Monday, March 29, 2010

The Rare and Beautiful

I read something beautiful.

to read
Les Misérables since I saw the play in London many years ago. Not only was the music gorgeous, but during the play I understood, for the first time, something about meaning and symbolism in literature. At the end of the play, I understood that the barricade that the student-rebels had built stood for life and beyond it, as the final song celebrates, is a place free from misery, that is, heaven.

Published in 1862, the book begins with a stated purpose that is relevant today as told in the preface:

"So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved… so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless."—Victor Hugo Hauteville House 1862

The original novel is long, some editions as long as 1,200 pages and there were sections that I found soporific, but the action of the plot is both insightful, inspiring and challenging. And contained within the miles of prose are some of the most stirring descriptions of what is beautiful in life.
a garden fence made from apple trees

For those unfamiliar with the story, the narrative follows the life of a man, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family, who has just be released from serving nineteen years on a prison ship. Jean Valjean’s distinguishing physical characteristic is his enormous strength. But his mind is baffled in darkness and his spirit is ruined.

On his first night of freedom, the convict faces prejudice and can find nowhere to sleep or eat. He begs hospitality from a village priest, known fondly as Monseigneur Bienvenu (Bishop Welcome). It is about him that I want to tell you today.

Modern fiction, writers are told, must begin with a massacre of thousands, or some dark deed as is commonly shown on CSI and etc. This, modern writers are told is necessary to “hook” the reader Les Misérables begins differently. It shows the reader the interior life of the devoted man who, in the next pages, will welcome the utterly lost man.

“…the bishop’s day was full to the brim with good thoughts, good words, and good actions. Nevertheless, it was not complete if cold or rainy weather prevented his passing an hour or two in the evening… in his garden before going to sleep. It seemed as if it were a sort of rite with him, to prepare himself for sleep by meditating in presence of the great spectacle of the starry firmament….He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart at the hour when the flowers of night inhale their perfume, lighted like a lamp in the center of the starry night, expanding his soul in ecstacy* in the midst of the universal radiance of creation, he could not perhaps have told what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him…

"He would sit upon a wooden bench leaning against a broken trellis and look at the stars through the irregular outlines of his fruit trees. This quarter of an acre of ground, so poorly cultivated, so cumbered with shed and ruins was dear to him, and satisfied him.

"What was more needed by this old man…? Was not this narrow enclosure with the sky for a background enough to enable him to adore God in his most beautiful as well as in his most sublime works?... A little garden to walk, and immensity to reflect upon. At his feet something to cultivate and gather; above his head something to study and meditate upon; a few flowers on the earth, and all the stars in the sky.”

Not only was I struck by the character of the priest, but the original beauty of the description. This writer thinks about sublime and wonderful things. This writer sees rare, exquisite qualities and ideas. It is this vision of Victor Hugo that “hooked” this reader.

The priest's rare inner quality so shown in this description makes believable his extraordinary gesture in the next scene. where Jean Valjean, repays the kindness of the old man by stealing the household silver. When he is caught and dragged back to the village, the priest insists that he gave Valjean the silver. “Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

And so, a man full of love and inspiration, sets in motion the redemption of another. The story tells how Jean Valjean becomes “a man who saves others.” And so, I think the preface copied above is right. As long as humans suffer, books like this are valuable, but more than that; as long as humans live they need careful, inspired descriptions of the subtle, important gold in life. And this Les Misérables offers in abundance.

This is a garden near Victor Hugo's home in exile on the island of Guernsey. Hugo was exiled for his political views.

*ecstacy spelled the archaic way, and in the archaic use meant a kind of spiritual awakening or experience.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, the power of a positive word spoken in love!