Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"life was a war"

earlier this year I realized that, aside from a couple chapters in high school french class, I'd never read victor hugo's massive les miserables. so I picked up a well-worn copy off the free book table at one of the local libraries and began picking my way through it bit by bit. I've reached somewhere in the 100s--looking at it on the table right now about 1/25th of the way through. the description of jean valjean from book 1 is too contemporary to pass up. (again, my emphases.)

"he was an untutored man...but that is not to say that he was stupid. there was a spark of natural intelligence in him; and adversity, which sheds its own light, had fostered the light slowing dawning in his mind. under the lash and in chains, on fatigue and in the solitary cell, under the burning mediterranean sun and on the prisoner's plank bed, he withdrew into his own conscience and reflected.

"consituting himself judge and jury, he began by trying his own case.

"he admitted that he was not an innocent man unjustly punished. he had committed an excessive and blameworthy act. the loaf of bread [he had stolen] might not have been refused him if he had asked for it, and in any event it would have been better to wait, either for charity or for work. the argument, 'can a man wait when he is half-starved' was not unanswerable, for the fact is that very few people literally die of hunger...he should have had patience, and this would have been better even for the children [for whom he'd stolen the bread]. to attempt to take society by the throat, vulnerable creature that he was, and to suppose that he could escape from poverty through theft, had been an act of folly. in any case, the road leading to infamy was a bad road of escape. he admitted all this--in short, that he had done wrong.

"but then he asked questions.

"was he the only one at fault in this fateful business? was it not a serious matter that a man willing to work should have been without work and without food? and, admitting the offence, had not the punishment been ferocious and outrageous? was not the law more at fault in the penalty it inflicted than he had been in the crime he committed? had not the scales of justice been over-weighted on the side of expiation? and did not this weighting of the scales, far from effacing the crime, produce a quite different result, namely, a reversal of the situation, substituting for the original crime the crime of oppression, making the criminal a victim and the law his debtor, transferring justice to the side of him who had offended against it? did not the penalty...become in the end a sort of assault by the stronger on the weaker, a crime committed by society against the individual and repeated daily...

"he asked himself whether human society had the right to impose upon its members, on the one hand its mindless improvidence and, on the other hand, its merciless providence; to grind a poor man between the millstones of need and excess--need of work and excess of punishment. was it not monstrous that society should treat in this fashion precisely those least favoured in the distribution of wealth, which is a matter of chance, and therefore those most needing indulgence?

"he asked these questions and, having answered them, passed judgement on society.

"he condemned it to his hatred. he held it responsible for what he was undergoing and resolved that, if the chance occured, he would not hesitate to call it to account. he concluded that there was no true balance between the wrong he had done and the wrong that was inflicted on him, and that although his punishment might not be technically an injustice it was beyond question an iniquity.

"anger may be ill-considered and absurd; we may be mistakenly angered; but only when there is some deep-seated reason are we outraged. jean valjean was outraged.

"moreover society as a whole had done him nothing but injury. he had seen nothing of it but the sour face which it calls justice and shows only to those it castigates. men had touched him only to hurt him; his only contact with them had been through blows. frm the time of his childhood, and except for his mother and sister, he had never encountered a friendly word or a kindly look. during the years of suffering he reached the conclusion that life was a war in which he was one of the defeated. hatred was his only weapon, and he resolved to sharpen it in prison and carry it with him when he left."

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