Although I have yet to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in its entirety – I was fingering its thick spine in the original French not long ago in Gallimard’s aisles on St. Laurent Street in Montreal recently, contemplating the challenge – the work’s sweeping power resurfaced for me this past winter when watching the latest film version with my family. Literature has always been for me a labyrinthine gloss to the complexities of human reality, so in the middle of a spring night on Saint Lucia, far from home on a getaway with my husband to replenish ourselves, up pops Les Miserables in the wakeful wee hours with a possible paradigm to help a newly blended family integrate: a challenge which is a humbling daily reality.
Now, it has been a long time since I’ve attempted a mildly academic parsing of a text. Let’s not even pretend I’m taking a stab at such an exercise here, since I’ve only seen Les Miserables twice: once live as a play long ago in my student days in Montreal, and more recently the film version. To boot, I haven’t bothered to bone up on who the scholars are, nor what they posit. This is a personal parsing: the kind that comes combing up through the tangled root system of my own inner world, that twines the radical tendrils of truth and revelation from a parallel fictional reality with those of my own life, to wring from my present new opportunities for improved understanding.
At supper last night, I listened attentively to my husband outline his observations on a couple of recent challenges we’ve been contending with in our freshly merged family reality – which is still very much in Seinfeldian “worlds colliding” phase. Two worlds that had individual integrities are mashing in the middle in a snipped up jumble of collage that is unintelligible to anyone yet. As I listened, I felt two things: that I was getting closer to understanding his perspective, and at the same time, that through that understanding, I felt isolated in a completely separate reality bubble when examining the same situations from my own perspective, on the other side of the collage shards. I rarely feel fully prepared to respond when I have that sensation, particularly when what I’m aware of an accompanying sense of creeping defensiveness and a reflex to refute, repudiate, deny and disassemble – all of which are more likely to lead to an argument at a time when what is most needed is a sympathetic ear. Not that argument doesn’t have merits in helping to a better understanding…it’s just that there are some situations where a more nuanced approach is needed. And I was feeling helpless to offer a gentle bridge in the moment, so I just listened and did my best to understand things his way.
Reel forward to last night’s/this morning’s insomniac moment. I woke with my processor at full bore, which is somewhat of an annoying pattern these days. Another issue for discussion at another time. My brain yawed alert onto how even the distilled musical version of Les Miserables forces us to examine something we all struggle with: that we are all of us directors of our own particular reality show. We cast the characters we come into contact with into the unfolding narrative of our lives as we live it – and sometimes recast the same characters in revised drafts/retrospectives of the same realities as new realities inform our previously accepted versions of the narrative we constructed yesterday. We all do it, we can’t help it. Narrative is how we structure our understanding of the world. It’s the baseline for logic, for thought, for argument. When we talk about our day at the dinner-table, we’re already in revisionist mode, and chances are the history we’re recounting is replete with things we’re not even conscious we’re adding, omitting, or including through assumptions born from shared societal contextual framework. The coffee spilled on one’s chest during the morning’s commute may have clicked into place a lense through which all subsequent events of the day were warped.
So there I was, staring into the void, considering the obviously Christian lense through which reality is interpreted by Victor Hugo as he opens the saga of Jean Valjean to his readership – and of just how many lenses of particular to individual characters we are offered to look through in the course of the story. And I thought of all the signals we receive as an audience on the question of perspective. At the beginning, “Look down” is sung from both below and from above – and it describes a power relationship – those meting justice look down upon those who are serving punishment for crimes large and small – indiscriminately – and at the same time, the prisoners are through the same act of “looking down”, exercising a method of defensive self-containment and protection through a deliberate withdrawal from self-expression to avoid further correction from above. The nature of justice and the human paradigms we create to mete it in a society are questioned. We know that the punishment – several years of hard labour – does not fit Valjean’s crime, which was stealing bread to prevent his sister’s son from starvation.
There are two overarching social paradigms for understanding the world in Les Mis: that of the justice system, which is devised by humans through their government, and that of religion, a system devised by humans through the Church. Though Hugo reveals himself, through his own storytelling biases, to adhere to the tenets of Christianity, perhaps the more important crux of the matter Hugo is driving at is something that transcends any particular religion or justice system: love is the key.
Xavier, who is a policeman, sees Valjean reductively only: he is a criminal, and in the paradigm that governs how Xavier operates in the world, as a Christian and as a policeman (despite having been born in the gutter, just as Valjean was), Xavier casts Valjean as a villain and refuses to see his humanity or to consider the nuances of the dire human situation that precipitated Valjean’s crime. Valjean sees things in black and white: the damned and the just. And necessarily, he sees his role as being that as a defender of justice, and in his strict adherence to what he sees as his duty to god and country, he fails to see Valjean the human being, to understand Valjean and by extension himself all people – as a combination of flaw and virtue – imperfect, and worthy of forgiveness, love, and sympathy.
Throughout the saga, we see Valjean struggle between the selfish id-drives of survival mode right after his release from prison (destitute with damning papers that seal his doom as one not to be trusted, hired, or respected as an equal human being) – where selfish drives reign – and his consideration of the needs of others. His recurring theme song is Who am I? – pointing straight at this inner conflict. It is the gift of mercy, meted through the gift of the silver from the man he has stolen it from – that forces Valjean to think beyond himself for the rest of his days. Mercy, being an extension of the act of loving (Christian or not) is the gift that keeps on giving – it is what makes Valjean’s life decisions exceptional – it is what forces him to look at situations from more than one vantage point…to consider the needs, drives, dreams, and struggles of others, and to act with pluralistic perspective of each situation in mind rather than allowing the single lense of his own needs, motivations, and comforts to guide decisions that have fateful implications for more than just himself. What Valjean comes to inhabit is a social conscience, and fits of social conscience always make Valjean sing refrains of the Who am I? song.
When worlds are colliding, social conscience guided by love and sympathy for the other – a pluralistic understanding of a given situation – is key to conflict resolution, and to finding a way to conduct oneself that respects and considers all. Sometimes it means compromise. Sometimes it calls for sacrifice. In reality, most of the compromises and sacrifices most of us make daily are fairly small, though they can make a big difference. Power relationships play a role, often, in who bears what degree of responsibility. Some imbalances can be corrected easily. Others can be more challenging, may right themselves more gradually over time. Or not: leading to sour, bitter people with chips on their shoulders, who are completely hobbled in getting past the demands of their id and survival mode. It happens. The trick is to avoid the bitter sour stuff if you can.
When Xavier finally comes to understand Valjean’s humanity – his capacity to act from love: to put others’ needs before his own, to have mercy, and ultimately to forgive those who have wronged him through an understanding of their own humanity, motivations, and situation…that moment is what undoes Xavier, for that same flash of understanding of Valjean’s worth as a fellow man calls into question his own unilateral interpretations of justice and the roles he has cast people in, how he has acted accordingly, often blind to mercy and without love for his fellow man. He awakens to his blind acceptance of a social paradigm that he had applied unilaterally to others. As he realizes his own human flaws, mistakes – he finds that through his own strict lense, which he cannot escape – a habit of strict interpretation of moral code – that he cannot accept, love, or forgive himself – so he ends his life. Drastic, and not recommended problem-solving.
Although extreme and ill-advised, Xavier’s act is symbolic and provokes more thought on the “worlds colliding” scenario. With change inevitably comes destruction in some form. It doesn’t have to be cataclysmic. In fact, it’s optimal if it isn’t. If we love each other well and try our best to understand, consider, and relate to the perspectives, needs, fears, and dreams of others – and we are conscious of what our own needs, motivations, and responsibilities are – inevitably we all see where we need to make compromises. It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to rise above our selfish interests every day. Or that we’ll all summarily abandon the routines or paradigms we’ve clung to for years that make our world make sense. The real world doesn’t adhere to a Utopian ideal of any sort. But maybe we’d all be a little more flexible and understanding and forgiving if we could just get past that id/survival mode bit. We live in an era of instant gratification. Distinguishing needs from wants isn’t something a lot of us dwell on much. We’re spoiled, comfortable, and entitled in North America. To boot, most of us live with a healthy helping of cognitive dissonance – that handy ingredient that helps us accept less than optimal personal operating procedures and still maintain a healthy self-image without the pesky hassles that come with true self-awareness and the inevitable self-recriminations that come with that territory.
Me? I’m no better than anybody else. The mama bear comes out in me when I fear my young are being threatened, misunderstood, or unfairly cast in roles that seem too reductive. And I can be defensive on my own account, too, and perhaps too quick to make reductive castings of the characters in my own home movie, according to the patchwork paradigm collectively curated consciously and subconsciously over the course of my own life – the hodgepodge of societal norms and values I adhere to.
It’s complicated. And it’s simple. John Lennon nailed it: All we need is love.
Here’s to worlds colliding.