An old refrain has been reborn of late with startling potency. From talk show hosts to gubernatorial hopefuls, everyone has taken to quoting the Constitution or more precisely its first line: “We take these truths to be self-evident.” What truths? No matter. The refrain alone and its ironclad logic can push any platform, from bashing “Obamacare” and immigration rights to preserving birth control and public education. This sleight-of-hand in the name of Truth-telling is nothing new. In a long tradition of comic satire, from Shakespeare to Swift and Voltaire to Twain, writers have skewed familiar facts in the hopes of prompting a response. The most popular attempt at retelling History in our day is Victor Hugo’s best-seller of 1862 or rather its Broadway spinoff, now in its 26th year, Les Miz. If people were reading Hugo, things might not be so bad. But given that the vast majority of Americans no longer have the stamina to take on the 2,000-page original, we should be concerned. The message of Les Miz is bad for America.
Hugo’s novel Les Misérables revolves around the “self-evident” truth of human equality. Seventy years after the seismic shock of 1789, the French state had still failed to remake the judiciary into a system that would protect its citizens from arbitrary imprisonment, not to mention its failure to build open institutions of public education and social welfare. Solidarity is the goal of Les Misérables. Hugo assumed that the Revolution’s legacy of liberty and equality could be achieved through legislation and he weaves advice on such matters throughout the novel; but more important for him—and more tragic for his characters—was the unrealized promise of fraternity. The French Revolution rode on hopes that one day, people would realize that they need each other and so they would learn to care for one another despite differences in class, age, gender, or politics. The novel abounds in vignettes of hands touching hands, as coins, crusts of bread, and clothing change hands between the poor and the poorer, but beyond the Catholic Church (which sometimes has to be prodded into charity) there is no social net to catch any of them. Once Gavroche is slaughtered on the barricade, the people he once helped will likely starve.
If Les Miz had picked up on this theme, it may have had some redeeming value for American audiences today. The play as we know it, however, highlights a conventional love story, foregrounds the domestic drama, and warns against civic involvement. Hero Jean Valjean is portrayed as a long-suffering scapegoat of social injustice and his nemesis Javert skulks around behind him in suitably sinister fashion for no apparent reason. The tear-jerking tale of child Cosette, whose forlorn expression and wistful song have become synonymous with the story, overwhelms the larger plot even though it occupies only one-quarter of the book. Why does this matter? Because, beyond the “The Simpsons,” Les Miz is one of the few monuments on our cultural landscape that has the potential to bridge the generations, the classes, and the races that make up American society today. Twenty-six years later, the show is still playing to houses packed with families, school children, and more mature theater-goers. Yet with its scenes of thrilling young radicals running headfirst into an ill-conceived, suicidal clash with the army, it deals a cold blow to community activism. Who wants to fight, when activism=death?
Moreover there is an ambiguity in the word misérables. A misérable can be someone suffering from poverty and who is thus worthy of kindly pity, or it can designate someone whose indigence is a target for contempt. This wobbly signifier has a lot to do with why people liked the novel back in 1862 and, I think, why people still like it today. It has a lot to do with why the author tried so hard to argue for solidarity as a solution to the ills he portrayed, too. Hugo wanted Les Misérables to be a political document. Although he stops short of laying out a workable program for social reform, in its celebration of democratic action, it presents a paean to the working man and a visionary platform for social justice that later generations molded into policy during the Third, Fourth and Fifth Republics (policies which are currently under attack by the Right.) With its razzle-dazzle barricade scenes and tear-jerking adieux, Les Miz captures the excitement of hand-to-hand combat and the starry-eyed radicalism of its young characters—a virtue not to be underestimated in our cynical times. But in its conventional focus on the love stories and individual destinies of its principals, it ultimately makes political action look futile. This is the first reason why Les Miz is bad for America. It preaches civic disengagement.
Unlike the Broadway show, Hugo’s novel cannot be reduced to soap-opera earnestness. Its characters are complex. Jean Valjean and Javert are, as their mellifluous names suggest, mirror images of each other. Both struggle to live up to their ideals of human virtue: the one strives to incarnate Christian charity, while the other lives for the Law. Both are laudable, both serve commendable ends, yet both ideals prove fatal to the men, given the problems facing French society in the 1860s. It did not have to be that way. The scenes of suffering in Les Misérables were meant not only to elicit pity, but also to remind us that we too are abject, we too are implicated: none of us will escape unless we bring a change to our world. As Hugo would have known from reading Rousseau’s Social Contract, “He who believes himself the master of others does not escape being more of a slave than they.” Unfortunately, these traits have little to do with why Americans like Les Miz today, because the production glosses over the gritty, uncomfortable bedrock of Hugo’s epic to make suffering seem like somebody else’s problem. That is the second reason Les Miz is bad for America. It begs the problems raised.
Those “self-evident” truths that are now being touted by politicians did not grow naturally from American soil. They were a result of a long and messy process of democratic political action involving many people thinking, arguing, conversing, and writing together. The next time you hum along with Cosette’s song, “I Have a Dream,” think about the Truths that we Americans take to be self-evident as regards social equality, for instance, or the pursuit of happiness. Remember that free, public education was the crucial missing link to creating the vital workforce that has sustained our economy for generations, and that our nation was built to protect free-thinkers and immigrants seeking refuge. Remember that Hugo did not mean for his novel to be mere entertainment, rather Les Misérables was supposed to be a blueprint for social optimism, a snapshot of present ills that would incite a productive, collective demand for progress. We could do worse than to work on that wish: “Utopia today; flesh and blood tomorrow.”