Art and Literature

Storytime Sunday, 12/16/12, Beyond the Barricades = a story with analysis

First, the story:

Once upon a time there was a famous writer. He lived in a big house in Paris, and he had a loyal wife as well as a loyal mistress, and 4 lovely children. He was a poet, and a playwright, as well as a novelist, and he made a lot of money from his writing.  He ran for political office a couple of times and won. When he died thousands of people flocked the streets in honor of his funeral.  He was and is one of the most famous authors of all time – translated into every possible language.

It is tempting to believe that this writer was ridiculously happy, and that he was yet another example of the few blessed sorts of artists who are rich and famous in their own time, and see their work read and touted.courtesy http://maxencecaron.fr/2011/12/victor-hugo-litterature-et-philosophie-melees-1819-1834/

But he wasn’t.  Although fortunate in many ways, this writer suffered many misfortunes.

This writer’s favorite child – his adult daughter – drowned in a boating accident along with his son in law, who drowned trying to save her.  The writer never recovered from this experience, and it’s interesting to consider the ways in which water and drowning and almost drowning occur in his work.

His second daughter went mad.

And he himself went into political exile for close to 20 years.  For almost 20 years he lived on an island far from the country and far from the cosmopolitan city he loved.

Now some analysis:

Yesterday I saw an advance screening of the most recent attempt to adapt the endlessly adapted and adaptable Les Misérables. So much of how we experience art depends on context, and it was a strange and uncanny experience for this magical realism enthusiast to watch the movie in conjunction with the unrest in Syria, the recent discussion about the fiscal cliff, and more immediately, the death of more than 20 school children in Connecticut.

It’s weird how that this monstrously long story and its enormous cast of characters from 1862 should have any relevance to our lives at all.  But they do.  The story and its characters live.  And the big question is why?

When I sat down to write this post, I wanted to write about the barricades, but I find myself thinking about parents and children, about the heart of the matter, and the hearts of our matters, which is what we inevitably write about, even if we are political writers, which Hugo certainly was.

His writing works, and the stories still have validity for us, because it seems to me that he is always – for better and sometimes for worse – writing about the personal – about what matters to him, and consequently it matters to us.

Take for example, Fantine.  Fantine’s martyrdom feels powerful to us, because Hugo is – I think – at least in part writing about his lost daughter.  The daughter who drowned, as Fantine is submerged by the material circumstances that conspire to kill her.  Éponine is another dead daughter – a literal daughter in this case – who dies on the top of the barricades.   Gavroche may also be a stand-in – the innocent who dies.

Jean Valjean is Hugo himself – the man exiled from society for almost 20 years (similar timing) – and Marius, the idealist gentleman is Hugo too, the younger man filled with hope and ambition.

The story works because we feel that something real lies beneath it – real experience, real suffering, passion, and pain, intimately and uniquely felt.

What does it mean? 

At the end of the movie I saw yesterday, we get a shot of an idealized barricade – with all the dead characters on it.  A revolution without blood, a clean rebellion.  One that defies the historical record and succeeds.Heather and Ivan Morison journee-des-barricades737px courtesy http://chewhatyoucallyourpasa.blogspot.com/2011/09/scott-horton-says-it-better.html

I found that image challenging and I’ve been thinking about it all day today.

You may not like Hugo’s political stance (I don’t always), and yet, it’s thanks to him that I know what the barricades even are.  I know about the Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune, because Hugo made me so curious I looked it up.

I think our job as writers is to make people curious about the facts.  Even and especially fiction writers.  Even and especially writers who do not write about the real.

Hugo wrote fictional stories that bore witness to his own historical moment, and to his own personal horrors.

Because of that personal investment, the discussion of urgent social inequities still has resonance. In fact, it feels awfully contemporary and pressing. Hugo doesn’t shrink from detailing the death of the innocents.  Writing this blog post two days after the massacre of Connecticut school children, I cannot help but think that Hugo would have understood that horror on some level, because he knew about children dying, and in particular he knew about his own child dying. He understood violence.  And chaos.  And fear.

He also understood injustice.  He understood political corruption.

And he understood something that I think very few of us understand even now.

Hugo understood that the barricade is perforce an idealization, and perhaps a very dangerous one, because it seems so terribly attractive.  Les Misérables suggests that armed struggle — for all its appeal — may not actually present a viable solution.

The Occupy movement learned that lesson and remains, for me, at least, a potent example of the evolution of the wish to make society better, fairer, kinder, more inclusive, more fluid, more spontaneous in a continuation of the ideals that the Revolution of 1848 symbolized and that Hugo wrote about.  Occupy tried and tries still to think and act beyond the barricade.  Hugo would have appreciated it, I think.

courtesy http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57331710/as-occupy-la-deadline-nears-vows-to-stay/OccupyLA_134049273_620x350Where does that leave us? 

It leaves us where the film leaves us… carrying the weight of all the dead.

Hugo’s writing dares us to marshal the forces of the living in the direction of good.

It’s a tall order.  But it’s the only one that matters.courtesy http://www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/BookLibrary/books/bibliographie/H/Hugovictor/LesMiserables/VolumeIVSaintDenis/book9/ch1.htm

22 replies »

  1. Great post. I find that the stories and writers who are remembered longest are those who write about topics that are intensely personal, and by doing so establish a connection with their readers, in a sense developing universal themes. Or, one might simply call it passion.

    Writers who write about popular culture and large issues fail to connect on a personal level with readers and are soon forgotten.

    • Thanks for this comment, Joe. Yes, I agree. The “big” writers with the “big” ideas generally have them because those ideas are grounded in a very personal, intensely lived and felt experience. That spark — or as you put it, that passion — keeps the characters and the fictional worlds alive for us. That fire explains in part the hold that this material still has on audiences/readers. Les Miserables has been adapted a HUGE amount of times, and not just in Europe. There are Japanese and Korean anime versions of the story, as well as a video-game based on the book. It’s quite remarkable. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. I would agree, based on what little I know about Victor Hugo’s life with a spattering of Wikipedia to back me up, that Hugo was indeed transposing himself onto Val Jean. I think Val Jean’s transformation ultimately is what makes the novel and associated adaptations so beautifully engaging. I am hesitant though to assign such an association between Hugo and Marius on the basis of his dismissiveness of Eponine. Now, I wouldn’t try to impose a fantastical scenario here (even though I, and several teenage girls, have always found the character of Eponine more relatable and interesting when compared to the adult Cosette) because I feel that the story would’ve been entirely different and inconsequential in the end had Marius and Eponine hooked up. But what I suspect, and discussed at length with my sister since we first saw the trailer for the film, is that Marius’ dismissiveness has less to do with physical attraction (and let’s face it, Samantha Barks is far more attractive in the film than Eponine is in the book) and more with intellectual superiority. I must preface, it is very likely that I will draw on a lot from the musical adaptation for the purposes of this point, but I will try to bring in as much from the novel as I remember.

    Marius is educated; he is a student in the classical sense. He is well-read and versed in philosophy, so much so that he is able to recognize the sore turn post-Napoleonic France and act upon it as well as convincing others to act.

    This is not the case for Eponine. She has undoubtedly lived a hard life, particularly in the years following the loss of the Thenardier’s inn. She is impoverished and one breath away from being out on the street. Her only real value to her family is what she can help swindle. What she knows, she learned on the streets. When compared to Marius’ conventional education, she is not even remotely an intellectual. I think this is their dividing line. Education has given him a sense of elitism. Education has granted him a moral high ground where he cannot be touched; where humanism is the primary force behind his movement, despite his blatant disregard for humanity. Eponine is no more than a device to him that helps fuel his anger against the government. She could never be his friend let alone his lover. He has created an aristocracy of intellectualism and it is quite the gentlemen’s club.

    Eponine dies on the barricades, but not by the bullet, but of a broken heart. She was never even remotely in his periphery, ultimately having to resort to extortion for a post-mortem kiss. After her death (in the musical anyway) he takes up arms, using the memory of Eponine as a symbol of injustice, when really the only injustice she felt at the time of her death was perpetrated entirely by him. Eponine definitely follows Fantine in the respect that her life was indeed miserable and her death fuels others onward.

    But I’m not convinced that Marius really understands the gravity of her death. I think his big eye opener is when he finds out that Enjolras and all his friends are dead as well and that the only reason he is still alive is because Val Jean pulled him from the barricades. I think, in this regard, we have a bit of a role reversal. Marius is now Val Jean, misguided and morally reprehensible (to a certain degree… that’s not to say ignoring the advances of a girl is inherently morally reprehensible), and Val Jean becomes the Bishop of Digne; whereas the Bishop saved Val Jean’s life by buying his soul for God, Marius’ life is quite literally saved by Val Jean. I think he recognizes the vanity of saving the world entire and sees the value of saving one life. Like Val Jean, Marius missed his opportunity to save one life (Fantine and Eponine), but it’s through Cosette that they are redeemed. This of course illustrates my big gripe with Cosette as more of a literary device than a real character, but that’s neither here nor there. I guess in a roundabout way, I convinced myself that Marius, by virtue of becoming Val Jean (Hugo), is Hugo as well.

    • Thanks Owen. I mention your analysis in my reply to Anthony. Yeah, Marius is by no means perfect, and doesn’t “get it” the way jean valjean does or the way the author does. Perhaps Hugo is commenting on his younger self and is also saying something about the young privileged men who foment rebellion or at least seem to often be a part of it. This new film totally understands that., by the way. Eponine is a sad, and yes not altogether attractive character in the novel, and her death is caused by romance, but her positioning as a woman of ” little value” is tremendously political. Marius can have romantic aspirations but Eponine can’t and neither can fantine. It’s only the “lady” cosette, who is allowed that luxury. I think Hugo is very aware of the gender/ class divide, and he writes about it in Notre dame de Paris as well. He doesn’t gloss over it, that’s for sure. Thanks for bringing this up.

  3. I agree with Joe except I’d say if they write matters of the heart AND huge political themes at the same time they’re superior to writers who only write one or the other. And that’s what Hugo did, perhaps mastering that balance better than anyone, even Dante.

    • Thanks Anthony. Yes, I agree completely about Hugo. He is able to fuse the emotional/psychological and the social/political in such a tight seamless package that it feels very contemporary. I think Owen is gesturing towards that awareness in his comment about Marius’ dismissal of Eponine — which is at once personal ( he doesn’t dig her) and completely classist ( she’s low class and uneducated so he doesn’t dig her). And hugo’s asking these complicated questions about resistance, class and gender but doing it with and through such “real” feeling characters so that all of this happens at the same time. It’s breath-taking, like Dante, as you point out.

  4. I can’t agree that saving one life is a profound act and saving the world entire is vanity. Many revolutionaries, including in the ones Hugo depicts, are acting from pure love of the people, not any vainglorious need for something reflecting on their identity. I would posit even the opposite–it’s the ultimate in vanity to think your love affair or personal relationships matter more than the revolution, i.e. the people’s love affair with freedom, the world’s greatest good. I agree that as with many revolutionaries a life like Eponine’s is all too easily not fully engaged with, being a mere tool for the higher cause. But in Marius’ defense, what I like about him is that he doesn’t leave the revolution, despite the poor odds, merely because he fell in love and now gives that personal relationship primacy over his committments to the city and its suffering people.

    I think if you go back to the book you’ll get this sense from Hugo as well. It’s not really there in the musical. At bottom this is an ideological debate. If you believe in bourgeois love you give primacy to personal relationships. If you believe in revolutionary love you give it to the people as a whole. That’s for each to decide, but it’s worth noting Hugo was nothing like contemporary American bourgeois writers with their dismissiveness of the political and their championing of the personal.

    The reason your post is so spot on, Stephanie, is that Hugo somehow succeeds in remaining true to ambitious scope of his art, his life, and his political commitments WHILE AT THE SAME time (not just alternating) plunging fully into matters of the heart and intimate relationships. This is a rare feat. As I said above, most art is divided into ambitious civic-minded, world-straddling writers who leave us cold with their inability to map the human heart in its most intimate concerns onto the vast socio-political picture they paint; or entirely unambitious (and quite trendy, given contemporary American writing and what they teach in MFA programs) stories entirely unable to ground their love stories, family strife, and friendships in the material reality of their times. These latter type are even more piteous than the former, to me, because despite their efforts to be apolitical, they end up inscribing unconsciouly the dominant ideology in their ‘love’, ‘friendship’, and ‘family’. Hugo works hard at all times to be conscious of the socio-political convictions and tendencies behind these matters of the heart. That is why we get pages upon pages about the bishop’s life, the corruption of the church and state he must work with, his metaphysics, cosmology, ethics and even his humbling moment with the outcast revolutionary in which he realizes that his putative apolitical, divine love was beholden to popular political prejudices. All of this serves to make that moment where he saves Valjean’s soul ripple with the profundity of his entire life’s struggle–political, personal, religious, philosophical. In the musical it’s merely a plot device, denuded of context within the space and time of the bishop’s world. Indeed, after reading Hugo, most writers seem like a succession of mere plot devices!

    • Great reading of Marius. I WILL need to go back and look at those sections. Also very intriguing take on Eponine. Will have to take another gander at her too. you are making me think of rosa Luxembourg and Karl liebknecht. Yes – exactly on Hugo’s doing both things, affirming both priorities. What’s is galit and libert without love? And vice versa?

      • This might sound strange, but I’m in good company with this remark: I feel like Les Miserables is as unadaptable as Watchmen. They are both unquestionably dense. Hugo likes his books big and while any adaptation is likely to gloss over certain things while holding onto others, I do think the musical is successful in conveying the depth and gravity of the source material despite being at the expense of some of the subtlety. In the case of Watchmen, as I’m sure is the case with Les Miserables, the loss of subtlety spells the loss of fans. For me, an adaptation simply needs to capture enough, that amount being purely in the eye of the beholder, in order for it to work. It’s just insanely difficult to translate everything to a visual medium without missing something.

      • I’ll be interested to hear your impressions of the new film. We are certainly talking very different sorts of media with these adaptations and these transpositions are inevitably going to change how a piece is experienced. And it can go in a variety of directions. I’m not actually a fan of the staged les Miz musical (which I saw on Broadway when it first came to the US in the 80’s). I think that the present film version of the musical is more complex, grotesque, hyper-real to the point of being almost surreal in moments, and monumental in a way Hugo would appreciate.

        On Tuesday, December 18, 2012, Stephanie Barb Hammer @ Magically Real wrote:

        > > New comment on your post “Storytime Sunday, 12/16/12, Beyond the > Barricades = a story with analysis” > Author : Owen Torres (IP: 108.38.121.232 , > pool-108-38-121-232.lsanca.fios.verizon.net) > E-mail : ugoogoly@aim.com > URL : http://www.facebook.com/owen.torres1 > Whois : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/108.38.121.232

      • I must admit, I probably wouldn’t have been that interested in Hugo if not for the stage production. I didn’t get to see it until I was about 11 or 12 when the production returned to the Ahmanson. I will admit, because it conforms too readily to contemporary musical theatre parameters, it does at times seem like a gist than an adaptation, inevitably relying heavily on the weight of the music to carry it forward. For the stage, that’s not too bad; musicals should be musical. And with most Cameron MacKintosh productions, the staging and set design is unparalleled. I am eager to see how adapting it to film will bring out the best qualities of the stage production while adding new qualities that aren’t restricted to a 30” x 40” box.

      • Sure. That makes sense. I got more interested in Hugo after seeing the musical and then went ahead and read the novel afterwards for the first time. I don’t mean to condemn the stage show; I didn’t like it, but it certainly got me thinking, and obviously has gotten many thinking – which is great.

  5. Yes I agree it’s unadaptable. I should have said the musical is a compelling work of art as something different than Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s not an adaptation. It’s one of those ‘loosely based on’ or ‘inspired by’ instances. If you’re not comparing it to Hugo, it’s great. But I don’t know what you’re talking about with Watchmen–I thought Snyder did an excellent job. It totally felt like the comic to me, right down to the editing styie mimicking the cross-cutting/one-story-bleeding-into-another style of the book. I remember Lindsey leaving the movie theater saying ‘that’s my favorite movie ever.’ But, given how high she was and her penchant for hyperbole, not sure if that holds today..

    • Don’t get me wrong; I love Watchmen too. But there were a lot of disappointed fans of the graphic novel when the movie came out who condemned it for not having giant octopus aliens in it or leaving out parts that added layers of depth to the characters, but didn’t really advance the plot such as the Under the Hood segments or some of the Minutemen stories which got mitigated to a montage at the beginning. In the special features on the DVD release, Zack Snyder said that the only way to do Watchmen right was to do a 9 hour feature which is impossible so he settled for 3 hours instead (almost 4 for the director’s cut). That was the allusion I was shooting for in that statement.

      • Yup. On a tangential note, I think Synder settled on a fascinating and fruitful way of grappling with insufficient time alotted for the story within one genre: expand the story across a number of genres or works! Thus, that film taken with the ‘documentary’ on the Minutemen that comes with the DVD and the animated separate feature about the ruthless pirates and the ordeal at sea is a better work of art than the film standalone. People are so used to taking works of art and genre as distinct ‘units’ of art, that they struggle critically and conceptually to grapple with narratives that unfold across a number of works or genres. One of the reasons Star Wars is so much more successful, to me, than most similar ventures at addressing the socio-political, psychological, and metaphysical complexity of the universe presented is that he has hours upon hours to tell it, when you take into account not just the six films but a television series and comic books which figure prominently in the canon. I say people struggle to grapple with it because they blink bemusedly as if I’m ‘cheating’ when I counter an argument about insufficient character development with a reference to further development of that character in another genre. This is why Lucas exhausts himself approving, vetoing, making character notes/adjustments for every single Star Wars story (or: part of the story!) he partitions to other artists, when he could just take the licensing money and go relax in Cabo.
        I’d like us to relearn narrative as something that transcends the borders of one work. Stephen King, incidentally, does this with his Dark Tower series, enlisting the rest of his oeuvre as part of that story.

  6. If you’re interested in comics, the Scott McCloud Understanding Comics book is indispensable.I think the hermeneutic — aka the process of understanding, interpreting — comics is very different from either a purely textual experience or that of a film. A musical stage play is something else again, and I think the different kinds of aesthetic experiences/responses that these forms inaugurate are important to consider. That said, I’ll confess I found WATCHMEN hard to follow and preferred V FOR VENDETTA in comic book form, because I found the latter easier to understand. There must be a comic book version (or versions ) of Les Miserables and I wonder what THAT is like…

    • I find it fascinating you had problems ‘following it’. This from a woman who’s a fan of (and producer of) art with such strange metafictional twists one can’t ‘follow’ the narrative in a traditional sense! And I presume you can appreciate Fellini and Godard and all those we can’t ‘follow’. Does it have to do with your expectations going into the work of art? In any case, that was a moot point for me because I’d read the book and thus knew what was going on merely by memory.

      • funny. and of course it’s true — I find Fellini and Godard totally understandable! I think I find comic books in general more difficult to understand because I was forbidden to read them as a child (this was quite common), and consequently I do not have the facility that you all have with moving eyes across the cels and putting the words together with the pictures. And yes, it’s interesting to think about some of these works as meta- and trans-generic in terms of their medial representation. It’s probably productive to think of Les Miserables in that light — as a cluster of different sorts of texts radiating outward from Hugo’s book. In addition, I suspect that the book always had illustrations, so it was already not just words. Interesting project.

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