The Ellesmere Book Club met for it’s second time on Sunday. We’re halfway through the 1,500 page book of Les Misérables. Let me write about our thoughts on month two. (And yes, some of these are my own thoughts woven in that we didn’t necessarily discuss).
One of the main themes of discussion on Sunday was that Victor Hugo, who believed in God, weaves a fascinating story of details both large and small that come together to prove the “Infinite” is at work. To Hugo, God was at work in all things, and he shows this both nationally and individually.
Nationally, an example of Hugo showing God’s work is when he discusses the Battle of Waterloo. This is a section most people skip entirely or skim. I found it very intriguing. I’ve always been fascinated with soldiers and what they go through during war. One of my papers in college was on All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. In searing language, Remarque describes a soldier in World War I and what it’s like to be in the trenches. His prose chillingly depicts the agonies soldiers faced. I also enjoyed Band of Brothers, an HBO series that depicts soldiers during World War II in a tragically lyrical way. Hugo reminded me of Remarque because he paints a vivid picture of the Battle of Waterloo.
Take, for instances, this excerpt:
If there is a reality that surpasses our worst dreams, it is this: to live, to see the sun, to be in full possession of manly vigor, to have health and joy, to laugh heartily…to love; to have mother, wife, children, to have sunlight, and suddenly, in less time than it takes to cry out, to plunge into an abyss, to fall, to roll, to rush, to be crushed…to feel your sword useless, men under you, horses over you, to struggle in vain, your bones broken by some kick in the darkness…and to say, “Just then I was a living man!” (Section “Cosette,” Book One: “Waterloo,” XIX)
Wow. War is a sobering, terrifying thing. Never should it be taken lightly.
Anyway, I digressed from my main point. In this section, Hugo shows the hand of God during the battle. He describes how it begins to rain, which causes the ditch to sink when the Napoleon’s Calvary charges against the British. Help arrived for Wellington when he most needed it. And various other subtle blows that did Napoleon in.
Might it have been possible for Napoleon to win the battle? We answer no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blücher? No. Because of God….It was time for this titan to fall. (Section “Cosette,” Book One: “Waterloo,” IX)
Individually, Hugo shows the hand of God in Jean Valjean’s life. He is put in prison a second time, but escapes. He finds Cosette, and the little child’s love is just what he needs to heal.
The coming of this man and his participation in this child’s destiny had been the coming of God…
…He loved, and he grew strong again. (Section “Cosette,” Book Four: “The Old Gorbeau House”, III)
When Cosette and he flee from Javert the rigid lawman, Valjean is saved by scaling the wall of a convent in the nick of time. There, he is able to stay and rest and be safe from the police.
And then he reflected that two houses of God had received him in succession at the two critical moments in his life….His whole heart melted in gratitude and he loved more and more. (Section “Cosette,” Book Eight: “Cemeteries Take What Is Given Them,” IX)
Hugo has often been criticized for his use of accidents and coincidences in Les Misérables. Yet to his understanding of how the world worked, there were no simple accidents. The Infinite was always working. There is always a purpose. And Jean Valjean was caught up in the Infinite. Until his story was done, his purpose fulfilled and life cut short, he would be assisted and protected by God. Nothing is happenstance.
In Hugo’s day and age, many had given up on God for humanism and progress (sound like today?). Yet to Hugo, God and religion had a place in the modern world. And in fact, religion was the only thing Hugo saw that could truly bring about progress. Philosophy and science and progress should point to the Infinite, the ideal, which was God.
Wisdom is a sacred communion. It is upon that condition that it ceases to be sterile love of science and becomes the one and supreme method by which to rally humanity; from philosophy it is promoted to religion.
Philosophy is not to be a mere watchtower built on mystery, from which to gaze on it at ease, with no other thought than to be a convenience for the curious….
We do not comprehend either man as a starting point or progress as the goal, without the two great driving forces, faith and love.
Progress is the aim, the ideal is the model.
What is the ideal? It is God. (Section “Cosette,” Book Eight: “Cemeteries Take What Is Given Them,” VI) (Emphasis mine)
Strange to me that even with modern antagonism towards God/religion, Les Mis still captures the hearts of many. I actually was taken aback at how religious the movie was in tone when I saw it. Yet people still love it. Tears are stirred in ways we can’t explain. I cried five or six times in the movie when I saw it, and I could hardly understand the emotions coursing through me.
Why is this? I truly believe we ache when we read the book, we ache when we listen to the musical because our souls ache. In Les Mis, we see the beauty and complexity of the human soul–of faith, of justice, of grace, of mercy, of love, or religion…of God. When we throw away God, we throw away the deepest part of us. Maybe Les Mis stirs something in us, even in the most hardened of atheist….something of the Infinite. The Ideal.
Something of God.