Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Faith, Ambiguity, and "The Scum of the Earth"

One has to wonder how so many people can shell out so much money to see a musical version of Les Misérables and remain oblivious to the social conditions immediately around them (often right outside the door of the theater building in which they have seen the show). It may well be that the dazzle of the spectacle provide the ultimate distraction from those elements of plot and character that provide the backbone of Victor Hugo's original novel, meaning that Aristotle was probably on the right track when he was as dismissive of Spectacle as he was in his "Poetics" study. After all, if an author composes a fiction in the hope that his reader will reflect on the nature of his plot and characters, then the subordination of those elements might be perceived as an act of betrayal. However, if we have become a society that is simply not disposed to reflection, even in the stuff of our entertainment, then it should be no surprise that the superficiality of spectacle is all that matters and that the only readers likely to reflect on an author's texts are other authors.

Among those authors who have reflected specifically upon Les Misérables, Mario Vargas Llosa may be one of the most interesting, simply because he has been as active in the world of politics as in the world of literature. It is thus rather exciting to see that his relatively brief book of reflections on this novel has now been translated into English by John King and published by Princeton University Press under the English title, The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. The temptation that Vargas Llosa addresses is the tendency to confuse the "reality" fabricated by fiction with the historical reality of the past or the "real reality" of the present, a topic that is sure to warm the hearts of postmodernists, if no one else.

What interested me more than Vargas Llosa's thesis, however, was the way Graham Robb addressed it in reviewing this book for The New York Review. Part of his strategy is to situate Hugo the author in his own context of historical reality to provide a lens through which to examine his fictive reality. One particular sentence in Robb's analysis jumped out at me from the page I was reading:

It was on the barricades of June 1848 that Hugo discovered the terrible truths that one can follow the dictates of one's conscience and yet not be on the side of good, and that the relatively straightforward path of political action can be just as ambiguous as a novel.

It is hard to imagine anyone today writing the second half of that compound sentence without some gut-level awareness of the "path of political action" that has led an entire country into Iraq on the basis of "the dictates of one's conscience." To suggest that following such dictates would not necessarily "be on the side of good" is to apply the perceptions of literary criticism to expose the tragic flaws of a faith-based policy. One assumes that most of the policy-makers who have mired us in Iraq have all now been to at least one black-tie affair around a performance of Les Misérables. On the other hand it is hard to believe that many (if any) of them have approached Hugo's original text with the reflection that any author deserves, let alone the sort of reflection that has been mustered by Vargas Llosa, let alone by Robb's joint reflections on both Hugo and Vargas Llosa!

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