Friday, April 29, 2011

'Les Miserables' Victor Hugo

I have never said l 'Art pour l ' Art; but always l 'Art pour le Progress. It is for Progress that I suffer now, and for Progress that I am ready to die.

Victor Hugo to Baudelaire, October 1858

Progress is the mode of man. The general life of the human race is called Progress; the collective advance of the human race is called Progress. Progress marches; it makes the great human and terrestrial journey towards the celestial and the divine...
Les Miserables 5.1.20

Hugo’s gigantic novel is the great bugbear of French literature, lying like a Massif Central across the cultural landscape of 19th century France. Hugo himself is the central peak of French literature, at least in his own estimation. Napoleon is supposed to have said, echoing Louis XIV: La France, c’est moi, and if he didn’t, Hugo certainly would have, and he might have added: La literature, c ‘est moi.

Hugo’s egoism and certitude of his own greatness is legendary.  At the heart of his 1866 epic, The Toilers of the Sea, for example, is a huge monogram of Hugo’s initial: the wrecked ship wedged between the two vertical pillars of rock, stranded high and dry by the receding sea: The huge capital H formed by the two Douvres linked by the crossbar of the Durande stood out against the horizon in a kind of crepuscular majesty.  Hugo associated himself with majesty, with size. Les Miserables, huge, sprawling, prolix, is Hugo at his most majestic.

In the debates about the purpose of art which were such a feature of 19th century culture, Hugo was on the side of those who believed that art should have a purpose beyond itself. Art for Hugo should subordinate itself to political necessity, which he saw as moral enlightenment, the betterment of humanity, Progress. Art should morally uplift. Art should teach. This view of art is everywhere evident in Les Miserables, with its book length rants on the evils of capital punishment and religious incarceration, the moral depravity of the ancient regime, the evils of poverty, the role of women, the injustices of the penal system, the nature of history, the sociological study of argot, the legitimacy or otherwise of insurrection.

Part of the reason for Shakespeare’s greatness, for Dostoevsky’s also, is that nowhere in their work can you point to a view and say: “This is what the author believes, this is what he wants us to believe.” Shakespeare the man is entirely absent from his plays; Dostoevsky took care to keep his own views out of his novels and never to privilege one view over another. With Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, the reader is always given the role of interpreter and final arbiter between the great dialogues of the plays and novels.

Hugo’s strategy is the opposite. In other writers, it is necessary to always hold in mind the gap between the narrator and the author, who, theoretically, are quite different. In Hugo, the opposite is true. The narrator is always Hugo, and we always know exactly what he intends, what he thinks, and what he means, because he tells us, unambiguously, at length. In the narrative voice, in the same way that Hugo the man positioned himself in the society of his time, Hugo the narrator positions himself as the Great Teacher, the Great Reformer, the Seer of Society, the High Priest of Progress, the Almighty Father. The reader is given the role of student, of disciple, of child, and any movement on the part of the reader towards independent thought, towards personal interpretation, is strictly prohibited by the narrative voice. This takes place on the level of content and on the level of language, as we can see if we look in more detail at his style.

Le Style Hugo: rhetorical devices:

In order to achieve this didactic voice and mission, Hugo employs a number of characteristic rhetorical devices, presented below in no particular order.

Synonym strings
From thence visions, suppositions, conjectures, romances sketched out, longings for adventures, fantastic constructions...

A common complaint of the 21st century is that 19th century writers prefer to use 50 words where one will do. While this is usually nothing more than a linguistically sterile age bemoaning the tastes of a more fecund one, in Hugo's case, the observation is usually true. Hugo loves to create strings of synonyms, single words or even synonymous phrases. Here he is writing on how the government uses fear to bolster its position:

This then is the great art, to give a success something of the sound of a catastrophe, in order that those who profit by it may tremble also...

so far so good, but then he piles on subsidiary, largely synonymous phrases: moderate a step in advance with fear, to enlarge the curve of transition to the extent of retarding progress, to tame down this work, to denounce and restrain the ardencies of enthusiasm, to cut off the corners and the claws, to clog triumph, to swaddle the right, to wrap up the people-giant in flannel and hurry him to bed, to impose a diet upon this excess of health, to put Hercules under convalescent treatment, to hold back the event with the expedient, to offer to minds thirsting for the idea this nectar extended form barley-water, to take precautions against too much success, to furnish the revolution with a skylight

This has the effect of a bludgeon. While the first part of the sentence works on its own to cause a pause for reflection in the mind of the reader, the string of synonym phrases which follows crowds the mind with noise, a procession of images and metaphors which is ultimately too cloying, too loud, which dulls the power of the original image, and causes the mind of the reader to tire under repeated blows, to give up its independence, to submit.

The Revolution of July is the triumph of the Right prostrating the Fact.
The guillotine is the concretion of the law; it is called the Avenger...
Waterloo is the hinge of the nineteenth century.
He who says convent says marsh.
To place, by process of thought, the infinite below in contact with the infinite above is called ‘prayer’.

X is Y, X is called Y, he who says X says Y, to X is to Y. This is a very characteristic device, employed with great frequency both in the narrative and expository passages. Here, Hugo declaims. By defining, like a dictionary, he creates, he preserves, but he also (de)limits. Hugo's definitions brook no dissent, they forestall all argument, invite no discussion. They carry the odour of a dogma.

Parallel definitions
The relative, which is the monarchy, resists the absolute, which is the republic.
The insurrection is often a volcano, the emeute is often a fire of straw.

Similar to the previous device, here Hugo creates parallels in which there are four terms in the definition, not merely two, and then sustains them for paragraphs.

Questions and answers
What are the qualities of a dynasty? It should be national…
Who stops revolutions half way? The bourgeoisie? Why? Because the bourgeoisie is the interest which has attained to satisfaction.
This wind meets talking tongues...and sweeps them away. Whither? At hazard.

The rhetorical question and its answer is one of the most insidious devices of rhetoric, in that it gives the illusion of interaction, of freedom, but is actually a way of delimiting the scope of the enquiry. The answer is determined by the scope of the
question, and this scope is decided in advance by the speaker with some aim in mind. It is also a standard didactic device, employed by professors and teachers.

Expository discourse markers
Let us complete this exposition.
This said, we proceed.
Savage. We must explain this word.
Let us proceed.
We specify.

The discourse marker, used in lectures, helps the teacher to convey the structure of the ideas, their method of organisation. The listener/reader/student is lead by the hand through the thicket of ideas.

Moral Maxims
The moral world has no greater spectacle than this: a troubled and restless conscience on the verge of committing an evil deed, contemplating the sleep of a good man.
No tongue could tell all that there was in that word, woman, thus uttered by this child.
It is the peculiarity of sublime spectacles that they take possession of every soul and make of every witness a spectator.
The sea is the inexorable night into which the penal law casts its victims. The sea is the measureless misery.

The moral maxim is appended to a narrative incident to make the symbolism clear, to remove any ambiguity from it, and to remove all independence of interpretation. In the early part of the novel, Jean Valjean's despair at his fate in the galleys is described in a chapter that employs the extended metaphor of a man cast overboard from the ship of society into the wild sea of misery. The chapter ends with the last moral maxim quoted above, an entirely superfluous explanation (fixing) of the symbolism employed. Likewise, when Jean Valjean is standing over the sleeping priest contemplating whether he should steal the silver, Hugo interrupts the scene to fix its meaning with the first maxim quoted above.

From the highly specific narrative, Hugo always moves to a generalisation couched in the form of a maxim. This movement from specific to general, and back again is the chief characteristic of Hugo's didactic style and method. In this he is influenced by the moralising of Aesop's (and to a lesser extent La Fontaine's) fables, which also have this movement from specific narrative to general maxim, and which also have a didactic purpose.

(To be fair, this movement from specific to general is perhaps more pronounced in English  translations of Hugo than it is in French. French definite articles carry more ambiguity with them about whether the following noun is to be understood in the general sense or the specific, whereas in English this is made very clear by the total absence of an article denoting generality, or the definite article denoting specificity. Compare La Revolution with Revolution and the revolution.)

Ejaculated fragments
Bitter wretchedness!
Bos cretatus.
Admirable efforts! Sacred attempts!
Limpid purities!

These contribute not so much to the didacticism of Hugo's style, but to its resonance, its majesty.

What is the ideal? It is God. Ideal, absolute, perfection, the infinite - these are identical words.
He who knows that, sees all the shadow. He is alone. His name is God.
What love begins can only be finished by God.

Finally, there is often the disconcerting suggestion, not only that Hugo alone knows what God's plan is, but that he actually is God.

These rhetorical devices are not restricted to the narrative voice but also infect the characters, who, most of them, are mere mouthpieces for Hugo's views. When Jean Valjean foils Montparnasse's attack on him, he subjects the thief to a long tirade on the vices of idleness and the virtues of labour. This long speech contains Hugo's views, and also his rhetorical devices. Likewise, the long  speeches given by Grantaire (and his earlier incarnation, Tholomyes - these two are actually the same character only with different names) contain also the same rhetorical devices listed above. The long love letter which Cosette receives from Marius is really only a string of more moral maxims from Hugo to the reader. It's tempting to think that Hugo is sometimes satirising his own style, but the irony necessary for satire is incompatible with his strategy of didactic disambiguation, and that kind of (post-modern) textual game is in any case alien to his spirit.

The cumulative effect of these rhetorical devices is to blur the line between grandeur and grandiosity, between portentousness and pomposity, between high moral seriousness and mere sonority. Too often Hugo achieves the latter while aiming for the former. Moreover, Hugo’s style ultimately infantilises the reader by the paternalistic removal of all ambiguity. This is what Flaubert meant when he said the novel was infantile, and what Baudelaire called the 'heresy of didacticism'.

The novel couples an epic imagination with a didactic mission. Les Miserables exists as series of narratives wedged between long expository passages where the great man, the great writer unambiguously teaches. They contain various different kinds of writing: historical narrative, philosophical reflections on the meaning of history, sociological and linguistic theses, huge slices of social, urban history, natural history, political economy, political philosophy and so on. These expository passages are often called digressions, but they are not strictly digressive, according to Hugo's own definition: When the subject is not lost sight of, there is no digression. Rather, they are part of the movement from specific to general which we have seen operating on the level of the language operating also on the level of the structure; an expression of Hugo's insistence that art should be useful, and that its main use is to teach. Of what good is a story unless we also learn something from it? Not trusting his readers to draw their own, correct, conclusions from the narrative, he packs his novels with information and uses them to educate us and to transmit his wisdom directly. This is a fatal artistic weakness from which all Hugo's novels suffer.

And yet.

The novel is a stupendous achievement, with moments of utter magnificence and compelling power. Hugo's monumental self-certainty is matched only by his colossal gifts as a story teller, both in his invented narrative, and in the historical sections. The minor characters - in other words, those who are not encumbered with the burden of conveying Hugo's views- are very well drawn, especially the Thenardiers, Eponine, and Gavroche, and the book is packed with unforgettable images and situations.

When Victor Hugo can forget that he is Victor Hugo, and just focus on telling the story, he is unassailable. If only Hugo had trusted his story-telling gifts more, if only he had trusted in the power of ironic ambiguity to convey the lessons we need to learn. But then if he had, he wouldn't be Victor Hugo.

It is a lesson at the same time.
Les Miserables 5.2.2     

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