Episode 27: Les Miserables (The Musical) –Love, Simple as that


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            I’ve always wanted a tattoo. In the same way that some people have just always wanted to have children or have always wanted to be in their chosen profession. And in some ways, this isn’t remarkable. All children dream about their futures. There’s something about human nature that just compels us to look ahead and behind. Once we had a conception of time, we became obsessed with the moments that weren’t ours just yet or the ones that had long since slipped through our fingers rather than savoring what was right in front of us.

            And children aren’t immune to this defect in the human code, even if we aren’t inclined to realize it. Because these are beings still trying to make sense of everything this world contains, they truly are very present focused. But there’s more to a child’s life than that. As much as children live for the present, we spent most of it dreaming and guessing what those future moments would contain. Adulthood just had so much potential, or so everyone told us, and no one mentioned all the limitations. Maybe as a result, many of us guessed wrong, but there were a few predictions that came true. This one of mine has. Or it almost has once I find the right artist. I wanted a tattoo then, and I still want one now.

            Maybe the odd thing, the thing that might have sent you recoiling a bit is the idea  in and of itself. Tattoos aren’t part and parcel with adulthood like future children are or like your dream career may be. But if you are about to ask, let me preemptively say that I’m not sure where I got this idea. No one in my family—extended or otherwise—has one. But maybe, I saw one on television or on someone in passing. That would make sense, but I can’t guarantee it. There’s no memory attached with that realization, and I have gone digging for an explanation. Believe me. I’ve just accepted that there will be one, though. Some words and concepts are learned before you learn how to remember moments. And that’s what happened here. Once upon a time, I saw a tattoo. I saw personal art scrawled upon the flesh of another human being and knew, somehow, that this sort of thing was for me. Someday.

            That being said, I haven’t stuck with the first design I came up with as a child. And don’t ask me what that was. You don’t need to know that. Over years, there have been different designs floating around in my head, but in the past few, I’ve never diverted from one single idea: cursive script of some of my favorite quotes laid out across my body. You see, these words represent moments or ideas that stuck with me long after I first encountered them. They have already embedded themselves in my soul, so what’s the harm of letting them do the same thing to my physical body?

            Really, that’s what my parents thought tattoos should be about. To them, it was okay to decorate your body in this very permanent fashion, but if you were going to put a permanent mark on your body, it had to be something you could stand with for the rest of your life. To me, if I already had these thoughts and idea permanently etched in me already, wearing them just made sense. It was just making sure the body matched the soul.

            And this may not be an entirely original idea. In fact, I know it isn’t. As one piece of evidence… In a class during my graduate school days, someone mentioned a common object from a bygone era that I remember being called a quote journal, but I may be wrong about the name. It’s not something I made a conscious effort to remember, and it’s not something that’s all that common anymore. Not in that way. But in a quote journal, people would take certain lines from the Bible or other books they had lying around and bring them together into one tome. Or several as time went on.

            It’s something I’ve done too, and I think a lot of us post our favorite quotes on our social media pages from time to time, particularly in our teenage years if you were anything like me, but there’s a not insignificant part of me that wants to make my body this journal, ignoring the issue of spatial limitations for a moment. After all, you can always get a second journal. But not a second body.

            So I’ll just have to be selective, I guess. Which might mean my pain aversion will come in handy if it means I slow down. But there are some quotes that I feel more strongly about than others. So let me tell you about one of them.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode 27.

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            Today, I want to talk about something within Les Miserables, a subject I’ve covered on this show before. But that’s okay. At least to me and probably you if you keep listening to this episode. It just makes sense, though. Les Mis is something of a phenomenon, as I briefly said in my previous episode. Episode 10 if you are interested, but if you are not, let me give you a run down. It’s an absurdly long novel by Victor Hugo that has been adapted into several movies and a long running musical with two anniversary concerts recorded for distribution. Yeah, Les Mis has become many things, which is fitting because—at its heart—it is many things. There’s so many aspects to this story, so many characters, and so many lessons that taking it in this more piecemeal fashion is just how it has to be for now. There’s a lot to be said, a lot that could be said, and a lot I want to say. So bear with me.

            On the other hand, it also helps justify this selection, that we are entering into what is often called the holiday season. Halloween has—unfortunately, perhaps—come and gone, and those of us in the United States are looking towards the commercialized versions of Thanksgiving and then Christmas. And if you aren’t in the United States but are on the internet, well, you’ll still find this seep into your world view. Which means that many of us—for better or worse—will be thinking about family and friends and the people or animals that we love. Hence why I started thinking about this line.

            “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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            Now I don’t know for sure if this line is in the book or not. Which is something I could have easily fixed. I could have gone digging for it. The novel is in the public domain, so it’s not that hard to find online where you can use the control-F find feature to make it all the easier, but honestly, it felt irrelevant. Also, have you ever seen the entirety of the book? It’s absurdly long. I heard a rumor that Victor Hugo got paid by the word, and my point is not that this is necessarily true but that this makes an overwhelming amount of sense. That rumor is genuinely easy to believe, and that’s pretty telling.

            But like I said, that feels irrelevant. I first heard this line while watching one of the anniversary concerts for the musical. And even then, even in that stripped down and basic portrayal of the prolific musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, I felt the power of that line.

            “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

            And I can’t imagine feeling it so intensely through any other medium.

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            That’s probably closed minded of me, using the term in the loosest and least serious sense possible. But it may be because of my theatre background. I don’t think that has ever come up before. And maybe we’ve hit some sort of milestone in my inability to remember every single thing I’ve said on this show. But once upon a time, I worked in theatre tech, and admittedly—even though I genuinely love my current job—I miss it. Sure the pay wasn’t consist or all that great, and I’ve got an amazing benefits package at a job that leaves me surrounded with amazing people, but I miss my theatre days. There was something exciting about it, I guess. And it’s an excitement you can never get with a desk job. And there was a comradery there that I miss, too. But that’s something for another day.

            I thrived in that environment, and the reason why I did despite my technical inexperience was that backstage theatre life is pretty compatible with the weird way my brain operates. You see, my brain likes details, and it likes juggling details to an absurd degree of specificity. It wants to know what all the moving pieces are doing only to rearrange them in order to form an, at times, arbitrary vision. It focuses on outcomes more than means, so sometimes the means are a little out there. To put it nicely. But it gets the job done.

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            Now, art is clearly the process of creating an image or relaying a message through precise choices. Or that’s the definition that makes the most sense in this argument. Assuming you are willing to give me that, let me take it a step farther in the case of live performances.

            Here, it’s all coupled with a sense of chaos. You’ve got one chance to get it right for this particular audience, and—at least in my experience—there’s always someone who doesn’t know what is going on. Or someone who’s outright working against you. In your mind, things are probably going to go okay, but it’s easy to believe that this isn’t going to be the case. And you’ve got to work against that. That’s what I loved, this more meticulous and panicked part of theatre production, one that I don't think the audience is inclined to think about. But that's the point. One of the details to juggle is how to make the whole production look as effortless as possible. Or that's what we always went for. We didn’t always get it, but it was a pretty low fail rate.

            But no matter how well a show goes or how meticulous the crew is, if you've lived enough hours backstage, it's almost impossible to be taken in by the façade created. You just know where all the seams are, likely because you've had to lay them out so many times before yourself. But that doesn’t mean you have to be jaded. If you still have a whimsical heart, you can suspend that sense of disbelief for the sake of your own happiness. Or that of others... it depends on the context.

            And that’s where I normally fall. I'm usually pretty good at that, but I'm sure it helped that when I saw the 10th anniversary concert—a bare-bones version of the musical, sure—I knew how deliberate theatre was but not how the smoke screens were generated. By then, I had done it, sure, but I hadn't conjured enough to be jaded from the effort or from the way the heat of the machines could singe my skin. Not just yet.

            To bring it back to a somewhat more understandable timeline, I was in college then. My freshman year, I think, but that part isn’t so clear in my mind. Nor does it really matter.

            The 10th anniversary concert DVD was sitting in the dorm's shared media library. A media library whose presence I appreciated but whose justification I never quite understand. The whole thing was archaic, even then. And a well-kept secret. Despite it being a resource or perk of living in our dormitory, we never drew attention to it, even during orientation when that likely would have been most relevant. This might have been a conscious choice. With DVDs becoming increasingly irrelevant, maybe it made sense to let this collection fade into obscurity without fanfare. I mean, it made sense to me.

            Then again, I had no room to talk. I still had a DVD player, a portable one whose battery couldn't hold a charge, so I had to keep it plugged in whenever I was using it. Rather than being a power reserve of some kind, the battery just served as an additional conduit between the outlet and the machine itself. It was kind of like having a really small television with limited capabilities. Very limited, yes, but—hey—it could get a very specific job done. One that I needed, and so I became pretty dependent on it, as a way to fill the silence when I needed to focus on something else.

            And that’s how it happened. One day, I was looking for something to play in the background while I tried to iron some clothes. Ironing never went well for me, but I still tried. Failed but that's not the part of the story we should be focusing on.

            For something like that, an anniversary concert or any concert would really work great. It's got substance but not the type that requires you to stare at a screen for every little detail when you really should and—by design need to—be doing something else. So I borrowed it, brought it up to my room, and proceeded to get nothing else done.

            Because the concert became my entire world for that moment. Everything else melted away, like and especially my ironing. And I'm admittedly not sure what first brought me in. It could very well have just been my desire to not do my chores. I really don't remember. It didn't seem like an important thing at the time, so my brain dumped the memory as soon as the chance presented itself. But rather than being frustrated or irritated or anything like that, I find myself largely disinterested in that first moment. You might think it matters, but frankly, to me, that beginning, that spark, is the least interesting part. It's just silence, I would say. It's what it builds to that matter.

            "To love another person is to see the face of God."

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            It could have just been the framing, the concert specific framing that created the illusion. I'm not going to pretend this isn’t possible or that having fewer variables to contend with doesn't give you some sort of advantage as a production. But in that moment, there truly was just that line, performed expertly and perfectly. And maybe having a complete scenery or more complex lightning trick could have distracted from that. So simplicity is what created beauty not conscious effort. I won’t actively work to discredit this opinion, but if you can silence that pessimistic voice in your head for a while, if you can look past what seems obvious, you can see some beauty there, intentional or not.

            Because it seemed like there was a crescendo leading up to the line I keep repeating. Sure, that's not a straight forward metaphor by any stretch of the imagination. Crescendos are straight forward, soft to loud, and in this musical, there are high points, low points, and the intensity comes and goes. But that's how life works, even if it's not how the musical device works. Hey, that’s figurative language for you. We reduce an experience down to something more basic, stripping off layers until we have something far easier to describe and thus guaranteeing that we can be understood. And what I want you to understand here and now, while it may be clearly universal and thus something you know all too well, is pretty important.

            You see, there are moments in our lives when everything abruptly clicks into place. You've been going through life with worries and concerns, wondering if you are going in the right direction or in any direction other than in circles. Then, suddenly, you find the one thing you need to direct you. It's your North Star to get you out of the storm. And honestly, that's what this line is. It is the moment that the journey of Les Mis finds its underlying anchor, the takeaway that we should all gain from the story. The lesson that we all need to get through the rest of our lives.

            It's an epiphany, you may say. A critical one.

            "To love another person is to see the face of God."
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            Like I said, I don't know if it's a line from the original book nor did I bother to sort through the thousands upon thousands of words in Hugo's great tome to find this specific combination of words. But that line is true to what Hugo seems to be getting at: that there is something transcendent about love in all its forms, something almost divine.

            Victor Hugo, as a person, didn't have the greatest relationship with what he knew to be religion. Otherwise known as the Catholic Church in France. And the feeling was fairly mutual considering how often his books were featured on the church's banned books list. But despite the many back and forth insults Hugo and the Church shared, Hugo never really fully gave up his faith or—rather—his ability to believe in something outside of himself. He remained convinced that there was some sort of life after death or something else out there that we had yet to experience, something beyond what we know and encounter daily.

And that can probably feel like a contradiction in some regards. Maybe you think Hugo should have taken his commitments farther or could have had religion not been part and parcel with life at this time and place in history. Maybe you wish Hugo had been braver or smarter or something else. Maybe you wish human history had taken a certain bend a lot earlier. There are arguments for those lines, and far be it from me to pretend there isn't some validity to them on some front. But that almost feels like it's missing the point or the underlying current to so much of what Victor Hugo’s work described.

            And that is, in this urge to love, well, there was something truly remarkable to be found within.

            “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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            Now, I could go into the whole “God is Love” Christian theology thing or a similar vein of thought that likely exists in other religions. In college, I took a class on in it and am actually proud of how much I still remember. In fact, a few years after I saw this anniversary concert for the first time, I heard a priest use this line in his homily to do the very same thing I just mentioned. But that’s not the point. Or it shouldn’t be. It certainly wasn’t Hugo’s point. After all, it was the church’s doctrine and maintenance of that doctrine that Victor Hugo had such a hard time with. And that I think some of you listening might have a hard time with too. After all, religion isn’t the most popular thing anymore.

            But no matter how unreligious someone may be, there’s still love. Love for family, love for friends, or love for romantic partners. That much has always remained.

            And love is this weird thing. It’s something we do in all different contexts, but we obsess about it like it’s a finite good critical to our survival that we have to chase before a lack of it destroys us. Or not. Describing it in that way leaves so much out of it. But it’s hard to know what else to say. This idea of loving and being loved has sunk so deeply into our lives that, well, it has become our lives, covering every piece therein. Now, we fantasized about it, fear being deprived of it, write stories about it, work towards it, make sacrifices for it, and let our self-destructive impulses target it. It is our lives, in so many ways, almost like religion once was.

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            This is probably an unpopular opinion or perspective. I don’t know for sure, but it seems likely. At the same time, it’s an idea that has been sitting around in my head for so long that I’ve long since had to accept that it is both a part of me and a part of me that will not always be accepted by others. But to get to it, what if we are still looking for that force outside of ourselves to guide our way? It used to be gods and goddess, myths and legends. We used to depend on tales of far off beings, beings that we’d never have to see and could never disappoint us. But today, even if our beliefs have changed, we’re pretty much the same creatures we were back then. We’re still seeking comfort and guidance. We want someone to walk with us in life and console us when things go wrong. We need the support that comes from the company that keeps the darkness of solitude away.

            And we still want more from the world than what we first saw when we came into. We want new possibilities and new perspectives. We want to add variety to an otherwise gray world. It’s new life being breathed into a space where there would otherwise have been none. It’s momentum, not quite an explicit reason to go on, but it’s a compelling reminder about what the world could look like or could offer us and all the reasons we have to push forward.

            We need something to motivate us to do better or to be better. An object at rest will stay at rest until pushed forward. We need that inciting force: that push. Or pull in some situations.

            Before, we relied on the whims of deities to push us forward. It used to be religious doctrine that motivated us. And that still works for some people. But many of us have fallen away from it.

            But maybe the larger fact about our nature didn’t change. Maybe we still need that push even if it isn’t coming from a far off deity or an old man in an older cloak. What if instead of completely purging ourselves of the tales we used to cling to, we’ve just started changing the character list. We’ve given the lead to something we know is here with us and something we’ve experienced before.

            “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

            Just in a way we all find more agreeable than prophetic visions or ecumenical rituals.

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            I wouldn’t meet V for a few more years yet, and V’s successor on this throne of super ill-advised crushes would be even longer still. And that’s actually my type, funny enough: people destined to break my heart no matter what either of us do. But through it all, this line is something that has stayed with me, waiting in the proverbial wings of my heart until the moment in question when it could finally have the chance to step into the light.

            I’ll be blunt about it. I must be a super unlikeable person because I am constantly getting my heart broken. But I don’t ever regret falling in love. For all it’s challenges and pains not because I learned anything. Spoiler alert: I usually don’t. And not because it doesn’t hurt. Spoiler alert, it always does.

            But because—for a moment, I get to experience something truly divine.

            “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

            I think I’ve said most of this before in different ways. I worry that I’m repeating myself a lot on this podcast. With so many episodes going up, it seems inevitable. But maybe you aren’t going to listen to all of them. Maybe you’re only going to listen to the ones that interest you. Fair enough. Hopefully that keeps you from getting too annoyed with me.

            Because I love doing this, even if I’m not great at it. I love the podcast world. And maybe to love another podcast is to see the face of God. Maybe. But probably not this one.

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