Les Misérables – atheism and faith

Alban Krailsheimer once wrote that Christianity was oddly missing as a subject in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (aka, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). And I agree: that novel can seem like a merely secular story about a Christian cathedral. Les Misérables, by contrast, opens immediately with Christianity as a subject: its entire first section, “A Good Man,” is about a Christian bishop and his faith.

Bishop Myriel is also known by his parishioners as Bishop Bienvenue (French for “welcome”).

One of my favorite passages is a friendly conversation between Bishop Myriel and a senator who has just declared that atheism is the only rational attitude. The Senator says that life must be enjoyed because it’s all that there is, though he allows that the the poor should have a belief in an afterlife, since it’s good for them to feel some small hope while they’re here.

The bishop clapped his hands.

‘Well said!’ he exclaimed. ‘What an excellent and truly marvellous thing that kind of materialism is! It takes more than wanting to come by it. But when you do, ah, you’re no longer fooled. You don’t stupidly allow yourself to be exiled like Cato, or stoned like Stephen, or burned alive like Joan of Arc. Those that do manage to avail themselves of this admirable materialism have the pleasure of feeling irresponsible and of thinking they can gobble up everything without worrying – positions, sinecures, distinctions, power whether honestly or dishonestly come by, lucrative retractions, advantageous betrayals, delectable compromises with their conscience – and that they shall go to their graves having digested the lot. How satisfying! I don’t say this for your sake, monsieur le sénateur. However, I can only congratulate you. You fine gentlemen, as you say, have a philosophy of your own, for yourselves. An exquisite, refined philosophy available only to the rich, to be served up in all kinds of ways, wonderfully adding relish to the pleasures of life. 

Earlier, we had been told that the Bishop respected the uneducated even more than the educated, and his reply here to the Senator shows why. The Bishop turns the Senator’s argument back on him: if theism can be dismissed as mere hope for those who have no hope in this life, then materialism is likewise the perfect philosophy for those who have material goods and leisure, who wish to enjoy them to the maximum, who wish to collect them without fear of anything beyond the small power that the poor can command.

However, it would give the wrong impression to say that this a typical scene in Hugo’s depiction of the Bishop, or even the most memorable. What really stands out about Bishop Myriel is his radical commitment to personal poverty and uninterrupted charity toward the poor and the unwelcome. This man gives up all the possessions, living accommodations and other perks that he might have as a clergy member — anything that, as he says, might go instead to the poor. His commitment to personal humility in all things is full-on Franciscan.

So far so good: a sympathetic portrayal of a charitable priest. And it’s something that many authors could likely fashion. What I found surprising, perhaps, coming from Hugo is that he seems to understand that this man’s inner life is not just better-than-most, but radically different from that of most men: this man doesn’t show ordinary fear toward ordinary threats like roaming brigands in the countryside, or thieves who might steal into his unlocked home. He’s not just a good man who makes outward ethical commitments, but a man who has been genuinely transformed by something.

This is someone who views the world in a completely different manner than other people even when it comes to ordinary and everyday matters. And perhaps it’s not correct to use the word “views,” because this man is not a living embodiment of any single view or creed; Hugo gives him to us as a living vessel of love.

This portrait, of course, is idealistic, as many things in the novel are. I don’t mean that it’s detached from reality, and I for one have known Christians who possess this kind of joy and humility. I mean only that even within the confines of the novel, as he would be in the real world, Bishop Myriel is a rare bird not just among men but among all the clergy.

However, the advantage of an idealistic portrait is that we get to see a vision of what the Christian ideal, if it were actually put into practice, would look like.

So Bishop Myriel is in some ways a symbol. But Hugo prevents him from being a mere symbol, through an extraordinary encounter between the Bishop and a former member of the secular government established after the Revolution of 1789. The Bishop goes to visit this man only when the latter is on his deathbed. Secular rule had been ended by a restoration of the monarchy in 1814, and this ex-Revolutionary is now an outcast; he is associated with the Terror of 1793, and is suspected of having voted for the execution of Louis XVI. He actually had not voted for the death of the king, though he had supported the overthrow of the church, and he has lived many years now in almost complete seclusion in the forest. The Bishop, who sees everyone in the hinterlands of his parish, no matter the hardships or risks, has never gone to visit this particular outcast.

Bishop Bienvenue, then, is not, thankfully, presented as a disembodied angel, but as a real man with weaknesses: a man whose creed and practice are almost but not quite equal.

In this encounter, we see for the first time some uncertainty in the Bishop, some genuine fear in debate, some reserve in his love.

But Hugo doesn’t take sides, or at least, he doesn’t seem to do so in any obvious way. If the two men meeting here are symbols of radically opposed views of the world, Hugo doesn’t give either of them a victory. In fact each man affirms something of the other. There are unfortunately a couple of moments in the scene that struck me as untrue to the characters — Hugo has a weakness for the melodramatic — but these moments are brief, and Hugo doesn’t disrespect the scene by pretending that there is reconciliation.

This entire first section of the book, “A Good Man,” has taken me by surprise, and for me it’s so good, so memorable, that I wonder how the rest of the novel can sustain this level of interest. I wonder too what the purpose of this section will be, since I know that Bishop Myriel is not one of the central characters of the novel.

Bishop Myriel/Bienvenue, depicted by Gustave Brion, 1862

But it’s a wonderful start to the novel, and a memorable book-within-a-book.

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