I was about to start writing this post when the Ferguson announcement started. I’ve been watching coverage saddened but not stunned, like I was when it all began back in August. Of course, it didn’t begin in August. I know that now.
Tonight I did what I always do and I turned to the music that felt like I did. I put on my Les Misérables playlist and I sang along weakly in this empty apartment. I sat in that darkness for a few hours. It was melodramatic as hell and it was exactly what I needed.
I know, a load of you just rolled your eyes and clicked away. I get it. Les Mis annoys people with its musical incoherence and its preachy idealism. The former I can definitely endorse, but the latter is hard for me to muster up cynicism for. I just love the thing. I never grow tired of it. Years on end, I remain enthralled by its beauty and its adaptability, from a Québécois actress’ take on Éponine’s sorrow to my favorite Palestinian’s fist in the air as the Arab Idol Enjolras. I love the Korean Air Force parody and the Polish flash mob. I love that it can help me explain Hugo Chávez-era populism and the American Civil War. When I love things I love them with all my blinding energy and this work got up there long ago.
Here’s fundamentally why: I’ve never had a great capacity to parse what “melodrama” is, but whenever someone uses that term to describe Les Misérables, either the musical or the book, I’m reminded of why I like them. Stopping life to break into a histrionic ballad – or to rant for a few chapters about the injustice of the partition of Poland – rings true, emotionally. We have a contract with these particular art forms, musicals and epics, wherein we give them permission to let go of stigma and little else. Act as we would if we didn’t restrain our self-expression. Transduce a rage-tweet into a high C or an ode. We give you permission. We give ourselves permission.
That’s the kind of art you need when you are feeling enormities, surges of pain and awareness and love that require operatic and epic treatment. That’s why I fell in love with Les Misérables in the first place. It was the summer of 2011, and I joined the running crew of a local youth ministry’s production of Les Mis at my high school on the morning after the worst day of my life. I was a devout seventeen and overwhelmed with the weight of a church scandal. Theatre had always been a shelter for me, and it was that summer more than ever.
I met Les Mis exactly when and where I needed to. It didn’t pick me up when I fell, it just lay there with me. That summer I didn’t want to adjust. I wanted to feel that injustice as the world-shaking sadness it was. An experience like that expands your ability to feel things, it stretches your soul to the limits of a cross exposed on a hill. “The pupil dilates in darkness and in the end finds light,” Victor Hugo wrote, “just as the soul dilates in misfortune and in the end finds God” (LM 5.3.1). And so it was for me.
The next time I experienced Les Mis, I was watching the movie adaptation with some friends at the convent of the Daughters of Saint Paul in Alexandria. Other than my family, the Daughters were the Catholics who helped me through my difficulties the most. They were a shelter for me too, and a school. Sitting on that little red couch across from the bookshelves, filled with Bibles and novels and brightness, I watched the bishop forgive the would-be thief Jean Valjean and wanted to cry. I knew how he felt when he couldn’t believe such compassion after years of abuse.
I was convinced, then as now, that all of Christianity can be taught from Les Mis. It tells a story of redemption for the individual sufferer of injustice – the softened criminal Jean Valjean – and the beatification of the idealists who try to resolve that injustice on a collective level, that is, the student revolutionaries. It’s a Christianity that was instructive when few others were at the time. I was still teaching religious education at my Catholic parish when I first encountered Les Mis, though my conscience made me give it up soon after. At that parish I saw the oppression we weren’t dealing with and I felt that youthful cry for a better world in my bones. (You can practically hear the drumbeat in that blog post.) It brought God into a world that looked like mine. Dirty and painful, a confusing place to sing gilded praise until someone showed me how.
And they did. I found the book Les Misérables to be my guide where I’d found the musical wanting, and gaps were filling themselves elsewhere in my life, too. It started with the students, who were the characters that made me want to read the book in the first place. I found unexpected sentiments there, things more profound than generically heroic populism. For instance—and this touched me the most—in his lengthy characterization of young drunkard and political sceptic Grantaire’s adoration of the revolutionary Enjolras, Hugo sketches a keen portrait of all doubt and faith. It came to remind me of my own relationship with my religious friends, particularly in those darkest days of my disillusionment with all Christianity. I went to church with my Orthodox friends for the first time and I saw a great deal of beauty: in the Liturgy, in the faith I’d forgotten I loved, but also in their love for one another. I felt, and I still feel around them, both inadequacy and aspiration. I have need of them like Grantaire had need of Enjolras. “The toad is always looking up at the sky; why? To see the bird fly” (LM 3.4.1).
It wasn’t just about repairing my relationship with God. I was also struggling to forgive myself for everything that had happened, to give myself permission to be happy despite carrying all the institutional and personal weight that I did. I found an unexpected friend in Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette, who’s really hard to love in the musical. She’s often reduced to a flighty participant in love at first sight and little else, but in the book she is shown to be much more than that.
Predictably, I warmed to Cosette in particular as I read of how her passion for the student Marius terrified her after years in the convent’s calm. It wasn’t a portrait of sexual or even romantic repression at all, but a snapshot of a girl being dazzled by the visions of divine love she’d been promised. It was beautiful in a way we can’t see in the musical, since we skip all those years between the abused child laborer and the bourgeois teenage dream. But it’s important that she spent those years hiding in a convent’s walls, in a completely enclosed world in the heart of a city she knew to be bustling and brave. “She had all the terrors of children and all the terrors of nuns commingled. … In this condition, it was not a lover that she needed, it was not even an admirer, it was a vision. She began to adore Marius as something charming, luminous, and impossible” (LM 4.3.6). She’s pure in every sense of the word, but innocent in very few. I was endeared, but I also wanted to protect her, and suddenly I knew how Valjean felt about her. I also knew, subconsciously and by proxy, how I was coming to feel about myself. Hardened in a way, defensive of my being, but slowly believing I was worthy of better things.
And so I went and sought them. I moved to London and started a life at university. I made friends with fellow Les Mis fans in Catalonia, brilliant women of letters who welcomed me into their homes as I traveled and who remain close friends and devoted pen pals to this day. A visiting friend and I got bored and took the bus to Paris for a day – shenanigans ensued – and the work I’d loved from a distance had a setting at last. My school friends, with whom I’d watched the 25th anniversary Les Mis concert for weeks on end, went with me to the world premiere of the 2012 film adaptation in Leicester Square. (I almost got run over by Hugh Jackman’s car. True story.) I didn’t really even make a point of this. It’s just that my life got better and Les Mis came with me.
But at some point I had to make a choice to make this new life of mine permanent, and so we came to the sentiment we all knew I’d quote: “To be between two religions, one which you have not yet abandoned, and another which you have not yet adopted, is insupportable; and twilight is pleasant only to bat-like souls” (LM 3.4.6). Hugo was talking of Marius’ conflict between his family’s Bonapartism and his friends’ democrat rebellion, and my own political dilemmas aside, a girl can relate – especially thinking back on those months in London, where I was part of an Orthodox parish for the first time. (I loved it.)
I finished reading Les Misérables on January 11 of this year. It was less than a month before my chrismation, a time of both closure and reopening, a time of healing above all. So when I came across that sentence, I felt it in my soul, and it remains there to a certain extent. I have to choose to live my faith when I wake up every morning. It’s not automatic. And I don’t just mean Orthodoxy as opposed to Catholicism, I mean believer as opposed to skeptic. I wake up in C.S. Lewis’ waiting-room, and I have to knock to get out of it all day.
There are iterations of this story where I don’t leave. This past summer, when I worked at The American Conservative and was surrounded by brilliant people of strong political convictions and imperceptible self-doubt everywhere I went, I revisited Les Mis among other things to try to sort out my own. Whether by virtue of making friends with too many Catalan separatists or reacting to deeply held Republicanism at home, I’d long shared Les Mis’ populist instincts. But I’d paid very little attention to the actual plot. It’s an old lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. And I fell for it. I should have listened to Combeferre, the conscience and the philosopher of the revolution: “A cannon ball makes only two thousand miles an hour; light makes two hundred thousand miles a second. Such is the superiority of Jesus Christ over Napoleon” (LM 5.1.7).
The tragedy of their deaths set in, and – I’ll admit – in the form of a desperate futility. This book had helped me sort out my faith, and I was starting to see that was the only absolutism I wanted to cling to. It’s the only thing that remains for the characters when all political ambitions die. This book is not about redemption for the state of France, it’s about the salvation of the French people on the individual level, many of whom dedicated their lives to serving their neighbor in the form of citizen. But on the subject of politics there was only one character I felt it productive to emulate, and that’s the man with whom the whole book starts: the bishop of Digne.
He went easy on women and the poor, feeling that the weight of human society fell on them. He would say, ‘The sins of women and children, domestic servants and the weak, the poor and ignorant, are the sins of the husbands and fathers, the masters, the strong and the rich and the educated.’
He would also say ‘Those who are ignorant should be taught all you can teach them; society is to blame for not providing free public education; and society will answer for the obscurity it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sin will be committed. The guilty party is not he who has sinned, but he who created the darkness in the first place.’
As you can see, he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel. (LM 1.1.4)
On nights like tonight, that lesson leaves one resounding legacy. I see these tragedies now, these systematic injustices that the bishop taught me to see, and I internalize them the way Christians are asked to. The blood of my brother cries out to me from the ground and I don’t know what to do other than listen.
You know, one of the greatest flaws in Les Misérables the musical is that all of Javert’s character development is glossed over in a largely unintelligible section of “The Confrontation.” Angrily confronting Valjean, he sings: “You know nothing of Javert / I was born inside a jail / I was born with scum like you / I am from the gutter too.” He is not just a generically establishmentarian villain, a police inspector obsessed with a prisoner’s escape for pure veneration of the letter of the law. He’s the son of a fortune-teller and a prisoner who grew up despised by the system he felt he had to conquer in order to rise above his birth, a son of chaos who devotes his days to preserving the illusion of an ordered world. He is an absolutist. Jean Valjean is anything but, and he lets Javert go free when he has him cornered. Javert was pardoned by the man he could never pardon, and it overwhelms him.
This is what makes him such a tragic character: his crisis of faith comes from his inability to reconcile respect for the law’s authority with an escaped convict’s transcendental compassion. He feels things in bigger capacities than he has allotted himself.
And so Javert throws himself off a bridge between Pont Notre Dame and Pont au Change, right between the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Palais de Justice. His blood spilled in the urban gulf between God and the law.
Tant qu’il existera, par le fait des lois et des mœurs, une damnation sociale créant artificiellement, en pleine civilisation, des enfers, et compliquant d’une fatalité humaine la destinée qui est divine; tant que les trois problèmes du siècle, la dégradation de l’homme par le prolétariat, la déchéance de la femme par la faim, l’atrophie de l’enfant par la nuit, ne seront pas résolus; tant que, dans de certaines régions, l’asphyxie sociale sera possible; en d’autres termes, et à un point de vue plus étendu encore, tant qu’il y aura sur la terre ignorance et misère, des livres de la nature de celui-ci pourront ne pas être inutiles.