Les Miserables : Magnum Opus of Victor Hugo

Finally completed, the almost two years long arduous journey of reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I used a penguin classics version translated to English by Norman Denny. It was quite a difficult read for a non-native english speaker but I was able to appreciate the words painstakingly selected so as to make the translated version maybe as rich as the original. I haven’t read the original french version (would love to if I could master french one day)  but each sentence in this translation was rich with vivid imagery.

I had started reading this novel back in the August of 2017 when I had just arrived in Bangalore for my internship. I had planned to finish this within 3-4 months. But external circumstances coupled with the frequent digressions by Hugo to War scenes, French history, discourses on monastery life, parisian sewers etc. made this into a long journey of two years. Many times, I felt like just leaving this book and starting with something else which would be an easier and more interesting read. I did read some smaller books in between. But somehow managed to find the strength to go back to this giant after every small reading detour. One thing is sure, this novel rewards every patient reader with profound experiences as I realized quite a few times along the journey and particularly after I read the Part five.

Hugo is a blessed writer for sure as the aphorisms, analogies and metaphors that his pen churns out have the power to penetrate to the depths of your being. The entire novel is speckled with aphorisms that testify to the fact that above all things and at all times, Hugo is a romantic poet.

Coming to the story, the scene where Bishop Myriel hands over the silver candlesticks to Jean Valjean and says “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good” is the most touching scene of the novel for me. The transformation that happens in Jean Valjean as he finally realizes his wretchedness and the greatness of the kindness shown by Bishop drives the story thereafter. The central message that Hugo seems to have wanted to convey from this episode can be captured by this beautiful thought posed as a question : “Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine, indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and flame into glorious flame, and which evil can quite extinguish?“.  The transformation of Valjean is a testament to Hugo’s belief that every act of kindness has a transformative potential in it and that the progress of humanity rests on acknowledging the power of kindness and mercy. Throughout, the novel we can see Hugo ridiculing the guillotine, that oppressive and barbaric device devised by mankind to eliminate those it considered going against the law. Hugo takes no sides while speaking of the guillotine, he condemns all those who used it cutting across the political spectrum.

Hugo believed strongly in the power of knowledge or education to positively transform an individual and thus become a contributor in human progress. He says, “If there is anything more poignant than a body dying for lack of food, it is a mind dying for lack of light“. Hugo seems to have believed that a utopian world is just in the horizon where everyone would be educated, poverty will be eradicated and everyone would be rich. Sadly, such a state of world has not arrived even after 150 years of the novel. But yes we should continue to strive for it even though knowing that such a world may never be realized on earth because of human weakness. We should continue to do whatever we can to make it possible.

This novel will always remember a classic for it tries to lay bare the truth that human progress cannot be achieved without mercy and kindness because ultimately our God is merciful and kind. Justice without mercy may lead nowhere, for justice is fulfilled in rightful mercy. Both have to be balanced properly. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “Mercy is what moves us toward God, while justice makes us tremble in his sight“.

As long as ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.

 

Albert Camus: Some thoughts on the Myth of Sisyphus

sisyphus

I had been planning to read this book for the past one month.I had earlier read one of Camus best works,’The Stranger’. ‘The Stranger’ was about the meaninglessness of life.

Similarly, Myth of Sisyphus is about the absurdity we encounter daily in our lives. According to Albert Camus,  the absurdity is created by the rift between what we expect from life and what it offers. The essay on Absurd reasoning starts by formulating the importance of the book- “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. Yes, having experienced suicidal thoughts myself, I can relate to this problem. It is one of the quintessential problems of life. A day comes in every man’s life when he will ask himself “Why should I live?”. He will look at the pointless drama unfolding in front of him and see all the sufferings, the inevitability of death. As Camus says there is nostalgia in every human, i think what he meant by this nostalgia is a craving for meaning, a craving for coherence and order, a craving for something that will make everything lucid.Even though Camus does not like to be labelled as an existentialist, the problem he is pondering is fundamentally an existential problem.

There are two main points that Camus was trying to express through these collection of essays :-

  • Life is meaningless and there is no point in trying to escape it by taking refuge under the mask of religion or absolute reason.
  • Even though life is meaningless ,it does not imply that you should quit your life. There is a middle way .

Camus illustrates the middle way through the Greek legend of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned by the Gods to push a large rock up a mountain, only to see it roll downwards from the peak. Sisyphus has to repeat this process of pushing the rock up, eternally. Somehow, the Gods considered hopeless and futile labor as the harshest punishment possible. Camus argues that our life is similar to this punishment. Despite this unceasing ordeal, Sisyphus concludes that “All is Well”.

But how does Sisyphus conclude that “All is Well”? Well, Camus says that “Crushing truths perish from being acknowledged”. Camus further adds that, Sisyphus silent joy is in knowing that, even though he has an inevitable and despicable future, he is the master of his fate. In other words saying that, he can make himself happy and conclude that all is well.

Camus ends his essay with the same lyrical eloquence that he maintained throughout , “Each atom of that stone,each mineral flake of that night filled mountain,in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So Can we really imagine Sisyphus happy?

I can’t. And, I don’t think anyone can, without taking a leap that Camus objected to from the beginning. By suggesting that our hearts can be filled without meaning, Camus seems to be undermining the nostalgia that he himself found overflowing in his heart. I think it is not wise to let our hearts settle for just the passions of the earth, I think we should go further and take the leap of faith. After all, the nostalgia won’t exist if the passions of the earth were enough to satisfy our desires. As I have experienced in my own life, the leap of faith becomes more rational only after the leap. I think God has placed in every human heart a yearning for him,a yearning for perfect love,truth and beauty and, this is what Camus identifies as the nostalgia. As C.S.Lewis says “Only God can satisfy us completely,there is no happiness outside of him”.

One thing is clear from reading Albert Camus Novels, every man has a desire for meaning and without a leap of faith, life appears absurd, hopeless and meaningless. Camus thinks that hope is a refuge of the coward who wants to run away from the tragedy. I consider hope us an anti-absurd-ant, hope does not ease the sufferings of life, it only provides the illumination of meaning.The leap, similarly provides the holistic meaning ,the leap of truth is not for the faint-hearted, for its a call to greatness, a call to let go of all ego and embrace divine humility. What Camus settles for is the romanticized version of the absurd, he somehow feels that acknowledging the anguish and romanticizing it, will help every man leave happily. I find no merit in it.