Jack Niewold's Blog

Viewing Church and Culture Through The Great Tradition

Les Misérables: A Stern Providence

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, published in 1862, is without a doubt one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, indeed of all time, ranking in the first tier of eminence with the work of Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville and Dostoevsky. The book is a masterpiece of construction and moves the reader forward to a denouement that is both astonishing and morally satisfying. Like Moby Dick, with which it is often compared, Les Misérablés reads better in abridgment than in uncut form.

There have been several good translations of Les Misérables, but the one I quote from here is that of Charles E. Wilbour as edited by Frederick Mynon Cooper in 1862. It has, in my estimation, held up well and preserves a sense of the era in which the actions occur.

Those who know the story of Jean Valjean only from movies and musicals will have little grasp of the book’s characters, the intricacies of the plot, or the richness of Hugo’s language and imagery.  The popular iterations of the novel on the stage and screen have distorted the story in a way that is not unlike that which minstrelsy had on Uncle Tom’s Cabin: a serious moral and religious parable deformed into a kind of Three Penny Opera. A close and unhurried reading, on the other hand—encompassing the story of Jean Valjean’s lifelong pilgrimage to redemption, the place of Bishop Muriel in effecting Valjean’s conversion, Valjean’s “daughter” Cosette’s development from abused child to noble lady and marriage to Baron Marius Pontmercy, the constant presence of the relentlessly self-righteous Inspector Javert, and the incarnation of human degradation in the person and family of Monsieur Thenardier—will render this tale of crime, punishment, evil, moral awakening, love and redemption an enduring delight.

The historical context of the book is the fifteen years between 1817 and 1832, a time when France struggled to find its identity after the upheavals of the Revolution and the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Empire. The reestablishment of the monarchy left much of the populace divided between those who recalled the glories of the Empire and monarchists who saw the Bourbons as national saviors. The radicals depicted here are those for whom both Napoleon and the monarchy are anathema and who want a return to the Revolutionary era of 1789-1795. They call themselves republicans.

The cultural and political context of Les Misérables presents the stark contrasts between three main social strata: the aristocracy, or those who identified with the monarchy, the bourgeoisie, which in the persona of Monsieur Gillenormand understood itself as heir of the secular enlightenment, and les damnés, the proletariat, the “miserable” for whom the book is named. Already in he 1830s there was present in Paris a class of Left-Bank, alienated intellectuals, who make their appearance in the book as a group of radicals who take to the barricades in a fruitless uprising.  As with all such insurrectionists, these figures are at one level self-caricatures: they fight for the “poor” with whom they have little sympathy and who move unnoticed all around them. On the other hand, they are sympathetically drawn by Hugo and represent a certain elevation of sentiment. They are all killed off in one of the climactic scenes of the book, a scene in which Valjean, Marius and two other characters, Eponine and Gavroche, are all brought together in a tragic clash of innocence, illusion, sacrifice and heroism.

The emotional power of the novel derives from the juxtaposition of grinding poverty, social cruelty, and entitled wealth. Poverty is common and customary outside the precincts of privilege and aristocracy, whether of the titled or bourgeois variety. The Thenardier family represents the brutalization of domestic life under the heel of unending penury. Both husband and wife, once proprietors of a suburban inn, devolve into a partnership of crime and neglect, turning their three sons out of the house as children and involving their two daughters, Eponine and Azelma, in prostitution, petty theft and con-artistry. For the poor of early nineteenth-century France, everyday life is a Dickensian demimonde with a scramble for the merest survival, where the dark virtues of intrigue and blackmail are esteemed.

Social cruelty haunts this world at every level. France was a much poorer country than most people realize. Its cynosure was Paris, but everywhere else there was a wanton struggle with privation. From about 1800 onward for a century and a half, France was a declining civilization. At the time of the Revolution, it was the most populous country in Europe outside Russia. By 1860 it was fifth. We see some of this decline in the novel, with its landscape of abandoned or decrepit properties and its failing middle class. Morally and religiously, the country was on life support. All the characters of this book share in this decadence. A petit-bourgeois playboy seduces a young working-class woman, Fantine, leaving her pregnant with the child who will become Cosette. To take care of her daughter, Fantine must prostitute herself and even sell her perfect teeth.

Les Misérables takes place against this dark scrim of France’s debacle. Excessive punishment for minor crimes (misdemeanors, actually) stigmatizes Jean Valjean for as long as he lives. The law, rather than reforming or merely punishing, pushes the small-time criminal, even upon release, to desperation. Abandoned children by the hundreds, called gamins, live by their wits in the streets of Paris, stealing, begging or running errands for those who exploit them. The oldest Thenardier son, known only as Gavroche, takes his two younger brothers under his wing when they are turned out of their home. One wonders what became of them when Gavroche is shot while assisting radicals in the uprising of 1832.

***

Who was Victor Hugo? Strange as this question sounds to our ears, the answer is not clear-cut. Hugo was born in 1802 and early on demonstrated a prodigious talent for writing, poetry and public action. He moved about both intellectually and politically, at times writing odes to the monarchy and at other times self-exiling himself from Napoleon III’s empire. Hugo’s great novel is full of Christian symbolism, but he himself was a bit of a philanderer. His personal religion was a mixture of Christianity and mysticism with reincarnation thrown in for good measure.  His hero and protagonist Jean Valjean seems a much better man that the author.

Hugo’s long life was coterminous with a period of French literary and musical efflorescence. His contemporaries were Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Balzac, Zola, Delacroix, Cezanne, Monet, Dumas, Maupassant, Rimbaud, Bizet, Baudelaire and many other French or Francophone luminaries. Hugo’s work spans from the 1820s to the 1870s. He might have produced more had not a stroke disabled him in 1878 (he died in 1885). His other best-known works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ruy Blas, and Toilers of the Sea. His poetry, such as his Les Contemplations, is of such quality that it has been compared with Shelley and Goethe. Other novels published contemporaneously with Les Misérablés (1862) include Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans’) Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  Hugo’s novel falls into the Romantic genre, but some of his later work paved the way for the Naturalistic Period.

What are we to make of Inspector Javert? We really do not know what gets this man out of bed in the morning, only that he is driven by a kind of merciless justice that finds its release in a lifelong pursuit of Jean Valjean. More a force of nature than a finely-honed character, Javert represents a world without grace, where duty and right win over mercy and common good. Javert is what happens when law and order are untempered by Christian charity or moral humility.  “Nothing could be more poignant and terrible than this face,” writes Hugo, “which revealed what we may call all the evil of good.”

Javert pursues Jean Valjean, a petty thief, with all the fanatical conviction that he musters to pursue Thenardier and his gang, who together represent the most fearful felons in Paris. There seems to be no hierarchy of values in Javert whereby he might apportion his lust for justice at any cost. He is, as Chesterton said of certain individuals, “sharpened to one painful point.” When Valjean at the fatal barricade saves Javert’s life, it sets up a cognitive dissonance so deep that the inspector commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. His life could not accommodate the contradictions of love and mercy.

A final note: as the reader approaches the last section of the book where Valjean must make his way through the sewers of Paris, Hugo employs the term cloaca several times. This is a biological term. To understand its meaning in that context, I suggest the reader consult a dictionary.

***

Well, let us reconstruct this novel as briefly as possible. A work this complex does not readily comply with the modern desire for brevity. For that matter, as with any great book, the attempt to summarize will leave much aside that is essential to coherence, mood, and dramatic movement. Still, one must try. My readers should take a comfortable pose, pour a cup of tea, and settle in for a bit. I have spent many hours with this great book for your benefit. I ask only an hour of my reader’s time.

Les Misérables is structured in five parts. Each of the five parts is broken into several sections, numbering between eight and fifteen in abridged form. Each section is further subdivided into chapters, of which there are 365, many not much more than a page or two in length. It is possible to read this book by taking one chapter per day for a year, which is easily done. Nobody will do this, however, mainly because the book impels the reader along on a trajectory of suspense, surprise, incredible coincidence, and pathos.

The book begins with a country priest, Bishop Bienvenu Myriel, making the rounds of his parish. The bishop is a very godly man who has given away most of his possessions to the poor. One day a stranger comes through the bishop’s village seeking a place to spend the night. Turned away from the local inn because he carried a criminal ID card, a kind of Scarlet Letter, this muscular, gloomy man approaches the bishop’s residence and is taken in. This stranger is Jean Valjean, newly released from prison (the “galleys”) after 19 years. “In October 1815, he was set at large: he had entered in 1796 for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread… Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering: he went out hardened; he entered in despair; he went out sullen.”

Bishop Myriel takes the sullen man in, gives him food, and provides him his own bed for the night. During the night, Valjean steals the silver plate ware from the house and runs away, only to be caught by the local police and returned to the bishop. Asked to press charges, the bishop instead tells Jean Valjean that he has forgotten to take the silver candlesticks along with the other items. He dismisses the gendarmes and then turns to Valjean. “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.” Valjean is confused, so the old man continues. “Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I am withdrawing it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I am giving it to God.”  Valjean leaves town quickly.

Outside of town a strange incident occurs. Valjean’s habits reassert themselves. He encounters a gypsy chimneysweep and steals a small coin from him. The boy, whose nickname is Petit Gervais, tries desperately to have Valjean release the coin, but all in vain. Valjean is in a kind of reverie and seems not to notice the pleadings of the boy, who then disappears. Some time later, Valjean comes to is senses and is conscience-stricken. He tries to find where the boy has gone to give him his coin back, but fails. “Then his heart swelled, and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had wept for nineteen years… he must renounce that hatred with which the acts of other men had for so many years filled his soul, and in which he found satisfaction… One thing was certain, nor did he himself doubt it, that he was no longer the same man.”

This crime will be reported to the authorities, who mount a fruitless search for the malefactor based on Petit Gervais’ description. This incident conjures Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness after his anointing by John the Baptist. But in this case, unlike his Savior, Valjean fails the test. This petty crime will haunt Valjean for the rest of his life.

The novel here jumps ahead two years, to 1817, and to a scene of seduction of a beautiful but poor young girl by a spendthrift playboy. The young man impregnates the girl, whose name is Fantine, and then disappears. Sometime later, perhaps three or four years, Fantine, having lost her income, is returning to her home town and passes through Montfermiel, an eastern suburb of Paris. Here she strikes a deal with a married couple who operate a tavern. She persuades the couple, who have two young daughters, to accept her daughter Cosette for a short time until she, the mother, can get a job and come back for her child. She gives them most of her money. These are the Thenardiers. They take the child, but will abuse her, and will constantly dun the mother for more money.

Relieved but brokenhearted at leaving Cosette behind, Fantine continues her journey to her place of birth, but finds the town much different from when she left it years earlier. It is now 1821 or 1822. The place has a vitality it never had; opportunity sits heavy in the air. How so? A man had some years prior come to the economically depressed town and set up a business that quickly made him rich and the community prosperous. This stranger had devised a way to improve the clasps that hold jewelry. “Under the inspiration of an ingenious idea, made fruitful by order and care, he had drawn a fortune for himself and a fortune for the whole region.” Through his humble service to the town, including funding a homeless shelter and a free pharmacy, this man was highly regarded throughout the region and was made mayor. His name was Monsieur Madeline.

Monsieur Madeline gives away much of his money to the poor and distressed, but it is known that he has a vast fortune deposited in a Paris bank. He is a reclusive and bookish figure but a wise counselor to those who have conflicts with others. “He settled differences, he prevented lawsuits, he reconciled enemies. Everybody, of his own will, chose him for judge. He seemed to have the book of the natural law by heart.” Madeline was a muscular man, and his first day in town had seen him save the lives of two people from a fire. Several years later, while mayor, he once again came to the rescue of an old man, Fauchelevent, who was trapped under his carriage due to an accident. Madeline admitted the old man to the infirmary associated with his factory, reimbursed him for the loss of his carriage and horse, and arranged for his employment at a convent in Paris.

In the same unnamed town, there is an Inspector Javert, descended from a criminal gypsy family, a history he strove to overcome by complete dedication to the law. Born of a fortune-teller mother and a jailed father, “he felt that he had an indescribable basis of rectitude, order and honesty associated with an irrepressible hatred for that gypsy race to which he belonged… His whole life was contained in these two words: waking and watching… He was implacable duty incarnate.” Prior to his coming to the town where Madeline was mayor, Javert had been stationed at “the galleys of the south.”

“Such was the condition of the region when Fantine returned. No one remembered her.” She quickly found employment at Madeline’s factory and was able to send the Thenardiers increasing amounts of money. They were inventing stories about her daughter’s needs but were instead spending the money on their own two children, Eponine and Azelma. Even worse, they were abusing Cosette, forcing her to do the menial tasks associated with their tavern business.

Fantine’s new relative prosperity lasted about a year when a priggish supervisor in Madeline’s factory took it upon herself to fire her. The supervisor had learned of Fantine’s child and concluded that Fantine was a prostitute. Fantine was devastated and took to sewing. Her income much reduced, and the Thenardiers’ demands ever more urgent, she first sold her hair, and then her front teeth (a common practice), to raise money. Her furniture was repossessed. Ultimately, she was driven to the very prostitution she had always avoided. “She felt herself hunted down, and something of the wild beast began to develop within her.” Even her health begins to abandon her at this time.

One night she was assaulted by a drunk predator and fought him off. In the process, she was arrested by Javert, who, acting as judge and jury, sentenced her to six months in jail. She became frantic and begged for mercy so she could care for her daughter. “Six months! Six months in prison! Six months to earn seven sous a day! But what will become of Cosette my daughter! My daughter! Why, I still owe more than a hundred francs to the Thenardiers, Monsieur Inspector, do you know that?” Javert is unmoved, and turns his back on her. Unseen, Madeline has come into the room during this fracas and now instructs Javert to turn Fantine free. Fantine, under the impression that it is Madeline who was behind her dismissal from the factory, spits in his face. He wipes his face and again orders the inspector to set Fantine free.

Madeline and Javert meet eye to eye; a battle of wills commences. Madeline has been to the tavern where the brawl took place and has learned that Javert has arrested the victim and set the guilty party free. Javert, hearing this, falls back to another argument: that the woman has just insulted the mayor and must be punished for this new crime. Madeline tells Javert that the insult is his business, not the law’s. “I beg Monsieur the Mayor’s pardon,” argues Javert. “The insult rests not with him; it rests with justice.” Madeline replies: “Inspector Javert, the highest justice is conscience. I have heard this woman. I know what I am doing.” Javert, thunderstruck, replies: “I do not know what I am seeing.” “Then content yourself with obeying,” comes back Madeline. Javert leaves. Fantine “had seen struggling before her very eyes two men who held in their hands her liberty, her life, her soul, her child, one of these men was drawing her to the side of darkness, the other was leading her towards the light… these two men had appeared to her like two giants; one spoke as her demon, the other as her good angel. The angel had vanquished the demon.”

Madeline tells the bewildered Fantine that he knew nothing of her firing and wishes she had come to him. He promises to pay her debts, retrieve her child, and support her. “You shall again become honest in again becoming happy. More than that, listen. I declare to you from this moment, if all is as you say, and I do not doubt it, that you have never ceased to be virtuous and holy before God. Oh, poor woman!”  She falls before him, clasps his hand and kisses it. Then she faints.

***

We are one-sixth of the way through this novel. The first of five parts, titled “Fantine,” is concluded. The second of five parts begins: “Cosette.” We must move more quickly ahead where we will have recourse to the grammatical present tense in much that follows.  We have met most of the main characters and determined the forces at play, so now we will examine the interactions of Monsieur Madeline—whom the reader has perhaps by now perceived to be Jean Valjean—and his antagonists Inspector Javert and the Thenardiers. Fantine dies shortly after the events recorded above, and Madeline is found out by Javert to be the person he suspected all along: Jean Valjean. Recall that Javert had worked in the prison system before coming to his present post; he had known Valjean. Valjean is sent back to prison but makes an escape by feigning drowning while saving another prisoner’s life. He is declared dead, though nobody can find his body. He journeys incognito back to Paris where he makes good on his promise to Fantine to redeem her child Cosette, who is languishing at the Thenardier establishment.

Here, we encounter a back story from the Napoleonic era concerning Monsieur Thenardier. After the Battle of Waterloo (1815), a French Colonel named Baron Pontmercy lies mortally stricken beneath a pile of rubble and human and animal corpses. A scavenger comes along stripping the dead of their valuables and happens upon Pontmercy. During the robber’s predations, the colonel revives and asks the man’s name to reward him, now that he has been pulled from the rubble and will be found in time to survive.  He learns Thenardier’s name and gives his own name in return. Later in life the frail and dying Baron will tell his son Marius of this chance encounter and charge his son with finding Thenardier and rewarding him, believing the villain to be his savior.

We return to Valjean, who after his escape from prison makes his way to the Thenardier tavern and buys the child Cosette from the venal couple. He had previously gone to the Paris bank where his money was invested and withdrawn it, still using the name Madeline. Then he buried his treasure of seven hundred thousand francs in a woods outside Montfermiel. In the years to come Valjean will occasionally return to this spot to “withdraw” cash. His former business declines rapidly in his absence and the anonymous town reverts to poverty and strife.

Valjean’s efforts to rescue Cosette, who is eight, from the Thenardiers’ grasp do not proceed smoothly, as Thenardier tries to raise the price for the girl’s release. Thenardier, not knowing who Valjean is but determining that he is a man of means despite his humble appearance, will remember Valjean and will attempt to blackmail him in the years to come.

Valjean and Cosette make their way to Paris, where they rent an apartment in what is referred to as the Gorbeau tenement. Valjean changes the address of the decrepit hovel to confuse anybody who might inquire: Where are we? Jean Valjean begins an inner pilgrimage in the company of Cosette. “The bishop had caused the dawn of virtue on his horizon; Cosette evoked the dawn of love.” Valjean quickly establishes a reputation in this squalid neighborhood as the beggar who gives alms. After several months the fugitives must flee again. Valjean’s apparent wealth attracted attention and gossip, and on one occasion Valjean thought he recognized Javert, who has transferred to Paris, casing the house.

One night, Valjean and Cosette leave the Gorbeau house and set out to find a new place to live. They are followed by Javert, who is still not fully convinced of Valjean’s identity. Here begins a harrowing journey through the streets and alleyways of old Paris with Javert in pursuit of the man and girl. The two manage to escape by Valjean’s making a heroic ascent up a high stone wall, over which he and Cosette find themselves in a garden. Javert is heard outside, barking orders to the gendarmes. The two, climbing down the wall, for some mysterious reason fall on their knees. They are safe! But soon Cosette grows pallid and sleepy, and he must find shelter for her. Then…

There occurs one of several astonishing events of the novel. Hugo believed in visitations of Divine Providence. Aside from that belief, these events would otherwise appear to be implausible coincidences. Valjean hears someone else in the garden! He approaches the individual only to find that it is the old man Fauchelevent, whom Valjean had saved and restored some years earlier. The old man is the gardener, and this is the convent where Valjean had procured his employment! Mirabile dictu! The two are reunited in wonder and praise to God. “A wonderful joy had, as it were, transfigured the old gardener. A radiance seemed to shine forth from his face.” The gardener’s shack is hidden from view behind the convent, and Fauchelevent takes the two into his care.

Here begins a time of tranquility for Valjean and Cosette. The gardener claims them as relatives and Valjean, who will be known as Ultimus Fauchelevent, is hired on as assistant gardener and caretaker. In his pre-criminal life, Valjean was a pruner, so he and Fauchelevent gradually transform the wasted convent grounds into a miniature Eden. Cosette is taken in by the sisters as a student and receives her education. During this period, Valjean has a harrowing experience where he is nearly buried alive, an experience that turns his hair completely white. But aside from that, this period was one of happiness, joy and even mirth. Cosette’s countenance has changed as well. Her erstwhile gloominess begins to dissipate, and she begins the transformation from girl to young woman. Thus, ends the second part of the novel; the next stage of Jean Valjean’s life will consist of a challenge named “Marius.”

***

The 1830s have begun with our troupe of characters poised for new dramas. The Thenardiers have produced more children in addition to their two daughters Eponine and Azelma. These will all be boys, the eldest of which is known as Gavroche. A mere infant when Valjean rescued Cosette from her life of cruelty and neglect, Gavroche is now eleven or twelve. At some point the despicable couple have turned him out of their home to make his way in the streets of Paris. He is a survivor, having learned the ways of the gamin. “The pavement was not so hard to him as the heart of his mother.” As mentioned previously, thousands of such children scurried around the shadows of the city during the nineteenth century.

Hugo spends five chapters at the beginning of his third part describing the cruel “little gypsy land of children.” In this roguish world, “the gamin of Paris is Rabelais as a child.” Gavroche, moreover, stood high over even that multitude: “He had no shelter, no food, no fire, no love, but he was light-hearted because he was free.” On occasion he would go “home,” to the place where his parents, now displaced by bankruptcy from their tavern in Montfermiel, were currently renting. Its address? 50-52 La Salpêtrière, the very Gorbeau tenement where Valjean and Cosette once huddled. The Thenardiers now scheme behind the name Jondrette.

Next, Hugo introduces us to the young man Marius whose name we have already learned. Marius was the son of Colonel Pontmercy, the cavalry officer injured in the Battle of Waterloo and inadvertently rescued by Thenardier. The colonel had been married to a daughter of Monsieur Gillenormand, an opinionated and dictatorial bourgeois who had spurned Pontmercy after the latter’s wife died. Gillenormand had claimed the son of that union, Marius, as his own, informing the impoverished Pontmercy that it was either to be that way or the grandson was to be disowned. The colonel relented for the sake of the boy, and even though forbidden to have anything to do with Marius, he would make sure to see him at the cathedral.

One day Gillenormand informed Marius that the father was sick and was asking for the boy to visit. Young Marius, then eighteen and having imbibed his grandfather’s bitterness towards Pontmercy, was reluctant to make the trip to Vernon. Alas (or fortunately, he thought), he was too late; his father had died just hours before. Marius felt no grief, but was handed a note from his father telling him of his, Marius,’ right to the title of baron and charging the young man with finding and rewarding Thenardier, the putative deliverer.

Some days later, Marius, who is transiting his own dark night of the soul, goes to church, where he happens to fall into conversation with a Monsieur Mabeuf, one of the church wardens. The warden tells how a sad old man used to come to church every few weeks to view from afar his beloved son, whom he was forbidden to contact. As they talk, Marius realizes that the warden is describing his father. A complete change of heart comes over Marius, who from henceforth will be his father’s champion and Gillenormand’s enemy.

Recoiling from his grandfather’s doctrines, Marius falls in with a group of radicals. These individuals will form the ranks of those who will later rise against the Bourbon monarchy in the year 1832. Marius does not immediately nor completely identify with these sympathetically drawn figures, but they will play an important role in his affairs in the months and years to come. “Marius had fallen into a mental wasps’ nest. Still, although silent and serious, he was not the less winged, nor the less armed.”

Marius cuts himself off, socially and financially, from his grandfather’s care and takes up the life of a melancholic, penniless intellectual. Somehow these types always seem to survive and even prosper in revolutionary eras. Enflamed poverty: “Crucible into which destiny casts a man whenever she desires a scoundrel or a demi-god.” Marius becomes the heroic counterpart to Thenardier, whom he still seeks for his father’s honor.

Gillenormand, on the other hand, undergoes his own conversion of heart. After three years of alienation from his grandson he yearns for Marius’ return. Meanwhile, Marius begins to take long walks around Paris, most especially in the lovely Luxembourg Gardens. Like a young Werther full of the Weltschmertz of dreams without object, Marius waits only for destiny to come to him, which shortly it will.

It is at this precise moment, and at the precise middle of the novel, that Marius notices for the first time a couple seated on a bench and talking. The man seems perhaps sixty, with white hair, dressed well but demurely, while alongside him sits a pretty maiden, not quite an adult, no longer a child. Day after day he notices them, and then loses sight of them for some months. He thinks little of it, but then one day, as he passes that way again, he sees the couple once more. “In six months the little girl had become a young woman; that was all. Nothing is more frequent than this phenomenon. There is a moment when girls bloom out in a twinkling and become roses all at once. Yesterday we left them children, today we find them dangerous.” This is Cosette, now beautiful. She returns Marius’ glance. He is smitten.

One thing more. As Marius Pontmercy slips deeper into poverty, he must move several times, each being a less desirable abode. His current address is known to us: 50-52 La Salpêtrière, the grotto we know as Gorbeau. Yes! Marius lives in the room next to Thenardier, the man his father wishes him to honor. Marius is of course unaware of the miserable family’s identity.

Thenardier, who has already abandoned his oldest son, Gavroche, has farmed out the two others to a woman who has lost her own two sons to sickness. Later, even this woman will lose custody of the boys and they will be seen in a heartbreaking scene, wandering in Paris hand-in-hand, looking for a place to sleep. His two daughters, however, still live with him as well as the Thenardiess, as his wife is called. Clothed in rags, the two teenage girls assist their father in his scams and other crimes, including, it is suspected, prostitution. He often posts the girls to busy places or at parades where they can trace the unsuspecting to their homes, learn a bit about them, and—if it is thought profitable—dun them for money. Thenardier is a writer manquè, enabling him to craft letters of faux sophistication which the girls carry to these ‘marks’ for a handout. “Two miserable beings, who were neither children, nor girls, nor women, a species of impure yet innocent monsters produced by misery.”

One night, Marius is walking near the Gorbeau tenement when the two girls run past him and drop a bundle of papers. The gendarmes are pursuing them. He puts the papers in his pocket and resumes his way. Some time later the older, Eponine, comes to his room with a letter from her father, thanking Marius for paying his rent some months earlier, and soliciting his further charity. Marius had given his last few franks when he learned the family would be turned out and had then forgotten the incident. Yet here was this strange girl in his room, gaunt, filthy, clothed in thin rags, but marked with a tragic beauty. Marius gives her the packet of papers, and she is relieved; but she lingers. She fondles his clothes, shows him she can read and write, and shares with him how starvation is affecting her. She is falling in love with her handsome neighbor and will play a large role in his fortunes.

Eponine is perhaps the most pathetic figure in the novel and is drawn with a care and tenderness that not even Cosette can approach. Through Eponine, Marius glimpses true poverty for the first time. A kind of moral awakening takes hold of him. “This young girl was to Marius a sort of messenger from the night.” He becomes conscious of this unfortunate family, and notices for the first time that there is a break in the plaster between their two rooms that allows him to see how they live. The scene beyond the wall is like a vision of hell that contrasts with his own clean and orderly room. Within that squalor there was no industry. “It was that gloomy idleness which follows despair, and which precedes the death agony.”

As he was about to climb down from the table from which he viewed his neighbors, the door opened to that nether-world and Eponine entered all excited. Someone was coming, someone she had approached with one of the letters he father sent with her. Thenardier wanted specifics, but there was no time. In a moment “a man of mature age and a young girl appeared at the door of the garret.” Marius cannot believe his eyes: It is She, Cosette! Marius, half-drunk with wonder and surprise, nearly loses his balance. He manages to remain secret and watches what unfolds. Thenardier, a.k.a. Jondrette, lays out his sob story to Valjean, whom the villain is beginning to remember from eight years before. He must have sixty francs by 8 that evening, he tells Valjean. Valjean, not recognizing Thenardier, tells the shyster he will return at 6 with the money. He and Cosette depart.

Some time later Eponine again comes to Marius’ room. She wonders what is wrong with Monsieur Marius. He tells her that there is nothing, but that if she can find the address of the man and his daughter that he will give her, Eponine, “anything.” Eponine is sad, knowing that he is in love with the girl, but she promises that “You shall have the beautiful young lady’s address.”

Jondrette immediately sets to work on a scheme to blackmail Valjean. He discusses the extortion with his wife, all which Marius overhears, and then goes out to prepare the trap for Valjean. There is a criminal gang in the neighborhood; he goes out to gather them together for his plot. The plan is to capture and torture Valjean so that he will summon Cosette. She will then be held until Valjean goes to retrieve his fortune. There is much to be done by 6 o’clock.

Marius, still unaware of Jondrette’s real identity, decides that he must go into town and summon the police and put them on the case. Once there, Marius encounters Inspector Javert and tells him what he knows. The inspector gives Marius two pistols and tells him to go back and observe events. He, Javert, will be outside with backup. Marius is to fire one of the pistols just as things reach a critical point, presumably the use of torture. Marius goes home and resumes his lookout post. At 6 o’clock, Valjean shows up and takes a seat in the Jondrette room, Jondrette grovels, but soon other, muscular men come into the room and surround Valjean. Jondrette, suddenly animated, discloses his real identity to Valjean (also to Marius, who is watching) and begins a monologue that spans perhaps half an hour. During this hate-filled diatribe, Thenardier insults Colonel Pontmercy while telling a fabricated tale of heroism at Waterloo. He brags to Valjean, whom he now considers his inferior, laying out the various impersonations he has used to defraud people. “There was in all these words of Thenardier, in his tone, in his gestures, in his look which flashed out flames at every word, there was in this explosion of an evil nature exposing its entire self, in this mixture of braggadocio and abjectness, of pride and pettiness, of rage and folly in this chaos of real grievances and false sentiments, in this shamelessness of a wicked man tasting the sweetness of violence, in this brazen nakedness of a deformed soul, in this conflagration of every suffering combined with every hatred, something which was as hideous as evil and as sharp and bitter as the truth.”

Valjean sits silent and unafraid during this spectacle. He is instructed to write a note to Cosette to come to him but gives a false address. The Thenardiess takes the note to the address and returns emptyhanded. Valjean has gained some time and has slipped out of his ropes. Meanwhile, Marius is confused, not knowing what to do. Tired of the game, Thenardier decides to kill Valjean when Marius sees the paper on which Eponine has scribbled her writing. And what had she written? “The cops are here.” The young man grabs the piece of paper and wraps a shard of broken plaster in it. This he throws through his spyhole so that it lands on the floor before the malefactors, who think Eponine—posted as sentry—has thrown it through a broken window. In the panic and bedlam that follows, Valjean escapes through the window and Javert makes his arrival at the door of the room. He and his gendarmes round up the gang, including the Thenardiess and two girls, and transport them to prison. The girls are soon released, and now they too are on their own.

***

Here begins the fourth part of the book, titled “The Epic on the Rue Saint-Denis and the Idyll of the Rue Plumet.” The epic refers to the attempted revolution still to come. The idyll refers to the address of the house to which Valjean and Cosette have moved following their departure from the convent. It is yet another of those gothic ruins, dating from the preceding century, that stood like a ruined Greek structure before the uncomprehending Myceneans. Marius now moves as well, and is cut off from everything: his grandfather, the Thenardiers and their criminal mayhem, and Cosette. He is sitting one day some weeks later in a park when he is approached by Eponine, who had been looking for him. “Eponine; he now knew her name. Singular fact, she had become more wretched and more beautiful, two steps which seemed impossible…. She had spears of straw and grass in her hair, not like Ophelia from having gone mad through the contagion of Hamlet’s madness, but because she had slept in some stable loft. And with all this, she was beautiful.”

Eponine is treated coldly by Marius but tells him she has the address he had asked for. His own misery immediately lifts, which she sees. She is sad and agrees to take him to Cosette’s house. He offers to pay her, but she refuses: “I don’t want your money.”

Hugo provides the backstory of how Valjean and Cosette left the convent and now live on the Rue Plumet. Valjean did not wish to condemn Cosette to the life of a nun, even though he had come to suspect that a young stranger had taken an interest in her. Added to this decision was that old Fauchelevent had died. The move distressed Valjean, who knew that the beautiful Cosette would soon find a suitor. He resolved to stave off that eventuality as long as possible; he assumed a protective posture that would frighten the young Marius. But he knew his protection of Cosette was futile. “This man who had passed through every distress, who was still all bleeding from the lacerations of his destiny, who had been almost evil, and who had become almost holy, who, after having dragged the chain of the galleys, now dragged the invisible but heavy chain of indefinite infamy, this man whom the law had not released and who might be at any instant retaken, and led back from the darkness of his virtue to the broad light of public shame, this man accepted all, excused all, pardoned all, blessed all, wished well to all, and only asked of Providence, of men, of the laws, of society, of nature, of the world, this one thing, that Cosette should love him!”

It so happened, again according to the working of this same Providence, that Thenardier and his gang would escape from prison and would be looking for homes to plunder. The home on the Rue Plumet came into their sights. But it also came into the sight of Marius Pontmercy, who began to pay the home and its back garden nocturnal visits. One night, he left a packet of his pensées on a bench, which Cosette discovered the next morning. She entered a time of reverie, thinking only of him, just as he was thinking only of her. The next night, she was in the garden alone; when she turned, He was there! Awkward at first, Marius professed his love for her. The two embraced, and then kissed.  They sat down and talked into the early hours of the morning. Finally, almost as an afterthought, they shared their names. They will see each other every night. “Jean Valjean suspected nothing.”

Their love is of the purest form, untainted by more modern notions of sexual gratification. “It seemed to Cosette that Marius had a crown, and to Marius that Cosette had a halo. They touched each other, they beheld each other, they clasped each other’s hands, they pressed closely to each other; but there was a distance which they did not pass. Not that they respected it; they were ignorant of it. Marius felt a barrier, the purity of Cosette, and Cosette felt a support, the loyalty of Marius.”

There was another who loved Marius. Eponine, who had led Marius to the house days prior, sometimes followed Marius to the Rue Plumet house and remained outside while Marius and Cosette embraced in the garden. One night she had taken this lonely vigil, sitting on a hidden bench. A group of men approached stealthily. She recognized them at once; one was her father, and the other five were members of a greatly-feared criminal gang. A remarkable scene ensues. She surprises them by asking what they are doing. They tell her they have work to do and that she should run along. She refuses. They will not be up to any of their dark deeds at this house, she warns them. Her own father threatens to kill her if she does not get out of the way. Still, she refuses. “The devil! I am not afraid. This summer, I shall be hungry; this winter, I shall be cold. Are they fools, these geese of men, to think that they can make a girl afraid? Because you have hussies of mistresses who hide under the bed when you raise your voice, it won’t do here! I, I am not afraid of anything…Not even you, father.”  Fearless in spirit, contemptuous of her own life, she prevails, and the bandits retreat to their private lairs. One of them asks another if he still has a key, most likely to an illicit asylum somewhere.

A day or so later, Valjean informs Cosette that they may have to move to England. More to remove Cosette from Marius than any other consideration, Valjean’s jealousy is rising. But there are also intimations of danger, as when Valjean sees Thenardier prowling around the neighborhood.  One day, sitting in a secluded area of a park, a piece of paper is dropped next to Valjean by a slight androgynous figure running away. The note is only two words: MOVE OUT. This can only have come from Eponine, worried that her father and his gang will return to the Rue Plumet.

Meanwhile, Marius goes to his grandfather to ask permission to marry Cosette. The old man in his nineties, secretly thrilled to see Marius again, parries lightheartedly with him, which Marius interprets as disrespect towards Cosette. The bourgeois libertinism of the patriarch clashes with the romantic puritanism of the young man, and Marius walks out, leaving his grandfather thunderstruck and gasping for help.

Marius, now full of an “immense despair,” returned again to his revolutionary friends, who were his only link with humanity beyond Cosette. He still had Javert’s two pistols, which he put in his pockets. “It would be difficult to say what dark thoughts he had in his mind in taking them with him.” He walks the streets, deep in troubled thoughts, and when it turns dark, he heads for Rue Plumet. It had been two days, and now he finds the house deserted and no Cosette in the garden. Overwhelmed by gloom, he stands, unsure of his next act. At that moment, a voice comes through the shrubs from outside the fence: “Monsieur Marius, your friends are expecting you at the barricade, in the Rue de la Chanverie.” He recognizes the voice, but the speaker has departed. Marius sets out to join his friends the revolutionaries, and thus begins the epic events that are known as the uprising of 1832.

***

Marius joins his comrades at their favorite coffee-house, before which the barricade is already taking shape. Little Gavroche is everywhere, like a fly to a horse. “He was a kind of stimulating ubiquity; no stop possible with him. The enormous barricade felt him on its back. He vexed the loungers, he urged on the idle, he reanimated the weary, he provoked the thoughtful, kept some in cheerfulness, others in breath, others in anger, all in motion.”  His younger brothers are not with him. Most likely he will not allow them to be put in more danger than necessary. A tall stranger appears among the radicals. Gavroche recognizes him as Javert and informs his comrades. They seize Javert and tie him up, determining to execute him when the time is propitious. “The mouse has caught the cat,” Gavroche taunts. The boy, rapidly becoming a man, demands, and receives, Javert’s musket.

Marius passes through a time of doubt, but at last decides to throw in his lot with the insurrectionists. Before he can move, however, a burst of grapeshot from government troops announces that the battle will soon be joined. Soon, a squad of infantrymen approach the barricade. Gavroche alerts his comrades of their coming and teases the troops as they approach. The insurrectionists counterattack, halting the attack. One of the troops, however, has taken aim at Gavroche, but before he can consummate his act is dropped by a shot from behind the barricade. It is Marius, who has joined his friends, knowing their cause is doomed, but determined to let his end come in a blaze of glory.

As the battle rages back and forth, a sharpshooter takes aim at Marius. Before he can get off his shot, however, a hand is raised from the smoke and blunts the shot. Marius, spared by this accident of turmoil, is made the chief of the insurgents. The government forces, having taken more casualties than expected, drop back to await the next morning. Marius moves from behind the barricade to survey the field of battle. As he is finishing up his reconnaissance, he hears a small voice calling his name. He turns, and sees Eponine, mortally wounded. She it was who blunted the shot intended for him. Yes, the shot exited her hand, but had struck her through the chest. She is dying and asks Marius to sit near her. He does so, and she lays her head on his lap. Here ensues the moment of sublimest pathétique contained in this great novel.

“’Nobody will get out of this barricade, now,’” she tells him. “’It was I who led you into this, it was! You are going to die, I am sure. And still when I saw him aiming at you, I put up my hand upon the muzzle of the musket. How droll it is! But it was because I wanted to die before you…. Now I am well…’ She had a wandering, grave, and touching air. Marius gazed upon this unfortunate creature with profound compassion.” She tells Marius she has a letter in her smock. It was given her yesterday while she was disguised as a boy and she withheld it from the young lover. It is from Cosette. “’Take it,’” she tells him. He does so. “’Now, for my pains, promise me…” “What?’” asks Marius. “’Promise me! Promise to kiss me on the forehead when I am dead. I shall feel it… And then, do you know, Monsieur Marius, I believe I was a little in love with you.’” She smiles, and then dies. Marius keeps his promise.

He reads the letter. Cosette is still in Paris! Valjean could not manage passports so quickly. Marius writes a note to Cosette at the new address given in her letter to him. He tells her that due to his grandfather’s intransigence their marriage was impossible, and that he is now at the Barricade and will die. He promises to be near her even after death. He gives the note to Gavroche with instructions to leave the barricade but to wait until morning to deliver it. He then writes on a second note his name and the address of his grandfather. “My name is Marius Pontmercy. Carry my corpse to my grandfather’s, M. Gillenormand, Rue des Filles du Calvaire, No. 6, in the Marais.” This he keeps in his pocket. Little Gavroche, however, has his own plans. Since it is only midnight, he will take the letter immediately and be back in time for the main attack in the morning. He too wishes to die.

Valjean, who had secretly maintained this second residence in the event of an emergency, brought his relationship with Cosette to a crisis by uprooting her so suddenly. His new sense of security, on the other hand, gives him great ease of mind—until he discovers imprinted on Cosette’s blotter the very note she had earlier sent Marius via Eponine. A shudder of revulsion comes over him; he immediately knows who the man is. “He looked within himself, and there he saw a spectre, Hatred.” Valjean, in a daze of confusion and revulsion, wanders out of the house into the street.

At that very moment, Gavroche appears in front of The Rue de l’Homme Arme, Cosette’s new address.  Gavroche treats Valjean with ironic contempt, saluting him using the greatest swear-word in the French language, “Bourgeois!” Valjean engages him in repartee, telling him that he is there to receive the letter and that he will take it to Mademoiselle Cosette. He gives the scamp five francs and goes into the house to read what the letter says. There, he reads of Marius’ determination to die. Valjean is relieved; the problem will resolve itself. But this sits heavy on his conscience, so a bit later he puts on his National Guard uniform and heads downtown to the barricade. Cosette has heard nothing, for she is asleep.

***

Here the fifth part of the book, “Jean Valjean,” commences. It is two o’clock in the morning when Valjean reaches the barricade. He has passed the sentries because of his uniform. Behind the barricade a drama has been in play: five members of the remaining thirty-seven had been selected to depart in order to be spared for their families’ sake. But there were only four uniforms from National Guards who had been killed. Valjean approaches and adds his uniform to the other four, sealing his own fate.  Now all five can be saved. There is rejoicing. “Who is this man?” asks one of the radicals. “He is a man who saves others,” replies another, echoing the words of scripture about Jesus spoken at the High Priest Caiaphas: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people that the whole nations should not perish” (John 11:50). The insurrectionists, haggard and hungry, prepare for the end. Paris, it is perceived, is not rising with them. Their revolution is doomed. They resolve to die.

During a lull in the firing, Jean Valjean and Javert meet eye to eye. Javert is still in ropes; it has been decided that he will be killed ten minutes before the barricade is breached. On seeing Jean Valjean before him, he says only: “It is very natural.” Gavroche, taking a basket, runs out into the field of fire and begins to collect guns and cartridges from the fallen soldiers. “It was not a child; it was not a man; it was a strange fairy gamin. One would have said the invulnerable dwarf of the mêlée.” Bullets from the royalist guns whistle about him; he ignores them.  Finally, a marksman hits him; but he rises, faces the man who shot him, and, though bloodied, begins to sing a revolutionary song. Then he is cut down. “That great little soul had taken flight.”

The time is now shortly before dawn. The barricade begins to crumble under an assault of cannon fire. Two of Thenardier’s children are dead. Marius, exhausted, is beginning to flag. The defenses are falling, and it is decided that Javert must be shot. Valjean, who has exhibited great heroism all during his time with the insurgents, asks that he might have that privilege. Declaring that Javert’s body is not to fall among the faithful, Valjean takes him around a corner to finish him. When alone, Valjean fires his gun into the air, cuts Javert free and tells him his address. He will surrender to him after this is all over.  Javert flees and returns to his superiors.

Ten times the barricade is besieged, ten times defended. Yet at last the besieged are decimated, and troops drive them back into the tavern, where they will make their last stand. Hugo’s description of this assault, the defense of the republican radicals, and the carnage of nineteenth-century warfare, is true to the depths of gory verismo. The end of the insurrection rapidly approaches.

Marius falls, struck in the head by a ball. Valjean, who has been tending the wounded, grabs his body and takes shelter in a crevice of the shattered building. He wonders what he is to do. The troops will soon find him. He sees a sewer grate, pulls it aside, takes the body of Marius, and descends into the sewers of Paris, closing the grate behind him. It will be recalled that Valjean is a large man, and though nearing sixty, is muscular and lithe. “The impression which he had formerly felt in falling from the street into the convent came back to him. Only, what he was now carrying away was not Cosette; it was Marius.”

***

“Jean Valjean has fallen from one circle of Hell to another,” write Hugo. He reckons his location and his route to freedom, and is unsure. The cloaca is dark, cold and fetid. Here begins a journey of some four miles through mire, sewage and blind uncertainty. Valjean enters his descent into the underworld to join the company of those who—like Christ Himself, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Orpheus, Jonah, the Fellowship of the Ring—are partakers of a spiritual journey through death to life.  “He went forward, anxious but calm, seeing nothing, knowing nothing, plunged into chance, that is to say, swallowed up in Providence.” Fear and gloom come soon enough. Marius grows heavy on the strong man’s back, and the police are beginning to search the sewer. “Lack of sleep, want of food, emotions, had thrown him also into the visionary state.” He begins to hallucinate.

At this point we come back to Javert, who after his deliverance at the barricade has gone to headquarters and then returns to his patrol. An implacable sense of duty drives this sleepless man. At this moment, he has a suspicious figure in his sights along the bank of the Seine. The suspect is moving in a direction without an outlet, so Javert moves carefully but with assurance that he will have his man. Coming around a corner, however, the fugitive has disappeared, literally vanished. Carefully searching the area, Javert notes that the only escape possible is through a grated sewer terminal. Paris’ effluence flows through it into the river. But the grate is locked, the heavy padlock in plain sight. Whoever this was must have a key and is safely out of reach. Javert will serve as sentry here for the next several hours. Nobody could long survive that black ooze.

Meanwhile, Valjean follows the descending corridors of the cloaca. Groping blindly along wet, slimy walls, Valjean wades through the “hideous muck of the city” in search of salvation.  It is now four o’clock in the afternoon of June 6; to emerge into the streets above is certain capture by the authorities, who have the city on lockdown. Marius is perhaps dead; Jean Valjean does not know. His journey is far from over. He is exhausted and harassed by biting rats, but he finds a place to rest and stanch the bleeding of Marius. He determines that his onus is still alive. He finds a bit of bread in one of Marius’ pockets along with the note the young man had written identifying himself. Valjean eats the bread, revives and continues his journey toward the Seine; the day wears on into evening. “The darkness suddenly became terrible… He felt that he was entering the water, and that he had under his feet, pavement no longer, but mud.”

Ahead, the darkness is stygian, the sewer “a mudhole in the cavern of night.” Higher and higher comes the water, while the pilgrim plunges on with his heavy burden. Will this be the end? Is he to drown in the cloaca? On he goes, desperation rising in his mind. The water is up to his neck, and he can only with difficulty keep Marius’ face in the little air left. Suddenly, his foot strikes something solid. It is a step, a platform of some kind. “It was time,” writes our author. “He rose and writhed and rooted himself upon this support with a sort of fury. It produced the effect upon him of the first step of a staircase reascending towards life.”

Valjean now stands on a walkway. It is still pitch-black, but he has come through the waters of death. He nearly collapses, so he rests and repositions Marius. Soon, he continues his way when to his joy he finally sees the light of the outlet far ahead. Invigorated by this, our hero hurries ahead to make his way back into the world of men. Approaching the outlet, he—alas!—discovers that it will not let him escape. There is a grate, and on the grate a giant double lock. “It was over. All that Jean Valjean had done was useless. God was denying him.” “Of whom did he think in this overwhelming dejection? Neither of himself nor of Marius. He thought of Cosette.” His Bernice, his Laura, his Dulcinea, his Mary!

In this delirium of grief, Jean Valjean thinks he hears a voice whispering: “Go halves.” Looking up, he sees a man standing before him. It is Thenardier. Valjean cannot be more astonished than is the reader by this prodigy. “A certain degree of distress is no longer capable of crescendo,” writes Hugo. The man does not recognize Valjean, who, to be sure, was physically altered by his harrowing, black journey. Thenardier says he would like to help this stranger, whom he takes to be a fellow criminal, probably an assassin who has come through the cloaca to dispose of the body. “Listen, comrade, you haven’t killed that man without looking to what he had in his pockets. Give me my half. I will open the door for you.”

Valjean is struck dumb by this turn of affairs. “It was Providence appearing in the guise of horror, and the good angel springing out of the ground under the form of Thenardier.” Valjean has only about 30 francs, so the criminal takes it all, muttering that Valjean has killed the man too cheaply. Nevertheless, the old criminal opens the door for Valjean, ushers him outside, and quickly locks himself back in.

After a few moments in the welcome air and light of the early evening, Valjean is aware of another presence behind him. He turns to face Javert. In a moment the police officer recognizes Valjean, who, it will be remembered, had set him free not many hours earlier. The two share a common bewilderment. Valjean asks Javert for one favor before he promises to surrender: That he be allowed to take Marius to his grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand. Javert thinks a moment, then calls for a fiacre that he has standing by and takes the young man to his relative. The ride is spent in a cold silence. Javert is convinced that the young man, whom he knows to be an insurrectionist, is dead. They deliver him to the porter at Gillenormand’s, but do not waken the old man. Valjean and Javert depart.

Valjean asks one more favor, that he be allowed to go to his home for a brief stop. Javert assents and waits outside for him. When Valjean reaches the balcony, he looks out; the inspector had disappeared.

***

Marius is taken into the Gillenormand home and laid out on a table. A doctor is called. Monsieur Gillenormand wakes up and intrudes upon the scene playing out around the young man. He keens a lament, blaming himself for the fate of his grandson. While this swoon of anger and grief exhausts itself in the parlor, and while Gillenormand tells the doctor to go because the young man is dead, Marius opens his eyes and gazes uncomprehendingly on his grandfather. Giving thanks, the old man drops unconscious.

Javert, meanwhile, is on another trajectory. After leaving Valjean’s place he walks to the Seine, where he rests his arms on a parapet and falls into deep thought. “There had been a new thing, a revolution, a catastrophe in the depths of his being: and there was matter for self-examination… A beneficent malefactor, a compassionate convict, kind, helpful, clement, returning good for evil, returning pardon for hatred, loving pity rather than vengeance, preferring to destroy himself rather than to destroy his enemy, saving him who had stricken him, kneeling upon the height of virtue, nearer the angels than men. Javert was compelled to acknowledge that this monster existed. This could not last.”

Beneath this place of sudden and tortured self-awareness, there is a rapids that is especially treacherous, which can defeat any swimmer. Javert stands for some minutes, then mounts the parapet and jumps. He perishes under the waters.

The novel quickly moves ahead. Marius is four months in recovery before the doctor declares him out of danger. He has head wounds caused more by concussion than from projectiles as well as a broken shoulder blade. Every day a man with white hair visits, bringing bandages. Nothing is known of this man except that it was he who brought the young man home that terrible night. They refer to him as M. Fouchelevent. M. Gillenormand, formerly profane, has become religious and is sometimes seen kneeling in prayer for the grandson. Marius remains silent concerning Cosette but thinks of her constantly. He is cold to his grandfather, understanding little that is happening to him, ignorant of how he got where he is, sure only that he must have Cosette, or die.

***

Let us break off here. We have long passed ten thousand words. The reader will have plenty of surprises still to come. One of these surprises serves the purposes of the divine Providence that has led our protagonists and antagonists thus far. It remains only to tell that Marius is reconciled to his grandfather, that he and Cosette are at last married, and that Jean Valjean, known to them only as Monsieur Fauchelevent, endows them with a great deal of money. That is not the end of the story, however. We must still account for Valjean’s true identity, how it was that Marius was rescued, what has become of Thenardier, and Valjean’s spiritual apotheosis. Our author, Hugo, wastes nothing. No detail from the past is left thrown aside without being picked up and used again, no mystery left unexplained other than the fate of the two remaining Thenardier boys (Madame Thenardier had died in prison some time earlier). All our dear characters are together, and except for Marius, who remains only temporarily miserable, a time of happiness and contentment descends upon the scene at Gillenormand’s home.

Let us hear the author’s words concerning his purpose in writing this magnificent book. “The book which the reader has now before his eyes is, from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever may be the intermissions, the exceptions, or the defaults, the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point; matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.”

If my patient reader has come this far, I confide in conclusion that this book has affected me as few books ever have. Though Victor Hugo was in many ways a man of mystical fantasies and imperfect morals, he has created in Valjean a hero worthy of veneration. I can only say that I wish I could write like Hugo, but know that to be impossible; but to be like Valjean a man in Christ, so long as there is breath left, and time, all things are possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solzhenitsyn Redivivus: Jordan Peterson, the Man and His Book

Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Canadian Psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, is a best-selling book written with the purpose of helping modern people avoid unhappy lives by learning to manage the chaos that besets all of us. Peterson does not say we should seek to avoid chaos; rather, he suggests we must learn to walk the fine line between chaos and order, the boundary of existence where our true fulfillment lies. “I hope that these rules and their accompanying essays will help people understand what they already know,” he writes, “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life.”

Peterson is well-known for his passionate and clear teaching style as evidenced by the millions of viewers of his many online lectures. He has been interviewed dozens of times by those who see him as either friend or foe. For a time, he taught at Harvard, winning prestigious teaching awards along the way, and currently is a professor at the University of Toronto. His many academic articles, and his previous book, Maps of Meaning, have earned him respect, if not agreement, from the very postmodern academics whose first principles he relentlessly questions.

Peterson is a serious man. To me, that is the highest compliment one can pay him. In these times of spiritual frivolity and philosophical nescience, Peterson provides a model of earnest intellectual coherence. His primary concern is the moral regeneration of his readers and, through that, the deliverance of western civilization from ideologies of the left. He draws on the insights of Carl Jung, primarily, and through Jung, the insights of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Erich Neumann.

A central leitmotiv of Peterson’s writing and speaking is Jung’s reformulation of the mythological importance of the Male and Female archetypes. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche where that philosopher is his descriptive and lachrymose best. The novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn figure prominently in his thinking. Peterson’s foreword to the recent Vintage Classic version of The Gulag Archipelago is a masterpiece in its own right.

Peterson is an empiricist. That is, he constantly checks his facts and their interpretations against experience, instead of against any sense of what things ought to be. He is an inductive thinker and teacher, drawing on his own psycho-therapeutic practice, which he has maintained through the years. He refuses to abide by the deductive, ideological arguments of older and latter-day Marxists. He is essentially realist rather than idealist. This philosophical orientation has flummoxed many of his interviewers, who view him through the prism of their left-wing worldviews.

His early 2018 interview by British journalist Cathy Newman is an example of the progressive inability to either comprehend or tame Peterson. Throughout the interview Ms. Newman repeats the refrain “So, what you’re saying is…” in such a manner as to completely invert Peterson’s careful and logical arguments. The video of this interview has gone viral and Newman’s blithesome formula is now an internet meme.

Before turning to a review of 12 Rules proper, it is necessary to comment on Peterson’s relationship to Christianity in general and to Jesus Christ in particular. His YouTube lectures on the New Testament and the Bible are among his most popular, and in his books,  Peterson makes generous use of the words of Jesus. He refers to God as his “Father,” indicating a theistic understanding of the Deity. But is the man a Christian? He makes no claim either way and has been known to consider himself agnostic.  Yet his constant turning to the words of Jesus (though not Paul) would indicate deep allegiance of some kind, though perhaps to a Christ as refracted through the existentialist categories of Soren Kierkegaard, Rudolf Bultmann or even Teilhard de Chardin. It is probably wisest for most evangelical believers to take Peterson on his own terms, as a friend of the gospel and its spiritual efficacy as a civilizing and personal moral force. In missiological terms, Peterson is a “person of peace” to Christian believers as they find their existence increasingly imperiled in a culture that was once friendly to them. Evangelicals are among his most enthusiastic audiences.

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Twelve Rules for Life is written in the form of a musical composition, beginning with an “overture” and ending with a “coda.” The “rules” themselves are not clear-cut variations on a theme but instead come to us as discursions on the state of western culture. Peterson draws deeply on his own clinical practice to offer up both diagnosis and course of treatment for the pathologies he uncovers.  He freely shares experiences from his own family, while pencil sketches of his two children Mikhaila (note the Russianization) and Julian form the frontispiece to each chapter. At times painfully personal, at other times almost bafflingly mystical, the contents of these chapters are at best only obliquely related to the rules as they appear on the eponymous coffee cups and posters that have proliferated. Those who know the twelve rules merely as pop-culture artifacts will have little clue to their richer meaning.

Let’s take the rules one by one and try to find the core argument in each. But a word of caution is in order. In describing the rules, we run the peril of abstracting his meaning from the art and beauty of the message, as though to describe the phrasing, tones and theory of a Beethoven piano sonata were to communicate what the music does to and for us. To access the true Jordan Peterson is to read the book in its totality.

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Rule 1. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” This is only secondarily concerned with posture and self-confidence. It is instead a sustained examination of the place of hierarchy in nature, history and culture. Here one finds Peterson’s famous example of the pecking (pinching?)  order, so to speak, of lobsters. Here, also, Peterson introduces a cantus firmus, or a kind of bass line, that will weave its way through all subsequent chapters: The eternal dance between chaos and order, or, in Jungian terms, between the feminine and the masculine impulses of reality.

Rule 2. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” This is a continuation of the first rule, but here the yin-and-yang, male-and-female impulses of creation are spelled out in greater detail. The traits of order, the primordial maleness, are “tribe, religion, hearth, home and country;” these traits are necessary for sustaining civilization and eudaimonia, or human flourishing.  But, as Peterson writes, “order is not enough.” True human progress depends on the incursion of chaos into order and the pushback that results. “To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure… You need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged… That is where meaning is to be found.” Being responsible for one’s own wellbeing is living in that sweet spot.

A theme throughout Peterson’s writing is the pervasive nature of suffering that attends human existence. Here his debt to Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn is most clear. Life is tragic, with its own set of regulating mechanisms that seem to pay little attention to our best efforts. But it gets worse. Tragedy or meaningless suffering are not the only, nor even the primary, dark sides of human life. That distinction goes to the presence of evil in our history. The story of Adam and Eve, as well as Cain and Abel, is the guiding paradigm here: We are not merely the passive sufferers of a “nature red in tooth and claw,” but active agents of our own moral destruction. “Who can deny the sense of existential guilt that pervades human experience,” Peterson asks. “That’s a second as-yet-unhealed fracture in the structure of Existence. That’s the transformation of Being itself into a moral [as opposed to a mere physical] endeavor.”

What is Peterson’s counsel at this apparently hopeless impasse? “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly,” he urges us to ask. “You need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.” These words adumbrate Rule 6, the one about setting your own house in order before criticizing the world, but they also lead into Rule 3.

Rule 3. “Make friends with people who want the best for you.” Drawing on his years as a teenager in northern Alberta, Peterson tells of his friend Chris, who will appear in various chapters of the book. Chris, a very bright young man with great potential but compromised by a poor home life, surrounded himself with friends who pulled him down to chronic failure. This kind of self-sabotage, Peterson explains, has a psychological name: “repetition compulsion.” It is a condition aided by multitudes of “caring” people, many of them professionals, who use the suffering of others “to brandish as evidence of the world’s injustice.” Be in no hurry to rescue the fallen, Peterson concludes. “You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse.”

Rule 4. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” All the world’s a stage to millions of people, Peterson seems to say, and they are all in a race to be the next superstar. But the reality is, few will make it, and those who don’t may either settle for failure or blame their misfortune on someone or something. This is a misunderstanding of basic life principles, Peterson writes, which dictate that the greatest benefits of society come from a vital few, to whom most of us owe a great deal. Our approach should be a humble one: correct one small habit, perhaps the urge to be resentful. “Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning… Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see. And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.”

Rule 5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” Peterson tells of the habits whereby parents ruin the lives of their children through overindulgence, on the one hand, or anger and hatred, on the other. In either case they create a monster. It is a fact that some children can be recalcitrant, refusing to eat, socialize with other children, or fall asleep. Others can be delightfully compliant and well adjusted. He contends that the cliché that “there are no bad children, only bad parents” is dangerously naïve. Likewise, he has little patience with the idea that the fault of unruly children can be laid at the feet of society in general.

For Peterson, there is no such thing as a “noble savage,” the notion that if peoples of the world are left alone, they will form happy and productive children and families. The Rousseauian society unspoiled by religion and civilization is a pipe dream, Peterson declares, mainly because all societies, like the individuals within them, are corrupt and evil. The story of Cain and Abel is central to Peterson’s understanding of human experience and, like his hero Solzhenitsyn, Peterson sees the battle for goodness and truth as raging within the individual rather than between groups of individuals.

It is up to parents to raise decent children. This can be one of life’s greatest challenges. “It is no simple matter to organize a mind,” he writes, but parents must try. Discipline and punishment are both necessary. The opposite is to invite chaos into their homes and marriages and into society at large. Poorly socialized children will lead terrible lives, he says, and if a child is not socialized by the age of four there is little chance of its leading a happy life. “More often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason.” Parents want to relate to their children as friends, but this is a mistake. “Friends have very limited authority to correct.” Disciplining, even spanking, is warranted. Peterson has little regard for the contemporary cliché that “hitting children only teaches them to hit.” This is to confuse hitting and punishment, the difference between which even children understand. “To unthinkingly parrot the magic line ‘There is no excuse for physical punishment’ is also to foster the delusion that teenage devils magically emerge from once-innocent little child-angels.”

Peterson provides several positive principles to help distracted parents win the war with their children, even insisting that it takes two parents to raise a child. “I’m not saying we should be mean to single mothers, many of whom struggle impossibly and courageously—but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that all family forms are equally viable. They’re not. Period.”

Struggling parents will find a great deal of encouragement from this chapter, which is one of the strongest in the book.

Rule 6. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” There is much catastrophe, tragedy, injustice and pain in the world, so much so that happiness and order seem at times miraculous. Often, the fault lies in the individual, who has pursued values and habits that invite misery. We all know people who have chosen to wield their hatreds as weapons of vengeance against those they hold responsible. The Columbine boys are perhaps the most conspicuous example, but the world is full of embittered souls with no shortage of blameworthy targets. The political left is home to many of modern pathologies, as it turns hate, grudges and resentments into political virtues. Here I demur from his suggested remedy. Peterson’s prescription for overcoming humanity’s self-destructive tendencies is vague and unconvincing—he tells those so afflicted to look within—but his diagnosis is undoubtedly correct. Until people have gotten their lives under control they have no business overthrowing the structures and values that others rely on for meaning.

Rule 7. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” This chapter is an extended meditation on the importance of delaying gratification. Peterson’s cultural evolutionary understanding of life comes into focus here. “Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with.” Sacrifice was the hand that humans held over against historical determinism. Men (to use that old trope as a stand-in for humanity) learned that something of value could be traded in the present for something greater in the future. From this realization came the possibility of scientific progress, courtesy and the great economic engine, capitalism. This is perhaps Peterson’s most religious chapter, as well as his most lyrical.

Peterson digresses here to echo a familiar paradox: that because Christianity is responsible for the emergence of rationality in the modern world, it is responsible for the abuses of rationality as well. In some sense, that is, the great curses of the twentieth century—communism, fascism and all their totalistic offspring—are the grandchildren of the Christian faith. To some extent, this is true. Many of the worst despots of the past century began their lives in Christian homes and schools. We’re not talking about white-shoe evangelists like Jim Bakker here, but rather mass killers such as Stalin and Pol Pot. The freedom that is the gift of Christ’s grace is often distorted to mean that all should be compelled to be “free.” This is how the utopian nightmares of recent history made their appearance. Peterson uses the example of Alyosha, the pious Christian brother in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, to demonstrate that it is possible for Christianity, through the humble servanthood of its adherents, to fulfill the divine mission of its founder without succumbing to “the totalitarian temptation.”

Rule 8. “Tell the truth—or at least don’t lie.”  Peterson’s argument here is against closing oneself off from the truth not yet known. Speaking truthfully can come only from one who is humble enough to realize that his current state of knowledge is incomplete. Such humble competence is not the result of lack of conviction, however, but of refusing to grasp one’s truth of the moment as final and definitive. “Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal should be ‘live in truth.’” One might paraphrase this chapter using a biblical allusion: “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Rule 9. “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” This is a chapter on the lost art of conversation and a counterpoint to the last rule. As a clinical psychologist, Peterson knows the value in letting people simply talk. “The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think.” Citing psychotherapist Carl Rogers, Peterson proposes that we stop, listen, and then summarize what others say before we attempt to answer, or contradict, them. Anyone who has watched Jordan Peterson in action, whether in lecture or interview, will grasp immediately that this man is intently listening in order to distill the essence of what his audience or interlocutor is saying. Indeed, part of the great mystique of the man is that his body language expresses his mental processes. In some way, Peterson thinks with his body as well as with his mind. The iconic interview with Cathy Newman mentioned earlier is the perfect counter-example: She seems deafened to his words by her ideological filters to the point of exactly inverting his meaning time and again. “The conversation of mutual exploration… requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known…You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of convincing, oppressing, dominating or even amusing…, instead of strategizing toward victory. If you fail, or refuse to do so, then you merely and automatically repeat what you already believe, seeking its validation and insisting on its rightness.”

Rule 10. “Be precise in your speech.” Contrary to first impression, this rule is not primarily about rhetorical technique. It is about purposeful and intentional thinking and speaking. We must be precise in our aim, he writes, or we will “drown in the complexity of the world.” Even something as apparently simple as driving a car is a complex process that we could never do if we did not identify with, or become one with, the machine. We do this unconsciously. Any purposeful activity, from writing a letter to playing a musical instrument to my typing these words is unimaginably intricate, and only to be accomplished by melding our purpose with the tools that surround us.

Peterson tells us we must be precise in the most important areas of our lives, such as our marriages. “When things fall apart, and chaos re-emerges, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech.” In attempting to help a woman whose marriage is failing, he tells her that “she must thoughtfully articulate the reality she comfortably but dangerously left hidden behind a veil of ignorance and the pretense of peace… She must separate the particular details of her specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of Being, in a world where everything has fallen apart. Everything—that’s far too much. It was specific things that fell apart, not everything; identifiable beliefs failed; particular actions were false and inauthentic. What were they? How can they be fixed, now?”

I once told one of my daughters that almost any problem we face can be relativized by writing about it. Peterson would agree. “The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence… With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord.”

Rule 11. “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Here, Peterson comes to grips with one of the most pernicious trends of our time, what female intellectuals such as Kay Hymowitz, Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia call the “war on boys.” Under the guise of “safety,” Peterson writes, our society is under assault from a radical feminism that seeks to turn boys into girls and men into geldings. This silent assault is now everywhere in our culture. Just recently, the American Psychological Association classified “masculinity” as a pathology. We regularly hear of “toxic masculinity,” “mansplaining,” and “manspreading.”

Whole sectors of our economy, from medicine to education to public administration are primarily feminine professions. Women make up nearly 60 percent of college students and the percentage is increasing every year. Young men, Peterson explains, are especially vulnerable. “As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect. Their ambitions make them plunderers of the plant. They’re not welcome. At the junior high, high school and university level, they’re falling behind educationally.” Despite this, he goes on, old stereotypes are still true. Boys are still interested in things, girls in people. Gender equality is being pushed down the throats of western publics, but Peterson appeals to study after study that show that men are men and women are women all the way down.  “This isn’t a debate,” he says. “The data are in.”

Ironically, the emasculation of males is not what most women really want. Most women, again according to studies that Peterson cites, want strong, educated men who are at least their intellectual equals. Yet such men are becoming rarer by the year due to the very policies and expectations of our “official” culture, which might be called the educational-entertainment complex. Only rich men are maintaining their social and personal virility, to the point that marriage is becoming a luxury item of the professional classes. Charles Murray portrayed this very trend in his 2012 book Coming Apart.

One of the key contributions that this book makes to our national and civilizational conversation is providing a strong and convincing sexual counter-mythology. We should not be put off using the word mythology; in this context it simply denotes the small number of common affirmations that represent a view of the world. Drawing on Jungian social psychology, Greek literature, ancient Mesopotamian creation epics such as Enuma Elish as well as common fairy tales, Peterson reconstructs the images of male and female that have characterized history from its recorded beginnings.

To better understand what Peterson’s project consists of, it is helpful at this point to summarize the sexual mythology central to the progressive movement today.

History, according to progressives, is a sad tale of male-on-female oppression. Men have held the upper hand since the beginning of time (though some feminists argue that in the past women were dominant), and only in our more enlightened era is it possible to reverse this. Furthermore, male, or masculine, oppression has not been equally distributed through the various racial groups but has reached its purest form among white men. White men have lorded it over women in recent millennia, but they have also oppressed other races at the same time. Nor is this oppression of women and people of color always conscious and deliberate; rather, it is innate and systemic, and is one of the driving impulses within Christianity and western civilization generally. Through the mechanisms of intersectionality, white men have reduced other genders (which are numerous) and races to victim status by marshaling all the intellectual apparatus of modernity—language, rationality, notions of the family, tradition, law and even science—in a quest to dominate society, history, nature and the “other.”

This contemporary mythology rests upon the assumption that men and women are in every respect each other’s ontic equals and that differences are mere “social constructs” that are at long last negotiable. White male ideas of sexual biology are themselves relics of artificial hierarchies that serve to empower one gender, or one group, over all the others. The project for the New Age now dawning is to even the score, to bring down the regnant white male hegemony and raise the former victims to positions of power and agency. The indispensable mindset for this new crusade is resentment, usually understood in its more potent philosophical denotation (the French ressentiment) whereby one’s victimhood is interpreted as the result of outside perpetration. In the New Age now dawning, former victims will be awakened (or as is fashionable now, “woke”) to the realities of their own potencies and places in the sun.

In the old Marxist exegesis of life, the war was between classes. The bourgeoisie was the oppressor and the proletariat the “woke” force of revolution. In the progressive exegesis, the war is between genders: the dominant white male gender vs. a multiplicity of new genders overwhelming the binary consciousness of the old oppressors. A new creation is envisioned, with a new fractionated language of gender pronouns, endless rituals of imprecation against the “isms” and phobias that characterize white male hegemony, and ultimately the creation of a new humanity through social conditioning of the young, hormonal interventions and surgical reassignment.  Fundamental to all of this is a programmed flight from stasis, expressed in terms of perennial outrage and pervasive crisis, the intent of which is to upend the resurgence of old patterns and traditional norms.

Against the assumptions of this new progressive crusade, Peterson proposes an alternative mythology, one based not on the idealization of resentment but on the empirical conclusions of his clinical practice, on the powerful role of ancient stories, on the experience of history and, finally, on the inviolable imperatives of biology.

One of the recurring themes in ancient, classical, medieval and modern mythologies is the destructive presence of the Terrible Mother. The Terrible Mother appears in the Babylonian story of Tiamat, the primordial chaos out of which the world is made. She reappears as the Oedipal mother of Greek myth, smothering her offspring by saying: “Above all, never leave me. In return, I will do everything for you. As you age without maturing, you will become worthless and bitter, but you will never have to take any responsibility, and everything you do that’s wrong will always be someone else’s fault.”  The Terrible Mother is Queen Athaliah in the Old Testament, the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the Evil Queen in Sleeping Beauty, the mother of Grendel in Beowulf, The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and Cruella de Ville in One-hundred-One Dalmatians.

Peterson appeals to the Jungian interpretation of the so-called Big Five personality traits of modern psychology, especially the third and fifth traits of “openness” and “conscientiousness.” Like the Chinese Yin and Yang, these two personality traits are often seen as in conflict, leading on the one hand to chaos and on the other to order, depending on their proportion in the personality. They are also interpreted, by Peterson after Jung, as sexual: the eternal female as the force of chaos, and the eternal male as the impulse for what Socrates called “ordered usefulness.” Each has its place and role, and neither is complete without the other. While a healthy personality can balance these two contrasting traits, Peterson contends that we have turned from a culture that values ordered liberty and personal discipline to one that seeks the chaos of gender fluidity, habitual and reflexive iconoclasm, and puritanical conformism. We have become hyper-feminized.

In other words, he seems to say, If you think Patriarchy has been bad, wait until you see what Matriarchy has in store for you. Yet he goes one step further: “If you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.” Women will always need men who are not like their other children, men who bring something into the relationship that would otherwise not exist, men who are strong as well as sensitive, orderly as well as adventurous, and stable in the emotional storms that tear marriages apart. And men need women who instantiate reliability, hard work and perseverance as well as tenderness and occasional serendipity. But so long as our cultural authorities insist on turning boys into girls and men into geldings, there will be hell to pay. For there is no form of child abuse that can compare with imposing transgenderism onto children. Nature is the most terrible of mothers, and she will not tolerate those who question her authority.

Boys on skateboards will always do dangerous things, he reminds us, just because they are boys. Let them alone.

Rule12. “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”  Though framed in the context of the medical ordeals of Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila, this rule has to do with what philosophers call “theodicy.” In the Greek, theos is of course the word for God, while dikaiosune (from which “-dicy” is derived) is the word for “justification,” in both its theological and its legal senses. The ‘justification of God’ (theodicy) centers on answering the question: Why does God allow bad things to happen? Mikhaila is stricken with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a disease that threatens most of the joints in her body.

“What kind of God would make a world where such a thing could happen?”, Peterson asks. This is a question that occurs to everyone sooner or later, and for most of us the answers are unconvincing, even when they are logical or religiously coherent. Peterson develops a kind of moral syllogism to contend with such unpleasant realities. First, he says, we must arrive at a realization that what we truly love in this lifetime we love not despite its limitations, but because of its limitations. Any Being (his word for God here) that is completely without any limits whatsoever is unlovable; It may be worshipped and adored, venerated and obeyed, but not loved. Though not stated, Peterson seems to be hinting that it is in God’s self-limitation in Christ that He has become vulnerable, knowable and loveable.

Second, Peterson counsels living in the present. He quotes the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.” We misinterpret this verse, however, when we think it is saying merely “live in the present.” Rather, this truth is a call to commitment to place our faith in the Kingdom of God. Once that is plainly in view we can concentrate on the here and now. “Wish upon a star,” he says, citing the song from Pinocchio, “and then act properly, in accordance with that aim.” It is possible to stoically accept what is, he assures us, but that is a poor substitute for authentic existence.

Third, Peterson tells us that there is something greater than thinking; It is the divine capacity we have for noticing what is going on around us and reveling in the wonders of creation. Noticing precedes thinking and is essential for inductive, empirical reasoning. It is, however, not much in evidence in our ideological age, where experience is never actually understood but is instead interpreted. “There are no facts, just interpretations,” goes one of the many lies of our age.

Here is where cats come into focus. A self-admitted dog person, Peterson tells of a neighborhood cat named Ginger. Ginger is a Siamese, beautiful and well-socialized. “She is low in the Big Five personality trait of neuroticism, which is an index of anxiety, fear and emotional pain.” Ginger is not intimidated by dogs and is friends with the Petersons’ dog Sikko. Ginger amuses Peterson: “If she feels like it, she might come visit you, for a half a minute. It’s a nice break. It’s a little extra light, on a good day, and a tiny respite, on a bad day.” Don’t miss these intimations of immortality, he says, because they compensate for the “ineradicable suffering” of life.

The final chapter of the book is the Coda.  Here he asks a series of questions and provides answers for them. The alert reader will realize after a few of these that what Peterson has provided is a catechism for our time. Catechisms have fallen out of favor in our frivolous period of history, but generations of our ancestors knew the power of these holy Christian documents. “What is the chief end of man?” asks one of the Reformed catechisms. “To know God and enjoy Him forever,” is the answer.

A modern reader could do much worse than to copy Peterson’s questions and frame the answers that are right for himself. “What should I do tomorrow?” he asks himself. “The most good possible in the shortest period of time.” What shall I do with my life?” “Aim for Paradise and concentrate on today.” “What shall I do with my wife?” “Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to the world-redeeming hero.” “What shall I do with my son?” “Encourage him to be a true Son of God.” “How shall I educate my people?” (Remember, Peterson is a teacher.) “Share with them those things I regard as truly important.” And so on. There are several more that you will want to ponder.

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There are many other things we might say about Jordan Peterson and his book of rules. Certainly, he conjures Edmund Burke with that philosopher’s emphasis on hierarchy, prudence and tradition. Peterson demonstrates a consistent Socratic spirit and style in both written and spoken word, circling a subject and holding it up to the light before saying much about it and (again like the Socrates we see refracted through Xenophon’s lens) delighting in the mundane wonders of the world. Finally, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jordan Peterson quietly attacks the very underpinnings of contemporary ideology, sometimes called the Spirit of the Times. No less than the racist assumptions of the past, the new progressive mentality has the power to enslave millions in ignorance and misery, unless it is stopped. Nothing less than this is Peterson’s mission, and for this we need to know the man and wish him success.

 

 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Interpretation

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is without a doubt one of the most significant American novels ever written. Its literary qualities are of the highest order while its historical effects stand beyond dispute. Authoress Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this novel shortly after the promulgation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an act of legislation that overrode the distinction between slave and free states, thereby eliminating the possibility of a safe refuge for runaway slaves. Multitudes of Americans, in effect, became responsible agents for the enforcement of federal law, while a scourge of bounty hunters was loosed to prey upon the most helpless members of the population. The law sowed a wind of division between North and South that was to burst forth in the whirlwind of the Civil War.

Stowe composed a moving and entirely plausible book of fiction designed to heighten the consciousness of average Americans to the plight of the Negro slave. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is propaganda of the first water, intended to help abet the collapse of the cruel system of forced servility and human trafficking that lay at the heart of slavery. At the time of writing, the slave-holding South comprised the states south of the Ohio River: Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, the Atlantic piedmont and the area of the Mississippi delta. Perhaps no book has had such an immediate effect on historical events as this one, but not necessarily in the way intended by its author.

The story of poor Tom, a young father and husband living in Kentucky and (with his wife and children) owned by the lenient Shelby family, and his subsequent experience of being sold down the Mississippi River, is familiar. Perhaps it is too familiar, since for many generations of our nation’s history this book was required reading by school children.  As is the fate with so many standard-fare works of this caliber, a too-young exposure can often lead to contempt for the familiar, especially when the book was taught as abridged, summarized and thematized for elementary or grade-school children. Millions of Americans believe they have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when in fact all they retain of it are characterological stereotypes and general impressions of societal norms and perversions, many of which would be dispelled or corrected by a fresh reading as adults.

Let us first retell the story of the slave Tom, along with the other related personages both black and white, and then raise several themes for consideration.

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As the novel opens, we find Kentucky farmer Mr. Shelby in conversation with a Mr. Haley, a buyer and seller of slaves. Mr. Shelby, a decent and well-meaning man, is in debt, and is forced to sell some of his slaves to settle his affairs. He reluctantly agrees to sell to Haley his factotum Tom and a small boy named Harry. The child is beautiful and talented, and Haley sees a good profit in marketing him as an entertainer. Tom, a recent convert to evangelical Christianity, is Shelby’s favorite worker and the owner is reluctant to let him go. But things being what they are, the transaction goes forward. Tom has been schooled by Shelby’s son George so that he is a rare slave who can read. We will meet George Shelby again in the novel.

Tom bids his wife Chloe, his children and friends a tearful goodbye and agrees to accompany Haley to the slave market in New Orleans. Little Harry’s mother, Eliza, however, takes her son and runs away with him. She will eventually escape the country with the help of Quakers and other Christians, after which her husband, George Harris, is reunited with them in Canada. George and Eliza will figure in the conclusion to the novel.

En route to New Orleans with Haley and other slaves, Tom makes the acquaintance of a precocious and pious little girl, Evangeline St. Clare. Little Eva, as she is called, leads Tom to her father, Augustine St. Clare, a rich, sophisticated estate owner. St Clare, as he is known, buys Tom from Haley and appoints him the personal valet of his daughter. When the trio reaches St. Clare’s estate, Tom enjoys a land of milk and plenty: the slaves are mostly content and semi-autonomous in their lives. Tom takes immediately to his duties in caring for the girl. St. Clare’s marriage, however, is another matter. His wife, Marie, is hypochondriacal and emotionally miserable, with little regard for the welfare of the slaves, or anyone else for that matter. Fortunately, St. Clare is boundlessly patient and indulgent with both her and the slaves, though he is an unbeliever.

Throughout the book Tom’s evangelical kindness is bent to the end of helping his fellow slaves and free find their salvation. Little Eva is easily won and becomes the most satisfying character in the book. Her Aunt Ophelia, meanwhile, has come from Vermont to live with the family and take care of the household. Ophelia is straight-laced in her New England Calvinism and sets out to bring order from the genteel chaos of St. Clare’s estate and affairs; she meets only middling success. Ophelia provides Stowe an occasion to contrast the mindsets of the two American nations, North and South. Though by no means a crone, “all her movements were sharp, decided, and energetic; and though she was never much of a talker, her words were remarkably direct and to the purpose, when she did speak… In her habits, she was a living impersonation of order, method, and exactness. In punctuality, she was as inevitable as a clock… The great sins of sins, in her eyes—the sum of all evils—was expressed by one very common and important word in her vocabulary—‘shiftlessness.’”

It is by means of conversations between Ophelia and St. Clare near the middle of the novel that Stowe portrays the clash of civilizations that defines the nation’s soul circa 1850. Ophelia, who in general loathes slavery (though she is no abolitionist), has objected to the intimacy between Tom and Eva. It strikes her as inappropriate. St. Clare remonstrates: “You would think no harm in a child’s caressing a large dog, even if it was black,” says St. Clare, “but a creature that can think and reason and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at; confess it, cousin. I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having it; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north, how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; yet you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?” Ophelia admits that her cousin lays his finger on real double-mindedness among the self-righteous northerners.

All too soon, little Eva takes sick. “The friendship between Tom and Eva had grown with the child’s growth. It would be hard to say what place she held in the soft, impressible heart of her faithful attendant. He loved her as something frail and earthly, yet almost worshiped her as something heavenly and divine.” She foretells her own death to him one night as they gaze at the stars. “I’m going there, to the spirits bright, Tom. I’m going before long.” She broaches the subject of her coming death with her unbelieving father, who, grief stricken, admits that she is all he has. The girl presses him to free Tom, which he promises to do after she is gone. Then she tells her father she wants him to be with her forever. “How I wish we could go together!” she whispers to him. “Where, dearest?”, he asks. “To our Savior’s home,” she replies. “It’s so sweet and peaceful there—it is all so loving there! Don’t you want to go, Papa?” “I shall come after you. I shall not forget you,” he whispers in reply. He recalls his own mother’s goodness and piety, her prayers and hymns, and, his heart breaking, sings her to sleep.

Days, perhaps a few weeks later, she takes a fever and lies dying, her father and Tom and all the household, at her side. The scene of the little girl’s death is of the profoundest pathos, and few will read these pages without tears. Her father asks her what she sees as she nears eternity: “O, Eva, tell us what you see! What is it?” “O! Love—joy—peace!” she said, as she “passed from death into life.”

Tom’s broken heart is scarcely on the mend when another hammer blow falls. His master, Augustine St. Clare, is carried home one night with a mortal knife wound. He had tried to break up a fight in a pub. He dies that same evening, in the arms of his servant Tom, singing one of his mother’s favorite songs. “His mind is wandering,” said the doctor. “No! it is coming home at last!” protests the dying St. Clare. “At last! At last!” “The sinking paleness of death fell on him,” writes the narrator, “but with it there fell, as if shed from the wings of some pitying spirit, a beautiful expression of peace, like that of a wearied child who sleeps.” St. Clare, long the skeptic and stoic, has found his Savior, or returned to Him, and to His peace.

The greatest fear of the slave is the death of the kind master, for, unless the slave owner has arranged for the manumission of his slaves before his death, his survivors are free to dispose of them in any way desirable. Often, whole families are formed under the master’s years-long solicitude, only to be broken up when he passes. In the case of the young and healthy St. Clare, no arrangements seemed urgent nor had been formalized. When he died out of season, his unstable, self-absorbed and unfeeling wife Marie was left in sole possession. Her first and only instinct was to dispose of them. This she did with little concern for their welfare, over the objections of Ophelia, who has come to regard the slaves with compassion. They were all sent to the slave warehouses of New Orleans to be examined like livestock by potential buyers, parceled out like so many other objects from an estate sale.

At the slave warehouse, Tom gains the attention of a stout man, vulgar and sadistic, who buys Tom and a beautiful and cultured girl named Emmeline, who is torn from her mother and sister. The man takes them down to the wharf where they are put aboard a boat called “Pirate” to be taken up the Red River to a plantation. They have met their new master, one of the most infamous characters in all of literature, whose name is Simon Legree.

Legree is a godless wretch of a tyrant, whose greatest delight is “breaking In” his slaves. What that entails is a severe beating by two of his ghoulish acolytes, Sambo and Quimbo. Early on, Tom indicates that he will not be part of the cruel system that Legree has established; Legree has told him he must whip one of the girls, Lucy, who has been slacking off in the fields. Tom refuses, so Legree strikes him in the face with his whip, followed by a shower of blows. “There,” Legree said. “Now will ye tell me ye can’t do it?”  “Yes, Mas’r,” replies the bloodied Tom, “I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me, but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do—and, Mas’r, I never shall do it,–never!” Legree turns the helpless Tom over to his two savages, who leave the poor man a bloody pulp.

During his recovery, Tom is ministered to by a mysterious woman, Cassy, a light skinned mulatto, who seems somehow to possess a strange power over Legree, with whom she lives. She reads the Bible to Tom at his request. Cassy is older, perhaps early middle age, and is quite beaten down, though still beautiful. Her desperate demeanor gives her a certain manic power over everyone around her, and Tom tries, unsuccessfully, to help her. “O, Missis, I wish you’d go to him that can give you living waters!” “Go to him! Where is he? Who is he,” she asks. “Him that you read of to me,” he replies. She tells him that she has had too much tragedy to believe, though as a younger woman she had a keen faith. She had once even had to end the life of a child to keep it from being separated from her as her former son and daughter had.

Cassie determines to kill Legree. She tells Tom, who begs her not to do it. She relents but comes up with another plan. She and Emmeline will escape through a subterfuge. Legree is superstitious and can be led to believe that an abandoned room upstairs in the derelict mansion is haunted. He will never go near the room, so it can serve as a redoubt for the two women if they can convince Legree they have escaped. One night, they run into the swamp, but loop back to follow a creek and return unseen to the room. In the morning Legree sets out to find them but returns home that night empty-handed and furious. He forces Tom to admit he knows the plot, but Tom refuses to betray Cassie and Emmeline. Once again Legree turns his two field hands on Tom, who proceed to beat him nearly to death. Mortally injured though still conscious, Tom reaches out to his two tormentors with forgiveness, an act that touches them to the quick. “Sartin, we’s been doin’ a drefful wicked thing!” cries Sambo. “O, Tom!” says Quimbo tearfully, “We’s been awful wicked to ye! O, Tom! Do tell us who is Jesus, anyhow… Jesus, that’s been a standin’ by you so, all this night!—who is he?”  “Why didn’t I never hear this before?” asks Sambo. “But I do believe!—I can’t help it! Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.!”

Tom lingers for two more days, during which time many of the other slaves come and tend to his wounds. Cassy had also sneaked into the shed where he lay to weep and pray over him. She has not been able to pray for years. Incidentally, the parallels between Tom and his Lord are well-etched throughout the novel. On the “third day,” a wagon enters the yard with a young man driving. The young man jumps down and approaches Legree, asking the whereabouts of Tom. This is George Shelby, now a strapping young man. He is responding to a letter that Ophelia wrote many months prior. He has come to redeem Tom. Legree points him to the shed. George, infuriated by the tyrant’s nonchalance, runs to see his father’s former slave. When the broken Tom is brought around to consciousness and recognizes his beloved visitor, he says: “O, Mas’r George, ye’re too late. The Lord’s bought me, and is goin’ to take me home,–and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kentuck.” With his final breaths, Tom tells George not to hate Legree. Then, citing Romans 8:38—”Who,–who,–who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, he ‘falls asleep.’

George takes Tom’s body, and with the willing help of two young slaves, lays him in his wagon. Approaching Legree, who has been watching with contempt, George lays him low with a blow to the jaw. Cassy, watching from her hiding place, thrills to this act of courage. George then takes Tom’s body to a small hill outside the plantation, where he buries him. Kneeling down, George prays: “oh witness, that from this hour, I will do what one man can do to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!”

George returns to New Orleans and prepares to board a steamer that will take him up the Mississippi and back to Kentucky. Unknown to him, Cassy and Emmeline have also escaped the plantation and made their way to the same point of embarkation. Cassie has taken a roll of money from Legree’s desk, along with some of the clothes of her genteel youth, and has impersonated a lady of the south. She and her young charge Emmeline befriend George.

We leave the story at this point. The novel still has two or three surprises, which I will not disclose. They are of the happiest kind, however, and bring as much a happy ending as this tragic novel knows. Legree is left to his own fate, and the narrator indicates that he, suffering guilt and degeneration, dies a horrible death and reaps the perdition to follow.

***

One of the first impressions gained by reading this book is the deep evangelical piety of the writing. Indeed, one wonders whether the book is more an evangelistic tract in the form of a story of slavery than the other way around. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, was one of the principle figures in what has been called America’s Second Great Awakening. That religious phenomenon, with its surpassing influence on nineteenth-century America, had both a Puritan and a “popular” (Methodist/Baptist) branch, both with many sub-branches. One of the awakening’s societal bequests was the abolitionist movement and eventual emancipation, which was part of a greater humanitarian impulse implicit in the Gospels. The Second Great Awakening provided both form and substance to many civilizing movements and attitudes that we take for granted in today’s culture. But undergirding all of evangelicalism’s benefactions to America was the conversionist theology of the revival movements, whether the quiet conversionism of the Puritan Timothy Dwight, or the more expressive conversions of frontier Finneyism. The urgency of personal conversion of self and neighbor, not liberation, is the driving force of Tom’s life, and nobody can understand this novel without making this distinction.

Most commentators fail to take Stowe’s deep evangelical commitment seriously, as though her anti-slavery sentiments can be separated from her religious experiences. This kind of reductionism has hobbled a true understanding of many American traditions, and has led moderns to believe that the sheer march of history brings with it a relentless cessationism whereby earlier ideas, perceptions and institutions are rendered obsolete through natural or secular “progress.” But there was nothing inevitable in the ending of slavery; it was a constant social institution in many societies, and still is today. It did not “fall” on its own. It was pushed; by the very spiritual forces that are discounted wholesale in recent historiography and literary criticism.

Indeed, it is one of the enduring lessons of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that slavery is the natural estate of mankind, and that it is ended only by the spread of liberty, and that liberty comes at great sacrifice when religiously-motivated people push back against the powers and principalities that shackle most peoples, past and present.

So, the reply to the question whether Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a political tract cast in a religious guise or a religious summons in the form of a story of the horrors of slavery must tilt to the latter. This, of course, does not relativize slavery and reduce its profound wickedness, but it does make of slavery a moral issue universal in its scale: humans are curiously attracted to both the temptation to enslave others as well as the paradoxical opposite, to be themselves enslaved. We are each of us grasping tyrant and craven helot, and only genuine submission to transcendent truth can rid us of this double curse. The reality of slavery as metaphor of the human condition is what makes this work so relevant today.

A word or two on the literary and linguistic style of the book is necessary for the modern or postmodern reader. Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses the word “nigger” at every turn. It is the term by which slave drivers identify their wares, slave masters their property, and by which black Americans define themselves. For some reason, this word has taken on talismanic powers in our time, as though by the mere intonation one is tainted with the sins of the fathers. This is silly presentism, the notion that we have so far superseded the benighted state of our ancestors hat we cannot even use the words they used. Every ethnic group elicits pejoratives from its supposed superiors, so to single out one such instance for special execration, especially when the word is used descriptively rather than vocatively, is infantile.

Finally, we find it necessary to address modern attitudes to this novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been called “sentimental,” as though it can thereby be dismissed from the category of great literature. In fact, although Stowe often approaches sentimentality she rarely crosses the line into pure maudliness. If sentimentality can be defined as emotion in excess of its object, it is clear that the boundary is never crossed. If the death of little Eva is sentimental, what of Jane Eyre’s friend Helen Burns, or Richard’s death in Bleak House? As noted above, there is profound pathos in this novel, and even the most hardened of critics must feel something when reading it. Such emotion, however, is never adduced on the cheap, so to speak, as though it could be had without the suffering that leads to it.

Akin to the charge of sentimentality is the slander of Tom himself that has become de rigueur among black-power and “woke” partisans of the political left. Strangely enough, the more radical abolitionists of Stowe’s day might have popularized the “Uncle Tom” slur long before Ta Nehisi Coates and others had they thought of it. The “Yes, Mas’r” stereotype of Uncle Tom is a product of the minstrelsy that emerged in the latter nineteenth century and changed the public perception of black antebellum life. It is a shame that such a perception lingers today.

Tom himself, as portrayed in the novel, is a true hero and a man with a firm grip on his destiny. His piety was a function of his sense that his life mattered as a sign of transcendence made immanent. He was deeply imbued with the belief that the Incarnation did not end with the resurrection of Christ, but that the life of Christ lives on in those who repent and believe and obey the call of their risen Lord. He himself rises far above the evil of his time and so he has the power to call others to such a life.

Tom might’ve spoken to his cultured despisers much the way St. Paul spoke to the Galatians: ‘O foolish people! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much suffering in vain?” (Galatians 3:1-4).

Though now out of fashion, this book is every bit as moving as it ever was. In our time, progressive social programs and political movements have done little to truly liberate millions of America’s black citizens. Welfare has destroyed the black family quite as effectively as slavery ever did. The plantation mentality is as much alive now as it was 170 years ago, and whole generations continue to struggle with the shackles forged by ideologies that have enslaved them by dependence and victimology. The “Yes, Mas’r” mentality has merely shifted from the lords of the land to the Democratic Party. Tom pointed the way: If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed. It is only then, as a son of God yourself rather than as a member of an identity group, that you are fit for this world and a candidate for the next.

 

 

 

Natura non facit saltum: There are no gaps in nature.

Jay Austin and Lauren Geogehan were two 29-year-old professionals. Both graduated from Georgetown and had high paying jobs in the Washington DC area. Both were political progressives and moral postmoderns. They carried the typical credentials of multiculturalism, anti-Americanism, gender fluidity, religious syncretism, and a bedrock belief that their own culture and traditions had failed them and most of the rest of the world.

They were members in good standing of the parlor socialism that defines today’s power elites.

With all this sophistication, they did not understand the real world. They quit their jobs (sure they could pick them up at some point in the future) and set out on a year of bicycling around the world. They cycled through large swaths of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

They carried no personal protection, assured by a breathtaking naivete that the world would live up to their highest estimations of themselves.

Heading to some of the most dangerous corners of the world against the advice of friends and relatives, they encountered reality in Tajikistan, a wild and ungoverned outback nestled between China on the East and Pakistan and Afghanistan on the south and west.

There, they and two temporary cycling companions from Europe were killed by five members of ISIS who ran them down with a car.

Their naivete had led them to believe that their own countrymen were evil and that the unnamed and unknown “other” was their friend. They disdained the here-and-now of their American lives and romanticized the there-and-then world of their cosmopolitan ideology. Their worldview, based on breezy generalizations about the goodness of nature and their fellow man, especially those somehow different, along with their trendy disparagement of their native civilization, blinded them to the dark lessons of history. Now they are dead.

Where have we heard of this kind of thing before?

I am reminded of Lisa Polito’s 2008 Oregon Quarterly article on the James Kim family’s decision to leave an Oregon freeway for a logging road on a Thanksgiving weekend several years ago. Driving a Saab four-wheel-drive sedan and with cellphones at the ready, wearing fashionable North Face-style shirts and vests, James and his wife Kati mistook their imagined world as the real one. Heading across the Rogue River Wilderness to the Oregon Coast, they became lost as blizzard conditions swept through the area. Days later, the wife and children were rescued, but James Kim died of exposure after they ran out of gas and discovered that much of the world has no cell coverage.

Polito writes that the Kims, like many of their generation and social class who were well to do professionals, were unable to distinguish between Here and There. Her story, titled “Everywhere is Here,” is a cautionary tale for millions today who have no sense of place, lacking what was once a part of mankind’s protective gear: an elemental fear of the unknown.

Timothy Treadwell was another postmodern sophisto who thought it was the height of human consciousness to live among Grizzly Bears. He disregarded warnings of others who had studied bears that he should use precautions. He disdained modern society and the culture that had nurtured and protected him, preferring the company of bears, which he called his “people.”

Quotes from Treadwell’s writings tell how the man thought. “How I hate the people’s [humanity’s] world,” “I’m struggling against civilization itself,” “I’m in love with my animal friends… and I’m very troubled,” and, most telling, “Why is there pain in the world? I’m confused.”

Both he and his girlfriend, Ann Huguenard, perished one October, 2003 afternoon on Alaska’s Katmai Peninsula when the “friendly” grizzlies, among which they had so foolishly carried on their lives, turned on them. In fairness to Ann, she had never trusted the bears, but (like Lauren Geogehan) was dragged along on a risky adventure by a strong-willed man.

There are always those who disregard danger and bring tragedy on themselves and others. But what we see in the cases just cited is something else. It is the repudiation of human experience gained at great cost over long periods of time and a corresponding embrace of an imagined reality based on ideology.

The common thread of all these stories is that they involve people whose lives have been largely spared adversity and penury, who have come to believe that traditional attitudes about the world are somehow mistaken, and who think that their presence in the world is to some extent salvific and therapeutic.

Belief in providence is alive and well on the political and cultural left, but it is a secular providentialism. We are awash in people today whose greatest intent is saving us from the attitudes, beliefs and traditions that have always defined us. Such people seem to hold that they are free from the paranoias and phobias that others of us suffer. They even imagine themselves immortal, which is why transhumanism flourishes among the elites and bien pensant. Having transcended the surly bonds of earth that hold the rest of us in shackles, they float in a zone of intellectual and spiritual superiority that spares them the exigencies of space and time.

Sometimes such ideas and attitudes prove deadly, if not for those who hold them then for those subject to them.

 

Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure:” A Summary and Comments

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was one of the greatest nineteenth-century novelists and poets. His work is ranked with Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert. He lived his life in the southwestern area of England known as Dorsetshire. This geographical area became the fictional “Wessex” of his later novels, the setting for the novel at hand as well as The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy was a writer in the tradition known as naturalism, where the forces of nature are arrayed against the intentions and plans of mankind, often overwhelming the latter. The influence of the pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer as well as the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus are at work in his novels.

Unlike the novels of Eliot, Tolstoy or Dickens, Hardy’s have few characters, and the landscape is much more compressed than in most literature. Yet there is a constant movement between the various towns and regions. Hardy was writing on the cusp of the Twentieth century, and a kind of restlessness and uprootedness characterize his leading figures. This novel was his last great fiction success. It attracted critical hostility because of its undertones of blasphemy and marital dysfunction. Hardy soon turned to poetry.

Jude the Obscure is the story of a young man, Jude Fawley, who begins his life as a bit of a dreamer and visionary. Jude from his childhood imagines that he will attend the university in the semi-mythical city of Christminster, which lies northeast of his home in Marygreen. He wants to be a clergyman-scholar. His station in life—he is both a commoner and an orphan—militates against such a dream, but he believes that he can teach himself what he needs to know in order to pass the entrance exams of the university. A man from his childhood, a Mr. Phillotson, who has encouraged Jude’s academic aspirations, has moved to Christminster, and Jude makes it his purpose to join him there.

Jude is beset by self-doubt. Like Mr. Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (a major literary influence for this book), Jude cannot really believe in himself. His face wore “the fixity of a thoughtful child’s who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time.” He is hired to frighten the birds from a farmer’s cornfield, but cannot put his heart into the work. “They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them.” When the farmer punishes him and sends him packing, “Jude went out, and, feeling more than ever his existence to be an undemanded one, he lay down upon his back on a heap of litter near the pig-sty.”  Later in the novel, Jude will have a son with many of his own psychological features.

The city of Christminster, as already seen, will hold a special place in Jude’s mind and heart. “Through the solid barrier of cold cretaceous upland to the northward he was always beholding a gorgeous city—the fancied place he had likened to the New Jerusalem… And the city acquired a tangibility, a permanence, a hold on his life, mainly from the one nucleus of fact that the man for whose knowledge and purposes he had so much reverence was actually living there.” That would be Mr. Phillotson. Again, one hears the echoes of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim with his gaze set on the Celestial City off in the mountainous distance.

Jude lives with his aging Aunt, a stern but kind-hearted woman named Drusilla. Both his parents have died. He is a bookish boy, given to daydreaming. Often, at night, he goes to the top of a hill to view the lights of Christminster in the distance. The years pass, and in time he is a young man of about seventeen.

***

Walking along the road between Marygreen and another village one day, he is hit by an object thrown at him by a girl in a neighboring yard. Jude turns to talk to the girl, who plays him along until he is intrigued enough to return to see her. Not long after that, she seduces him and feigns pregnancy in order to make him marry her. Her name is Arabella. Jude is a stonemason, and takes up that vocation to support her. Subsequently, she tells him that she is not pregnant after all. Their marriage is quickly unhappy, and soon she goes off to Australia with her parents to seek greater fortune.

One day, Jude passes a milestone on the old Marygreen-Christminster road and remembers that years back he had inscribed a simple message on the back: “Thither, JF,” and a hand pointing towards Christminster. He exhumes the old milestone, reads his inscription, and decides to resume his plans and finally go to the ancient city of learning. Before leaving, his old aunt warns him not to associate with his cousin Sue, who some years earlier had been taken to Christminster. The Fawleys are not meant for wedlock, she warns him.

Jude heads out to Christminster, “in the final direction of the elementary town” as Dylan Thomas would write. Once there, having surveyed the landscape and mystically communed with the spirits of the past—Gibbon, Pope, the martyrs of Protestantism, Jonson, Newman, the recently deceased Browning, the still present Swinburne—he settles into his trade and walks daily the city of his dreams. “He had the whole aged city to himself.”

He soon realizes that his dreams and self-education had prepared him for a place that was no more. The great university is in the midst of changing in ways that bring him consternation and unease. Then he remembers his cousin Sue Bridehead, and his prospects improve. When they finally meet, Jude is struck by her skeptical character. In many ways, Sue represents a more modern, liberated way of thinking and believing. Physically, she is nothing that Arabella was, swarthy, buxom, seductive and elemental. Sue, to the contrary, is nymph-like, pale and cerebral, possessing “a strange unconsciousness of gender,” a reader of Swinburne and Gibbon like Jude, but also enamored of the Greeks, whereas the young man is a student of the Church Fathers.

So far we have met Jude, his Aunt Drusilla, Mr. Phillotson, Arabella and Sue. These are the main characters of the book that now stands before us. There are a few other characters, but they are all minor and serve the purposes of these five. Jude and Sue fall in love, but unlike Arabella, Sue is somewhat distant and guarded. Unhappy in her work in a church supply store, she is taken by Jude to meet Mr. Phillotson, who runs a school outside Christminster. There she goes to work for him, and becomes coiled in Phillotson’s professional as well as personal life. He offers to send her to a “normal” (teacher’s) school in Melchester, another town of Wessex, where she will learn become certified to teach in his school. The understanding is that in return for this chance at a career, she will marry him. Phillotson is some two decades older than Sue, and she seems not to take the arrangement seriously.

Jude, back in Marygreen for a time, and unaware of the informal agreement between Sue and Phillotson, receives a letter from Sue. She is unhappy and has run away from the school. She wants Jude to come to her rescue, providing he does not ask her to abandon her paganism or compromise her chastity. When Jude arrives he sets her up in quarters he has rented in yet another Wessex town, Shaston.

The reader will find that keeping one’s geographical bearings in this novel is a challenge; perhaps Hardy has a method here, a presentiment that the world is changing around his young heroes, who are being stripped of older customs and familiarities such as set places in the firmament. One of the common adjectives used to describe many young people today is “homeless,” a consciousness of which our author may have had intimations. The constant movement of Jude, Sue and, soon, Arabella around the cities and towns of Wessex reminds us that our postmodern rootlessness is not an entirely new mindset.

Be that as it may, Sue informs Jude that she is engaged to be married to Phillotson soon. Her leaving the normal school has accelerated this development, and she asks him if he will give her away. Though stunned by this announcement, he agrees to do so. After the ceremony, Jude provides a simple meal for the new couple. As Sue is leaving, she drops a handkerchief. When she returns alone to pick it up, her eyes meet his and some unspoken words are exchanged.

At some point following these events, and while in Christminster, “there returned upon him that feeling which had been his undoing more than once—that he was not worth the trouble of being taken care of either by himself or others.” This ressentiment is a leitmotiv throughout the book. In this state of mind, he meets an old friend who takes him to a bar for a drink. There he sees, to his astonishment, Arabella, who is a server. She has returned from Australia, having left her second, bigamous husband behind. She and Jude spend a night together, an experience that leaves him with “an indescribable consciousness of Arabella’s midnight contiguity, and an sense of degradation.”

Concurrent with these events, Jude and Sue meet, and she confides in him her unhappiness at being married to Phillotson. They make a five mile walk together (reminiscent of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Up Hill”) to visit their aunt, who is, they believe, at the point of death. Sue returns to Phillotson at Shaston, he to Melchester, towns that are but a few miles apart.

***

We are halfway through the novel. Jude’s life enters a kind of intermezzo. His aunt has not died after all, he loses his desire to be in Christminster, Sue seems to be drawing closer to him, and he heeds a sudden call that comes to him through a hymn that he hears in a church service. He determines to track down the hymn writer, who is said to live in Kennetbridge, another Wessex town. The hymn’s title: “The Foot of the Cross.”

Mid-life crises, though Jude is only in his early twenties, are important episodes in the lives of young men. The “Nel Mezzo Camin” (“In the middle of life’s road”) theme occurs in Dante and in Longfellow, and no doubt other literature. It concerns a moment when it is possible for a protagonist to turn away from a course that may be leading to tragedy. Coming in the Easter season, the idea is perhaps that this is a moment for a possible resurrection of the young man’s faith. But in Jude’s case, when he meets the author of the hymn he finds him dismissive of the hymn and of music in general. Disappointed and dispirited, and feeling the recent spiritual flame extinguished, he leaves with a sense of growing bitterness towards Providence, an apostatic course that will determine the rest of his life.

***

Thus begins the second half of this novel where human intention is foiled again and again by the weakness of the flesh and diffidence in the face of one’s calling. Jude’s fatal acedia is set in motion. He and Sue now see each other on numerous occasions in a flitting subterfuge of both their lives. More and more, Jude deserts his faith, confessing to Sue that “my doctrines and I begin to part company.” He burns his theological books, while she, independently, asks Phillotson for a divorce.

Phillotson, aware of Sue’s profound unhappiness, grants her request at the very moment that Arabella seeks a divorce from Jude. Their marriage was never legitimately dissolved, even though she had “remarried” in Australia. Her husband is returning to England, she argues, and so it is best that they make a legal break. Jude grants this request.

Now that Sue and Jude are finally free from their former entanglements and are free to marry, Sue temporizes and puts the ceremony off again and again. Her old froideur angers Jude, who says “I do love you Sue, but I have danced attendance on you so long for such poor returns.”

Suddenly, a letter arrives from Arabella informing Jude that a son of theirs was born in Australia and will be coming to his father soon. She cannot take care of him. Jude was unaware of the child’s existence until now, and he decides to take in this son. By now, Jude and Sue are living together, still unmarried. Jude moves increasingly in the direction of unbelief.

The relationship between Jude and Sue is anything but harmonious, though it involves much passion. Both parties sense some guilt that they have disrupted each other’s careers, and a sense of doom seems to haunt them. Phillotson’s character is developed more fully at this time. His career too has been ruined by his accommodation of Sue. He has a friend, Gillingham, who counsels him to claim Sue back as his lawful wife, in spite of his legal divorce from her.

Meanwhile, the child arrives. He is more a force of nature than a person. Jude and Sue call him “Little Father Time” because of his constant melancholy. “He was Age masquerading as Juvenility, and doing it so badly that his real self showed through crevices. A ground swell from ancient years of night seemed now and then to lift the child in this his morning-life, when his face took a back view over some great Atlantic of Time, and appeared not to care about what it saw.” Sue remarks that she clearly sees Jude in his son.

Sue continues to sidestep the commitment of marriage, and as the couple moves about the fairs and events of Wessex, they are noticed by Arabella, who is now with her husband, Mr. Cartlett. Observing them on one occasion, Arabella comments to a friend that she regrets not having stuck it out with Jude. Arabella will come to play a more central role in Jude’s life from this point on.

***

The last hundred pages of the novel lead to a climax of horror unrivalled in most literary tragedies. Sue and Jude seem to trade places, she becoming more devout, he more reprobate. As their life together spins into misery and self-reproach, and as Phillotson and Arabella move in to claim their former spouses, Jude slips further and further into a cycle of self-destruction. They move back to Christminster. On their first day back, Jude encounters some friends in a crowd and is inspired to make a public confession in the form of a powerful speech. “It do seem like the Judgment Day,” comments Father Time as a weather front moves in.

In this seminal speech-confession, Jude recounts his early hopes in coming to Christminster. He has concluded that his poor heritage led to his failure. Echoing Shakespeare’s Romeo, he says “it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten… I may do some good before I am dead—be a sort of success as a frightful example of what not to do, and so illustrate a moral story… I was, perhaps, after all, a paltry victim to the spirit of mental and social restlessness, that makes so many unhappy in these days.”

Sue remonstrates. “Don’t tell them that! You weren’t that. You struggled nobly to acquire knowledge, and only the meanest souls in the world would blame you..” The crowd loves his disquisition, however: “Well preached,” exclaimed his old friend and drinking partner. “And this only a working man!”

Christminster proves once again to be a setting of profound disappointment and final disintegration of the dreams and ideals of Jude’s and Sue’s youth. In the end, Sue goes back to Phillotson, more as a lifelong penance than as a wife, while Jude is once again seduced by Arabella, whom he remarries. “We’ve both remarried out of our senses,” he tells Sue. “I was made drunk to do it. You were the same. I was gin-drunk; you were creed-drunk.”

***

Jude dies of pneumonia at the age of 30. Before he dies, he confesses to Mrs. Edlin, a friend of his departed Aunt. “And now the ultimate horror has come—her [Sue] giving herself like this to what she loathes [Phillotson], in her enslavement to forms!—she, so sensitive, so shrinking, that the very wind seemed to blow on her with a touch of deference… As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us.” As Jude lies dying in his bed, the words of scripture come back to him, this time from the book of Job. “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.”

Soon afterward, Jude passes away, alone in his room. “All was still within. The bumping of near thirty years had ceased.” On his shelf, an old copy of Virgil and his Greek New Testament stood side by side, books he had not burned. “There seemed to be a smile of some sort upon the marble features of Jude.” As for Sue, Arabella comments later to Mrs. Edlin that “Sue has never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again till she’s as he is now!”

***

Jude the Obscure is a book profound in its symbolism and keenly reflective of the anxieties of fin de siècle Europe. Recall that the book was published in 1895. The geographical features of Wessex seem to symbolize the desolate sense of the world prior to WWI. As Hardy wrote in his famous poem “The Darkling Thrush,” The land’s sharp features seemed to be / the Century’s corpse outleant / …The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry, / And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervorless as I.” The bucolic horizontality of the countryside contrasts with the willful verticality of Christminster, yet both lose their meaning at the approach of the new century.

Critics remark at the singularity of meaningless suffering in the novel. Conventional wisdom had dictated that suffering was redemptive and meaningful, but Jude and Sue do not find this to be the case. Blind chance, uncontrollable physical urges and lusts overwhelm intellectual and moral intentions, while their youthful ideals and worldviews are inverted by the relentless march of tragedy and chance. The constant restlessness, the presence of geographical and spiritual movement, the phenomenon of orphanhood on the part of both Jude and Sue, are all factors in creating lives born fifty years too soon (or, perhaps more poignantly, too late), or, as Jude comments to Sue, “fractions always wanting their integers.”

The novel is deeply moving to me. It is in many ways close to my own story. Born poor and destined to a working class life, I still harbored a dream of significance. Early religious piety and longing for the life of a scholar-pilgrim Christian, my plans and intentions were sidelined by a loss of orientation and rebellion in my twenties. A close brush with a life-changing moment that I let pass by took me yet further afield from youthful devotion. Years spent in pursuits far beneath my aspirations and gifts characterized much of my adult life. Only yet another opportunity to seize my birthright saved me from a slow decline into intellectual and spiritual mediocrity.

To me, the moral of Jude the Obscure is simple: guard any dream that is God-given and make it your life-long pursuit to realize, ignoring momentary failure and the obstacles of seeming chance and careless flesh. Believe in God’s kind Providence in all things, and come as near to achieving your goal as possible, knowing you have fought the good fight. I know there are many other interpretations of this signal book, but none speak to me as clearly as Jude did himself in his speech in Christminster, when in closing he quoted the book of Ecclesiastes: “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? And who can tell what shall be after him under the sun?”

 

 

Liberal Christians and Immigration

Nearly every morning, my wife Marilyn and I read from the scriptures and other books of interest. This morning I read from Malachi 3 and she from Matthew 25. Both of these passages have to do with helping the orphan, the widow and the stranger, among other things.
 
With the subject of immigrants in the news, many of us who oppose unlimited immigration are being subjected to lectures by our liberal Christian friends about our duty to get on board the cause of massive acceptance of “refugees.” I put the word in quotes, because most of these people are not strictly speaking refugees. They are groups of people seeking a better life.
 
But who isn’t? Does that desire make me a “refugee” within my own country?
 
It is impossible for the US to take in huge numbers of these foreigners without disrupting the institutions and traditions of our nation, and without degrading the standard of living of those already citizens by birth. This obvious truth doesn’t seem to affect those who are quoting the Bible to (at) us.
 
I am a student of the scriptures, and as I read those many Old and New Testament passages about the stranger and the neighbor, I have some thoughts about this subject.
 
Apart from the question of whether “the stranger” and “the alien” that we encounter in the Bible are interpretively analogous to the masses of economic immigrants clamoring for entry to our shores, there are other things that concern me.
 
For one, I have to ask how it is that those who do not really hold the Bible to be the inspired Word of God (most of these scolds are LIBERAL Christians, after all) now find it convenient to quote it in this context. There are many other truths of scripture that they seem to have thrown away as outmoded, such as its clear teachings on homosexuality, abortion, bestiality, general sexual immorality and that most pestiferous of biblical injunctions, “be not conformed to this world.”
 
Why is part of it authoritative to them, while much of the rest is not?
 
This selective and tendentious quoting of scripture carries little weight on this matter when we see that our liberal gentry have no problem with gay marriage, transvestism, or what we now call “body art,” but which the scriptures call Canaanite paganism.
 
How is it that we are under moral imperatives to practice their version of social compassion when they have so little inclination towards the final and most significant teaching of Christ, to tell their neighbors to repent and believe in His Name? How many of their friends and neighbors have our liberal Christians sought to lead to the Savior?
 
More poignantly, do these people care about the spiritual destinies of the people they are welcoming? If they claim to believe the Lord’s words on welcoming the neighbor and the alien, do they hold to his words on the necessity to evangelize them?
 
Those of us who believe the Word of God to be authoritative in our lives find enough to keep us uncomfortable and penitent without our well-meaning but hypocritical liberal friends trying to heap guilt on us for not joining them in their singular political obsession with immigrants.

Should Christian Churches be Tax Exempt?

Recently, a reader of my local newspaper The Bend Bulletin posted an “In My View” column arguing that churches should be subject to property taxes. Since this is a perennial argument of the political Left I thought the column warranted a rebuttal. Many Christians are partly or totally ignorant of this issue and its importance. What follows is what I wrote.

If I understand Ms. Dupree correctly, she says that the long-standing custom of exempting Christian churches from property taxes has outlived its usefulness because those churches no longer help the homeless. Therefore, their assets should be taxed so that the proceeds could be put in a “general fund” that would then be used to “address” the homeless problem. Churches to Ms. Dupree are plush but empty extravagances that effectively embezzle monies that would otherwise eliminate the homeless problem.

Ms. Dupree indicts all churches for greed, for persecution of the homeless, and for offering nothing of value to society now that those churches no longer aid the homeless. ”Millions of people,” she writes, “now sit in plush church buildings once a week that sit empty the rest of the week while the number of homeless people in this county is increasing.”

Before turning to her charges against American churches, let’s take a brief look at the origin of the tax exempt status to churches.

One of the traditional rationales for granting tax exempt status to churches (and to synagogues, museums, madrassas, foundations, charitable organizations, Elks and Rotary Clubs, and to countless other non-profit organizations) was that they added something of value to society that was much greater than anything that might be gained from taxing them. This has been called the “social benefit theory,” among other names. It is not specific to America, nor is it anything very new. Our founding fathers may not have enshrined social benefit theory per se in our Constitution, but it was a part of their everyday worldview. They took it for granted.

Well, what about those “greedy” churches that so distress Ms. Dupree?.

First of all, to tax many churches would be to effectively close them down. The vast majority of churches are poor, small and hardly the plush and decadent shrines Ms. Dupree says they are. Most pastors make between $30,000 and $70,000 per year. Their properties, if they could be sold at all to pay taxes, would be worth very little. Many churches do not even own the facilities they worship in. Furthermore, the tax structure is in reality nothing like the “general fund” she mentions. If taxed, most profits from church properties would be spent on government agencies and used for purposes that have little to do with helping the homeless. Property taxes go for police, schools, fixing highways and other municipal essentials. The idea that all the proceeds that might accrue from taxing churches would end up rectifying the homeless problem is ludicrous.

Then there is the irony inherent in her reasoning. In many cities and towns across America, the only homeless shelters that exist are funded and operated by churches or groups of churches. In Redmond, OR where I live, the homeless have a haven from winter weather precisely because Ms. Dupree’s selfish Christians give some of their money to make it possible.

Furthermore, churches have benevolent funds to help the poor, food pantries for those in hardship, and serve meals to the elderly and indigent. They provide counseling and recovery services to aid the confused, distraught and marginalized. Preaching and teaching from pulpits and in Sunday School classes probably impacts more lives for good than all social programs combined. In short, few churches I know resemble the one-hour-a-week caricature that Ms. Dupree adduces.

It is equally ironic that it is the American Left that was instrumental in de-institutionalizing the mentally retarded and similarly impaired population that makes up a large portion of the homeless. This is a neglected story that represents a disgraceful blot on the record of the political Left. That these political actors now insist that those of us who had little to do with creating this problem become liable for it is a pattern that has become all too familiar to us.

Perhaps Ms. Dupree and those who think as she does should visit a church sometime. They would learn that the common people who worship there are far more generous in supporting social programs than is often realized. Indeed, according to Arthur C. Brooks in his book Who Really Cares?, conservative Christians give much more than liberals, and not simply to their own churches.

One can’t help but suspect that those who insist that churches pay property taxes aren’t really so concerned with the homeless after all. Perhaps they have some other agenda in mind.

 

GMOs and Me

As an advocate for genetically-modified food and other organisms, I find that my views often set off a firestorm. Friends, even conservative friends, have very settled opinions on this matter. I wish to state here why I am a proponent of GMOs and why I am critical of those who oppose them.

First, some stipulations will be in order.

*

My first stipulation is this: Up front I admit that I am no expert in genetics, nor in agriculture. Neither are most of the people who oppose my views. This is as it should be. Most of us are laymen and get our information as we can, but we are not scientists or academics. We have strong feelings on the matter of food and its relation to society and should express those ideas and should subject ourselves to the critique of others who see things differently.

This entire controversy would benefit immensely from a good measure of epistemic humility. This is, alas, often in short supply.

*

My second stipulation is this: The anti-GMO movement is driven primarily by partisans from the political Left. That does not mean that my conservative friends are of that camp in general. It only means that in this instance, on this matter, they have subscribed to doctrines and arguments that exist not for the purpose of improving the food supply for humankind, but for the purpose of undermining the political and economic order that has long been the norm in America.

It is entirely possible that there are authorities on genetically-modified foods who operate from other assumptions than those of the Left. I have not found them in my reading on this matter, but then again I am not a food researcher. Those whose views I do trust on these matters, who are themselves authorities in this field, have not found such disinterested anti-GMO sources either. Insofar as they take note of the arguments of the other side, my conservative sources have not referenced a specifically conservative anti-GMO body of thought. This makes me suspect that few such credible sources exist.

There are other reasons for this conclusion.

In nearly every controversy over GMOs in which I have participated, the name of Monsanto and its alleged “crimes” have surfaced right away. I am no spokesman for Monsanto, but the identification of the GMO discussion with the imputed greed and collusion that are routinely brought against Monsanto is an indicator of just how political the anti-GMO argument is. My interest in this subject has to do with the feeding of up to 9 billion people. That is not the focus of the anti-GMO party, which seems to have a number of other purposes, none of which concern the possibility of feeding a planet-wide population that is growing rapidly.

The central gravamen of the anti-GMO indictment  against Monsanto et al. is that large corporations of this type are evil in intent as well as in effect and that they must be stopped from doing what they are doing, even if it means the destruction of the company and the industry involved. Once that motive is understood, all the other activities of the  anti-GMO movement come into clearer focus.

*

My third stipulation is that “organic” farming will never be able to feed a world population projected to be 9 billion by the year 2030. Neither will traditional farming methods. Since organic farming is what the anti-GMO movement is advocating, it is crucial to understand its limitations. Indeed, organic farming is not  capable even now of safely feeding those who can afford its high prices, as the recent Chipotle restaurant E.coli crisis has demonstrated.

On a broader basis, organic farming simply costs too much for most of the world’s people to afford, produces too little to lift large numbers of the hungry, and contributes so much of its own pollutants to soil and water that it is not viable as a large-scale food source. Furthermore, organic farming relies on wholesale tillage, which is bad for soil, and the use of “alternative” chemicals that are high in sulfur and copper, both poisonous to humans and animals.

Henry Miller, the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, writes that most fruits, vegetables and grains that proudly wear the label “organic” are themselves GMOs resulting from “wide-crossing” and other breeding techniques of the past that were scatter-shot and in some cases potentially  dangerous. Golden Promise barley, so favored by organic micro-brewers, is itself a GMO, but one that was created using mutational breeding that consisted of chemical or radiological scrambling of genes. Miller notes an irony: organic farming is built on now-discredited genetically-modified practices of the past while making war on modern techniques that are targeted and extremely safe.

In short, according to Miller and others, “organic” farming is unsustainable as a model for feeding a world as populous as ours. As a personal choice, few of us have a problem with some people wanting the marginally better taste and textures that may be available through local organic farming. But one wonders why the political Left is unhappy with organic foods as one alternative among others. Certainly, they have to know that organic farming cannot keep up with population growth, and indeed would be unable even to supply the food necessary at present levels.

*

Before his death in 2009, Norman Borlaug, often called the “Father of the Green Revolution, “ lamented the fact that some European countries were withholding financial aid to African nations until those nations banned the importation of genetically-modified foods. He called this trend “tragic and grossly irresponsible.” Just recently, the Marxist leader of Zimbabwe, the poorest country in Africa and possibly the world, has banned GMOs for his desperate people, who are suffering a years-long drought. Greenpeace and other ecological groups have destroyed fields of genetically modified grain in the Philippines and have done all they can to terminate shipment of GMOs to nations that cannot feed themselves. Why?

The short, almost unthinkable answer is that many Leftist groups do not want a world of nine nine billion people, and may be unhappy with the current number of 7 to 8 billion.  Perhaps the spirit of Margaret Sanger, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot lives on in the sophisticated  salons of the anti-GMO political Left. None of these historical figures balked at cleansing the world of “undesirables.” Neither did Adolf Hitler.

In its more extreme precincts, is the anti-GMO movement nothing more than a cruel attempt at global population control dressed up in elite, progressive platitudes?

*

The facts surrounding GMOs are few and simple. But one has to be willing to believe them, or at least willing to suspend one’s disbelief for the period needed to become acquainted with them. Here are a few of the highlights.

GMOs have been part of the global diet for more than 25 years without a single reported case of injury or death directly attributable to them. The possibility of their future impact on humans is unknown, but surely by now some deleterious effects should have become evident. The Future is always the eminence gris of the radical Left. The historical present is to radical movements forever hostage to the apocalyptic future, as in both the GMO controversy and the climate change scenario.

As author and UK House of Lords member Matt Ridley writes: “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s.”

There is almost certainly more likely harm in the constant use of cellphones by millennials than in the ingestion of “Frankenfoods” such as the Arctic Apple that resists bruising and browning when it is sliced, or the Simplot “Innate” potato that takes less water to grow, resists bruising (less waste), and has eliminated much of the carcinogen asparagine.

GMOs have lifted millions of people in the “third world” from poverty into the middle class. With improved diets of Golden Rice, which helps prevent blindness, India was spared famine in the 1980s, according to genetic scientist Robert Zeigler. With longer life spans, better diets, and crops that are easier and more sustainable to grow, farmers in Asia and Africa do not need to hedge their bets by having so many children. The result is rising prosperity, natural population control, and increased human thriving.

Julie Kelly, a cooking instructor and a contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project, says that genetic advances go well beyond grains, vegetables and fruit. The AquAdvantage salmon carries a gene that helps it grow faster with less food, leading to less pressure on overfished stocks of wild salmon. She points to a genetic modification that will prevent the development of avian flu in chickens, and another that helps piglets fight off a viral respiratory disease. She calls these “farmaceuticals.” Think what such advances would mean to the world’s livestock production and the cost of meat, especially to the lower classes.

At the end of the day, GMO evangelists such as Michael Pollan, Urvashi Rangan, Wendell Berry, The Environmental Working Group, The Center for Food Safety, celebrity chefs such as Tom Colicchio, and movements such as Greenpeace and Earth First appear to be concerned only with disrupting these efforts and stopping them through litigation. They have turned large numbers of an entire generation into food police and nutrition scolds who constantly tell us what is wrong without proposing any realistic solutions.

Why can’t they just do their thing and let us do ours? Ah, grasshopper, to do that would be for them to abandon their very calling and identity.

 

 

Robinson Crusoe: A Summary

Author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) lived a life almost as adventurous as the one he depicts for his fictional character Robinson Crusoe. Defoe was a political man, a bit of a swashbuckler, a pamphleteer, and an English Dissenter. That is, he was one of those like John Bunyan before him whose family dissented from the Church of England. Some call Robinson Crusoe (1719) the first real English novel. That distinction is sometimes accorded to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). But Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory rather than a novel proper, and resembles medieval literature more than it presages the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The full title of this book is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the Coast of America, near the mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account of how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates.

We usually think of Robinson Crusoe as a children’s book, but no child would sit still for a straight reading of this novel. Like Treasure Island, it has been many times recreated in an abridged and simplified form for children. The book is best understood as an adult adventure story, of which it is one of the best. In reading this novel for the first time in recent days, I could hardly put it down from evening to evening. I was reminded of those times in my youth when I sat for hours with the novels of Jules Verne. I had not realized that serious literature could ever again engage me at such a level of joy and wide-eyed fantasy. After back to back readings of Moby Dick and Madame Bovary, Robinson Crusoe was a rip-roaring read of the first order, and a deliverance from 19th-century Sturm und Drang.

Crusoe’s adventures begin when as a young man he disregards his pious father’s advice to stay at home and assume his predestined role in society. No life could be better lived, his father told him, than one at the upper level of the common class. Nobody would ever covet what he had, and he in turn would live a placid life of more than enough. A life on the sea, his father warned, would risk God’s wrath. But Crusoe, in his late teens, had his mind made up, and was off to sea to grasp his fortune.

The first eight years of Crusoe’s life on the sea were harrowing and rewarding in turn. He suffered shipwreck off the coast of England when he had barely set out, but soon embarked again to the coast of Africa. Here he was captured by Moorish pirates, who enslaved him for two years. Crusoe made an escape at last and was picked up by a Portuguese ship headed for Brazil. The captain of the ship showed him great kindness. In Brazil, Crusoe met another Englishman, and the two of them joined in establishing a sugar cane plantation. Prosperity came quickly and effortlessly, and it appeared that the young man had his future settled.

But wanderlust struck Crusoe once more, and he determined to go aboard a ship that was a slaver to the coast of Africa. “I went on board in an evil hour—the 1st of September 1659, being the same day eight years that I went from my father and mother at Hull in order to act the rebel to their authority and the fool to my own interest.” Somewhere off shore from the Orinoco River in modern Venezuela, they encountered a storm and abandoned the ship. They entered a small boat and made for an island. Of the eleven aboard, only Crusoe made it to land.

Here his real adventure begins. “I had nothing about me but a knife, a tobacco pipe, and a little tobacco in box.” Frightened, not knowing where he was, or what dangers lay at hand, he spent the first night in a tree. The next day he discovered that his ship had washed ashore nearby and that he could get many items off of it for his survival. He provisioned himself with guns and ammunition, clothes and tools, as well as some food stuffs. He realized that it he and his fellows had stayed with the main ship rather than trying to land with the boat they would all have been saved.

Crusoe soon began to make the island his home. He found that it contained goats and tortoises for food. He crafted a kind of dugout for his stores and pitched a tent nearby, as he set out to explore his domain. He soon realized that he was alone on this tropical island, and that it contained most of what he needed to sustain life. He began to keep a journal and a calendar, not knowing how long he was to be stranded in this “Island of Despair,” as he called it. His greatest fear was that his island would be visited by tribesmen from the mainland, whose outline he could only just descry from a high point. He knew that the tribes were cannibals and that he must remain hidden if they should come. His main residence was thus masked with rows of trees which he planted to shield him from view from anyone coming to shore.

During his first few months there he experienced an earthquake and a hurricane. By June of the year following his arrival, he became deathly ill. This proved to be a turning point in his life. As he reflected on the events that led to his hopeless condition, he entered a period of deep repentance that led to a religious conversion. “I began to reproach myself with my past life, in which I had so evidently, by uncommon wickedness, provoked the justice of God to lay me under uncommon strokes.” He remembers his father’s words, and he cries out: “Lord, be my help; for I am in great distress.”

Crusoe’s life begins to change for the better. He recovers, but more than that, he finds a new meaning in his ordeal. He begins reading the scriptures (three Bibles were among the things he salvaged from the ship) and praying regularly. His recovery complete, he establishes a “country house” in another part of the island. This was a kind of stockade which he could visit when he was travelling over the island. It is difficult to tell how large the island is from his description, but it seems to be at least ten or twenty square miles, perhaps larger.

Among the things Crusoe rescued from his ship were some rice, corn and barley seeds. These he cultivated so that by the end of several years he had grain for fashioning into loaves. He domesticated the goats, and kept them for meat, milk, butter and cheese. He tamed a parrot he called Poll, which proved to be a constant companion to him. He drew comfort from the words of scripture: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Joshua 1:5). “From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition, than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world.”

Over the next several years, Crusoe essentially reinvents the semblances of civilization. He discovers by accident how to create earthenware so he can bake bread. He learns to weave baskets for transporting his produce, including a crop of grapes that were his staple fruit. He realizes the futility of earthly possessions beyond those necessary for his sustenance and comfort. “All the good things of this world are no further good to us than they are for our use; and that whatever we may heap up indeed to give others, we enjoy just as much as we can use, and no more… I had no room for desire.”

Five years pass. Crusoe builds a small boat to circle the island. He is nearly swept out to sea when he miscalculates the currents, and once making it back to shore puts the boat up and gives up the idea of sailing to the mainland. By the eleventh year he has refined his dairy and enclosed his granaries. One day, walking along the beach on the west side of the island, he comes upon a footprint. This terrified him, and changed his life to one of apprehension. “Thus my fear banished all my religious hope, all that former confidence in God, which was founded upon such wonderful experience as I had had of his goodness, now vanished…” But he recalls Psalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.”

Reasoning with himself, Crusoe tells himself that he has been here now fifteen years and has never seen another person, though it is possible that some have come and gone while he was unawares. Has not God taken care of him during that time?

One day two years later, he explored a corner of the island he had never visited before and was horrified at what he came across. Human body parts were strewn across the ground with a fire pit nearby. It was evident that a cannibalistic ritual had recently been enacted there. “I turned away my face from the horrid spectacle: my stomach grew sick, and I was just on the point of fainting, when nature discharged the disorder from my stomach.” He withdraws into himself, going about his routines but having lost the love of his earlier daily life. Two more years pass, but the pall of the discovery still hangs in the air. He is more careful now, traveling less and watching more. He travels heavily armed. He rages at the inhumanity of this tribal custom and determines to kill these heathen if they come to his island again. Then he reconsiders. Is he judge and executioner? Is this his fight? Why not leave these creatures to their customs and to God?

Another year passes. Then a few more. He is in his twenty-third year on the island. One December morning he is harvesting his grain when he sees a fire on a shore about two miles away. He sneaks close to the fire and sees that nine savages have come to feast on a human they had captured in battle, for this is the way victory was celebrated. He does not interfere, but determines to put a stop to it the next time he sees it.

The next year in May a shipwreck occurs off the coast of his island, and it appears that all hands are lost. Crusoe is able to access the wreck and salvage a few things, including a starving dog who will be his companion. He cries out in despair that there was not one man who survived. Two more years pass. Crusoe becomes obsessed with making a trip to the mainland to find deliverance, if there was any to be found.

One day, five canoes appear with about 30 natives in them. They carry two wretches bound in order to be butchered and eaten. On shore, one of the captives frees himself and makes a run for his life. Three natives pursue him but he outruns them. Crusoe calls the desperate man aside and helps him escape by killing one of the pursuers and wounding another. The remaining natives soon leave the island to catch the tides back to the mainland. Crusoe is alone on the island with his captive, whom he calls “Friday” to indicate the day on which he rescued him.

Friday becomes both servant and companion to Crusoe and the two men grow close. Friday learns some English, and Crusoe teaches him how to maintain the animals and the crops. “Never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me; without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me.” Friday gladly learns of Crusoe’s God: “He listened with great attention, and received with pleasure the notion of Jesus Christ being sent to redeem us.”

Crusoe and Friday live together for three years, tending the plantation, as it was called, caring for the animals, and spending many days in pleasant conversation. Friday informs his “Master” that there are seventeen white men with beards living among his people. These, it turns out, are the survivors of the shipwreck that had happened about four years prior. They are in a miserable state with no way to escape, but his people are doing what they can to feed and help them.

The remainder of the book with its surprising twists and turns resulting in Crusoe’s and Friday’s escape from the island and their voyage to Europe I will leave to the reader to discover. The book has, of course, a happy ending. “And thus I left the island the 19th of December in the year 1686, after I had been upon it eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days… I arrived in England the 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty and five years absent.” Friday travels with Crusoe to England. The seventeen men on the mainland also come to a good end.

Near the end of the book, Crusoe reflects: “And thus I have given the first part of a life of fortune and adventure, a life of Providence’s checker-work, and of a variety which the world will seldom be able to show the like of. Beginning foolishly, but closing much more happily than any part of it ever gave me leave so much as to hope for.”

In many ways, Robinson Crusoe is a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son as found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter fifteen. One reflects on this parable again and again while reading the book, helped by Crusoe’s frequent conjuring of his miseries and his sorrow at disregarding his father’s original advice. But had the young man not made his foolish hegira to the ends of the earth, we would not have this book—perhaps the greatest adventure story in the English language—to fire our imaginations. As Crusoe frequently says, in every tale of woe there is good to be told.

A Culture of Therapeutic Repression

During the years of the old Soviet Union, those who dissented from the party orthodoxy were often sent not to labor camps but to psychiatric hospitals. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and the poet Joseph Brodsky have all spoken and written about the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. Of course, these “hospitals” were often prisons in their own right, but the regime’s attempts to psychologize politics set a precedent that is very much with us today.

Mutatis mutandis (making the necessary adjustments), let us count the ways.

The whole concept of “hate speech” is an attempt to apply psychological categories to political activity. Hate is an emotional phenomenon, not a volitional one. As we all know, there is a great deal of hate in our public life, but relatively little of it is perpetrated by those manacled with the hate-speech cuffs. Most of the real hate in American politics is disseminated by those who dismiss the legitimate concerns of citizens as varieties of sickness.

What is more hateful than ascribing mental impairment to those who dissent from widely-held assumptions?

Hence the pervasive use of such therapeutic mechanisms as sensitivity training and diversity workshops. College orientation processes now routinely indoctrinate entering students in the pieties of the cultural left. Children are now told to make “good decisions” and avoid “bad choices,” whereas in former, saner times, they were told the difference between right and wrong while at the same time introduced to the idea of proper authority.

In the old way of thinking, bad choices were not mere mistakes made by otherwise innocent children, but manifestations of the crooked timber of their basic nature, which could only be ultimately governed by religious and moral imperatives. Those notions of human nature are long gone. They are considered “repressive,” another psychological category.

Employers who want to be rid of squeaky wheels will use “HR” solutions to problems that are administrative in nature. The presence of an HR person in a room with a manager and an employee biases what may be a genuine workplace problem towards a psychological “solution.” This usually leaves dysfunctions in place that will be repeated later.

Political correctness is a culture-wide imposition of therapeutic categories onto normal human concourse. Terms such as “inclusive” are reflective of proper thinking, while “racist” or “homophobic” are adduced not just to denote error, but pathology. Those who depart from the prescribed formulas for speech and thought can be labeled as deviants so that they never have to be taken seriously again.

The nice thing about using psychiatric tools to “treat” dissident thinking is that there is no end date, as Vladimir Bukovsky has noted. Inmates can be drugged for years at a time.

I am reminded of all of this by recent efforts of Facebook to expunge what are considered “xenophobic” comments from its pages, especially in Europe. In Holland, police have come to the doors of Facebook users to warn them that they must cease posting comments that are deemed offensive to newcomers from the Middle East. Recently, Angela Merkel was heard through an open mic requesting Mark Zuckerberg to work with her to eliminate “xenophobic” comments from Facebook in Germany. Zuckerberg told her he could help with the project.

Legitimate concerns about mass immigration are being censored from public places.

Xenophobia is not a political category but a psychological one, which explains its wide use by the cultural left. In an America where a Sanders or a Clinton is President, we can expect such strictures to govern Facebook, other social media, or political speech of any kind. And who will object? After all, it is so much easier and quicker to dismiss someone as retarded than it is to grapple with his ideas.