The greatest lesson of the internet age is that human beings are seemingly hardwired to avoid a very specific type of discomfort. I say “specific” because we sure will dive into a whole lot of other things with minimal encouragement. We will eagerly dive into sad stories or images—fictional or those grounded in current events—and you bet we will open up that picture or video labelled sensitive or not safe for life. No hesitations and no second thoughts. Let’s see that gruesome stuff. And on a lighter note, we will face the special kind of dread that comes from encountering the depths of human stupidity or vicariously experiencing the pain of a thousand, intense impacts, usually to sensitive areas.
But despite all the nonsense we consciously subject ourselves to every day, there’s a line we will not dare to cross.
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Never admit you are wrong.
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For clarification’s sake, I want to say that this action can manifest in a number of ways. There’s outright recanting a previous declaration you made or a belief, decision, or interpretation of yours. There’s admitting that an action you took was ill-advised or had negative but likely unintended consequences and usually include an expression of remorse about such. And there’s admitting that something—usually someone—that you like or outright love might be connected to some horrible things, some misconstrued things, or is actually a terrible person. [Insert whatever burden of proof you need here for the sake of argument.]
The latter I think is the weakest example of this. Because when you started liking secretly horrible thing you didn’t know about the bad part. So you weren’t making an informed choice and aren’t committed or liable in the same way as a result. In other words, you don’t have the same amount of figurative skin in the game and consequently don’t need to be as defensive. And yet, people tend to be.
But by far, the hardest has to be to walk back something that you said or made. I’d say it’s an extension of the sunk cost fallacy, or the [quote] “I’ve put so much into this already that I just have too much to lose by backing down now.” [end quote]. Think why people keep pushing multi-level-marketing schemes after being a couple hundred in debt but before they’ve lost all their friends, social connections, pride, and money. There’s a moment to back down that you just don’t want to take, even when some random person from high school is pointing out that this isn’t working out for you. It’s the desire to prevent a real loss through further investment, not realizing that you are just raising the stakes.
Regardless of the details, this aversion is very clear. And it can make one think that there is something in human genetics that stops us from taking ownership of mistakes or missteps for the sake of our very survival. Genuinely, it seems like an evolutionary thing when you think about how universal it all is. Anyone in any way or in any context will do this.
And it’s not like we look favorably upon those who overcome those impulses to do the right thing. Sometimes we do. But more often than not, we ridicule them, call them weak, or say that this is not a sign of personal growth but a sign of being spineless. In politics, it’s often called flip-flopping and means that said candidate can’t be trusted.
Inconsistency isn’t the same thing as an epiphany, so obviously, I hate that we keep confusing these two.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 10, and I promise it’s not just me standing on a soap box.
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Today, I want to talk about a specific scene from Les Miserables, the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. It’s also a musical, multiple movies, a musical adapted into a movie, and a musical adapted into two anniversary concert extravaganzas that I cannot recommend strongly enough.
Yeah, the story got around. Victor Hugo also got around. (Quickly) You know in a literary sense. Because his stories were so prolific.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I opened up with a seemingly unrelated monologue or you are annoyed that you were subjected to that random aside. I get it. But there’s some meaning to it. For one, it’s a call out to Hugo’s style, but second it’s a set up for what it is to come. While this podcast is still trying to find its character, one thing has been consistent: namely, it has always centered around the way we—mostly me—have interacted with the media and stories that I love. And I love Les Miss. Well, now I love it. I didn’t always. Hence why I wanted to open up with a defense of owning one’s wrongness. Because I was genuinely turned off to the whole story by a single scene. Which meant missing out on a truly beautiful, engaging, and wonderful but very long tale. And I’m glad I owned up my mistake in this and many other cases.
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Sure, there are many legitimate reasons to dislike this novel. The length, for one. And on a related—let’s call it—1.5, a great portion of the novel is random filler. “Digressions” is the term Wikipedia uses, and I think that’s being a bit generous. Sometimes there appears to be a moral point to these rambling, and sometimes it seems like Hugo just wants to show off of his intelligence. Which is never a good look for anybody. The only potential exception would be your surgeon showing off their mastery of human anatomy or the specific body part they will be operating on. But that might just be a personal preference.
Back to the point, I heard a rumor a while ago that makes a bit of sense and is actually the best explanation for his longwinded-ness, though I never cared enough to verify it. Supposedly, Victor Hugo was paid per word without limits. So he had an incentive to make the novel as obscenely long as possible. And hey, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing if presented with such an offer.
On the other hand, there’s another potential reason for all the random side quests. Les Miserables isn’t supposed to be a novel about a single character or even pack of character. Whenever the story got adapted or will ever get adapted, this aspect got or will get neglected in favor of focusing on Jean Valjean. Rightfully so in my opinion. Because while the expansive world of the Lord of the Rings might have made the whole expansive world narrative work, I doubt Les Mis could do the same. This is because, the main narrative is that of France in many respects or in respects that justify the countless diversions, tangents, and obsessions with detail. It is trying to map out the current of an entity far larger than the author or his audience. It becomes more about themes than events, and all the characteristics of the story have to become means to that end.
And unfortunately, that’s a rather miserable narrative. The history of France in the 18th and 19th centuries—while other things were undoubtedly at play—was greatly influenced if not defined by complete and abject poverty. Think French Revolution when the masses marched on the palace of Versailles in pursuit of bread. Just bread. Not even luxury foods.
The novel isn’t about that particular incident but about a latter revolt, spurred on by the unresolved issues that led to that march and the eventual beheading of a king in the first place. Diving deeper into a specific aspect of these issues, it documents the dance between law and justice, particularly when that dance is out of sync, and the types of love we need or can have towards our fellow man as it influences our understanding of right and wrong. It’s a tome of ethical questions, religious sentiments, and architecture. Okay, that last one certainly isn’t ideal.
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The most relevant theme for the scene I am discussing is that aforementioned dance between law and justice. Two terms we normally see as synonymous, but the events in the novel show that this clearly isn’t true.
It starts off right away with what some would call the main character Jean Valjean who is just being released from prison. He received five years imprisonment simply for stealing bread to feed his starving and destitute sister and her family. It’s worth reiterating that this crime was committed not even for his own survival but for that of people he holds dear. He receives an additional fourteen years for his numerous escape attempts, which may or may not be justified depending on your perspective. Some people say that there is a human instinct to seek freedom, which may mean that people in jail shouldn’t be punish for trying to fulfill that need. But as it stands, none of that would have happened had he not initially been arrested simply for trying to keep his family alive.
It’s a self-preservation instinct or self-defense in another form if you can think of starvation as an aggressor or attacking force. Considering the dire plight the lower classes faced in France, there’s simply no way around it. The poor are far past experiencing a mild hunger. They’re outright dying of starvation. Or at least, that’s certainly how Victor Hugo sees it.
But seemingly against reason, the law dictates that Valjean still be punished, which doesn’t feel like justice. Either because of the severity of the punishment or the mere fact that he was punished at all. Most modern laws have a self-defense clause in them in which the action is treated differently in circumstances of extreme distress, and many countries are adopting amendments to laws that allow for a small theft of food—just enough to survive for a day—by someone who can prove they are in dire financial straits.
This is where I may lose some people. Because I know, it’s probably a very modern reading of an old book, but isn’t that what the Friends of the ABC also think? That the destitute shouldn’t be beaten down over and over again just to preserve a social order that exploits them. That France shouldn’t be a nation dependent on the existence of a starving peasantry to fuel the monarchy? Consequently, I’d argue that this is still a consistent reading.
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But that’s in the figurative past, right? Because the story picks up when Jean Valjean is released from prison, and he comes out of it completely reformed, right? That’s definitely not what happened. He came out the hardened criminal Inspector Javert and the rest of the prison system had always assumed that he was or had always treated him as. And it only gets worse the further he steps away from the prison. Because of his parole papers and his status as a convict, he finds himself turned away from every place he seeks shelter in as he tries to find some direction in his life. It’s only the bishop who gives him food and lodging and care. Only to have Valjean try to steal his silverware. When he is caught by police and dragged back to the bishop to face his reckoning, plot twist, the bishop claims to have given him the silverware and a bit extra that he did not take. With the bishop being such an important figure in the community, the police release Valjean.
This gesture is described in a number of ways. It was a ransom for Valjean’s soul, the key to undo the shackles of anger, hatred, and poverty that had previously bound him, or the price of Valjean’s redemption. Most simply, it is the good priest being a good priest.
Clearly, it’s supposed to be a good, emotionally resonant scene based around a truly powerful moment. And every adaptation (even the recent movie adaptation of the musical with all its questionable choices) nails the power of that scene. That moment is Valjean’s rebirth, one that flies in the face of the social order that would have him be in chains for the rest of his life simply because that is how they understood the nature of criminals and crime. It validated the larger social order, and no one wanted to admit it was flawed.
And yet, I had a problem with that scene. It’s supposed to be good and beautiful, perhaps one of the main reasons why such a long and difficult novel has lasted the test of time, but it didn’t stick with me.
I first read Les Mis in high school. It fit my persona of being the overachiever kind who liked to be seen carrying and reading absurdly large books. Hence why I did an essay my junior year on Anna Karenina despite struggling to keep all the Russian names straight in my mind. And with Les Mis being a famously large book, it fit with my ego rather nicely.
If memory serves true I was reading Les Mis during my senior year, when I was taking AP psychology, prepping for the test that would hopefully give me college credit and another step closer to graduating college early. Yep, hot mess in high school. I shouldn’t have to clarify that.
But I think that this milieu—mentally and socially—is what set me up to fail in this interpretation. The bishop is supposed to stand for something. In traditional interpretations, it’s Christ or divine grace, and for someone who doesn’t have a religion to refer to, you would likely say the bishop is the stand in for the objective moral good or justice against the law figures who are bound to adhere to poorly created rules in spite of the real cost inflicted on the human beings around them. It’s not quite a war for the soul between the divine and the earthly, but the contrast is still made readily apparent. I just didn’t see that.
And maybe it’s because I wasn’t inclined to think of religion or philosophy in those terms. In high school, I was religious in the sense that I behaved religiously. I went through the motions, attended mass regularly, and had a surprisingly strong grasp on theology—strong enough to parrot it. (Music fades out slowly) But religion wasn’t something I engaged with actively. (Music fades back in) My church back home—specifically the mass I attended—was more of a family than anything else. It was nice to have a place where people knew me, asked about my welfare when I couldn’t make it, and just… were just happy to see me.
So yeah, technically, the groundwork had still been laid out for me to make the right connection and see this gesture, this scene, for what it really was. Well, that’s just not what happened. The lesson didn’t stick.
I bring up AP Psych because when I look back on my original interpretation, it looks like it’s influenced by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a view I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to today. Essentially, it almost seemed like Valjean was incapable of being the virtuous figure we see later in the novel because of a lack of funds. Or, in other words, his lower needs were not being met so forget being a pillar of virtue. That changes with the silver—or the infusion of cash—and suddenly, now that he doesn’t have to worry about feeding himself or having a roof over his head, he can be an epic hero.
The question then becomes, is virtue or living a good, moral life a luxury? Is caring about other people a luxury? Victor Hugo likely wouldn’t have thought that, but I think I pulled a death of the author card right then.
Like I said, I’m not sympathetic to Maslow by any means, but this weird, adaption of his idea was far easier to swallow because—I think—it might be something we are all faintly familiar with. Look, we’ve all been in that position where maybe we overslept and missed breakfast and couldn’t move our lunch hour up from an obscenely late time, so we are walking around starving and just can’t interact with people. We’re hangry, as the portmanteau goes. [Side note, hangry didn’t come up as a misspelled word when I was typing out this script. So yay the evolution of language.] Who is to say that an intense, French peasantry type hunger couldn’t do worse or couldn’t leave someone in that as a default state, which is also a step away from becoming terrible theology as well as being terrible psychology and literary analysis but bear with me, I didn’t step that far.
Does this book give credit to the argument that virtuous living is strictly a luxury, I wanted to ask. If so, what are the implications of that statement? Ideally some sort of social reform for the sake of a more stable society. But yeah, high-school-me had enough sense to know that wasn’t going to happen
Now, looking back, I can see the major flaw in this thought. Which isn’t just the following scene where Valjean steals a coin from a child despite having all that silver. Nope, different issue. Namely, that there is a staunch difference between the original act of theft—stealing bread for his family—and the act of stealing from the bishop an act of unclear intention, but reasonably, we can say it wasn’t a noble intent. The first act is genuinely selfless and about survival. The latter is largely one out of spite. Valjean had been fed and housed by this man, and he still had done him wrong. In the first case, you would still say that Valjean was good and virtuous despite of or because of the theft. He risked everything to provide for those he loved. In that example, in so far as he lacked anything, he lacked the ability to act in the same way that he did when he was the mayor of the town. But the character of these two stages of the man are still very much the same.
Hugo puts the focus on intention not the ability to act. Or on whether Valjean’s soul either belongings to God or Satan.
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I try not to kick myself too hard over this mistake. Call it an adapted version of the previously described human aversion if you’d like. But I look back on high school me and sometimes see her as a completely different person. Even if I don’t, she’s different enough that I can sleep at night without being haunted by my own arrogance and all the related stupid things I used to do. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was outright hateful, but I certainly was defensive and stand off-ish, thinking that there was no way a social interaction involving me could ever go well.
I once read something online about how we can never actually see ourselves directly. We always have to use an intermediary, like a mirror. The post suggested that maybe we wouldn’t actually be able to recognize ourselves if we were somehow able to face ourselves head on. The conclusion is a little dramatic for me, but the initial observation is something I think about a lot. To the point that, when I couldn’t find the original post, it was easy for me to think that my obsession had twisted something else and that I’ll never be able to undo that evolution.
Even the best at self-reflection and introspection are always going to encounter this problem, that while you can sort the inner workings of your head, everything on the outside is subjected to variables you can’t control or always account for. These people have a talent for making the best versions of themselves, but in terms of external successes or social cohesion, it still might not work out.
And here’s the problem. Your existence isn’t just limited to your body unless you are a recluse living completely self-sufficiently off in the wilderness. Fair enough if you are, though I have to wonder how you are listening to this podcast. Genuine question and good for you if you have the answer to it. But when it comes to this social aspect, we are dependent on other people to signal how well we fit into that social order, if we are wanted, or if we ever could be worth wanting.
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I’ve mentioned before that it wasn’t until I got to college that I really felt like I had some sort of place in this world, a place that was objectively mine or a place where I belonged as I wanted to be or as I am inclined to be. It first happened when a professor didn’t tease me for having a sea of pencils on my desk during an exam or maybe when he found me a chair just so I can sit in my favorite spot. That last one in particular has stuck me, and in the moment it nearly brought me to tears, though it took me several years before I ever told him how significant that gesture was. It was quite literally him saying, “you have a place here and I want you to be in that place.”
If you’ve listened to the first episode, you know that this person was a major part of me piecing together the person my defensive bravado had shattered to bits. I talked about his effect specifically on my writing, on my embracing the idea that I could make things just because I liked making things, and that I didn’t need to be perfect or the manifestation of my community’s dreams in order to matter or to be worth caring about. It’s a powerful realization, one whose effects extend far beyond my past times, but those are stories for another time.
Especially when you are young, you have to rely on the images of yourself that others people reflect onto you. In part because you’re still trying to grasp this additional level of language. One that describes not just things but general existences, a distilling of a very intense, multi-faceted reality into words that don’t always fit well in your mouth. For various reasons—a lot of them stemming from my dad’s death—I was particularly vulnerable to this. The negative sentiments, launched with barbs, stuck to my skin and kept tearing into my flesh deeper and deeper, tearing wounds wider and wider. Even while I was bleeding, figuratively, I thought this was normal. I really did. I thought everyone went through this, but for some reason, they could just brush it off better than I could.
When I finally realized that this wasn’t normal, when he told me it wasn’t normally, it was like the whole world shifted. Or rather, I saw it differently. And with that, I think I understood Valjean better.
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Inspector Javert is meant to be more than Valjean’s enemy. In fact, he is the stand-in for that rigid, strict society Hugo detested so much. Determined to uphold the law, Javert can see no other thing. To him the world is divided into two groups: the lawful and the lawless. The latter deserves no care, no compassion, and no respect as a result of their supposed choice to reject the laws and social order of France. Extenuating circumstances play no role in this equation. Think about Fantine who turns to prostitution to fed, clothe, and buy medicine for her daughter who then has to defend herself against a client. Javert sentences this sickly woman to jail for six months, ignoring the fact that doing so will kill either mother or child if not both. Because that fact, that death is no good even for prostitutes and fatherless children, is not codified in the law.
The larger system that Javert represents shows nothing but disgust for those who are forced to break the law for their own survival. The message there is that [quote] “you don’t belong in my world” [end quote], and this was before the prevalence of long distance travel, so it’s not like anyone had that much of a choice where they live, escalating this message to [quote] “you don’t deserve to be around” [end quote] or even [quote] “you don’t deserve to be alive” [end quote].
In this system, there’s no recognition of someone’s humanity. There’s no care and no compassionate. There’s just a hard rejection, a sense of isolation, and an affliction that could gradually eat away at someone’s soul.
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After nineteen years of an imprisonment, Valjean undoubtedly had taken this rejection to heart, likely believing all that he was indirectly told, that he had no place in this society and that this society wished earnestly for his complete destruction. If that’s the case, then why did he need to care about the social order? If anything, you could argue that complete destruction—sort of like a revolution—would be in his best interest.
The bishop subverts this message in the same way that Christianity initially subverted the cultural zeitgeist of its day, but that’s a vague callout to a podcast project Miscellany Media Studios hasn’t started yet. In this subversion, the bottom tier of society isn’t meant to be cast aside or trampled underfoot. Those people have potential, value, if not outright power. The bishop’s message to Valjean is just highly specialized. He treats Valjean with not just respect but with fondness. He says to Valjean that he cares, that Valjean is worth caring for, and that Valjean is a human being capable of being so much more than a criminal. Javert reduced him to a number, but the bishop gave him the chance to be truly divine.
The choice to take this chance was Valjean’s of course, but now that he believed it was truly something he could do, it didn’t seem so arduous or worthles. Yes, he became the benevolent mayor, factory owner, and Cosette’s foster father he is because of the gift of silver, but the silver itself was a means to an end. Had he found twenty thousand francs on the ground who’s to say he would have had the change of heart he did? Maybe he would have been grateful that God didn’t let him starve, but he wouldn’t have been invested in the world around him, in the community he became mayor of, in Fantine, or in any other human being if all human beings thought he was less than dirt. To think otherwise would be ignoring some very real questions. In the end, why help the world that doesn’t want you and makes such very clear? Why do more than just existence when no one was interested in your capabilities?
The bishop’s kindness did not just transform Valjean but transformed his outlook on the world. Maybe he couldn’t justify contributing to society yet, but he could justify repaying the bishop’s kindness. Instead of contributing to a society that didn’t want him, he’d be helping the bishop who placed a bet with the devil that Valjean was something truly remarkable beneath the stains of poverty. Instead of fighting for France why not fight for the genuine and objective goodness that the bishop represents? That’s a pretty compelling argument. After all, I think we can all agree the bishop was someone worth fighting for.
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After this time with my professor—having known him and having seen myself through the lens he had—I became a better person. I don’t know how else to say it because there’s still a lot of work to do. I don’t think it’s fair to compare me with the prolific figure Valjean eventually becomes, but hey, that’s your prerogative. I just know that I like the person I’ve become, and I haven’t always been able to say that.
He had said to me, “I wish you could see yourself as I see you.” Those words have stayed with me for so long in part because they changed how I perceived myself. For once, I wasn’t standing in front of maliciously designed funhouse mirrors. I could see myself accurately. Did his kindness actually change me? On a physical level, no. My cells and DNA are still the same as they’ve always been, but I’ve still been transformed in some capacity.
There’s many examples of personal transformations that feel very real to us but are hard to explain. Like when the boss whose been bogging you down for months finally does one thing that makes you put your foot down. We say that we just snapped in that situation. But why? Is it an aggregate? Did this terrible and certainly hypothetical boss finally cross a line? But how did that line get there, why is that the line that matters, and why didn’t it appear somewhere else and sooner?
It almost makes more sense when you think about some of our personal transformations as something that happens outside of ourselves. The stakes become too high to deal with. The projected cost becomes something we can no longer justify. The work situation crossed over a threshold, and we reacted accordingly.
In my case, and maybe in Valjean’s as well, the conversation shifted, it became more inclusive of our capabilities and admittedly limited worth. It became more accepting and more compassionate. And that was powerful. Kindness is powerful, just because of the shifts it’s capable of making.
Thanks for listening. If you like what you heard or want to see what future Les Mis episodes we have in the works, consider subscribing. Find us online at miscellanymedia.online. Also follow us on twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on future projects.