more about Melancholy in Les Mis


At this point—to omit nothing from the sketch upon which we have ventured—we will call attention to the fact that, with Christianity, and by its means, there entered into the mind of the nations a new sentiment, unknown to the ancients and marvellously developed among moderns, a sentiment which is more than gravity and less than sadness—melancholy. 

– Victor Hugo,Preface to Cromwell

“The situation of all in that fatal hour and that pitiless place, had as result and culminating point Enjolras’ supreme melancholy.”

-Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Something I noticed during a recent discussion on the Quel Horizon speech  (and then promptly kicked myself for not noticing before); the start of that chapter is the first place Enjolras is linked with Melancholy. Not sadness or thoughtfulness; Melancholy, specifically. 

And, well. See above quote. In Victor Hugo Mythos Land, this is kind of a gigantic deal.  

Melancholy in canon era had many meanings in common use– depression, indigestion (yes) various illnesses, as well as just plain sadness– and characters use the word to indicate those meanings , like Grantaire claiming it for himself along with nostalgia and hypochondria. 

But Melancholy, for Hugo, also had a very *specific* meaning, unique to Romanticism, and especially his own near-religious approach to Romanticism, one he thought about and wrote about a fair amount.   I’ve written more about it here  but to hugely simplify: Melancholy,Hugo’s idea of Melancholy, is not just sadness in general; it’s *sorrow* , and specifically the sorrow felt by understanding and knowing the Ideal, AND understanding the grotesque, the absolute absence of the Ideal– and thus understanding the suffering caused by that distance (it’s one of two Romantic responses to understanding that gap,the other, coming from the other side of the ideal/grotesque understanding, being a specific kind of humor or laughter; as in, “Bahorel’s laughter”. That juxtaposition is not at all coincidence, but it is another post.). It is, basically, a holy or spiritual sorrow, coming from understanding and compassion; as Hugo puts it,   the suffering of the luminous over the ones still in the dark. 

This is why Enjolras associates Melancholy with Prouvaire, and considers it a strength. It’s not just  sadness, it’s a Romantic awareness of suffering–an almost divinely-inspired compassion, basically.  That is a pretty major strength for any attempt to change the world!  And it’s a marker of  Prouvaire’s status in the group as Prophet, a role Hugo always insisted poets should aspire to and embody.*

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