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Les Miserables

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Just saw this horrific film, the story of which, I knew almost nothing. The opening scene was powerful but I'd sum up this story as such: Justice in the service of the morality of sacrifice leads men of integrity to break their own backs.

I saw the movie, I liked it, although I didn't feel the acting or music was strong enough. Hugh Jackman did well, but other than that, I wasn't thrilled with the actors. I liked the plot, though.

I did not get a sense of justice in the service of the morality of sacrifice. Which sacrifices are you talking about?

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Thanks for those links.

It certainly is no surprise that proponents of Occupy Wall Street would identify with the revolutionaries in Les Miserables. Victor Hugo himself was, of course, a socialist, and his great novel is a clarion call for revolution and social change. You wouldn’t expect a modern day liberal like Nathan Newman to appreciate the differences between Louis-Philippe's regime and a mixed economy ravaged by statist intervention.

Of course, in the case of Victor Hugo, his socialism was entirely understandable given the historical context. Socialism was pretty much synonymous with ethical idealism in Europe at that time. Given the case studies of global communism, today’s collectivist liberals don’t have that excuse.

Can you imagine a more floating abstraction than “national and global equity”? Makes you wonder how people with such a slapdash epistemology manage to dress themselves in the morning.

Doris Donnelly praises Hugo’s defiant sympathy for Catholicism, lending credibility to a clergy condemned as corrupt in his day for their seeming opposition to Hugo’s professed democratic ideals. Hugo embraces the Roman Catholic Church by giving a Bishop the pivotal role in Jean Valjean’s salvation. Philosophically, Hugo was clearly a mystic who totally lacked an appreciation of the role of reason in human life, despite the fact that his characters were singularly focused and conscious in their defiant, dedicated heroism.

Neither Newman nor Donnelly can see past their peculiar raison d’etre to appreciate the more fundamental theme of Hugo’s novel, and the source of its enduring greatness: Man’s loyalty to values.

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I was wondering when Bishop Myriel would be brought up!

Hugo embraces the Roman Catholic Church by giving a Bishop the pivotal role in Jean Valjean’s salvation. Philosophically, Hugo was clearly a mystic who totally lacked an appreciation of the role of reason in human life, despite the fact that his characters were singularly focused and conscious in their defiant, dedicated heroism.

Although I haven't studied Hugo in much depth, I haven't gotten that impression from any of his works. Did you come to that conclusion based on Bishop Myriel's role alone? He is my second favorite character in the book, after Valjean himself. With the exception of the last paragraph, I agree with this analysis of Les Mis that Luna wrote:

...Most of the story fits the Objecticist worldview. In spite of the injustice established by moochers like the French aristocracy and the Thénardiers running around making life generally suck for everyone, Jean Valjean manages to succeed. He never complains. He starts a factory and becomes the mayor, and as he is perused by the unrelentingly lawful Javert throughout France, he manages to continue to succeed, keep his promises, and be an all around great guy.

Clearly an ideal man in a novel that Ayn Rand could have easily written herself. The few times Valjean gives anything to anyone, it's in exchange for something he values. Even his promise to take care of Cosette springs from his personal feelings of justice, since it is by his own inadvertent actions that Fantine, an honest hard-worker, gets fired and eventually dies. Those who give their lives at the barricade do so for the sake of freedom. Marius is a sort of mini-Valjean full of his own ideals and values and noble pursuits. The love between Marius and Cosette is a love of equals, two worthy human beings who find value in each other.

In Hugo's work, altruism loses, virtuous selfishness wins.

Except for one thing. Here is where it all falls apart. All of Valjean's admirable actions and heroic deeds hinge on a single simple act by a minor character -- one act without which Valjean would have died a bitter, thieving moocher of a man. Just another Thénardier, a nameless, faceless, undignified whining wretch. This act is not only altruistic and selfless, it is done in the name of God, by a man of God.

Valjean is given shelter in a cathedral by Bishop Myriel. At his first chance, Valjean steals the silver. When he is caught fleeing, he knows he will be sent back to prison for life. Yet when confronted by the police, the Bishop tells them he gave the silver to Valjean, and offers him two candlesticks that he "forgot". After the police leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to take the silver and begin a new life. In the musical, the Bishop sings, "I have bought your soul for God."

This one action causes a crisis of conscious for Valjean (in contrast to Javert's later crisis when Valjean saves his life). Valjean's cynical view of the world is shattered. He takes the silver and invests in the engines of capitalism, starting the factory and becoming the mayor. He employs hundreds of workers and lives a life Ayn Rand would wholly approve of.

Up until that moment, Valjean was a filthy freeloader. His savior was a selfless man of God. Both Valjean and the Bishop have every trait to qualify as a villain or a victim in a Rand novel. In her story, Valjean would have run off with the silver; blown it all on drugs, charity, taxes, or something equally vile; and returned to steal again. In her story, the Bishop would have used Valjean for his own ends only to meet destruction through his altruistic folly.


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Hugo was a non-practicing Catholic for much of his life and an outspoken critic of church policy. During his long exile in the Channel Islands (when Louis Napolean came to power) he took up spiritism, a religious cult which was popular in his day. He often took part in seances and obviously believed that the living could communicate with the spirit world.

Apparently his mysticism gave way to Deism in his later years and he became a self-professed freethinker, so I should give him credit for that.

Lindsey Luna is utterly wrong in her evaluation of Jean Valjean as a “filthy freeloader.” He was a desperate man who had just tasted freedom after losing 19 years of his life for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister’s family. Hugo makes clear that he is a fundamentally good man driven to theft in a moment of extreme emotional despair. It might be accurate to call the Bishop’s action altruistic, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Given the context of the massive injustices witnessed by every member of society at the time, you could also conclude that he was simply throwing a drowning man a life preserver. His decision to help Valjean could be compared to the heroism of those who helped protect the Jews in Nazi Germny.

Such actions in the defense of the value of human life are anything but selfless, but you wouldn’t expect a knee-jerk Rand-basher to appreciate that sort of subtlety.

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That doesn't show that Hugo "totally lacked an appreciate of the role of reason in human life." We are all aware that without reason, Hugo would not have even written Les Mis. It would be a huge stretch to say Hugo wasn't aware of that himself. (I don't recall him ever having said that his books were divinely inspired- like, say, Joseph Smith's story about the golden plates.)

The reason Luna believes Rand would call Valjean a villian is because he: 1) resorted to stealing in the beginning of the book instead of earning money in an honest way, and 2) resorted to stealing yet again after he was released from prison, but this time he stole from the only person who showed him kindness. #2 is not nearly as easy to sympathise with as #1. The Bishop saw a beggar going down a dark path and knew that if he didn't help him, he would be lost. Without the charity, goodwill, and benevolence showed by Bishop Myriel, Valjean would not have lived the life he did. I agree with Luna when she says "Valjeans heroic deeds hinge on a single simple act by a minor character."

Why did Bishop Myriel help Valjean? Well, he helped him two times. First, he let him into his home, fed him, gave him a place to sleep, etc. Why would he do that? Maybe he pitied Valjean's situation, saw some good in him, or maybe he would have been just as charitable to ANY beggar who knocked on his door.. because afterall, a bishop's mission is to help people in need. Second, the Bishop lied to the authorities to cover for Valjean's second robbery. He even threw in some extra silver and told Valjean to live a good life. In my eyes, the Bishop's deeds were more selfless than selfish- but that doesn't make them wrong.

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Dennis is saying Hugo lacked an appreciation of the role of reason, not that he was unaware of or rejected his use of reason. A mystic can easily say reason is useful sometimes without saying reason is fundamental to human existence.

If the Bishop's deeds were more selfless than selfish, that actually does make them wrong. Still, I think the Bishop's deeds were more selfish! Giving someone a place to sleep isn't really much of a cost, but more importantly he saw good in Valjean, for various reasons perhaps, including standing by values through desperate time and not giving up on life the whole time. The initial stealing I don't even think was wrong, given the context of France at the time regarding poor people. Stealing was in support of values, when there were rights abuses. (I wonder if Valjean stealing bread is what Rand bases the time Kira from We The Living steals some potatoes?) Personally, I would totally give Valjean a place to sleep, he deserved the kindness. Offering food and a bed for a night is a reasonable way to help him out. I don't like the blog entry because I have no reason to suggest that Valjean was ever a freeloader, considering I see all the places he applied for work and the distance he walked.

Evaluating Valjeans theft, that's where things can be questioned. After being helped out by the Bishop, he decides to steal from the very person who was leading him towards life. When he stole the bread, he did that in pursuit of survival. Here? He seems to be bitter about the world, and taking that anger out on people specifically making his life better. Valjean commits an injustice.

So, why would the Bishop offer forgiveness? Why would Valjean *still* deserve any help? Perhaps the one event was not enough to warrant just outright rejecting him, so the Bishop didn't let the police take him. The Bishop may have honestly believed that Valjean acted poorly in a moment of weakness, but did not see that as an aspect of Valjean's character. Everything about Valjean up to that point was good, and only at this time did he act immorally. In other words, the Bishop saw his actions as a mistake, not as a fundamental evil. Then, in order to help him onto his feet, the Bishop let him keep the silver. Over time, in the next part of the movie, we see that the Bishop's judgment was correct, and Valjean became a virtuous citizen.

Whether or not the Bishop was selfless or selfish depends on his motivation, which is impossible to determine here. But, given what I see, he could have been acting selfishly.

Edited by Eiuol
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The Academy Awards nominations came out today, and Les Miserables is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hugh Jackman) and (praise the Lord) Best Supporting Actress, Anne Hathaway. Almost makes me want to take back all those bad things I said about today’s Hollywood. If Les Miz should actually win even two of these major awards, I may have to revise my earlier estimate.

BTW, I am truly delighted to see that Jessica Chastain was nominated for Best Actress for Zero Dark Thirty, which I saw last weekend. She plays an extremely admirable character—a fiercely independent woman whose courage and judgment appear to have been essential factors in finding and killing Osama bin Laden. If Dagny Taggart worked for the CIA, this movie could have been about her.

There is some speculation about whether the CIA operative Chastain portrays is an actual person or not. Some reviewers have suggested that more than one person may have been responsible for pushing the mission forward when most others were wishy-washy about the identity of the mystery person in the Pakistani compound. Regardless, as portrayed in the film, the female CIA agent is a genuine heroine.

Scene: Sitting at a conference table, various CIA staff are asked about the probability that the mystery person is bin Laden. Everyone else says 60 % or something similar, and they all express strong misgivings about whether the mission should proceed. Chastain’s character says 95%, then adds: “It’s actually 100 %, but I know you people get uncomfortable with certainty.”

The audience roared. The scene could have been written by Ayn Rand.

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More good movie news: according to Box Office Mojo, Promised Land, after several weeks in the theaters, at least two of them in wide release, has grossed just over $5.3 million (vs. $107m for Les Miserables). This week it's averaging about $200 / screen. If you figure $10 per ticket and two shows per day, that's about ten people per showing.

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From today’s Los Angeles Times

“Les Miz” the most honored film of The Golden Globe Awards

“Les Miserables,” Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the long-running stage musical set in 19th century France, was Sunday night’s top honoree by the numbers, winning three trophies. In the comedy or musical categories, “Les Miserables” collected best picture and actor for Hugh Jackman as ex-con Jean Valjean, while Anne Hathaway won supporting actress for her performance as the consumptive prostitute Fantine.

Jessica Chastain also won best dramatic actress for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

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