A lot of people have seen Les Miserables the musical, now a lot of people have seen Les Miserables the film, and some, like me, will also have attempted Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel. I was heartened to read that even Tom Hooper, the director of the film version, didn’t manage to read every word! Like me, he found some of the digressions into things like convents (why they aren’t a good thing) and a full blow, by blow description of the Battle of Waterloo (which happens before the action of the novel and only has a small minor incident to add to the plot),a few thousand words too far.
However, some of the digressions are more material to the subject of the book:
Hugo deals with the horrors of being poor, of being an outcast in an unremittingly unforgiving system – Fantine falls foul of this and Jean Valjean (eventually) triumphs over it – but only by becoming part of that system. The character of Marius is more interesting. In some of his interviews about the part, Eddie Redmayne has pointed out that the character of Marius is not quite as straightforward as the original musical version suggests. In the film there has been the opportunity to bring in a bit more of the original story. In this Marius is the grandchild of a bourgeois grandee, he breaks away from his family (and all the comforts associated with it) to join the Revolution and to live as a ‘common person’. However he falls in love with Cossette (who has gone on the opposite journey from impoverished urchin to well off bourgeoise maiden) and in marrying her returns to the ‘class’ he came from.
One of the chapters that readers of Hugo’s novel might be tempted to skip is a long disquisition on the Bourgeoisie. I found it fascinating, echoing as it did my earlier blog posting about Zombie-Citizens. In Hugo’s description of the bourgeois grandfather of Marius he paints a picture of high conservatism, of money and acceptance by one’s peers being of greater value than love or free-thought. That do be exceptional is to be an outcast. That everything must be in moderation and everything must support the status-quo (assuming that the status-quo is one that supports high conservatism and the rights of the bourgeois). Although in Hugo’s time this related to a very specific class of people, he does show later in the novel the people of Paris shutting up their shutters against the revolutionaries and refusing them aid. These are not so much the Haute but the common bourgeoisie – equally keen not to become embroiled in anything outside the realm of their day to day lives, equally keen to preserve what they have, rather than explore what they might have. This is where the parallel lies with our own society today.
Few of the ancient class divisions remain in British society – but that does not mean there are no divisions. There are workers – the huge majority of the population work and the scale on which they are paid for that work divides us. Again the majority ‘get along’ and the minority live high (but often work hard for it). There is an even smaller number of actual aristocrats still living off their estates and investments. However, we no longer accord power to lineage – only to money and means of making it. There is also a minority who don’t work, who live off government handouts – most of these fall in and out of the worker category on a regular basis, a minority (probably as small as the aristocrats) will never work.
So the majority is us – the workers – scraping along – some more comfortably than others. And the majority of this majority are in essence bourgeois – zombie citizens who take no interest and make no effort unless it directly relates to threats to their own comfort and aspirations (for a larger house to accommodate their two children, or a bigger, faster car). They take no interest either in society as a whole, or even in the smaller community of the towns or areas they live in – unless again whatever changes proposed adversely effect their own lives. They are not interested in politics, the environment (although they may reluctantly recycle as they need to fit in) or inequalities that affect other people.
The minority of the workers, with a few of the non-workers and quite possibly a few of the aristocrats and even the high-living-workers – will care – will seek to actively change things for the better, but how can they ever succeed? How could the revolution of Les Miserables ever have hoped to succeed? Not just outnumbered by the forces of the government but also outnumbered by the forces of indifference. The answer then, for any revolution – whether of government or simply (more importantly) of thought – to succeed – is to activate the zombies – to cure them of their zombie-dom and to build the group of active citizens from minority to majority.
But if they are not interested in taking part how can we do this? Won’t we always be preaching to the converted with our protest marches, our documentaries, our occupations? On the whole yes. Or the zombies will merely spectate, shaking their heads (or nodding them) but not taking part. So we need to reach them through something they do take part in – culture – low or high – it is consumed, it is part of ‘normal’ behaviour, it insidiously affects the psyche and the imagination – no wonder our current government is trying to take it right off the menu!
We need to fight (fellow revolutionaries) to keep culture alive and kicking and relevant – keep it working to subliminally convert the zombie citizen to the active citizen.
I’ve set up the Possible Theatre Collective to do this – what are you doing?