29 December 2013


I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables. The volume I purchased (hard-back) runs to 1194 pages of actual text and another 150 pages or so of notes. I try to read the book only in my home because carrying it about causes lower back pain requiring regular adjustment by the chiropractor. I am at present almost half-way through the book and so I will save my critique of it for another time. Many years ago I did see the original Broadway musical version based on Hugo’s novel, and especially I remember the closing image of the students and workers standing before the battlements waving the flag of revolution. I recall how the audience had been inspired by the power of the conclusion even as they stepped over the homeless camped in front of the theater begging for sustenance.
A long way from the beginning of the novel and a long way still from its ending, the young man, Marius Pontmercy, discovers by accident the identity of his real father, a secret that has been kept from him by his grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand. The latter is a member of the (bourgeois) Royalist conservative establishment in France that opposed the Revolution, the elimination of the monarchy and the attempt to institute democratic rule. Gillenormand despised the government of Napoleon (who Pierre, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace claims to have saved the Revolution by appropriating it) and rejoiced at Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo—a battle exhaustively described over fifty pages in Hugo’s novel¾and the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.  In that final battle, Marius’ real father had been seriously wounded fighting for Napoleon in whose leadership he believed. Hence the first motive for the enmity between Pontmercy and Gillenormand.
The second reason for the animus derived from the marriage of Gillenormand’s younger daughter to Pontmercy and with whom she had a child. The mother died in childbirth, and the grandfather offered to raise the boy under the condition that the father was never to reveal his existence to the boy. Marius was raised in the community of those who longer for the return of the Bourbon monarchy and the end to republican government, and learned contempt for those who still held out hope for the ideals promised by the French Revolution and Bonaparte’s imperial reign.
When Marius learns the identity of his father from the churchwarden, Monsieur Mabeuf, Marius undertakes the study of the history in which his father played a role. Hugo writes: “He read the Moniteur, he read all the histories of the Republic and the Empire, the Memorial de Sainte-Hélène, all the memoirs, newspapers, bulletins, proclamations; he discovered the lot.” And as Marius studied the period in which his father lived and in which he actively partook, he learned about his father as well. “He then realized that until that moment he had not understood his country any more than he had understood his father.” And as Marius learned more he gained more confidence in his thinking even as his learning increased his capacity to think. And Hugo comments, “As though he had a key, everything opened; he could explain to himself what he had hated, he could fathom what he had abhorred; from that moment on, he could see clearly the providential, divine, and human meaning of great things he had been taught to detest and of great men he had been trained to curse. When he thought of his previous views . . . he felt furious with himself and he smiled.” Studying the past offers Marius the present and makes possible for him the future.
If we do not study history we are condemned to the experience of the immediate moment of which we remain mostly ignorant because that moment exists without context, without reason or motive.  This present simply is and exists unconnected to anything that preceded it or that may follow from it. In this way the present is less than an orphan: this present has no parent and may not be considered to have even been born. This present simply appears ex nihilo.

The present is the question for which history is an answer.  I fortunately never know it all, and so daily I continue all over again with yet another question for which I seek answers. Perhaps what school might teach is not the answer but the identity of the question and the necessity for its formulation. History does not give us the present but presents us with portraits of its necessity. And when we study history, we gain the present and enable another future. 


Anonymous Barbara said...

I saw Les Miserables as well...a live performance in San Francisco with the entire family I was a nanny for at the time. I was worried about my youngest charge. Being barely 4, I was worried I would have to take him out of the theater and miss most of the performance. But from the first notes spoken and sung, we both sat mesmerized until the very end, dismayed that it was over.

I still have an old cassette tape of the songs. I think I just may listen to it now that your blog has reminded me of it!

29 December, 2013 20:06  

Post a Comment

<< Home