Optimism unbounded

  • Sumo

Reading Les Miserables is a lot longer than going to the musical. And it’s full of a lot more (extreme!) detail, including heaps of politics and social theory. That makes sense, since the novel is about the underclass of miserable suffering.

Written in the 1860s, it often harks back to the glories of the French Revolution (1789, but not ignoring the violence of 1793), and Napoleon’s career. It’s not disdainful at all about Christian religion, either. But I’d say the real topic of the novel is the future.

Specifically, how good that future will be, because of human progress. The narrator thinks so. Characters in the novel think so too.

Here are the words of Enjolras at the barricades of 1832, a stirring ‘sermon’ on why they rebel:

Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then, there will be nothing more like the history of old, we shall no longer, as today, have to fear a conquest, an invasion, a usurpation, a rivalry of nations, arms in hand, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, on a birth in heredity tyrannies, a partition of peoples by  congress, a dismemberment because of a failure of a dynasty, a combat of two religions meeting face to face, like two bucks in the dark, on the bridge of the infinite; we shall no longer have to fear famine, farming out, prostitution arising from distress, misery from the failure of work and the scaffold and the sword, and battles and the ruffianism of chance in the forest of events. One might almost say: There will be no more events. We shall be happy.

Well. How did that seem to you?

The long sentence of extended prediction, I think, contains a perfect description of what actually did happen in the happy twentieth century.

There’s a note of warning for us, especially if Christian.

One: never underestimate the serious problem of human sin, it’s not so easy to ‘fix.’ Two: never overestimate the importance of those who believe in progress.