Les Misérables, a new project
Note:The content of the following blog post has now been added to the following wiki page: Full introduction to the project, where the article will be updated and improved. You may still use this blog entry to discuss its content. See the comments section, below.
Les Misérables is a new project which will use the 19th century masterpiece by French humanist Victor Hugo as a magnifying glass to have a look at our 21st century society. I hereby invite you to join this journey of discovery; discovery of our modern world as well as self-discovery. I am here to share with you, but also to learn from you.
Any fan of Victor Hugo, or any fan of Les Misérables as well as any social activist should definitely join this group. I am going to invite you to read or re-read the original novel. We'll read it together, at a slow pace.
In a moment I will tell you what is the raison d'être of this new project and the format it will take. But first, I would like to give you an overview of the project members who have already shown an interest and have already joined as well as those who might join us soon. A few among us have already read the novel, probably more than once. One person confessed that the novel changed his/her life (indubitably for the better). A majority knows the story only through the musical or through one of the numerous film adaptations. Some have seen the musical several times and their heart have been so touched that they welcome this opportunity to discover the original masterpiece. Others are simply curious and hardy enough to give it a try.
I also hope that there will be those who do not know the story at all, those who have not even seen any of the movies nor the musical. If these people join us and follow us throughout this long journey, they are in for a very emotional and inspiring ride! (See note below about spoilers).
I cannot think of better preface for the project upon which we are embarking together, than the preface the author, Victor Hugo, provided for his own work:
[En.] So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.
[Fr.] 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.
So long as there shall exist unjust laws that allow the rich to become richer and bind ever more tightly the lower classes into permanent poverty; so long as our international trading systems allow northern nations to plunder the natural resources of the poorest nations of the world; so long as the plight of the people living in overcrowded cities, in war-torn zones, environmentally degraded and polluted zones remain forgotten; so long we maintain our comfortable living standards at the expense of the livelihood of future generations; so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, projects of the nature of this one cannot fail to be of use.
Les Misérables are not only the Jean Valjeans, the Fantines, the Cosettes or the Gavroches of the 19th century France.
Les Misérables are also the victims of an unfair banking system and who saw their homes foreclosed.
Les Misérables are young kids, victims of random gun violence.
Les Misérables are sick people who are ruined because of unaffordable health care.
Les Misérables are the autistic children arrested and handcuffed in some incomprehensible police action.
Les Misérables are the waitresses working long hours every day for wages that barely allow them to maintain a minimum standard of living.
Les Misérables are the kids in inner cities who have no hope beyond the illusory one offered by street gangs.
Les Misérables are the men and women in uniform sent across oceans to fight wars that should never have started in the first place.
Les Misérables inhabit every corner of our shrinking globe, but in the United States least of all places!
Les Misérables are the people of Greece whose entire economic wealth has been stolen twice within little more than half a century; the first time by the Nazi occupation forces, and the second time recently, because of crooked politicians and a corrupted European Union.
Les Misérables are Ukraine's Forgotten Children, kids abandoned by their parents to institutions where they are deprived of love and attention. This dramatically slows down their mental development which in turn causes well-meaning bureaucrats to label them as mentally handicapped, a sentence that deprives them of any right for the remainder of their lives. They end up working as bona-fide slaves in some labour camps run by crooked "entrepreneurs".
Les Misérables are the street urchins in the slums of Mumbai or Kolkata who literally dig up the sludge from sewers in search for gold power (it has to be seen to be believed!).
Les Misérables are the Adivasis, India's aboriginal people, who not only live in extreme conditions of poverty, but who are also caught in the cross-fire of a deadly war between the military forces of the Indian government and the Naxalites, a Maoist armed resistance group living in the Indian jungle. And if it were not enough, the Adivasis are also dislodged from their villages by western mining companies because the underground is as rich in mineral ore as the Adivasis lives are poor above ground.
Les Misérables are the refugees living in Ethiopia's Jijiga refugee camp. They've escaped the bloody civil war in their native Somalia. The camp has been operational for over 20 years. Over half of its population are children. Most were born there and have never known anything else than life in a refugee camp, surviving on the most basic necessities of life that the UNHCR can afford to provide them with.
Victor Hugo is remembered as the most celebrated 19th century French author, probably the most celebrated French author of all times. However, he was also a social activist. He tried to promote his humanist agenda not only through his writing but also as an elected official. For example, he fought valiantly for the abolition of the death penalty, something which, unfortunately, he never saw (Hugo died in 1885 and the death penalty was finally abolished by socialist French president François Mitterrand in 1981). He also used his craft to denounce misery and the social ills of his century.
In october 1862, a few short month after the first French edition of his latest novel, Les Misérables, Hugo wrote to his Italian editor, which starts thus:
[En.] You are right, monsieur, when you tell me that Les Misérables is written for all nations. I do not know whether it will be read by all, but I wrote it for all. It is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "Open to me, I come for you."
[Fr.] Vous avez raison, monsieur, quand vous me dîtes que le livre les Misérables est écrit pour tous les peuples. Je ne sais s’il sera lu par tous, mais je l’ai écrit pour tous. Il s’adresse à l’Angleterre autant qu’à l’Espagne, à l’Italie autant qu’à la France, à l’Allemagne autant qu’à l’Irlande, aux républiques qui ont des esclaves aussi bien qu’aux empires qui ont des serfs. Les problèmes sociaux dépassent les frontières. Les plaies du genre humain, ces larges plaies qui couvrent le globe, ne s’arrêtent point aux lignes bleues ou rouges tracées sur la mappemonde. Partout où l’homme ignore et désespère, partout où la femme se vend pour du pain, partout où l’enfant souffre faute d’un livre qui l’enseigne et d’un foyer qui le réchauffe, le livre les Misérables frappe à la porte et dit : Ouvrez-moi, je viens pour vous.
The whole letter, first (?) published in the 1890 French edition, is worth reading. By changing only a few proper names (people, places), it would appear that Hugo was directly addressing his letter to the American of this 21st century!
Further down in the same letter, he writes:
[En.] I resume. This book, Les Misérables, is no less your mirror than ours. Certain men, certain castes, rise in revolt against this book,—I understand that. Mirrors, those revealers of the truth, are hated; that does not prevent them from being of use.
As for myself, I have written for all, with a profound love for my own country, but without being engrossed by France more than by any other nation. In proportion as I advance in life, I grow more simple, and I become more and more patriotic for humanity.
This is, moreover, the tendency of our age, and the law of radiance of the French Revolution; books must cease to be exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish, or English, and become European, I say more, human, if they are to correspond to the enlargement of civilization.
Hence a new logic of art, and of certain requirements of composition which modify everything, even the conditions, formerly narrow, of taste and language, which must grow broader like all the rest.
In France, certain critics have reproached me, to my great delight, with having transgressed the bounds of what they call "French taste"; I should be glad if this eulogium were merited.
In short, I am doing what I can, I suffer with the same universal suffering, and I try to assuage it, I possess only the puny forces of a man, and I cry to all: "Help me!"
[Fr.] Je me résume. Ce livre, les Misérables, n’est pas moins votre miroir que le nôtre. Certains hommes, certaines castes, se révoltent contre ce livre, je le comprends. Les miroirs, ces diseurs de vérités, sont haïs ; cela ne les empêche pas d’être utiles.
Quant à moi, j’ai écrit pour tous, avec un profond amour pour mon pays, mais sans me préoccuper de la France plus que d’un autre peuple. À mesure que j’avance dans la vie je me simplifie, et je deviens de plus en plus patriote de l’humanité.
Ceci est d’ailleurs la tendance de notre temps et la loi de rayonnement de la révolution française ; les livres, pour répondre à l’élargissement croissant de la civilisation, doivent cesser d’être exclusivement français, italiens, allemands, espagnols, anglais, et devenir européens ; je dis plus, humains.
De là une nouvelle logique de l’art, et de certaines nécessités de composition qui modifient tout, même les conditions, jadis étroites, de goût et de langue, lesquelles doivent s’élargir comme le reste.
En France, certains critiques m’ont reproché, à ma grande joie, d’être en dehors de ce qu’ils appellent le goût français ; je voudrais que cet éloge fût mérité.
En somme, je fais ce que je peux, je souffre de la souffrance universelle, et je tâche de la soulager, je n’ai que les chétives forces d’un homme, et je crie à tous : aidez-moi !
Thus this blog and this new project is dedicated to propagating Hugo's vision of a society without suffering. He begs us to help him, and so we shall! Let this series of blog become the megaphone that Hugo needs to reach out to our 21st century civilisation.
Let's read the novel together. Let's share our respective, complementary perspectives. Let's realise together how much that 19th century novel is still relevant today. Let's draw parallels, some of which might be more apt than others, between the content of each chapter of the book and the news we might see on cable television or in today's newspapers. And, more importantly, let's continue to work together to promote peace and justice.
This new blog is dedicated to this masterpiece and to the author, Hugo. I want to to investigate with you and other interested parties, this masterpiece from the perspective of the author's humanity and our social activism, moving the context from 19th century France to 21st century USA.
We now arrive at the practical details of this project.
I invite you to read or re-read the novel. To read it, you obviously need a copy of the book. A paperback copy would be best as it would allow you to read comfortably in bed, but you can also read it online (see online sources). If you purchase the book, make sure it is an unabridged version!
We are going to read it at a very slow pace.
One person claimed having read the whole novel in one sitting, at the age of 7, having started early in the morning and finished late at night. Given that the unabridged novel is about 2,000 pages long, many people were understandably dubious about the claim. It would have required reading at a constant pace of a few hundred words a minute, non-stop throughout the day. Even if that individual had achieved that feat, it would have been pointless: he would not have had time to savour the text, ponder on its meaning and significance.
In order to give ourselves the time, not only to read, but also to gain a deep understanding of what the novel refers to, we are going to read only one chapter a week. Each chapter in only a few pages long so even people with the most hectic schedules should be able to find sufficient time to rest, lie down, and pick up the book in order go alongside us in our little adventure.
I counted 366 chapters in the book (!). At the proposed pace, it would take us seven years and two weeks to complete the journey!! It remains to be seen whether we decide to lump some chapters together or not. But even if we don't it's ok because each chapter is so rich and offers its own rewards.
Obviously, nothing prevents anybody from reading ahead and finishing the whole book in a mere few weeks. It would not prevent them from going back to the chapter we would be presently discussing.
Every Sunday morning, I'll publish a blog entry (diary) discussing the chapter we are currently reading, starting next week with chapter 1, of part 1, book 1. I'll provide some background information allowing people here who are not familiar with French culture and French history to easily follow the story. I'll provide some analysis of the story, the characters, their actions and the significance for the overall novel. I'll also offer my own perspective on the chapter at hand.
However, I do not consider myself to be the most knowledgeable person in the field, far from it! The whole discussion section is subjective at best. I will provide my perspective, but you will be encouraged to offer your own analysis and perspectives, either in reply to my blog, or in a whole new blog entry.
As largely noted above, the critical part of this project is that we are going to use Hugo's novel as a prism to look at our own modern society. For each chapter, we'll try to draw parallels and similes to current events, current personalities as well as current social issues both in America and throughout the world.
An important part of the project is that it will be backed up by a wiki. The wiki page for each chapter will initially be populated by the relevant sections of my weekly blogs, but then every member will be able to edit it, amend it, improve it, complete it so that we have a collective source of information for all the topics we've been discussing. Thus, people who'll join this project a few weeks, a few months or a few years from now, will benefit from being able to read a much improved series of articles. Most importantly, it will allow us to promote over the long term some important facts about current social issues.
The project wiki homepage is here: Les Misérables.
As noted at the very top, some people may not know the story at all, they may not have seen the movie nor the musical. The majority of the followers here wouldn't know much beyond the basic plot covered in the musical. For their sake, we'll try to cover each chapter in a way such as to avoid spoilers about actions and events that take place later in the novel.
It will be difficult to discuss some chapters without making references to character development later in the novel. When we'll have to discuss ahead of the story, we'll do our best to do so in general terms whilst keeping the details of the later parts of the story shrouded in mystery. We'll try to whet your appetite by hinting at future development but without spoiling it by revealing too much.
For those who have not joined, yet: in order to better follow this series of articles, you should consider joining this Daily Kos group: send me a private message and in return I will send you an invitation, which you'll then have to accept in order to official join the group.
Next week, we'll read the first chapter ("M. Myriel") of the first book ("A Just Man") of the first volume ("Fantine"). I'll post my blog entry discussing that chapter Sunday morning, the 17th February.
Cross-posted from Les Misérables, a new project.