elsane: (waterloo)
[personal profile] elsane
Ugh, I have fallen down on crossposting. (I suspect I really only have time to manage presence on one platform. This is...not optimal.)

Here are a collection of live!brick reaction posts, mostly for archival purposes, because (1) oh Tumblr, and (2) I suspect anyone reading me on Les Misérables over here has already read this on Tumblr anyway. (But if anyone is interested enough to want to respond, please do!)

I’ve been trying to like Marius this time around, with some mild success, but I am starting to lose patience with him. Marius, you are so interminably bad at life! Marius, you make all your problems worse for yourself! Marius, you are indulged by the narrative and rescued by plot and girl rather than by getting your head out of your ass!

He’s remarkably human and well-drawn, which I appreciate this time, but I think I’d like him better if he weren’t the protagonist. He’s an amazingly passive protagonist, and mostly drives the story by getting ahold of the wrong end of the stick. (Arguably this only strengthens the reading where Marius is a stand-in for France-at-large.)

There must be ways to write effectively about a protagonist with major depression, but I don’t think that having him swept along by External Plot is the best one, no matter how thematically and symbolically appropriate it might be.

...wait, Hugo, did you just call Carl Maria von Weber the pinnacle of musical excellence?

Between that and several chapters in a row of your Thoughts on Teenage Girls Iiiii think I’m done for the night. the fact that it’s 1:30 AM has nothing to do with it

A Selected List of Topics Upon Which Hugo and I Have Decided Differences of Opinion

  • Atheism
  • Octopi
  • The extent to which it is romantic to be an elderly invalid dependent on your nearest relative or vice versa
  • Carl Maria von Weber
  • The extent to which it is romantic to be Marius
  • Teenage girls as considered in the abstract
  • Infinite set theory


I’ve just finished the Argot digression.

Admittedly the first chapter was hard going. For one thing, I had been happily immersed in the plot, and was exhausted by the thought of hitting yet another speed bump (though really I should have been relieved, as I have been purposefully dragging my feet to delay the cloudburst of deaths, and this is much more readable than Marius’ love poetry.) For another, I don’t trust Hugo as a linguist any more than I trust him as a historian, and keeping my brain open to the prose while simultaneously consulting the running plaus-o-meter after every sentence gets taxing. And, for a third, this is the part of the book where I think I miss the most by not being a native Francophone. I would be fascinated by the analogue of this passage in English.

But this book shakes me, in the best of ways. Set aside the apologies to the prejudices of the day on one hand and the subscription to the linear trajectory of history on the other as necessary obeisances, and it is utterly contemporary and utterly relevant. This book argues passionately for social history long before the academy conceived of it as a discipline, it lays out an articulate defense for the descriptive side in the (ongoing!) prescriptive versus descriptive linguistic debates, and everything here works as an indictment of American politics now as much as it does of the French in the 1860s.

The timelessness alone of this book breaks my heart.

“He who says light does not, necessarily, say joy. People suffer in the light; excess burns. The flame is the enemy of the wing. To burn without ceasing to fly — therein lies the marvel of genius.”

This, for Hugo, is a koan. I have said, elsewehere (hi artificialities!), that one of the really striking things about Hugo for me is that he gives you thesis and antithesis but deliberately refrains from synthesis: his ultimate message is, look, we contradict ourselves, but at the end of the day we are all human, and what are you going to do about it? And here he says, and for the first time: We need light, we need the absolute, but humanity cannot dwell in the absolute. Revolution verges on Jacquerie and kills as it transfigures. We must expect dilution.

This chapter is where Hugo sketches out, for the first time, that there is a third way, between communism and monarchy, between tyranny and the mob.

And here, for the first time, in a narrative which has been characterized more by conviction than by consistency, I feel that the narrator doubts. This is the first chapter where the narrator questions whether the future will arrive, whether the third way he sees can be taken. It’s no coincidence that the third way is the compromise, the human, the messy balance that is moderation (which can be as absolute as either extreme, but only after completing the koan). And here, for the first time, I feel myself wholly in accord. We must believe, as collective action is the only way forward, as only our will to believe in each other can take us from one game-theoretical local minimum to a better one, as our rights we can only guarantee with our own blood and nerves; but it is a deliberate and willed choice to do so, a delicate negotiation to place our faith consciously in something which is — explicitly — human, and in the face of doubt, because the alternative is inadmissible. Faith and the paradox of faith builds upon itself in both directions. (hernaniste, when I am done with La Brique and you are no longer sick of your thesis, I want to talk about this at great length. /horrible threat)

So why I am writing this: it is because the rhetoric of this book is brilliant and it hurts, because it is written in the hope that humanity goes ever upwards, and it doesn’t: four thousand years ago, now, a century and a half later, we are still here, muddling around in the eternal fertile mire of the human condition. “One can perish from being undermined as well as from being struck by lightning”: this is America, today. “On the part of the selfish, the prejudices, shadows of costly education, appetite increasing to intoxication, a giddiness of prosperity which dulls, a fear of suffering which, in some, goes as far as an adversion for the suffering, an implacable satisfaction, the I so swollen that it bars the soul”; this is America, today. I read my classmates going to Wall Street in this, and I am angry. Nothing has changed.

And yet, everything has changed: I am a woman, and I have a career, and I vote, and I hold property in my own name; I am white, and I am married to someone who isn’t, and this would have been illegal 50 years ago in most states in my country; I hold autonomy over my own life, and no matter how far we have to come this is still true, and no matter how true it is, I have to keep fighting to make sure it stays so, not only for myself but for everyone. The only way forward is to believe, a willed decision in the face of all evidence, in the teeth of doubt. And here, for once, Hugo and I are entirely in agreement.

“Those who vote, reign”: go register to vote, everyone! and then do so!


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