The windbaggery of Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo…I wanted to love this book. It starts out with this:

Victor Hugo Les MiserablesPREFACE

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century–the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light–are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;–in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.

HAUTEVILLE HOUSE, 1862.

Despite such grand sentiments to stand against injustice that I respect, I would probably punch him in the stomach if ever chance arose that somehow Victor Hugo stood in front of me. Or prick him with a pin to watch him whiz away like a balloon.

Not that there weren’t good bits to be found in Les Miserables. I will list them here:

  1. The above expressed desire to improve the lot of mankind, and some of his descriptions of barricades and corresponding character descriptions, minus the idea that many of the book’s pages help improve anything (See all the things I hated most).
  2. The actual story, when stripped of 95% of its sentimentality and all of its asides.
  3. Paris as he remembers it — memorialized as a living, concrete and perfectly mapped thing (with some inventions).
  4. The section on sewers, if it hadn’t interrupted the story.
  5. The existence of a section on slang, if it hadn’t interrupted the story, and once stripped of the patronising judgmental nature of all of its content.

Given the epic size of this, I thought I might blog some of these separately. I also cannot deny the sense of achievement felt at finishing the damn thing, which was probably the best thing about it.

Will the things I most hated fit in one post? It seems to me he never edited a thing he wrote, just sent it off in one box after another to the publisher. Anyway, back to my list of things I hated:

  1. Everything he says about women.
  2. The section on Napoleon he starts by saying he’s not going to talk about Napoleon
  3. The spate of sappy generalisations on the gamin
  4. Grandiose asides about France. Sometimes Paris. How both of these make child poverty, galley slavery for convicts and other things not really so bad (while I admit this point can be argued, I think in general this is true)….
  5. The content of the section on slang

On Women

He starts with the little section on grisettes — fucking grisettes. The whole institution is rather infuriating. A grouping of beautiful young mistresses from impoverished backgrounds minister to the needs of young students until they are cast off as Fantine is cast off, to have her baby in shame and live in poverty and lose all of her teeth and die very young indeed.

Unless they have an abortion and survive a little longer in the game. But how much longer?

But that’s not Victor Hugo’s fault, it’s his sentimentalisation of it, and all the rest of his ideas about women to be furious about, like:

The doll is one of the most imperious needs and, at the same time, one of the most charming instincts of feminine childhood. To care for, to clothe, to deck, to dress, to undress, to redress, to teach, scold a little, to rock, to dandle, to lull to sleep, to imagine that something is some one,—therein lies the whole woman’s future. While dreaming and chattering, making tiny outfits, and baby clothes, while sewing little gowns, and corsages and bodices, the child grows into a young girl, the young girl into a big girl, the big girl into a woman. The first child is the continuation of the last doll.

A little girl without a doll is almost as unhappy, and quite as impossible, as a woman without children.

or this on young women – oh dear

That first gaze of a soul which does not, as yet, know itself, is like the dawn in the sky. It is the awakening of something radiant and strange. Nothing can give any idea of the dangerous charm of that unexpected gleam, which flashes suddenly and vaguely forth from adorable shadows, and which is composed of all the innocence of the present, and of all the passion of the future. It is a sort of undecided tenderness which reveals itself by chance, and which waits. It is a snare which the innocent maiden sets unknown to herself, and in which she captures hearts without either wishing or knowing it. It is a virgin looking like a woman.

Ah, we move to love…

One of woman’s magnanimities is to yield. Love, at the height where it is absolute, is complicated with some indescribably celestial blindness of modesty. But what dangers you run, O noble souls! Often you give the heart, and we take the body. Your heart remains with you, you gaze upon it in the gloom with a shudder. Love has no middle course; it either ruins or it saves. All human destiny lies in this dilemma. This dilemma, ruin, or safety, is set forth no more inexorably by any fatality than by love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; also coffin. The same sentiment says “yes” and “no” in the human heart. Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one which sheds the most light, alas! and the most darkness.

Jesus, let the purple prose end! But it never does.

For him, Cosette was a perfume and not a woman. He inhaled her. She refused nothing, and he asked nothing. Cosette was happy, and Marius was satisfied. They lived in this ecstatic state which can be described as the dazzling of one soul by another soul. It was the ineffable first embrace of two maiden souls in the ideal. Two swans meeting on the Jungfrau.

Cosette is all right, but women you know, you can’t trust them.

CHAPTER V—IN THE CASE OF SAND AS IN THAT OF WOMAN, THERE IS A FINENESS WHICH IS TREACHEROUS

On Napoleon

I won’t deny Victor Hugo wasn’t eminently quotable — but he was so often silly. I skimmed through this extensive section that began by saying he would not speak much on the subject. Some selected quotes:

Was it possible that Napoleon should have won that battle? We answer No.
Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God.

Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his fall had been decided on.

He embarrassed God.

Waterloo is not a battle; it is a change of front on the part of the Universe.

That day the perspective of the human race underwent a change. Waterloo is the hinge of the nineteenth century. The disappearance of the great man was necessary to the advent of the great century. Some one, a person to whom one replies not, took the responsibility on himself. The panic of heroes can be explained. In the battle of Waterloo there is something more than a cloud, there is something of the meteor. God has passed by.

On the Gamin and Paris

That homeless street children should be brave and daring and smart and play a pivotal role in this novel I quite loved. That this little glimpse is offered into so much of their lives I did love too.

The gamin—the street Arab—of Paris is the dwarf of the giant.

Let us not exaggerate, this cherub of the gutter sometimes has a shirt, but, in that case, he owns but one; he sometimes has shoes, but then they have no soles; he sometimes has a lodging, and he loves it, for he finds his mother there; but he prefers the street, because there he finds liberty. He has his own games, his own bits of mischief, whose foundation consists of hatred for the bourgeois; his peculiar metaphors: to be dead is to eat dandelions by the root; his own occupations, calling hackney-coaches, letting down carriage-steps, establishing means of transit between the two sides of a street in heavy rains, which he calls making the bridge of arts, crying discourses pronounced by the authorities in favor of the French people, cleaning out the cracks in the pavement; he has his own coinage, which is composed of all the little morsels of worked copper which are found on the public streets. This curious money, which receives the name of loques—rags—has an invariable and well-regulated currency in this little Bohemia of children.

I love this hunt for insects, for nature, I love knowing there are millipedes in the Pantheon.

Lastly, he has his own fauna, which he observes attentively in the corners; the lady-bird, the death’s-head plant-louse, the daddy-long-legs, “the devil,” a black insect, which menaces by twisting about its tail armed with two horns. He has his fabulous monster, which has scales under its belly, but is not a lizard, which has pustules on its back, but is not a toad, which inhabits the nooks of old lime-kilns and wells that have run dry, which is black, hairy, sticky, which crawls sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, which has no cry, but which has a look, and is so terrible that no one has ever beheld it; he calls this monster “the deaf thing.” The search for these “deaf things” among the stones is a joy of formidable nature. Another pleasure consists in suddenly prying up a paving-stone, and taking a look at the wood-lice. Each region of Paris is celebrated for the interesting treasures which are to be found there. There are ear-wigs in the timber-yards of the Ursulines, there are millepeds in the Pantheon, there are tadpoles in the ditches of the Champs-de-Mars.

He waxes large on this subject, as he does on all others. Calls out the crime of children who are homeless… but then he veers off into his semi-mystical ramblings on Paris and you have to question all that came before.

CHAPTER VI—A BIT OF HISTORY

At the epoch, nearly contemporary by the way, when the action of this book takes place, there was not, as there is to-day, a policeman at the corner of every street (a benefit which there is no time to discuss here); stray children abounded in Paris. The statistics give an average of two hundred and sixty homeless children picked up annually at that period, by the police patrols, in unenclosed lands, in houses in process of construction, and under the arches of the bridges. One of these nests, which has become famous, produced “the swallows of the bridge of Arcola.” This is, moreover, the most disastrous of social symptoms. All crimes of the man begin in the vagabondage of the child.

Let us make an exception in favor of Paris, nevertheless. In a relative measure, and in spite of the souvenir which we have just recalled, the exception is just. While in any other great city the vagabond child is a lost man, while nearly everywhere the child left to itself is, in some sort, sacrificed and abandoned to a kind of fatal immersion in the public vices which devour in him honesty and conscience, the street boy of Paris, we insist on this point, however defaced and injured on the surface, is almost intact on the interior. It is a magnificent thing to put on record, and one which shines forth in the splendid probity of our popular revolutions, that a certain incorruptibility results from the idea which exists in the air of Paris, as salt exists in the water of the ocean. To breathe Paris preserves the soul.

Ah. I can just see that last sentence reproduced on postcards and pictures of the eiffel tower. It must have appeared as one of those quotes people mindlessly share on facebook. Realities were rather grim though.

Besides this, the monarchy sometimes was in need of children, and in that case it skimmed the streets.

Under Louis XIV., not to go any further back, the king rightly desired to create a fleet. … galleys were necessary; but the galley is moved only by the galley-slave; hence, galley-slaves were required.

Under Louis XV. children disappeared in Paris; the police carried them off, for what mysterious purpose no one knew.

Of course, some street children aren’t quite gamin material. They’re probably the ones who die right away. The others laugh in the face of death.

A certain audacity on matters of religion sets off the gamin. To be strong-minded is an important item.

To be present at executions constitutes a duty. He shows himself at the guillotine, and he laughs. He calls it by all sorts of pet names: The End of the Soup, The Growler, The Mother in the Blue (the sky), The Last Mouthful, etc., etc. In order not to lose anything of the affair, he scales the walls, he hoists himself to balconies, he ascends trees, he suspends himself to gratings, he clings fast to chimneys.

Why so much description? There is actually a point to this very protracted aside:

The gamin expresses Paris, and Paris expresses the world.

For Paris is a total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race. The whole of this prodigious city is a foreshortening of dead manners and living manners. He who sees Paris thinks he sees the bottom of all history with heaven and constellations in the intervals. Paris has a capital, the Town-Hall, a Parthenon, Notre-Dame, a Mount Aventine, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, an Asinarium, the Sorbonne, a Pantheon, the Pantheon, a Via Sacra, the Boulevard des Italiens, a temple of the winds, opinion; and it replaces the Gemoniæ by ridicule. Its majo is called “faraud,” its Transteverin is the man of the faubourgs, its hammal is the market-porter, its lazzarone is the pègre, its cockney is the native of Ghent. Everything that exists elsewhere exists at Paris.

Ah.

On Slang:

But then a fabulous aside on slang, I forgive him his aside:

What is slang? It is at one and the same time, a nation and a dialect; it is theft in its two kinds; people and language.

Or do I?

Certainly, too, it is neither an attractive nor an easy task to undertake an investigation into the lowest depths of the social order, where terra firma comes to an end and where mud begins, to rummage in those vague, murky waves, to follow up, to seize and to fling, still quivering, upon the pavement that abject dialect which is dripping with filth when thus brought to the light, that pustulous vocabulary each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast made for the night which has just been torn from its cesspool. One thinks one beholds a frightful, living, and bristling thicket which quivers, rustles, wavers, returns to shadow, threatens and glares. One word resembles a claw, another an extinguished and bleeding eye, such and such a phrase seems to move like the claw of a crab. All this is alive with the hideous vitality of things which have been organized out of disorganization.

Now, when has horror ever excluded study?

I rather like the use of the word pustulous, the swarming horde of words that turns slang into a devilish, monstruous thing. Perhaps its power is simply in being able to fill people like Hugo with horror.

The veritable slang and the slang that is pre-eminently slang, if the two words can be coupled thus, the slang immemorial which was a kingdom, is nothing else, we repeat, than the homely, uneasy, crafty, treacherous, venomous, cruel, equivocal, vile, profound, fatal tongue of wretchedness. There exists, at the extremity of all abasement and all misfortunes, a last misery which revolts and makes up its mind to enter into conflict with the whole mass of fortunate facts and reigning rights; a fearful conflict, where, now cunning, now violent, unhealthy and ferocious at one and the same time, it attacks the social order with pin-pricks through vice, and with club-blows through crime. To meet the needs of this conflict, wretchedness has invented a language of combat, which is slang.

I don’t think Hugo has enough adjectives in there.

So can it get worse? This is Hugo we’re talking about of course….

One perceives, without understanding it, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human accents, but more nearly resembling a howl than an articulate word. It is slang. The words are misshapen and stamped with an indescribable and fantastic bestiality. One thinks one hears hydras talking.

I kind of think someone needed to have told Hugo to fuck right off. And occasionally, as throughout, there are some interesting ideas…

Ideas almost refuse to be expressed in these substantives which are fugitives from justice. Metaphor is sometimes so shameless, that one feels that it has worn the iron neck-fetter.

Shameless metaphors! Let us have more of them. And this, which I quite love rather than abhor.

From a purely literary point of view, few studies would prove more curious and fruitful than the study of slang. It is a whole language within a language, a sort of sickly excrescence, an unhealthy graft which has produced a vegetation, a parasite which has its roots in the old Gallic trunk, and whose sinister foliage crawls all over one side of the language.

Though I think slang may become as much a trunk as other strains of language. Interesting that in France as elsewhere, much of it arises in prisons:

They have taken up the practice of considering society in the light of an atmosphere which kills them, of a fatal force, and they speak of their liberty as one would speak of his health. A man under arrest is a sick man; one who is condemned is a dead man.

but slowly the feeling of it all changes

In the eighteenth century, the ancient melancholy of the dejected classes vanishes. They began to laugh. They rally the grand meg and the grand dab.

If slang is laughter at the upper classes, let us all take it to heart.

On France

Honestly this is a tiny fraction of the pomposities spewing out about France across many a page. All of them sweeping statements of grandeur:

The grandeur and beauty of France lies in this, that she takes less from the stomach than other nations: she more easily knots the rope about her loins. She is the first awake, the last asleep. She marches forwards. She is a seeker.

This arises from the fact that she is an artist.

The ideal is nothing but the culminating point of logic, the same as the beautiful is nothing but the summit of the true. Artistic peoples are also consistent peoples. To love beauty is to see the light. That is why the torch of Europe, that is to say of civilization, was first borne by Greece, who passed it on to Italy, who handed it on to France. Divine, illuminating nations of scouts! Vitaelampada tradunt.

And ah, a dig at America

France has her relapses into materialism, and, at certain instants, the ideas which obstruct that sublime brain have no longer anything which recalls French greatness and are of the dimensions of a Missouri or a South Carolina. What is to be done in such a case? The giantess plays at being a dwarf; immense France has her freaks of pettiness. That is all.

But wait, I am getting into things I like. So I shall stop here.

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