elsane: (waterloo)
[personal profile] elsane
—and all this so that a peasant can say to-day to the traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs, and if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo!



My brick readthrough has hit a temporary halt at “The Atom Fraternizes with the Hurricane” because (1) work and (2) every single paragraph was reducing me to inarticulate flailing while Hugo was still in wide angle discursory mode and I feared for my sanity when named characters hove into view.

So I’m going to start out by talking about the year 1817, because this is where Hugo lights the fuse, and the barricades is where all of the oh dear god what are you on about now discursions come together after their long fuse has burned through Waterloo and argot down to the powder.

The Year 1817! Which chapter I read all the way back in Volume I when I was still feeling industrious about googling every obscure reference, and which broke me of that reflex after the second blinkety-blank paragraph, not least because the references were so obscure not even Google could make heads or tails of them. After enough pages of obscure historical color piled on obscure historical color, I had gone through “what? what?” to ”yes yes you’ve done your research I am duly impressed go on” to “YES FINE you are very connected I GET IT go ON” to “...okay, you know what, I am just going to let this wash over me and enjoy the sense of a vividly loved world, lost.” Which, it transpired two paragraphs later, was the point:

This is what floats up confusedly, pell-mell, for the year 1817, and is now forgotten. History neglects nearly all these particulars, and cannot do otherwise; the infinity would overwhelm it. Nevertheless, these details, which are wrongly called trivial,—there are no trivial facts in humanity, nor little leaves in vegetation,—are useful. It is of the physiognomy of the years that the physiognomy of the centuries is composed. In this year of 1817 four young Parisians arranged “a fine farce.”

And at the end of this chapter, this fine miniature of history as a mosaic of small and forgotten stones, Fantine and her friends embark upon a picnic, as one more small colorful stone among the many that make up Paris, that make up a brightly remembered summer in a world that no longer exists.

The year 1817 is made up of these accidental things, footed trousers and forgotten scandals and the casual, thoughtless betrayals of casual, thoughtless students; the disruption with the young family who lived in the yellow house next door, remember? They moved out, that pretty young woman and her little daughter, only you didn’t say goodbye properly because that was the month when your Michel had his toothache.

That’s history. Cosette will return to Paris in fifteen years, long after you have forgotten your neighbors and everything else about that summer except how hard your Michel had cried. History is Cosette as much as it is Carnot, and financiers waiting for ships, and the petty doings of ducs and cardinals.

Waterloo is about the same question. What makes history? What turns the tide of the battle? Hugo has two answers.

Well, he has more than two — the Waterloo chapters are his masterpiece of self-contradictions. But he has two kinds of answers. Answer the first: it is the will of Providence, turning its face from Napoleon. We’ll come back to that.

Answer the second: what makes history? it is the rain, that prevented the cannon from being moved to the front line, it is a ditch that Napoleon didn’t know existed, it is what the peasant whom Bulow hired forgot to tell him. It is small and trivial things, magnified by circumstance to fatality.

What makes history (says Hugo, on Waterloo) is one detail in one place, that turns one ankle: it is the one nail which, when missing from a horseshoe, makes an entire army fail. There are many nails that have been missing from many horseshoes, and most of the time the worst that happens is the rider stops, swears, and has to reshoe the horse. But sometimes that horseshoe really, really matters.

And, Hugo is at pains to show us: the unpredictable details that move battles are the same unpredictable, merciless details that move his human story as well. Sometimes the corpse you’re trying to rob really, really matters, though you never could have expected it at the time. History is the human and the human is history; there is no distinction between the great and the small.

Does Pontmercy’s indebtedness to Thénardier matter to history, considered grandly, considered as a matter for textbooks? No. What is one dead veteran more or less, especially when the battle has already been won? Even on the personal level, would it have made a great difference? Marius had already been born, Marius would be raised by his grandfather whether his father lived or died.

It matters to Marius, of course, and it matters to Georges Pontmercy, who went on to plant gardens and watch his son grow up, and it doesn’t matter to Thénardier. And because it matters to Marius, our story keeps happening, and because it matters to Marius, Waterloo matters to Marius.

We remember bloody hand prints.

So this, then, is Waterloo: history, the great history that gets written and commemorated, is the unpredictable, uncontrollable result of a concatenation of small stones in a mosaic. Because details matter. History is humanity magnified by circumstance, which is sometimes will and sometimes fluke, and the flip side of this is that what happens to individual human beings is history, too, whether or not it is written down.

What else is Waterloo? Because Hugo is not just here to inform us why Napoleon Deserved It.

Waterloo is the story of many people, not just Napoleon, and not just Blucher, or Wellington. The battle is the story of the dead men in the well, of the soldiers that died defending one redoubt or another, to whom Hugo gives as many names as he can; it is the story of the cavalrymen who charged over a ridge into a death trap; it is the story of valiant and dying Englishmen and Scotsmen and Prussians as it is the story of valiant dying Frenchmen; it is the story of conscripted peasant guides as it is the story of great generals; it is decades of strategic thinking brought low by an unforseen overhang of sod.

And it is about defeat.

This is two-pronged. Why did Napoleon lose, answer number one? (Answer number two being, the chaos theory of history, above.) Napoleon lost because in his arrogance he bled France dry and “annoyed God” with his solipsism, and this tyranny cannot be sustained forever. I said we’d come back to this, and here we are:

The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the balance. This individual alone counted for more than a universal group. These plethoras of all human vitality concentrated in a single head; the world mounting to the brain of one man,—this would be mortal to civilization were it to last. The moment had arrived for the incorruptible and supreme equity to alter its plan. […] Smoking blood, over-filled cemeteries, mothers in tears,—these are formidable pleaders. When the earth is suffering from too heavy a burden, there are mysterious groanings of the shades, to which the abyss lends an ear.

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.

Hold this thought a bit longer, and with it hold the thought of kings.

Waterloo is about defeat, second aspect: Who wins the battle of Waterloo, in Hugo’s rendition? It is not the English. It is the otherwise unremarkable soldier Cambronne who, when his ammunition has run out and his enemies have surrounded him, wields a gun like a club and stares into the mouths of cannons and invites the shots to kill him. And who loses? In fifteen minutes a thousand brave men die, on all sides, over, and over, and over again.

And here when I read about Cambronne I was already thinking of Enjolras folding his arms in the wreck of the Café Corinth. (And of Enjolras aiming deliberately at a man Combeferre calls his brother. Enjolras, both terrible and sublime.) The fall of Cambronne’s last French Legion is rendered in pointed and painful prefiguration of the fall of the barricade on the Chanvrerie.

And what remains of Waterloo? The mark of a cannonball, pointed out to tourists; a memorial, on a battlefield which has now been entirely transformed from its lost historic form (compare Paris, the whole city of Paris, loved and lost beneath Hausmann’s wholesale urban reconstitution); and an obligation, passed from father to son, the human legacy of Waterloo and the glorious, lost imperial past. History is detail, history is living, history is day to day accreted upon itself.

So now on to argot. Argot! (or: where my inarticulate squeakings start to really set in.) The major point of this digression is to hammer home that history is not just the daily doings of the great, it is the story of the anonymous and of small and common names, it is the aggregated will and experience of the unremarked.

No one is a good historian of the patent, visible, striking, and public life of peoples, if he is not, at the same time, in a certain measure, the historian of their deep and hidden life; and no one is a good historian of the interior unless he understands how, at need, to be the historian of the exterior also. The history of manners and ideas permeates the history of events, and this is true reciprocally.

As a modern amateur historian, I jump up and down and say, yes, yes, social history! As a reader - history is in the small echoes and grace notes as much as it is in the great thumping theme; history is every tiny stone in the great mosaic. History is Fantine as much as it is Louis-Philippe. The battle is every stone and every detail hurled together into a great and enduring storm of coincidence and loss.

History is a carpenter named Lombier, it is an argumentative worker named Mavot who died on a different barricade, it is Filspierre who is only remembered for distributing ammunition.

History is Mabeuf, gone out without a book.

History is an unnamed man with a red beard tasked with the responsibility to call for riot, it is an anonymous and well dressed man dispensing money to the men arming the barricades on Rue des Ménétriers.

History is an insurgent dubbed Apollo, executed in anger after a protracted fight, and a balding man shot dead next to a young man with a mirror, an insurgent stabbed to death while he was trying to doctor the wounded, a rebel who died without his hat, a spy shot unlawfully behind the lines, a slender young man shot outside the barricade.

History says (Waterloo says) the revolution of 1832 failed partly because it rained.

History also says (Waterloo says): no tyrant can stay enthroned forever.

Returning to 1817:

History neglects nearly all these particulars, and cannot do otherwise; the infinity would overwhelm it. Nevertheless, these details, which are wrongly called trivial,—there are no trivial facts in humanity, nor little leaves in vegetation,—are useful. It is of the physiognomy of the years that the physiognomy of the centuries is composed.

And so: les Amis de l’ABC are a group that only almost became historic; they are, as Fantine is, as Valjean is, as Javert is, small and unremarked stones in the great mosaic; but history is this, history is nothing more and nothing less than this, and nothing can possibly be greater, no Emperor, and no calling, than to love your fellow humans, and to be free.

This terrifying wall of text has been brought to you by my inability to turn the page and read about bright beloved characters going to march off and die.



(I am tempted to post this one on AO3, actually, now that meta is apparently ok there, but I'm torn -- I'm not sure whether people actually want AO3 to be a meta archive.)
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