“so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched my fair share of Oscar telecasts and Sunday’s agonizing spectacle I could have done without. Seth MacFarland’s sexist jokes fell flat with me, the opening musical number objectifying and denigrating women was offensive, and the sexualization of that 9 year old girl inappropriate to say the least. Ironically, the high points of the show all featured women: Charlize Theron’s dancing, Shirley Bassey’s triumphant reprise of “Goldfinger,” First Lady Michelle Obama, Adele, and even Barbra Streisand, whom I normally don’t care for.

The best comment about the Oscar program was also by a woman, Brenda Chapman, who won for her animated film “Brave,”: “I’m just a little tired of the fifth-grade school-boy humor. It’s running rampant in Hollywood and I’m over it. Can we move on and be intelligent again?”

What Hugo would have looked like if he had to sit through this year's Oscar show.
What Hugo would have looked like if he had to sit through this year’s Oscar show.

“Les Miserables” won only three Oscars, for supporting actress (Anne Hathaway), sound mixing and make-up. I single out “Les Mis” for the reason that today is the 210th anniversary of the birth of Victor Hugo, who wrote the classic novel the film is based on.

I have to admit that I haven’t seen the film, or the stage production, or even read the book. I have read other works by Hugo, most notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Ninety-Three, along with much of his poetry. I’ve started Les Miserables a number of times, but its length, and the fact that I know it makes numerous digressions from the storyline usually stifles my desire to read it. One of these days, though . . .

From the original edition of Les Misérables (1862).
From the original edition of Les Misérables (1862).

Now, aside from his greatness as a writer, what makes Hugo an interesting historical figure to me is his commitment to championing the rights of society’s downtrodden. In his personal life, Hugo, a leftist, was politically active and published many pamphlets protesting the death penalty and other injustices of French society. I think it is noteworthy that his two most famous characters were a deformed man, the hunchback, and a peasant hunted by a vindictive police officer.

Since most of you have seen Les Miserables, or read it, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Jean Valjean represents humanity purified by its struggle against opression. He’s a bodhisattva-like figure. After his release from prison, he devotes his life to honest work and helping others.

"Starring David Janssen as Dr, Richard Kimble . . ."
“Starring David Janssen as Dr, Richard Kimble . . .”

I feel confident writing about what Valjean represents because I am very familiar with his modern carbon-copy, Dr. Richard Kimble, TV’s “The Fugitive”: “an innocent victim of blind justice . . .  reprieved by fate when a train wreck freed him on route to the death house, freed him to hide in lonely desperation. . .  to toil at many jobs . . . freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture . . .” It’s the same story. And, each week while on the run, Kimble ended up getting involved in the lives of the people he encountered, and he would help them somehow, often putting his freedom at risk in the bargain.

The preface to Les Miserables is famous, and it sums up the spirit embodied by Valjean and Dr. Kimble, and the writer, Victor Hugo:

so long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century – the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labour, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.”

Even now, there is a need for such books as Les Miserables, and one of these days, I’m going to finish it.

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2 thoughts on ““so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth”

  1. I uh, don’t read much so it’s not likely that my first book after such a long break will be Les Mis! I’m trying to read smaller, “easy” books on buddhism that my sister sent me.

    I didn’t watch the oscars so I dont’ know what everyone is all in a twist about but I can say this about that chapman quote. I disagree. There’s all kinds of humor out there. Find what you like and go with it. The kinds you don’t like, for whatever reason, just move on from it then. But to try and stifle any kind of humor sucks the joy out of life for the ones who do enjoy it. SHe may not think some humor is ‘intelligent’ but *shrug * then she doesn’t have to take part in it. LIfe is hard, it’s hard for everyone, let everyone have the humor that tickles them and leave people be.

    1. I agree, up to a point. To each his own. I guess I am at a stage in life where jokes denigrating women no longer seem funny to me. Evidently, quite a few people found the show’s material objectionable.

      It’s a fine line to walk. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock and some others have used offensive humor but to make a larger point. They used offensive humor as a form of social commentary, not just to entertain or get ratings. To me, that’s the difference. You might be interested in reading my post from 2010 on Lenny Bruce, “Talking Dirty”

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