Les Misérables [1.1-III] A Hard Bishopric for a Good Bishop

Note:The content of the following blog post has now been added to the following wiki page: Chapter III: A Hard Bishopric for a Good Bishop [Commentary], where the article will be updated and improved. You may still use this blog entry to discuss its content. See the comments section, below.
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Today, we discuss chapter III of book 1, volume 1 of Les Misérables: A Hard Bishopric for a Good Bishop.

In this chapter, we see Myriel using parables to preach around his diocese. Starting from that, we shall investigate the true nature of the whole novel. We'll also witness its potency to enable spiritual growth.

If you missed the beginning:

If you want to brush up your French:
We have started publishing a French <=> English edition of Les Misérables.

If you haven't yet, make sure to join the group Les Misérables: Send me a private message and I'll send you an official invitation to join the group.

How much is 1,500 Francs?

Update on Chapter II: There are many things I like about this project. One of them is when I read your perspectives, which might be different from mine, or simply complementary to mine. Often, I learn from you. Interested readers can always go to the previous blog to read the latest comments. However, I wanted to emphasize this very instructive comment by Yamaneko2.

We saw that M. Myriel received 15,000 Francs but gave out 90% in tithe, leaving him with 1,500 Francs. Yamaneko2 wrote:

Back in the 1820s, two liters of red wine could be had for 0.25 to 0.50 francs. 1 kg of white bread cost 30-35 centimes, a kilogram of beef around 70 centimes. They also had and worked a garden for vegetables.

If that 2 liters of red wine of tolerable quality would go for $5.00 today, the 1500 francs would correspond to $15,000 to $30,000 (3000 to 6000 two-liter bottles of wine).

1 kg of bakery white bread goes for about $3.50. 1500 francs bought 4500 kg of bread, which these days would retail around $15,750

A kilogram of beef cost 70 centimes. This week in my town, decent but not extravagant cuts of beef (ground round, English roast) can be had for $9.00/kg. 1500 francs would buy 2100 kg of beef, which today would go for $18,900.

So by these standards, the Muriel household would be living near the poverty line, but not too far below it. They would pay no rent and probably no tax, the little house being a perquisite of the job.

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I meant to write this to illustrate that Bienvenu was actually prosperous. Instead it appears that the family was in a state of genteel poverty -- not enough to continually endanger health but enough to feel deprivations at every turn. An analogous experience, at least for a bishop from noble family, would be that of wearing a hair shirt.

It is a very good analysis and a good way to give an idea of the value of the currency at that time. Another thing that the Myriel household has over other people, who more or less live at the same level, is a secure, steady income which provides non-negligible peace of mind.

To complete the financial analysis, we must also take into considerations that Myriel had frequent guests who had to be entertained (fed) presumably out of his household budget. Also, subsequent chapters will reveal the household's diet which is not excessive my any means: fresh milk and hard bread for breakfast, and a vegetable soup for dinner, sometimes accompanied with some meat...

Last week's comparison with Peace Pilgrim might have been a bit excessive; but the one with the Mahatma Gandhi a bit more apt, for Gandhi lived a more dignified life (although a very simple one) in a small self-sustaining community with a roof over his head.

In any case, Myriel's moderation in personal expenses and his generosity in charitable gifts remain an inspiring example in our materialistic society.

Biblical comparisons

Making any kind of Biblical analogy with Les Misérables, wouldn't by any means be original. One way or another, comparisons between the novel and its teaching with that of the Gospels have often been made. So strong is Hugo's message that a Christian movie goer who saw the 2012 musical film Les Misérables (but presumably didn't read the novel), published on the web site "Think Christian" a review of the movie entitled: "The New Testament parable that is Les Miserables".

If there is a doubt in anyone's mind that the comparison between the novel and the Bible was intended by Victor Hugo, let that person consider the very explicit Bible references in the current chapter, as he describes Myriel:

[Fr.] [En.]
Il parlait ainsi gravement et paternellement ; à défaut d’exemples inventant des paraboles, allant droit au but, avec peu de phrases et beaucoup d’images, ce qui était l’éloquence même de Jésus-Christ, convaincu et persuadant. Thus he discoursed gravely and paternally; in default of examples, he invented parables, going directly to the point, with few phrases and many images, which characteristic formed the real eloquence of Jesus Christ. And being convinced himself, he was persuasive.

The whole chapter is a direct analogy between M. Myriel and Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus uses parables while he preaches. The Bible records forty-six of them. And in this chapter, we witness Myriel using his own parables while talking ("He was kind and indulgent, and talked rather than preached. ") to his flocks throughout the diocese.

Jesus is, in the Bible, the Christ than any good Christian must follow. Victor Hugo constructed the character of Myriel in order to personify the author's vision of an ideal self which can serve as a shining example for us to emulate. Myriel is setting the standard, a very high one, for the whole novel. Now, we can start to appreciate why the author changed the order from his earlier drafts and placed first the book dedicated to Bienvenu Myriel. The humble priest is the standard by which the actions of all the other characters in the novel will be judged.

Monsieur le maire, dit l’évêque, et messieurs les bourgeois, je vois ce qui vous scandalise ; vous trouvez que c’est bien de l’orgueil à un pauvre prêtre de monter une monture qui était celle de Jésus-Christ. Je l’ai fait par nécessité, je vous assure, et non par vanité. "Monsieur the Mayor," said the Bishop, "and Messieurs Citizens, I perceive that I shock you. You think it very arrogant in a poor priest to ride an animal which was used by Jesus Christ. I have done so from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity."

The reference in the above quote should be obvious to most people. However, we cannot assume that the (present and future) readers of these commentaries have a Christian background and know the New Testament stories. The Gospels of Matthrew, chapter 21 and Mark, chapter 10 describe Jesus's glorious, king-like entry into Jerusalem while he is mounted on an ass, as he is welcomed by people laying palm tree branches to pave His way, in what is now known as Palm Sunday.

Myriel being reduced to ride an ass in order to go about his rounds is a direct consequence of the events described in the previous chapter. His tithing, the fact that he distributed to the poor all the money given to him for travelling expenses, has rendered Myriel even more Christ-like: we see here a very literal illustration of this!

An important difference between Jesus and Myriel, though, is that, unlike the Christ, Myriel is not a God-like figure descended from Heaven. The little bishop is very human and is not completely flawless. He has a past somewhat shrouded in the mist of History. And even in 1815, at the time when the story starts, Myriel has not yet achieved his own highest human potential for perfection. The character has not yet finished evolving, as we shall see in chapter X of this book as well as in Book 2. The fact that Myriel is a mere human is even more inspiring. Indeed, how can any human be required to become as good as God himself? However, what a human being can do, any other human being can potentially also emulate.

A living example

We discussed the following in the previous chapter:

Judging politicians by their speeches is the equivalent of judging cars by their salesmen.

Judging priests and pastors by their sermons is the equivalent of judging the quality of sub-prime derivatives by the ratings given by the major US credit rating agencies!

And again in this chapter:

convaincu et persuadant And being convinced himself, he was persuasive.

Among preachers and orators of all kinds, we can differentiate four types:

Cunning: we are all too familiar with this type of politicians and sales people. They will try to promote and sell products, ideas or candidates using argumentations that they know not to be true or at least a sufficiently distorted version of reality in order to make it palatable to a gullible public. We live in a society where lying has been elevated to an art form. The lying is so constant that it has stopped being shocking and is now often being accepted, especially in commercial advertising.

Interested: those are the sales people and the motivational speakers who may very well believe in the vaunted qualities of their products and ideas but who also have to directly gain from their public also believing the same, in terms of product sales, book sales, or votes gained.

Hypocritical: also known as the people who say: "Don't do as I do but do as I say!". They are good-natured, well-intentioned people who are unable to live the message that they preach but who expect other people to ("for their own good" or "for the good of the society"). They have nothing to gain from you but they basically want you to change the world for them, by doing things that they themselves cannot do.

Inspiring: those are the people who intimately believe in what they say and actually live according to their beliefs. They are living examples, truly inspiring role models that we can look up to.

In life, it helps to remain aware of which category the people we meet and listen to belong to, whether we see them on our TV screens or at our kitchen tables.

There is no doubt as to which category Myriel belongs to.

The hard part

The title of the chapter mentions a "hard bishopric", although by reading the chapter it may not be immediately clear what is hard about it. Travelling so much around the diocese after having surrendered the means to pay for a convenient mode of transportation certainly requires some efforts. Humbly facing the snickering from local bourgeois necessitates a lot of character as well.

But finding the right words, the right examples, the right parables must be the hardest. Facing stubbornly selfish people, it may require a lot of patience to deliver a message of brotherly love and mutual support. Where one would tend to feel frustrated, Myriel shows a lot of patience and understanding.

In order to understand the greatness of Myriel in the way he preaches to people, one has to transpose his situation into our modern world. Myriel knows the Good News of the Gospels and especially the practical applications into the society of his time. We, modern progressives, also "know" about our need to collaborate in order to create a more humane society, a sustainable economy, just taxes, affordable health care, etc. But how effective are we when we approach a Fox-News-fed Tea Party advocate? Are we, like Myriel, able to find the right words and remain calm and patient when facing aggressive comebacks?

How often do we get frustrated when dealing with people who still believe that Obama is a covert Muslim, that he was not born in the USA, that global warming is a man-made myth, that it makes sense for ordinary citizens to own semi-automatic assault weapons, that people in other countries are all against the US, etc....?

How can we emulate Myriel and find the right parables to gently, progressively bring such people into a more fact-based understanding of the situation our society is in?

That is the hard part!

If we can transpose our current struggle in the sphere of political and social discourse back into Myriel's times, who must have been facing similar difficulties, then we may understand both how great a soul Myriel's was, and how timeless the notions that Hugo writes about are.

Biblical terminology

So, what is the novel "Les Misérables"? Is it a Gospel? A Bible? A Testament?

One has to go back to the etymological meanings of these worlds.

A Gospel etymologically means the "Good News" that is present in each one of the four Gospels of the New Testament, which is the news of the redemption of our sins through the life and death of Jesus. What is the good news within Hugo's novel? It's a little early to discuss this: we will revisit this question when we get closer to the end of the novel.

A Testament can be understood as in New Testament, the collection of Gospels, which leads us back to the previous definition. A testament is a testimony, the author's testimony of the misery of his time. It can also be a Will, as if Hugo had left us written instruction in the form of a novel on how to create a less miserable society. It can more simply mean "a credo, an expression of conviction", that of the author, of course, although the readers where specifically invited by the author to make it theirs.

A Bible, a holy book serving as a reference for human behaviour, especially with regard to human spirituality.

It may turn out that, according to the reader's interpretation, it can be any and all of those things.

What these three terms have in common is that they represent written works that do not aim to entertain the readers but to educate and awaken them to a certain reality, may it be a personal and psychological reality, a human and social reality, or, ultimately, a divine and spiritual reality.

They are works to be studied and meditated upon in order to gain a deep understanding of their embedded messages. Having understood them, they help us to grow, humanely and spiritually.

Victor Hugo made in plain, both in his preface as well as in his letter to Daelli, his Italian publisher, that he wrote Les Misérables in that spirit. This series of commentaries aim to provide a 21st century echo to that very same spirit.

Layered parables

As we try to analyse the deeper meaning of Myriel's going about the diocese telling parables suitable for his time, we may notice at least four distinct levels of parables, embedded one within the other, just like Russian Dolls are.

At the lowest level, we have the Biblical parables of Jesus, the stories that Jesus told his followers in Galilee about 2,000 years ago.

Myriel is at the second level. He follows the example of Christ and tells his own parables, suitable for his early 19th century French flock of parishioners.

Then we have Victor Hugo who wrote his own 2,000 page long parable, the one presently being discussed, and offered it to France and to the world in late 19th century. It was Hugo's way to preach to the readers and to his contemporaries. His parable obviously includes the previous two levels, with Myriel's story and the Biblical references.

One step above, is the current attempt at transposing the story from 19th century France to our 21st century global society. We are still very early in the project (chapter 3 of 366!) and it remains to be seen how (un)successful and (un)inspiring this project will ultimately prove to be.

To the four preceding layers, we can add a fifth one: that of the readers of the present commentaries, who may have similar, different or complementary interpretations of the novel. They (i.e. you!) may make their own the most interesting and inspiring parts of the novel and of the commentary and apply what can be applied into their daily lives.

Obviously, these commentaries represent the understanding and the interpretation of the present writer (i.e. augustin, yours truly). But we must insist that it is perfectly acceptable to have complementary or differing interpretations. Make whatever inspires you your own and use your own words to tell that parable to the people around you.

Internalising the parable

It is easy to mistake the story for the Truth that it points to. The parable is only a story; it is something out there. We can simply allow ourselves to be entertained by the story, or we can become conscious of its manifestations in the world around us. Best of all, we can get into the innermost, most spiritual levels of the parable and uncover its inner manifestations, within our own hearts.

The 2004 US presidential campaign offered us a prime example of the fundamental difference it makes to properly internalise the deepest spiritual message of the Gospels.

McCain and Obama, the two main presidential candidates (third party candidates were not invited!) both appeared in front of pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church. Warren asked both candidates the same question:

[Rick Warren]: Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

The two candidates, both self-proclaimed Christians, replied that they believed in evil.

However, their respecting depictions of evil and their proposed way to deal with it were in very stark contrast:

[McCain]: Defeat it! [applause].

A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. [applause]. No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American -- innocent American lives.

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcended challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremism.

Not long ago in Baghdad, Al Qaida took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is. And we're going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden is the battle, is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq and we are winning and succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and with victory and not in defeat. And that's what's happening.

And we have -- and we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us Al Qaida continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge. And we must totally defeat it, and we're in a long struggle. But when I'm around, the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt, none.

McCain's message is clear. Evil is out there. Not only it's out there, but it's outside of the US borders, plotting in some foreign country against US interests. In his reply, McCain displays a "me-vs-them" mentality: "We are the Good Guys; they are the Bad ones".

Contrast this with Obama much more nuanced approach:

[Obama]: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, now, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil's been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

[Rick Warren]: In the name of good.

[Obama]: In the name of good, and I think, you know, one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good. `

While McCain clearly pointed out there - way out there -, Obama equally clearly has the humility to also look within, both within the US borders and within one's own heart. He points at the seed of evil that is within each and every single one of us. Instead of McCain's aggressive "me-vs-them" approach, Obama offered a more conciliatory perspective: "Nobody is perfect; We are all in this together."

What was deeply disturbing was the reaction of the Christian audience at Saddleback Church. They received Obama's answer with a polite silence but they cheered and enthusiastically applauded McCain's martial rhetoric!

Clearly, as we make progress in our study of Les Misérables, we need to remember this. Let's not go on a crusade and go about crucifying the Thénardiers and the Javerts out there. Let's look within and notice all the apparently insignificant occurrences when we are them!

In the novel, like in all parables, the different characters, the Good Ones and the Bad Ones, are all externalised. We can point at them and name them. It's done this way on purpose: it's easier for us to understand the message. However, the real message is to make us aware of both our tendencies for bad and our potential for good within us. If we understand the deepest meaning of the novel, then, together or individually, we shall be able to grow into better human beings.

The embedded parables in the novel, and the fact that it can help us grow into better men is what makes of Les Misérables a truly Gospel-like, Biblical work.

Myriel, the American Southern Baptist minister

To conclude the study of this chapter, we cannot think of anything better that the following comment by Laurel in CA:

My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, and Les Miserables was his favorite book, after the Bible. He said he reread it every year and never failed to learn something new. He gave me a copy when I was about 10 years old. I don't reread it every year, but about every 10 years, in his memory.

My grandfather defied every stereotype you might have of a Baptist minister, just as M. Myriel defied the stereotype of a bishop. He fed the hungry - at his back steps, during the Depression. He helped the poor and sick. And he visited prisoners. Until he died, at 93 years old, he took the bus every weekday to downtown Dallas, where he had a tiny office in the courthouse, and he visited people in jail and cared for them and their families.

My grandfather believed in integration, and in evolution. (Imagine him preaching on visiting ministries in Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1920's - saved from tarring and feathering only by being a legally blind Baptist minister!) My mother always says he was the best-read man she ever knew. But his very favorite reading, for Hugo's wide and compassionate view of history and humanity, was this book.

This is very beautifully put, and truly inspiring. It is the perfect example to illustrate everything we have been discussing above, and the proof that Les Misérables deserves its Biblical epithets.

Here is a minister who elevated a mere novel to a rank just below that of the Bible. He approached Hugo's masterpiece with an apparent reverence, eager not to be entertained by it but to learn from it.

As we shall see in the study of the next chapter, Hugo was extremely concerned with the notion of Justice (both human justice and Divine Justice). Besides looking at Justice from Myriel's point of view, we also have an ex-convict playing the main role; a most dramatic court-room scene as well as an over-zealous police officer.

It is then not surprising to see this minister regularly visiting the courthouse and jail cells, among his other regular charitable activities. He used Hugo's novel the way it was intended: as a study book, to learn, to be inspired and to grow. Grow as a human, and grow spiritually.

Personal meditation

Les Misérables is not a book to read.

Les Misérables is a book to meditate.

I (augustin) am going to drop the Majestic plural (a.k.a. the editorial "we") for a while and share with you something about my work flow for this series of commentaries.

This whole project consumes a lot of my time, many, many hours every week. My commentary may be something you read more or less quickly, with a more or less undivided attention. (either way is fine by me! :)), but each chapter permeates my thoughts throughout the week. I carry Hugo's text in my heart while I ponder what the core, underlying message is, the message that the author had in mind.

There are some chapters, many of them in book 1, that have stuck in my mind ever since my very first reading and I have known all along what I want to say about them. For most chapters, though, I don't know yet what I can write, what there is to analyse. Two weeks ago, I didn't know yet what I would write about this chapter (1.1.III). The main ideas are obvious and emerged very quickly. Other tangential thoughts emerged progressively.

Throughout the process, I keep wondering: What is M. Myriel's point of view? What is it that Hugo truly wanted to say?, etc.

Besides the numerous hours spent composing and laying out these blog entries, I spend a lot of my time simply thinking about it all, as I walk from and to work, as I lay in bed at night and as I wake up in the morning. As I said, the novel pretty much stays with me the whole week.

If I can keep up with this ambitious project, it cannot fail to have a profound effect. I don't know about my readers, but at the very least, it cannot fail to have an effect on me. That, alone, make it worth all the time invested in it. However, I have the very bad habit of starting many things and not completing any, so it remains to be seen if I will be able to keep it up for the next weeks, months and years! I need your encouragements! :)

I must say, though, that I have had in the back of my mind something similar to this project for many, many years. For a long time I have been wanting to associate "Les Misérables" with "21st century". I don't fully recall but it is even possible that the first thoughts about it germinated before the Millennium. I was more thinking about it in terms of a novel of my own. But I knew it would be a very difficult task, one I felt I didn't have the talent for. Probably something I would attempt when I would retire. Later, as wikis became more and more popular, I did think of it as a collective wiki-based project. However, it is only very, very recently that the present format (a weekly chapter by chapter commentary) came to me. It started late January when a friend mentioned the 2012 musical movie. I went to see it; loved it; and it revived my earlier passion about the book. I retained the wiki aspect and added a personal weekly commentary. I was hoping that one chapter a week wouldn't take too much of my time. So far, I have been wrong about that!

Anyway, the point of all this is that, given the intimacy with which I approach the text, Hugo's vision will not fail to change me. Also, more importantly, and more difficultly for me, is that I do not want to be one of the hypocrites that I discussed above. I do my best to retain some humility in sharing some thoughts, letting you do what you want with them, if anything. Instead, I try to focus on all the tiny details that need to change in my life so that I can become the man that I, myself, would like to become.

Other novels

Les Misérables is truly a masterpiece of world literature but it's not the only one. Speaking of novels that are not only entertaining but that can also be studied like a Bible may be, what other similar novels are there out there?

This is a conversation that has already started in the background, in the comment section of this series. We already have a wiki page set up for this: If you liked "Les Misérables", you might also like... So far, two other novels have already emerged, proposed by other members of this project. One is Tol'stoi's "War and Peace", the other is Melville's "Moby Dick".

Feel free to discuss either as well as any similar book either in the comments section or in a blog entry of its own, posted in this group. You can share with us you thoughts about those other novels, possibly drawing comparisons with Les Misérables.

So, what other novels are there that offer similar opportunities for growth...?

Cross posted from: Les Misérables [1.1-III] A Hard Bishopric for a Good Bishop.

Comments

One thing I forgot to say...

Regarding action speaking louder than words:
It is very important to have chapter 2 preceding chapter 3.
It is Myriel's actions described in the preceding chapter that give strengths to his parables (his words) in this chapter.

Inverting those two chapters would have greatly diminished the potency of the current chapter.