Reading the 18th Century (and the 19th and the 21st), 01/23/17: From Schiller to Hugo to Rogue One and back again

Friends –

In my last post I talked about the important work done by playwright/poet/historian Friedrich Schiller. As I mentioned last time, Schiller wrote frequently about rebels. Almost all his plays feature protagonists (sometimes a man, and sometimes a woman) who are frustrated with the status quo and who revolt against their society, for both personal and political reasons. One of the things I admire most about Schiller actually, is his realization before Marx and before Wollstonecraft, that the political is personal and that our personal politics are shaped by gender – both how we construct ourselves and how we are viewed by the society in which we live.

The Robbers – the play I talked about last time – is notable to me in its understanding of the complexities of male bonding, and the ways in which masculinity is at “stake” in certain ways. Schiller remains interested in what Eve Sedgwick has called the “homosocial” – power exchanges and struggles between men who identify as heterosexual, but which – because of patriarchy and because of the ways in which women are sidelined – become almost inevitably “tinged” with the threat of homoeroticism.

Here’s how it works. Trump’s infamous videorecorded “bonding” with Billy Bush about women is an excellent example of the homosocial in action. Through this conversation Mr. Trump asserts his superiority over Bush by means of the objectified body of a woman. But the sexual energy is arguably between the two guys. ‘The Donald scores,” admits Billy Bush, ceding masculine power to Trump.

If you’ve never read Sedgwick’s book Between Men, you should. It’s pretty darned important.

Back to Schiller.

courtesy the Schaubuehne:
courtesy the Schaubuehne:

Schiller also writes about female rebel-heroes: notably Mary Stuart and Joan of Arc – two seemingly very different historical figures. Fascinatingly, he’s at pains to show Mary Stuart as a rebel of the heart: a passionate woman who dares to love and who lets love guide her rather than be directed by the cold calculating thirst for power, which drives her enemy Elizabeth I (yes, I know. This is QUITE a historical re-interpretation). Interestingly, Joan of Arc is similarly re-drawn. She is a woman who, of course, acts as a man in many ways, but she dares to love. That is both her undoing and her greatness according to Schiller. The other point Schiller makes about Mary Stuart and Joan of Arc, is that they are both terribly isolated. This is an important idea, and I’ll come back to it.

Schauspielerin Inge Konradi in "Die Jungfrau von Orleans" von Friedrich Schiller im Burgtheater. Wien. Photographie. 1959 Austrian actress Inge Konradi in "The maid of Orleans" by Friedrich Schiller in the Burgtheater (Imperial court theatre) in Vienna. Photography. 1959.
Schauspielerin Inge Konradi in “Die Jungfrau von Orleans” von Friedrich Schiller im Burgtheater. Wien. Photographie. 1959 Austrian actress Inge Konradi in “The maid of Orleans” by Friedrich Schiller in the Burgtheater (Imperial court theatre) in Vienna. Photography. 1959.

It’s also interesting to think about the fact that NONE of Schiller’s rebellious heroes succeed except for one: William Tell.[i] And William Tell succeeds, because he is the figure-head for a collectivity of people who act against the powers that be. He is charismatic – sure – but he is not even the main focus of the play about him. He is one of many.

Schiller’s plays suggest his bourgeoning realization that one person cannot make a revolution – no matter how brilliant a strategist (like Wallenstein) or how God-inspired (like Joan) he or she may be. Schiller’s play about William Tell reveals the author’s understanding that it takes A LOT of people to make a change happen.

This idea gets taken up by Victor Hugo in his two big novels: Notre Dame de Paris (this is the Hunchback of Notre Dame novel), and the even more famous novel, Les Miserables.

Hugo clearly must have read and/or seen the French translation of Schiller’s The Robbers (les Brigands), despite the fact that he was famously dismissive of German literature.[ii] But Schiller’s first play was in the air in France, thanks to its role in the minds of the French Revolutionaries.

Indeed in both novels, Hugo starts where Schiller leaves off. How does a progressive collective consciousness start and how does it continue? What are the dangers? What can go wrong?

Many scholars have written about Hugo, and I recommend that you read them. But having taught both novels, I think (and from what I remember of the student conversations, a lot of students also thought) that Hugo is dramatizing and investigating several problems that are very relevant for us right now:

  1. Political uprisings capture the imagination of people, in particular, the young, the differently abled, the dispossessed, and/or the criminalized.
  2. They fail because the organizers don’t have a plan for maintaining and adjudicating power, thinking “we’ll figure it out when we get there.”
  3. Gender politics matter and tend to reinscribe themselves at a moment’s notice, even if they get overturned at the beginning.
  4. When things get violent, the people who die first are women and kids as well as the people mentioned in item #1.
  5. It takes A LOT of people to make anything happen in a forward direction. And it takes MULTIPLE attempts to get anything done. In other words it takes a LONG time.

It’s interesting to think about the absolute mania that people have felt about the musical version of Les Miserables. This was THE musical obsession until RENT (now there’s an interesting comparison to be think about….) and Hamilton. The musical as an art form seems to open things up for people, make thoughts thinkable for people who wouldn’t allow themselves to think these thoughts otherwise. Which is why Berthold Brecht used that form in The Threepenny Opera.


And now I arrive (at last!) at Rogue One. Rogue One seems to be channeling both Schiller and Hugo. We have a remarkable rebel hero in the figure of Jyn Erso –a young woman, who is the daughter of a famous scientist, who becomes an outlaw and who is now a criminalized survivor.


But, and this is important, she is a successful rebel, because she connects with and effectively inspires and leads others. She unites that band of brothers[iii] not by charisma (a la Karl Moor in The Robbers), but by dedication. She’s also an important deviation from female heroes like Sarah Connor in the Terminator and Ripley in the first two Alien movies, in that she’s not a rugged individualist. She starts out as one, but then becomes – somewhat unwillingly — part of a larger group effort.

What happens to that group?

Spoiler alert.

They win, and arguably they win big.

BUT they never live to find this out. They all die, trying to get that one crucial piece of information to the leaders. From the point of view of Jyn and her comrades, their engagement is a moment by moment struggle, where it is their trust in each other and each person’s determination to do the right thing as they can – that’s what makes the difference.

Hugo would approve this message. And so would Schiller.

Seattle, 01/21/17
Seattle, 01/21/17

As I write this blog post, my feet are still hurting from the March on Washington sister march that my husband and I undertook in Seattle. We were either part of a 130 thousand people turn out or part of a 175 thousand people turnout. Figures differ. That’s a lot of people.

But all those people on the barricades in Les Miserables are not enough, as you know if you’ve seen any of the movie adaptations or read the book (which is amazing and worth your time). Likewise that crowd of enthusiastic university students in Notre Dame de Paris near the beginning of the novel are not sufficient to change the worldview of the citizens of Paris. They remain stuck – literally and figuratively — in the Middle Ages.

I have written elsewhere in my blog about Victor Hugo. What alot of people don’t realize about him is that he was himself a politician and that he lived in exile from France for almost 20 years.

Hugo was, in other words, someone who knew about living under what we call snarkily “regime change” when it happens in another country. He had to deal with the Louis Napoleon, who seized power and became Napoleon III. Here’s what wikipedia says about him:

During the first years of the Empire, Napoleon’s government imposed censorship and harsh repressive         measures against his opponents. Some six thousand were imprisoned or sent to penal colonies until 1859. Thousands more went into voluntary exile abroad, including Victor Hugo.[1]

Napoleon number 3 also changed the Constitution. So, Hugo’s novel is based on a very real way on his own experience — on what he witnessed and saw.  What Hugo experienced personally was the retrenchment of a nation away from liberty.

His point in that big big novel is how hard true progress is. How difficult to maintain.

Rogue One is saying something very similar. An awful lot of people get blown up or killed in other ways, in order to get  and upload that one piece of information about the Death Star. And that piece of information is going to make the eventual return of the Republic possible. But it will be a long wait. If you think this movie is a space opera romp, then you’re not paying attention. This is some serious sh*t. It is, in short, a tragic film.

We saw in my last blog post that revolutionary Karl Moor cannot change the society he lives in. Neither can most of Schiller’s rebellious protagonists.

Jean Valjean can’t do it either. And neither Can Marius.

Jyn can’t either.

But she does get the ball rolling.

It always takes a lot of people, Schiller and Hugo are telling us. Rogue One is telling us this too, It takes a lot of people, and a lot of time, and you may not get to see the big culmination with the ewoks dancing in the forest. In fact, you probably won’t see it. You’re going to have to keep on doing your crappy job, and take care of your cat, and take the garbage out, and you’re probably going to die before any of this gets really really fixed.

If it can be fixed. Let’s hope it can.

“Do you think anyone is listening?” Jyn’s comrade Cassian asks her near the end of the Rogue One film. Cassian means this literally of course. But we, in the audience know that this question has grander political and perhaps metaphysical connotations.

The answers is: Yes. The future is listening.

That’s what Rogue One is telling us. That’s why Schiller writes about rebellious heroes from his past. Because the future – his present – is listening. Same with Hugo.

John Adams says something similar in his letter to Thomas Jefferson. I quoted it in my blog post on Jonathan Swift. Here it is again, 203 years after it was written:

Adams to Jefferson in 1814:

“…the vast Variety of experiments that have been made of Constitutions, in America in France, in Holland, in Geneva in Switzerland, and even in Spain and South America, can never be forgotten. They will be Studied, and their immediate and remote Effects, and final Catastrophys noted. The result in time will be Improvements. And I have no doubt that the horrors We have experienced for the last forty Years, will ultimately terminate in the Advancement of civil and religious Liberty, and Ameliorations, in the condition of Mankind. For I am a Beleiver, in the probable improvability and Improvement, the Ameliorability and Amelioration in human Affaires…” (July 16, 1814)

Getting anything done in the direction of freedom, justice, and equality takes a lot of time. Mistakes will be made. Progress is possible, but it’s really slow. And painful. And annoying. Dealing with other people is aggravating. And intersectionality is complicated.

Oh well.

Rest your feet.

courtesy abc news
March On Washington Washington DC 01/21/17


[i] A funny anecdote about this play is that Schiller never went to Switzerland, but used picture postcards to imagine the scenery!

[ii] See this discussion of The Robbers in France and Hugo’s play Hernani:

[iii] Yes, it’s a still lot of men. However, as others have noted, it’s certainly a multicultural, multi-linguistic group. Further, it is encouraging and important to see the Asian martial arts/Buddhist roots of the Jeddai cult of the Force clearly signaled in the incredible performances of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. Moreover, their portrayals subvert in interesting ways the stereotypical portraiture of Asian men, as this article suggests.

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