There are few books that give me as much perspective on TODAY’s world as it does on history. There are even fewer books on my must-read list, but Les Miserables is something I encourage EVERYONE to dig into at least once. Sure, you can be swept away by the movie or musical and be done in a few hours. The unabridged version of the book took me six months to get through. But it was worth every minute. It is a thousand short stories in one, each character in its own universe, each historical event described in lively detail that surrounds you with the grit and misery and hope. The musical adaptation barely even touches its depths.
For example, did you know that Jean Valjean was in an adult literacy program in his corrections facility? Those are the politically correct words we would use today, but Victor Hugo did not try to gloss over prison life in his portrait of the dirt cheap labor and unchecked violence pervading the only institution where slavery is still legal. (And the U.S. has enshrined this “permanent underclass” in our own constitution in the 13th amendment) Hugo has an interesting description of Valjean’s corrections education:
“At Toulon [the prison] there was a school for the prisoners conducted by some rather ignorant friars, where the essentials were taught to any of the men who were willing. He [Jean Valjean] was one. At forty he went to school and learned to read, write, and do arithmetic. He felt that to increase his knowledge was to strengthen his hatred. In certain cases, instruction and enlightenment can actually work to underscore the wrong.”
So what’s the solution? Hugo actually calls several times for public education as a solution to grinding poverty, but he makes it clear that revolution or education without God and an ethical concern for the poor is no progress. You see Hugo’s vision very clearly in the first 100 pages of the book, mostly focused on the character of the Bishop of Digne. The movie has just one song from the pious Bishop Bienvenu [“Would you leave the best behind?”], but I can’t get him out of my head lately. I’d love his thoughts on current events, especially the election of a new Pope during March Madness (for example, you can participate by voting in the Sweet Sistine brackets). I just have to laugh to recall how Hugo described the Conclave contrasted with our saintly bishop’s ambitions:
“And as every there are the top brass, in the church there are rich miters. … And then there is Rome. A bishop who can become archbishop, an archbishop who can become a cardinal, leads you to the conclave; you enter into the rota, you have the pallium, there you are an auditor, you ate a chamberlain, you are a monseigneur, and from Grandeur to Eminence there is only one step, and between Eminence and Holiness there is nothing but the smoke of a ballot. Every cowl may dream of the tiara. In our day the priest is the only man who can regularly become a king, and what a king! The supreme king. So, what a nursery of aspirations is a seminary. … Who knows how easily ambition disguises itself under the name of a calling, possibly in good faith and deceiving itself, in sanctimonious confusion.
“Monseigneur Bienvenu, a humble, poor, private person, was not counted among the rich miters. This was plain by the complete absence of young priests around him. … We live in a sad society. Succeed-that is the advice that falls drop by drop from the overhanging corruption.”
Succeed at all costs. Is this the central, pounding drum beat of our education and our religion? Or is there something more to life, some higher calling that asks us to think differently about how society as a whole might progress, especially on behalf of those who are still enslaved in our midst?