Brave Undertakings

Inspired by the film Les Miserables, I decided to read the book. And when I say “read,” I mean listen; I would never have the time to actually sit down book in hand & have a hope of finishing. But it makes me happy to say “I am reading Les Mis.” And it makes me happy to have arrived at Volume IV – yay. I have thoroughly enjoyed the story, and Victor Hugo’s commentary on French history fascinates me. Best of all, I like where he is coming from, his perspective and the way he takes a philosophical (as he puts it) view of the events described; he sees every heart, understands the characters deeply and is not fooled by superficial actions. He sees the beauty and potential in mankind, even though it be sitting in the mire, chained in a cell or picking a pocket. He sees through traditions of time and power and his insight sheds light on what man really desires, even if only vaguely conceived; what is right, though not always understood, and how things really ought to be, even though not always evident.

In ’93, according as the idea which was floating about was good or evil, according as it was the day of fanaticism or of enthusiasm, there leaped forth from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine now savage legions, now heroic bands.

Savage. Let us explain this word. When these bristling men, who in the early days of the revolutionary chaos, tattered, howling, wild, with uplifted bludgeon, pike on high, hurled themselves upon ancient Paris in an uproar, what did they want? They wanted an end to oppression, an end to tyranny, an end to the sword, work for men, instruction for the child, social sweetness for the woman, liberty, equality, fraternity, bread for all, the idea for all, the Edenizing of the world. Progress; and that holy, sweet, and good thing, progress, they claimed in terrible wise, driven to extremities as they were, half naked, club in fist, a roar in their mouths. They were savages, yes; but the savages of civilization.

They proclaimed right furiously; they were desirous, if only with fear and trembling, to force the human race to paradise. They seemed barbarians, and they were saviours. They demanded light with the mask of night.

Facing these men, who were ferocious, we admit, and terrifying, but ferocious and terrifying for good ends, there are other men, smiling, embroidered, gilded, beribboned, starred, in silk stockings, in white plumes, in yellow gloves, in varnished shoes, who, with their elbows on a velvet table, beside a marble chimney-piece, insist gently on demeanor and the preservation of the past, of the Middle Ages, of divine right, of fanaticism, of innocence, of slavery, of the death penalty, of war, glorifying in low tones and with politeness, the sword, the stake, and the scaffold. For our part, if we were forced to make a choice between the barbarians of civilization and the civilized men of barbarism, we should choose the barbarians.

But, thank Heaven, still another choice is possible. No perpendicular fall is necessary, in front any more than in the rear.

Neither despotism nor terrorism. We desire progress with a gentle slope.

God takes care of that. God’s whole policy consists in rendering slopes less steep.

 –Victor Hugo, Les Miserables