Sunday, April 24, 2011

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Took a break from reading for a while and got back to it with this classic. A few of the parts need historical references and I'll need to do some reading in history in parallel.

Although we hold that it was not for a political function that God created Monseigneur Bienvenu, we could have understood and admired a protest in the name of right and liberty, a fierce opposition, a perilous and just resistance to Napolean when he was all-powerful. But what is pleasing to us towards those who are rising, is less pleasing towards those who are falling. We do not admire the combat when there is no danger; and in any case the combatants of the first hour have alone the right to be the exterminators in the last. He has not been a determined accuser during prosperity, ought to hold his peace in the presence of adversity. He only who denounces the successes at one time had the right to proclaim the justice of the downfall. As for ourselves, when providence intervened and struck the blow, we took no part; 1812 began to disarm us. In 1813, the cowardly breach of silence of the part of that Corps Legislatif; emboldened by catastrophe, was worthy only of indignation and it was base to applaud it; in 1814, from those traitorous marshals, from that senate passing from one baseness to another, insulting where they had denied, from that idolatry recoiling and spitting upon its idol, it was a duty to turn away in disgust; in 1815 when the air was filled with the final disasters, when France felt the thrill of their sinister approach, when Waterloo could already be dimly perceived opening before Napolean, the sorrowful acclamations of the army and to the people to the condemned of destiny, were no subjects of laughter; and making every reservation as to a despot, a heart like that of Bishop of D- aught not to have refused to see what was august and touching, on the brink of the abyss, in the last embrace of a great nation and a great man.

A touching tribute to Napolean Bonaparte.


Another superb dialogue between the Bishop of D- and a conventionist who took part in the French Revolution of 1793.

"Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over, this is recognised: that the human race has been harshly treated, but that it has advanced."
"Progress ought to believe in God. The good cannot have an impious servitor. An atheist is an evil leader of the human race."
"O thou! O ideal! thou alone dost exist! The infinite exists. It is there. If the infinite had not me, the me would be its limit; it would not be infinite; in other words it would not be. But it is. Then is has a me. This me of the infinite is God. Monsieur Bishop I have passed my life in meditation, study and contemplation. I was sixty years old when my country called me, and ordered me to take part in her affairs. I obeyed. There were abuses, I fought them; there were tyrannies, I destroyed them; there were rights and principles, I proclaimed and confessed them. The soil was invaded, I defended it;France was threatened, I offered her my breast. I was not rich; I am poor. I was one of the masters of the state, the vaults of the banks were piled high with specie, so that we had to strengthen the walls or they would have fallen under the weight of gold and silver; I dined in the Rue de l'Arbre-Sec at twenty sous a meal. I succoured the oppressed, I solaced the suffering. True, I tore the drapery from the altar; but it was to staunch the wounds of the country. I have always supported the forward march of the human race towards the light, and sometimes resisted a progress that was without pity. I have on occasion, protected my own adversaries, your friends. There is a Penteghem in Flanders, at the very place where the Merovignian kings had their summer palace, a monastery of Urbanists, the Abbey of Sainte Claire in Beaulieu, which I saved in 1793; I have done my duty according to my strength, and the good that I could. After which I was hunted, hounded, pursued, persecuted, slandered, railed at, spat upon, cursed, proscribed. For many years now, with my white hairs, I have perceived that many people believed they had a right to despise me, to the poor, ignorant crowd I have the face of the damned, and I accept, hating no man myself, the isolation of hatred. Now I am eighty-six years old; I am about to die. What have you come to ask of me?"



Unfortunately people forget the greatest wars their predecessors fought:

Baudin killed, Foy wounded, fire, slaughter, carnage, a brook made of English blood, of German blood, and of French blood, mingled in fury; a well filled with corpses, the regiment of Nassau and the regiment of Brunswick destroyed, Duplat killed, Blakmann killed, the English guard killed, twenty French battalions, out of the forty of Reille's corps, decimated, three thousand men, in this one ruin of Hougomont, sabred, slashed, slaughtered, shot, burned; and all this in order that today a peasant may say to a traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs; if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo.


The author's worship of Napolean seems as obvious as his submission to the defeat at Waterloo. He claims Waterloo to be decided by God rather than men. Has he placed Napolean just below God that only God can condemn him?


Was it possible that Napolean should win this battle? We answer no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God.
For Bonaparte to be conqueror at Waterloo was not in the law of the nineteenth century. Another series of facts were preparing in which Napolean had no place. The ill-will of events had long been announced.
It was time that this vast man should fall.
The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the equilibrium. This individual counted, of himself alone, more than the universe besides. These plethoras of all human vitality concentrated in a single head, the world mounting to the brain of one man, would be fatal to civilization if he should endure. The moment had come for incorruptible supreme equity to look into it. Probably the principles and elements upon which regular gravitations in the moral order as well as in the material depend, began to murmur. Reeking blood, overcrowded cemeteries, weeping mothers - these are formidable pleaders. When the earth is suffering from a surcharge, there are mysterious moanings from the deep which the heavens hear.
Napolean had been impeached from the Infinite, and his fall was decreed.
He vexed God.
Waterloo is not battle; it is a change in the front of the universe.


A tribute to some of the French soldiers:

Ney, desperate, great in the all the granduer of accepted death, braved himself to every blow in this tempest. He had his horse killed under him. Reeking with sweat, fire in his eyes, froth upon his lips, his uniform unbuttoned, one of epaulets half cut away by the sabre-stroke of a horse-guard, his badge of the grand eagle pierced by a ball, bloody, covered with blood, magnificent, a broken sword in his hand, he said: "Come and see how a marshal of France dies on the field of the battle!" But in vain, he did not die. He was haggard and exasperated. He flung this question at Drouet d'Erlon. "What! are you not going to die?" He cried out in the midst of all this artillery which was mowing down a handful of men. "Is there nothing, then, for me? Oh! would that all these English bullets were buried in my body!" Unhappy man! thou was reserved for French bullets!

(Ney was condemned to death after the fall of Napolean and executed on 7 December 1815.)


When this legion was reduced to a handful, when their flag was reduced to a shred, when their muskets exhausted of ammunition, were reduced to nothing but clubs, when the pile of corpses was greater than the group of living, there spread among the conquerors a sacred terror about these sublime martyrs, and the English artillery, stopping to take breath, was silent. It was a kind of respite. These combatants had about them, as it were, a swarm of spectres, the outlines of men on horseback, the black profile of the cannons, the white sky seen through the wheels and the gun-carriages; the colossal death's head which heroes always see in the smoke of the battle was advancing upon them, and glaring at them.They could hear in the gloom of the twilight the loading of the pieces, the lighted matches like tiger's eyes in the night made a circle about their heads; all the linstocks of English batteries approached the guns, when touched by their heroism, holding the death-moment suspended over these men, an English general, Colville, according to some, Maitland, according to others, cried to them: "Brave Frenchmen, surrender!" Cambronne answered: "Merde!"
To this word of Cambronne, the English voice replied: "Fire!" the batteries flamed, the hill trembled, from all those brazen throats went a final vomiting of grape, terrific; a vast smoke, dusty white in the light of the rising moon, rolled out, and when the smoke was dissipated, there was nothing left. That formidable remnant was annihiliated; the guard was dead. Te four walls of the living redoubt had fallen, hardly could a quivering be distinguished here and there among the corpses; and thus the French legions, expired on Mont Saint Jean on ground soaked in rain and blood, in the sombre wheatfields, at the spot where now, at four o'clock in the morning, whistling, and gaily whipping up his horse, Joseph passes, who drives the mail from Nivelles.

The conclusion of Waterloo:

Does taking away Waterloo from Wellington and from Blucher, detract anything from England and Germany? No. Neither illustrious nor august Germany is in question in the problem of Waterloo. Thank heaven, nations are great aside from the dismal chances of the sword. Neither Germany, nor England, nor France, is held in a scabbard. At this day when Waterloo is only a clicking of sabres, above Blucher, Germany has Goethe, and above Wellington, England has Byron. A vast uprising of ideas is peculiar to our century, and in this aurora England and Germany have a magnificent share. They are majestic because they think. The higher plane which they bring to civilization is intrinsic to them; it comes from themselves, and not from an accident. The advancement which they have made in the nineteenth century does not come from Waterloo. It is only barbarous nations that have a sudden growth after a victory. It is the fleeting vanity of the streamlet swelled by a storm. Civilises nations, especially in our times, are not exalted or abased by the good or bad fortune of a captain. Their specific gravity in the human race results from something more than a combat. Their honour, thank God, their dignity, their light, their genius, are not number that heroes or conquerors, those gamblers, can cast into the lottery of battles. Oftentimes a battle lost is progress attained. Less glory, more liberty. The drum is silent, reason speaks. It is the game at which he who loses, gains. Let us then speak coolly of Waterloo on both sides. Let us render into Fortune the things that are Fortune's, and unto God the things that are God's. What is Waterloo? A victory? No. A prize.
A prize won by Europe, paid by France.
It was not much to put a lion there.
Napolean and Wellington: they are not enemies, they are opposites. Never has God, who takes pleasure in antitheses, made a more striking contrast and a more extraordinary meeting. Wellington was the Barreme of war, Napolean was its Michaelangelo, and this time genius was vanquished by calculation.
On both sides they were expecting somebody. It was the exact calculator that succeeded. Napolean expected Grouchy; he did not come. Wellington expected Blucher; he came.
England has been to modest in regard to Wellington. To make Wellington so great is to belittle England. Wellington is a hero like the rest. For our part, all glorification goes to the English soldier, the English army, the English people. If trophy there be, to England the trophy is due. The Waterloo column would be more just if, instead of a figure of a man, it lifted to the clouds the statue of a nation.
But this great England will be offended at what we say here. She still has after her 1688 and our 1789, the feudal illusion. She believes in hereditary right, and in the hierarchy.
But what is that to the Infinite? All this tempest, all this cloud, this war, then this peace, all this darkness, disturb not for a moment the light of that infinite Eye, before which the least of insects leaping from one blade of grass to another equals the eagle flying from spire to spire among the towers of the Notre-Dame. 




A very forward thinking part on old age in modern society:


Moreover, what is called much too harshly, in certain case, the ingratitude of children is not as blameworthy a thing as is supposed. It is the ingratitude of nature. Nature, as we have said elsewhere, looks forward. Nature divides living beings into the coming and the going. The going are turned towards the shadow, the coming towards the light. Hence, a separation, which on the part of the old, is a fatality, and, on the part of the young, involuntary. This separation, at first insensible, gradually increases, like every separation of branches. The limbs without parting from the trunk, recede from it. It is not their fault. Youth goes where joy is, to festivals, to brilliant lights, to loves. Old age goes to its end. They do not lose sight of each other, but the ties are loosened. The affection of the young is chilled by life; that of the old by the grave. We must not blame these poor children.


At the end a masterpiece worth reading. All set in probably the most tumultuous era of modern France. A fiction embedded in history.