Les Misérables [1.1-V] Monseigneur Bienvenu made his Cassocks last too long


Today, we discuss chapter V of book 1, volume 1 of Les Misérables: Monseigneur Bienvenu made his Cassocks last too long.

From chapter I:

Que se passa-t-il ensuite dans la destinée de M. Myriel ? [...] Nul n’aurait pu le dire ; tout ce qu’on savait, c’est que, lorsqu’il revint d’Italie, il était prêtre. What took place next in the fate of M. Myriel? [...] No one could have told: all that was known was, that when he returned from Italy he was a priest.

This chapters offers a change of pace; and a riddle: is Hugo taunting us with a very subtle clue as to Myriel's past?

[Fr.] [En.]
Tantôt il bêchait dans son jardin, tantôt il lisait et écrivait. Il n’avait qu’un mot pour ces deux sortes de travail : il appelait cela jardiner. « L’esprit est un jardin », disait-il. Sometimes he dug in his garden; again, he read or wrote. He had but one word for both these kinds of toil; he called them gardening. "The mind is a garden," said he.

Chapters I to IV presented M. Myriel's public life, its external manifestations. Chapter V presents the private and internal aspects of his life. After a very heavy, very potent chapter IV, this one appears much more mundane. One may almost question its usefulness in the whole of book 1. Yet, in it, we discover subtle clues about the genesis of it all, the source that sustains M. Myriel.

The beginning:

This week:

Past episodes:

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Short notes

Before tackling the most important ideas in this chapter, let's quickly cover a few excerpts.

La vie intérieure de M. Myriel était pleine des mêmes pensées que sa vie publique. The private life of M. Myriel was filled with the same thoughts as his public life. The

The literal translation of "la vie intérieure" would be "the inner life". It refers to his thoughts, meditation, prayers, etc. Hapgood's translation seems to refer more to the private life within his household, the daily routine, the chores, etc. Both meanings are actually covered within this chapter, although in the same sentence the reference to "thoughts" is an indication to the former meaning.

This is one more paragraph for which we'd like to the text in other translations, in order to fill up our translation comparison table.

Pour qui eût pu la voir de près, c’eût été un spectacle grave et charmant que cette pauvreté volontaire dans laquelle vivait M. l’évêque de Digne. The voluntary poverty in which the Bishop of D---- lived, would have been a solemn and charming sight for any one who could have viewed it close at hand.

There is a huge difference between forced poverty that one is subjected to by an iniquitous economic system; and the voluntary poverty of a person who at the very least understood the futility of materialism. The first begets pity (or, unfortunately, indifference); the second inspires.

Comme tous les vieillards et comme la plupart des penseurs, il dormait peu. Like all old men, and like the majority of thinkers, he slept little.

This is an autobiographical note. There is a lot of Hugo's ideal self within Myriel.

Dans une autre dissertation, il examine les œuvres théologiques de Hugo, évêque de Ptolémaïs, arrière-grand-oncle de celui qui écrit ce livre. In another dissertation, he examines the theological works of Hugo, Bishop of Ptolemais, great-grand-uncle to the writer of this book.

This however is pure fantasy. Hugo is playing with us by inventing fictional ancestors.

Ici il est nécessaire que nous donnions une idée exacte du logis de M. l’évêque de Digne. It is necessary that we should, in this place, give an exact idea of the dwelling of the Bishop of D----

This is actually the last paragraph of chapter V. It introduces the following chapter which will, indeed, at last set up the stage for the momentous events to take place in book 2.

The American Connection

Correspondance du lord Germain avec les généraux Clinton, Cornwallis et les amiraux de la station de l’Amérique. À Versailles, chez Poinçot, libraire, et à Paris, chez Pissot, libraire, quai des Augustins. Correspondence of Lord Germain with Generals Clinton, Cornwallis, and the Admirals on the American station. Versailles, Poincot, book-seller; and Paris, Pissot, bookseller, Quai des Augustins.

Lord George Germain [1716 - 1785] was a British soldier the the Secretary of State for America during the American War of Independence. He has been blamed for the loss of the 13 colonies.

General James Clinton [1736 - 1812] was an American Revolutionary War officer. During the war, he had to fight against his namesake, the British General Henry Clinton. He was the brother of US Vice-President George Clinton.

General Charles Cornwallis [1738 - 1805] was a British officer during the War of Independence. In 1781, he surrendered to the combined American and French forces.

Pissot was a small publisher and book seller. In 1780, he published "L'histoire de l'Amérique" (History of America), a four volume French translation of a book by M. Robertson. We were then 9 years away from the start of the French Revolution. The American one was the big ticket item on the world stage, so we understand the interest of the publisher.

If one day you go to Paris, you may have a stroll by the river Seine, along the Quai des Grands Augustins (The modern name of the same street. - Pictures | [Fr.] Historique).

The book "Correspondence of Lord Germain..." (the full title is too long to quote in full; the book is also available on Google Books) was published in 1782, at a time when the American War of Independence was not quite yet over. The events it covers were very recent: it must have been a riveting read at the time of its publication. During the 2008 presidential campaign, it was hotly debated whether the US should engage enemy states like Iran in talks, negotiations and diplomatic relations. It appears that back in 1780, generals of the opposing British and American armies had no such qualms: they were engaged in epistolary correspondence!

It is not too difficult to imagine why Victor Hugo might have had this book in his personal library. It is much more unclear why a person like Myriel would have wanted to read it... Maybe was he trying to understand what happened in France, and more personally to himself and his family, in light of similar events on another continent... Still, as we discuss below, his mind wandered far away, to more mystical considerations better befitting his character.

In some ways, this book on the American Revolutionary War fits the novel. The French consequential military support alongside the American revolutionaries ultimately ruined the French Monarchy. The most direct consequence of this was the French Revolution, which shaped the character of Myriel. It is also a very subtle clue to the revolutionary events depicted much later in the novel.

All in all, although the book itself, the one that Myriel was holding in his hands, has no consequence on the narrative, one cannot help thinking that Victor Hugo purposefully chose this specific title.

The title: does it matter?

Comme il faisait durer ses soutanes beaucoup de temps, et qu’il ne voulait pas qu’on s’en aperçût, il ne sortait jamais dans la ville autrement qu’avec sa douillette violette. Cela le gênait un peu en été. As he made his cassocks last a long while, and did not wish to have it noticed, he never went out in the town without his wadded purple cloak. This inconvenienced him somewhat in summer.

In order to answer for the title, the author only offers this little paragraph. What's the connection with the message in the chapter?

We can compare the apparent disconnect between the title and the content of the chapter with the more complete disconnect between the topic of the book Myriel was reading, and the note he wrote on it. We are going to delve further on this point further down.

In addition, we can consider the following points:

Decidedly, Myriel puts everything on its head. While most people, whether in the military or in the clergy, would often don their uniforms with a certain amount of pride (and sometimes with the deliberate attempt at impressing others), Myriel wears his out of modesty. There is no point in further emphasizing his modest lifestyle. Or maybe, it's his own sense of pride that makes him do so...

Back into our consumerist 21st century: when is the last time we had to thrown some clothes away because they were literally worn out? Do we feel that hand-me-downs are beneath us? At least where I live, it seems that mending clothes and fixing electric/electronic apparatuses are out of fashion. I can hardly find the proper professionals for these little jobs that provide qualified employment while preserving our natural environment. It has become an engrained habit to throw away (barely old) things and purchase new ones.

Not to insist but we do have a sincerity issue

La vie intérieure de M. Myriel était pleine des mêmes pensées que sa vie publique. The private life of M. Myriel was filled with the same thoughts as his public life.

Since Hugo insists on the fact that Myriel is the real deal, that he is as good as he looks, we shall use this opportunity to develop a theme that we already covered a couple of times in previous chapters. Within the commentary to chapter 1.1.III, we defined four types of orators (preachers, politicians, salespeople, etc.): cunning, interested, hypocritical, inspiring. These four types have been integrated into a sincerity index which now comprises 6 types, including the two following additional ones:

Mistaken: they are sincere and really believe in what they say... but ultimately, they are wrong!

Knowledgeable: those are the people who do not limit themselves to regurgitating talking points. They know the issue, studied the details, have an in-depth knowledge of the facts.

The reason I insist on this is because the shortage of sincerity on the political arena is a very serious issue, often hotly discussed on the blogosphere, and I wish to do something concrete about it. Cunning people are really.... cunning and I am really scared because they even sometimes manage to convince me even though I know who they really are!

Two examples.

First, the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney. We all remember how that turned out. Romney sounded almost reasonable: had I not known better, judging by that performance alone, I probably would have liked the man. And many actually did! (e.g. the so-called "low-information voters", those who hadn't followed the primary campaign).

Secondly, back in France, consider the far right Front National leader Marine Le Pen. Her father was a provocative, sulphurous political figure: it was very easy to dislike him. Back when I was in secondary school, I use to stop on my way home from school in order to rip off his electoral posters! Later, the father retired and the daughter took over the party: she didn't reject any of of her father's racist, nationalistic ideology... She simply changed the packaging, in more ways than one. She is not pointlessly provocative like her father was. The point is that when I listen to her, I cannot help myself but agreeing with many things that she says. And that scares me. I always have to pinch myself in order to remember that while she does point at some the right problems, she does not address any of the right solutions. And that her new-found acceptability is only a façade for a much darker ideology.

The solution is to educate the public and teach them to develop and fine-tune their critical thinking so that they learn to see beyond the bullshit and right into the true nature of the individual.

See at the bottom if you long for a change!

Comparative religious studies

Il a laissé cinq ou six manuscrits assez curieux ; entre autres une dissertation sur le verset de la Genèse : Au commencement l’esprit de Dieu flottait sur les eaux. Il confronte avec ce verset trois textes ; le verset arabe qui dit : Les vents de Dieu soufflaient ; Flavius Josèphe qui dit : Un vent d’en haut se précipitait sur la terre ; et enfin la paraphrase chaldaïque d’Onkelos qui porte : Un vent venant de Dieu soufflait sur la face des eaux. . He left behind him five or six very curious manuscripts; among others, a dissertation on this verse in Genesis, In the beginning, the spirit of God floated upon the waters. With this verse he compares three texts: the Arabic verse which says, The winds of God blew; Flavius Josephus who says, A wind from above was precipitated upon the earth; and finally, the Chaldaic paraphrase of Onkelos, which renders it, A wind coming from God blew upon the face of the waters.

The first quote is from Book of Genesis, chapter 1, verses 1~2.

We are not sure if the Arabic verse mentioned here really exists. The Koran (15:22) does speak about winds: "And We send the winds to fertilize [...]". Maybe Hugo had something else in mind. In any case, the reference to Islam is unmistakable.

Flavius Josephus [37 - c. 100 CE] was a first century Jewish and Roman historian. Josephus is an important source of information on the Roman-Jewish war and also provides some extra-biblical account to early Christianity. More importantly, he wrote 21 volumes on Jewish history and another important work in defence of Judaism.

Onkelos [c. 35 - 120 CE] was a Roman convert to Judaism. He is considered to be the author of a classical Jewish targum, a vernacular commentary on Jewish scriptures which are written in classical, less accessible language.

Myriel is making a comparative study of religious scriptures from the three monotheist religions active in Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea. The specific quote is symbolic and clearly shows that our Catholic bishop is looking at the intrinsic similarities between the religions, not at their superficial differences. We see here another example showing that the greatest souls do not look at the denominations themselves, but at the spiritual similarities they are supposed to reveal.

Hugo was born Catholic and used to practice although he grew increasingly anti-clerical as he got older (see for example his letter to the Italian publisher of Les Misérables). It might be surprising then that one of the main characters of his novel is a Catholic priest. However, it is clear in Book 1 that Myriel didn't feel at ease within the Catholic hierarchy, as indeed was true of Bishop de Miollis, the real life figure upon which the character is based. Both Hugo and Myriel seem to reject the entrapments of organised religions but exalt their divine (and humanistic!) nature.

The Baptist Minister whose memory we recently celebrated understood the same: he didn't show any aversion in using the story of a fictional Catholic priest, fruit of the imagination of an anti-clerical author, as a source of inspiration for his own ministry! The spirit of God floated within the lives of all these people.

Whence Myriel gets his strength

Having discussed specific aspects, we can now have a look at the overall theme of the chapter. We shall see that Myriel's strength has two different sources: one deceptively prosaic, the other one, obviously, spiritual.

In all the previous chapters, we saw Myriel's public life, the one that is witnessed and commented upon by his contemporaries: his past, his arrival at Digne, his moving to the hospital, his sermons, his attendance at a public execution, his discussing public events. In this chapter, we see the private man, his daily chores and daily routine, his life within the privacy of his household (from breakfast in the morning, to gardening at night). Importantly as well, and in contrast to what precedes, we get to have a glimpse of his inner life just as he emerges from a meditative state, jotting some notes on a book close at hand.

The mundane aspect of his daily routine shouldn't blind us to its importance. Habitual discipline is the fertile silt in which his work takes root. ("Fertile silt": word for word translation of the French figurative expression "le limon fertile". I am not sure it makes sense in English but I hope you get the picture!).

There are different levels of discipline, from the lowest to the highest:

  1. Imposed discipline: the kind that oppressive parents, teachers, bosses, etc. impose on their children, students, employees, etc.
  2. Guided discipline: the kind that is voluntarily followed by children and students, etc. who are inspired by their parents and teachers, etc.
  3. Self discipline: the kind that one imposes upon oneself in order to achieve specific goals (e.g. studies, research, work, writing commentaries on individual chapters of Les Misérables, etc.). Self discipline is the occasion of personal growth.
  4. Habitual discipline: the kind of self-discipline that has gained the force of habit and that one follows without giving it much thought any more. It is much easier to maintain a good habit than to create one. With self discipline, one starts to create habits. With habitual discipline, one maintains them. An everyday example of habitual discipline would be that of brushing our teeth before going to bed. We do it matter of factly and it is no longer a burden (we no longer need our parents to pest us and remind us to do it!).
  5. Divine discipline: the spiritual practice of doing God's Will... (i.e. doing God's work, not doing work for God! The distinction is important.)

Myriel's disciplined routine is what gives him strength. The force of habit in doing his daily chores frees up his mind for greater achievements. In all walk of life, great people base their success on sound habitual habits related to their arts (e.g. a successful writer might have the habitual discipline to sit at his typewriter for 4 hours every morning, leaving the afternoon for other activities).

There is a contrast between his daily, mundane activities during the day, and the intellectual activities of the evenings: scripture studies and meditation. Therein is the key to understanding the verse that Myriel is meditating: At the beginning was the Spirit of God. First comes the Word. Ethereal thoughts come before action. Meditation - deep prayer - is the primeval source of energy for Myriel.

Myriel, who had the book on the American Revolutionary War on his lap, fell into a deep meditation that brought him far, far away from there. A divine breeze touched his soul and Myriel is enlightened to the true nature of God:

« Ô vous qui êtes ! "Oh, you who are!
« L’Ecclésiaste vous nomme Toute-Puissance, les Machabées vous nomment Créateur, l’Épître aux Éphésiens vous nomme Liberté, Baruch vous nomme Immensité, les Psaumes vous nomment Sagesse et Vérité, Jean vous nomme Lumière, les Rois vous nomment Seigneur, l’Exode vous appelle Providence, le Lévitique Sainteté, Esdras Justice, la création vous nomme Dieu, l’homme vous nomme Père ; mais Salomon vous nomme Miséricorde, et c’est le plus beau de tous vos noms. » "Ecclesiastes calls you the All-powerful; the Maccabees call you the Creator; the Epistle to the Ephesians calls you liberty; Baruch calls you Immensity; the Psalms call you Wisdom and Truth; John calls you Light; the Books of Kings call you Lord; Exodus calls you Providence; Leviticus, Sanctity; Esdras, Justice; the creation calls you God; man calls you Father; but Solomon calls you Compassion, and that is the most beautiful of all your names."

These are all the names of God, as found in different books in the Bible. Note that the French word for "Compassion" is "Miséricorde". First, a more literal translation would be "(Divine) mercy" but in this case, we like Hapgood's translation (How is it translated in your edition?). Secondly, although "Miséricorde" and "Misérables" have different Latin etymologies, both words do sound similar in French.

Thus Compassion (Miséricorde) is the Divine wind (the Word of God) that floats at the beginning of the novel Les Misérables, the Breath that the whole novel. The Genesis of Les Misérables is Compassion.

This ties in with what we saw in the previous chapter which talked about Justice. Divine Justice is Compassion.

If we put some seemingly disparate elements in this chapter (the quote from the book of Genesis, the book on the American war and the Name of God), we may have a glimpse, a very tiny hint, of the Genesis of the bishop as he appears to us in book 1.

We can safely presume that this insight by Myriel dates back to a time when he hadn't yet started doing what is now his daily routine. Hugo states that he only has the written note ("We now have under our eyes a note written by him [...]"). The author does not place it chronologically amongst the events depicted in the novel so far. One can imagine that this note was written by Myriel while he was in exile in Italy. The French Revolution was still raging which explains Myriel's interest in the other Revolution, the one across the Atlantic. As we noted above: Myriel was probably having a look at recent history on a different continent in order to make an educated guess at to what may happen to him and his family. But Myriel's thoughts drifted. God had other plans for him. The divine Winds, the Winds of Genesis, carried him to other shores, those of Compassion: he got to know the Name of God. Myriel was then at the level 2 of the scale of discipline described above. He was being guided. By dint of self-discipline, his efforts in following God's Word, he developed a new lifestyle, new habits... those that this chapter described!

Quotable quotes

Here is a (subjective) list of short passages from this chapter that are worth quoting.

[Fr.] Citations [En.] Quotes
Il visitait les pauvres tant qu’il avait de l’argent ; quand il n’en avait plus, il visitait les riches. He visited the poor so long as he had any money; when he no longer had any, he visited the rich.
~~~ ~~~
Il bénissait et on le bénissait. On montrait sa maison à quiconque avait besoin de quelque chose. He bestowed his blessing, and they blessed him. They pointed out his house to any one who was in need of anything.
~~~ ~~~
« Ô vous qui êtes ! "Oh, you who are!
« L’Ecclésiaste vous nomme Toute-Puissance, les Machabées vous nomment Créateur, l’Épître aux Éphésiens vous nomme Liberté, Baruch vous nomme Immensité, les Psaumes vous nomment Sagesse et Vérité, Jean vous nomme Lumière, les Rois vous nomment Seigneur, l’Exode vous appelle Providence, le Lévitique Sainteté, Esdras Justice, la création vous nomme Dieu, l’homme vous nomme Père ; mais Salomon vous nomme Miséricorde, et c’est le plus beau de tous vos noms. » "Ecclesiastes calls you the All-powerful; the Maccabees call you the Creator; the Epistle to the Ephesians calls you liberty; Baruch calls you Immensity; the Psalms call you Wisdom and Truth; John calls you Light; the Books of Kings call you Lord; Exodus calls you Providence; Leviticus, Sanctity; Esdras, Justice; the creation calls you God; man calls you Father; but Solomon calls you Compassion, and that is the most beautiful of all your names."

Open Questions / Open Tasks

What follows is a list of items requiring more research and better documentation. A more general list can be found here: Taking action. Interested people can contribute by picking up an item according to the aspects and issues that interest them the most.

Arabic verse

What exact Arabic verse Hugo has in mind? Is the quote an invention for the purposes of the novel? If you are Muslim or if you have some Muslim friends, see if you can put us in touch with a Muslim scholar who would be willing to enlighten us on the presence or not of a passage in any Arabic or Muslim scriptures similar to the one quoted by Hugo.


We need you help to complete the following translation compariso
n table
. Check now who is the translator of your copy of the novel and then check if we have all the excerpts that we are seeking for
that translation. If we don't, we'd appreciate if you could contribute at least a paragraph or two that we could fill into the table.

Sincerity index

The sincerity index is part of the wider Knowledge Democrats project (headed by Pipsorcle and myself). During the next few weeks, I will progressively set up some polls in order to promote the concept. Whenever I find the time, I will also develop some dedicated tools to facilitate certain tasks related to this project. If this is one of the issues that you feel are important, do get in touch with us so that we can start coordinate efforts and promote some actual change in the arena of political discourse.

Other activism

This projects works on many complementary levels. At its base, the commentaries are a literary criticism. As previously noted, however, the end goal is to promote and enact change. Different readers may be interested in different aspects of the project: everyone is free to take what they want and leave the rest aside. Those among you who would like to take a more active role in coordinating efforts to promote change should personally contact us. The first step would be to clearly document the issues (or provide an organized list of links to places where they are already well documented). This is one of the reason why the project is backed up by a wiki. A blog or a diary quickly rolls of the list of recent posts, but a wiki can be constantly updated, improved and its content easily found and linked to. Join us to make a change. Thank you.

Cross posted from Les Misérables [1.1-V] Monseigneur Bienvenu made his Cassocks last too long.