Reading the Graham Robb Bio of Victor Hugo





The thing is, until you get to the June Days of 1848, it’s a rollicking good time.  My reaction was a persistent “lol Hugo” and “Hugo, did you live your entire life with the conscious purpose of creating an entertaining and THOROUGHLY ABSURD biography some day?”

…and then you get to 1848, and I’d known Hugo did some dodgy things then, which he felt he had to justify in the Les Mis “revolutions vs. riots” digression.  But I didn’t know the extent of it.  And when I learned, well, let’s just say it’s a sudden swerve from “lol Hugo” to “so Hugo just exceeded his orders and initiated and participated in a massacre of workers protesting their mass deportation from Paris purely on the grounds of their class.” So I’ve been reading a book containing a digression by a war criminal trying to justify himself.  This doesn’t make me like the book less: for one thing, the character of the author doesn’t affect the quality of a book.  And for another, there was way more to Hugo than that one incident, including his years of exile.  But it does put a lot of things–the aforementioned digression in particular, but also Marius’s dream-state killings at the barricade, and the fact that Hugo glorifies the barricade, as if in penance, while still showing some discomfort with politically aware workers–in a different light. 

And then, after that, you get the enormities of Louis-Napoleon, including a massacre in the streets of people who aren’t even protesting in any way, and the sudden imposition of dystopia in a city where all the resisters had been shipped off after the June Days.  So basically there’s a sharp turn from “lol Hugo” to staring at the bio in stunned horror. 

Oh I really have to read this.

This was basically the part of Hugo’s life that Runia gave his talk about, btw. (I think I told you about that way back when? But am still fuzzy on the details so I obviously need to read this book!) But Runia’s whole theory of “making history” by doing – well, the unthinkable, taking an action that the actor never imagined they would or could, and then trying to come to terms with it by narrativizing it – he illustrated it with Hugo’s actions in 1848, claiming Hugo was using the barricade scenes and Marius’s role in them as a sort of – therapy and like you said, penance.

I was torn by “surprise LM in the lecture!” and already a bit of skepticism as to the scope of Runia’s arguments. (Like I totally buy him on the mechanics of perpetrators’ guilt but if he’s claiming that making history is always about traumatizing yourself by doing something you never expected to, and usually unthinkable in the way we typically understand it – unthinkable because it’s awful – uhhhh a lot more things have happened that have marked the history in the world in some way other than war crimes. And re: war crimes the victims and the survivors– their trauma matters too. But we’ve talked about Runia …)

Anyway I have to read the book!!! I want to know more of these details – is it easy to find?

I found it very easily!  And on reflection, I’ll revise some of what I said.  I don’t actually think penance is what’s going on.  I think it’s an attempt at self-reconciliation and self-justification.  Hugo fired on the workers’ barricades in the June Days, but then later tried to get people to take to the barricades against Louis-Napoleon’s coup.  In Les Mis, in his digressions and his plot, he staunchly defends taking to the barricades against dictatorships, but says the conscientious man will fight against insurgents who are acting violently against a republic.  So Hugo’s not doing penance, he’s arguing what he did was right. 

arrrgh, yeah, I was just looking at that whole digression last night and there’s practically a Special Circumstances Disclaimer laid around 48 in particular.  Like–darn it Hugo, I get that this is a Complicated Issue, but you do not get to handwave that.  

…Or he does, I guess. Like you said, it doesn’t stop the book from speaking to me; it’s just. This one thing. It’s not a thing I can ever be okay with. 


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