Jean Valjean, the Anti-Ubermensch
People don’t usually want to suffer, but we tend to honor those who do, especially when they suffer through conviction of some enduring principle. Think of Mother Theresa, Lu Xiabo, or the soldiers who fight America’s wars, however remote.
Especially fixating are people who suffer through no or little fault of their own. Victor Hugo comes close to that plot in his Les Miserables, the 2012 film rendering of which has just scored eight Oscar nominations and is now bringing theatergoers to sobs everywhere.
Les Miserables shouts of redemptive suffering, similar to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hugo’s Russian counterpart. Indeed, Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion has humorously revived original criticisms of the work: long, tedious, melodramatic. Back then, the critics hated it, and the people loved it. This latest edition has generally received two thumbs up all around.
Victor Hugo’s tale of a man seeking redemption at all odds, not through power but through suffering, echoes the life of a suffering servant we all also know, and in echoing that majestic theme turns postmodern politics and culture on its head. That’s how this dramatic two-and-a-half-hour movie refreshes our memories of where true greatness lies: outside of politics and posturing words, in lives of love, where our words take root and meaning.
Yes, it really is that simple. But simplicity often hides torment, genius, and truth.
The postmodern man wields power for its own sake and as the ultimate end, and views people and ideas as stepping stones, rhetorical tropes, chess pieces in his game of control. For him, words have a stable meaning only so far as he can use what people believe their meanings are to get them to endorse his hidden agenda. Friedrich Nietzsche foreshadowed him as the ubermensch, the superman who breaks the boundaries of law and tradition to forge his own, unbounded laws and traditions. These are the politicians and media men we have now, who speak of narratives, not facts, and not of human nature, immutable laws, and enduring principles of liberty, but of how “fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges.”
What does this have to do with Jean Valjean? Valjean, Hugo’s hero, performs exactly the opposite of the postmodern creed. He first understands that he has done wrong, in long-ago stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry young relative and in repeatedly attempting to run away from prison, though embittered that society left him little alternative to theft. While postmoderns believe in no truth, Valjean convicts himself of wrongdoing, thereby admitting that an objective standard exists, and it condemns him. And he repeatedly does so throughout the movie—whenever stalwart antagonist Inspector Javert appears to take Valjean back to prison, Valjean admits the law would place him there, and repeatedly attempts and offers to turn himself in (albeit often later, after he has performed a current deed of mercy). Though the law would condemn him, Valjean admits its existence.
But Valjean’s life, without repudiating the law that condemns him, simultaneously transcends mere law and politics, for a greater law: love. One day, after he has been released from prison but refused the power to earn his bread, Valjean encounters a priest, whom he decides to rob. Rather than apply the law to Valjean, however justly, the priest exercises his spiritual authority and forgives the wretch. Valjean spends the rest of his life extending mercy to similar wretches: the poor folk whom he tends as their employer and mayor, a young woman his manager drove into prostitution, her destitute child, that child’s future lover, and even his worst enemy, Javert.
Valjean constantly suffers because of his powerlessness, but his powerlessness suffering switches from unwilling and forced upon him to suffering he willingly endures for something greater than himself. This becomes his source of inner power and radiance, and Hugh Jackman’s performance as Valjean brings this out in depth. Rather than become a reprobate bent on exerting his will violently on others, as do many convicts, Valjean opts out of this tit-for-tat system and embraces suffering compassion. He repeatedly gives his life for other people, as individuals whom he loves rather than groups he pretends to love in order to gain self-satisfied power (what a cheap thing professed love is), and in that sacrifice finds meaning and joy.
This is how Valjean presents us an anti-postmodern hero. He is not a Pollyanna who has never seen or experienced evil. He has experienced injustice and humiliation, yet ultimately refuses to let this squelch his faith in the true, good, and beautiful, or to cynically discard all recognition of truth in a willful attempt to define his own and impose it upon the world. Justice without mercy is inhuman. Mercy without justice is chaos. Yet when mercy kisses Valjean’s law-stricken, dead life, he comes alive.