Anna Monday

Christopher Isherwood, the storyteller, told us that Swami Prabhavananda had wanted to read Western literature and asked Chris to be his guide. Chris recommended The Brothers Karamazov, which Swami appreciated so much that he cited selections from the book in lectures as an example of spiritual self-conversion. Swami wanted more, but Chris said that sadly Swami had started at the top.[1] Now, decades later, after having read both Les Miserables and Isherwood’s requirements for a successful religious novel, I’m very sad that Swami apparently never read Les Miserables and am convinced that the novel fulfills Isherwood’s formula extraordinarily well.

In his writings on the religious novel, Isherwood lists the requirements:

  • The future saint must be presented as being just like anyone else; this creates a bridge between the saint and the reader so the reader believes that he too can become a saint.
  • Rather than make a vague reference to “the war,” for example, the writer must explain the psychology of the turning point satisfactorily while not relying on visions.
  • The saint is free to act as he chooses, liberated from his surface ego; but his actions will always be benign.
  • Neither the saint nor his struggles can be gloomy.
  • The saint should be more than a fleeting character.
  • He defines the saint as such: “…a saint is a man, primarily of experience―an experience which has led to enlightenment.”[2]

The Disappearing Saint

In The Problem of the Religious Novel Isherwood lists Les Miserables as one of many attempts at a religious novel in which the saint, in this case the Bishop of Digne, Monseigneur Bienvenue, who is the catalyst for Jean Valjean’s turning point, makes only a brief appearance. He calls them “brilliant glimpses” and notes the incident of the candlesticks as one such glimpse. But, in fact, Les Miserables is lousy with “saints,” the most meticulously unfurled of which is Jean Valjean himself. The entire novel is the painstaking description of the sanctification of Valjean culminating in a religious experience born of perfected selflessness and resulting in enlightenment.

Why was this work overlooked? Perhaps he read the novel early in life, before himself becoming hooked on spiritual life, and therefore the spiritual elements flew below the radar. Perhaps it’s even the product of his self-confessed Francophobia.[3] Or perhaps the spiritual component of Les Miserables may also be a victim of its own popular success. It has many powerful themes and is overwhelmingly focused on injustice and the suffering of the poor, so for those of us with a political bent at the time of reading, the sociopolitical component will probably eclipse other ideas.

You identify the most obvious saint, Monseigneur Bienvenue, the Bishop of Digne, as making only a brief appearance. He reappears briefly in the story but disappears as a major character after his culminating act of renunciation, which serves as a holy siege on Valjean’s soul.  But page one, sentence one of the novel actually begins with the bishop and stays on his story long before we meet Jean Valjean or Fantine or Javert or Cossette.

Hugo presents Bienvenue‘s backstory not from  the omniscient point of view easily available to him as the author and the one he eventually settles into; rather it is a reconstruction of largely speculative village gossip. You demand to see the mechanics of the turning point. Hugo offers not a certain “point of vocation” for Bienvenue but two possibilities, even though, as the author, he’s free to assign one; but the two seem to cover the possibilities. Bienvenue’s renunciation, late in life, is the product either of disappointments in life: the crumbling of his family status due to the French Revolution, horror at the violence of the Revolution, and the death of his wife from illness, “did these inspire him with thoughts of renunciation and solitude?” or “was he suddenly overcome by one of those mysterious, inner-blows that sometimes strike the heart of the man who could not be shaken by public disasters of his life and fortune?”[4] While this may appear to be needlessly vague, as we’ll see, Hugo’s description of Valjean’s transformation is positively microscopic.

Bienvenue not only abounds in the qualities you’d expect in an ideal saint―untiring charity, compassion, affection, humility, treating the rich and poor equally, unflinching courage in the line of duty, frugality, austerity that he did not perceive as suffering―he is also cheerful and witty. But his spontaneous humor wasn’t empty; rather it packed a dose of truth. While well-loved in his provincial parish, he was also considered an odd duck. “Clearly he had his own strange way of judging things. I suspect he acquired it from the Gospels.”[5]

Bienvenue’s household was made up of an elderly housekeeper and his sister, who gladly shared his life of poverty and chastity. She is one of several minor characters who twinkle briefly within the narrative on their way to holiness. Hugo describes her thus:  “her whole life, which had been a succession of pious works, had finally cloaked her in a kind of transparent whiteness, and in growing old she had acquired the beauty of goodness. What had been thinness in her youth was in her maturity a transparency, and this ethereal quality permitted glimmers of the angel within. She was more of a spirit than a virgin mortal…large eyes, always downcast, a pretext for a soul to remain on earth.”[6]

Was the bishop perfect? Most authors would have been satisfied with their creation. But not Hugo. In the chapter The Bishop in the Presence of an Unfamiliar Light, Bienvenue behaves uncharacteristically in begrudgingly accepting a self-imposed duty, visiting a dying man who is a hermit and pariah, despised for his politics. Bienvenue shares the villagers’ contempt. Hugo refers to the dying man as a Conventionist, one sympathetic with ideals of the French Revolution and, in Bienvenue’s eyes, an atheist. For the first time in the narrative, Bienvenue treats a man with undisguised aversion. Of the inclusion of this incident, Hugo explains, “We must tell everything, for the little inconsistencies of great souls should be mentioned.”[7]

Bienvenue arrives as the man is about to die. A heated discussion about the plight of the poor ensues. While Bienvenue was radically charitable, sacrificing to the bone his own luxury and hounding the rich, including the invariably wealthy clergy, to share with the poor, he took a “thousand points of light” approach, not exploring the role politics plays in either the perpetuation of poverty or the potential alleviation of it. Hugo writes of the discussion:

The revolutionary did not know that he had successfully demolished all the bishop’s interior defenses, one after the other. There was one left, however, and from it the last resource of Monseigneur Bienvenue’s resistance, came forth these words, in which nearly all the harshness of the opening reappeared. “Progress ought to believe in God. The good cannot have an impious servant. An atheist is an evil leader of the human race.”

The old man did not answer. A tremor shook him…He looked up at the sky and a tear formed slowly in his eye…he murmured to himself…his eyes gazing inward: “Thou who art Perfection! Thou who alone exist!”

The bishop was inexpressibly moved.

After a pause, the old man pointed to the sky and said, “The infinite has being. It is there. If infinity had no self then self would not be. But it is. Therefore it has a self. The self of infinity is God.” He had spoken these last words in a clear voice and with a quiver of ecstasy, as though he saw some living presence.[8] 

“Monsieur Bishop…I have spent my life in meditation, study, and contemplation. I was sixty years old when my country called me and ordered me to take part in her affairs…I am about to die. What have you come to ask of me?”

“Your blessing,” said the bishop. And he fell to his knees….

The bishop went home profoundly absorbed in thought. He spent the whole night in prayer…From that moment he redoubled his tenderness and brotherly love for the weak and suffering.[9]

Throughout their dialog, the Conventionist is the only one who mentions Christ. Hugo refers to the Divine as the One when It is passively present, as Providence when It takes a hand in the action, and the Infinite when it is the impersonal substratum.

The scene just quoted is very similar to the scene in The Brothers Karamazov that Swami was so fond of, which Isherwood also often sited, an act of utter self-abnegation, when Father Zossima begs his abused servant to forgive him. Dostoevsky was a great admirer of Hugo and loved Les Miserables in particular, so as Les Miserables was published 17 years before Brothers, it’s not a stretch, or an insult to Dostoevsky’s genius, to speculate that Zossima’s  scene  was  spawned  by  the  one just quoted, which marks Bienvenue’s perfection. It may even have been an homage.

to be continued…

Anna Monday has been a Member of a Vedanta Society, depending on where her and her husband’s careers took them, since 1970.