche’s song, that somehow through their actions it really will happen and the people will realize their mistake and rise after all.

    So in that sense they are only young, not utterly self-involved. And so perhaps there is a bit of heroism in them.

    The reason this distinction is important is I think that heroism requires a kind of selflessness. If you’re dying because that’s the only satisfying emotional choice for you — if you’re pulling a Werther, basically, which is what Marius is trying to do — that’s not heroic. Because you are throwing your life away when later you could make it MATTER, you could do something useful and good, make a real contribution.

    So that’s why it matters so much what the students know and when they know it. That’s the difference that makes them either heroes with tragic flaws of youthful misjudgement (which I think is how Hugo saw them) or ridiculously self-involved Werthers (which the musical can show them as, if it’s not careful).

    And this is what bugs me about the musical, because I think a lot of people don’t make this distinction, and instead romanticize and idolize people who diiiiiieee for their beliefs, and I think that’s bullshit.

    But I still love the musical. And I loved the movie, in part because it didn’t make the students Werthers.

  6. Z

    What a brilliant comment, and should be published somewhere more visible than this.

    Dying for your beliefs, yes, this is much sold and overrated. And the students in the film are unwise. But I think they think this will get people to try again in a way giving up won’t. Although I would not do it there is something about the willingness to really go for things that impresses me and that does not seem to me to be in the air now.

    • human

      Aw, thanks! Yeah, I think you’re right about the students. They’re unwise, but they believe so strongly in the revolution that they think dying will move it forward no matter what. I mean, I think that is how Hugo saw them, don’t you? And he certainly admired them even though he wished they hadn’t died. I should go back and re-read the book, it has been a long time.

  7. Z

    Another brilliant comment:

    “The whole thing of being publicly unarmed was a tactic among many. And there were some civil rights fighters — I think we should use this word — who disagreed with it strongly. Negroes with Guns by Robert Williams is a primary text I’ve seen used to show this in undergrad classes. That worked very well.

    “And, you know, there were the big public marches, but then there were other moments, less public. Like the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Because Dahmer had been registering blacks to vote at his store, Klansmen showed up at his house one night with guns and firebombs — their plan was to set the house on fire and then shoot Dahmer and his family as they ran out. Dahmer shot back at them, covering fire to give his family a chance to escape. They lived but he died of his injuries.

    “If that’s not outright war, I don’t know what is! I agree with you a hundred percent that people would react strangely to hear it called that, but we can surely say it between ourselves and know it’s true. And maybe think about ways to get other people to see it, too, because I think this is politically important.”

    * Nonviolence is overrated and overemphasized in my view. I am not convinced that it always convinces people, or that violence only begets violence, and so on.

    * Dahmer, yes, this is a use of the 2d amendment / prefiguring of stand you ground I can really get behind.

    * Yes it is politically important so we should start talking about it. It was a war and my side lost, although it got some concessions … or what do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s