Notes on “Les Miserable”

Abusus non tollit usum: an abuse of something doesn’t rule out the proper use.   We know that’s a long-recognized rule of logic because it has a pedantic Latin phrase.  That means the rule is older than your language and mine, which makes it amazing that artists, who should be learned and nuanced enough for this distinction, muff it everyday.

In the movie “Les Miserable”, there’s no effort to distinguish between the just penalty of the law and the abuse of the law.   We sympathize with Jean Valjean precisely because in his case the Law has not been just.  The original sentence – 5 years for stealing bread, then many more years for “running” – we all instinctively agree is inhumane.

What if he had recieved a reasonable sentence for stealing bread and served it out?  Would we have a bone to pick with “the law” then?  No?  So the problem is not “law”, or “justice”, in themselves, but law as an instrument of injustice.  Misused law.  That’s an important distinction.

So the dichotomy that runs through the rest of the plot is a false choice.  We are supposedly presented a repeated choice between the law and grace, but the choice is actually between a specific abuse of the law and a specific  grace.  This grace is just the kindness to undo this man’s injustice,  which is wonderful for those who are oppressed.  But not yet a picture of law and grace as told in the Bible.

The distinction is important because the grace of God in Jesus is given to people who DESERVE their sentence of death.  We don’t grasp the grandeur of Jesus as grace unless we first grasp the The Law of God is not unjust.

Further: is law, unjustly applied, really law at all?  Just because humans make bad laws or give other humans too much power in the name of law- is this a comment at all on the essence of law itself, or on the Law of God, or on justice and its relation to grace? Or are we simply abusing language?

Abusing language.

So the portrait of Jalvert as a man of justice is just a man deceived.  I suspect he is intended to represent Old Testament man.  I thought I heard echos from Psalms in his lyrics in the scene where he walks by himself gazing up at the stars.  But this is not Old Testament man, as represented for example in David (the Psalmist himself).  It is the caricature of Old Testament man only possible in this age when few understand those texts.

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Jalvert dies differently in the stage play than in the movie, and the change is important.  In the play, when he is freed by Jean, who could have killed him, he cannot receive grace and continue to live.   He goes right out, like Judas in the gospels, and kills himself.

But in the movie he doesn’t kill himself at that point.  He returns later, back in his prosecutor’s uniform, and traps Jean in the sewer like a doomed rat.  But when he can’t shoot Jean, at the moment of victory, this failure to follow the rigor of the law shatters his purpose.  He gives grace, then kills himself.

You catch that change?  In the play he can’t receive grace and survive.  In the movie he can’t give it and survive.  Not a minor change.

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In addition to this confusion about Grace vs. Law, there is another:  Private Love versus Public Revolution.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” – The culmination of the plot’s questions, ostensibly.   If the purpose of life is to love, then what does the story even mean?

Consider the ending scene of the movie:  is “tomorrow” just a bigger, and so successful, revolution?  All the dead are united on the grand barricade, all the friends are back together, and they sing the “song of angry men” together in the next and happy life.  But the soldiers aren’t there.  Are the only ones redeemed by tomorrow the ones who are on our side?  If so, do we just love the people who fight with us in the revolution?

How did Fantine make it to this tomorrow?  She who had sang “tomorrow never comes”?   By love and grace?  But, then,  how did the revolutionaries make it to this tomorrow?  By death in battle.  How do these fit together?

And what does “love” mean in this story?  We know it means different things to different people, and the meaning might even change from moment to moment for each of us.

If “love” means the experience of romantic love, then political repression might make it impossible for you to love, and so deprive you of life’s meaning, and so justify the need to throw off your political chains by violence.   But if “love” means  to commit yourself to the good of others, why would…slavery, even, prevent that?

For Jean Valjean, “love” was closer to the “agape” of the New Testament…if so, then it is possible to love while yet politically repressed.  Don’t the two themes of the plot, the two things that are glorified – love and revolution – explicitly contradict each other?

Some will say that to seek another’s good requires action, including political action, even violent revolution, because vulnerable people can be so imprisoned by society that they cannot be meaningfully loved.  Fantine is driven into the abject slavery of prostitution, trapped between class barriers and her own love for her child.  Fantine is on the streets, beaten, raped, used like a rag.  How am I to love her if I leave her there?  Freeing her might well require violence, and preventing a million Fantine’s might well require revolution.

I can see the argument but I don’t trust it in the actual mouths I’ve heard it from, the mouths of those most zealous politicos I’ve observed in my small slice of human history.   Power corrupts, and the drive to get power is the strongest hallucinogen.  It’s too easy to collect these compassion arguments like scraps of lead and melt them into your drive for power.  Did the revolutionaries in France and Russia unchain the wretched, or did they simply tear the whip out of ancestral grips to admire its heft and cut?

Les Miserable contains much Gospel.  But the superficial and bad conclusions fly so fast and thick it’s hard to see the Gospel through the fog.

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