Where I live, near Sydney’s Eastern beaches, we have something we call mud. But it is not proper mud. Sure, it marks clothes, necessitating a wash, but is otherwise unremarkable.
I am currently in North Devon in England, where it has drizzled on every one of the six days since I arrived here.
Here they have PROPER mud.
It is sticky yet somehow also slippery. It makes squelchy noises when you tread in it. I went jogging beside a canal in Stratford-upon-Avon and, after the path ended, there was only grass interspersed with boggy bits of naked mud. I did my best to skirt around them, but that wasn’t possible in all cases and once or twice I had to actually tread in the mud. It looked very precarious, especially with the freezing canal only a metre away, ready to gobble me up if I slipped. As it happened, I only slipped once, falling away from the canal rather than towards it. My glove is now coloured by a souvenir of that special mud.
Sydney mud has too much sand in it.
English mud seems much more fertile. Mud is quickly regrown by vegetation if left undisturbed. Wherever I see mud I also see lush, fertile grass or close-packed, flourishing vegetable crops just nearby.
In that sense, mud is great – it is life.
But it is also death. The Great War, at least on the Western Front, seemed to be all about mud. It contaminated water to help spread disease, afflicted soldiers with Trench Foot, and it trapped horses, gun carriages and even soldiers, who could find themselves stuck in a position that was exposed to opposition gunfire. The bodies of soldiers killed by machine-gun fire, where they weren’t suspended on rolls of barbed wire, were soon partly or wholly swallowed up by mud. It was part of the horror.
There is something extraordinary about European mud. It is mythical. That’s why they write songs about it.
Perhaps it’s not just European mud. The song I had in mind was ‘Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud’, which I find is called ‘the Hippopotamus Song’ and is by Flanders and Swann (I had always assumed it was supposed to be a song for pigs). But a bit of web-searching informs me there are also lots of songs about American mud, although mostly in the South.
As the spine-chilling Maori Haka says, ‘It is death it is death it is life it is life…’ (‘Ka mate Ka mate Ka ora Ka ora’). One can imagine that life on Earth first originated in mud. There is so much richness in good mud, it would be difficult for life not to arise.
I realise that may not be scientific. I think a key reason why mud is so fertile is that it’s mostly organic, made up of lots of decayed organisms, animal and vegetable. So maybe they didn’t have mud on Earth before life arose, what with there being no decayed organisms around. Who knows, there was nobody there to write it down.
But even if life didn’t originate in mud, I bet that, once originated, it did an awful lot of evolving in there. We humans evolved in Africa, so I bet they have really impressive mud there. I’ve only been to North Africa, which is sandy, like Sydney, so I have never encountered real, proper African mud, of the sort that Joseph Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where they have proper mud, I urge you to give it a thought next time you get caught in or covered by it, rather than just cursing as you head for the washing machine. Mud is magical stuff. No wonder little children loving playing in it.
Woolacombe, North Devon, December 2017
There are two lovely trees in my garden. It seems to be my life’s remaining mission to try to save these trees from the attempts of the local possums to kill them. They do this by climbing into the trees and systematically stripping off buds and young leaves, leaving branch after branch a grim, ravaged skeleton.
The war has been running for several years now. It is not always the same possum, but it is usually only one at a time. Possums are territorial and defend their territory against interloper possums with vigour. I don’t know what has led to the two or three changes of the possum guard we have had since the war began. Perhaps the incumbent died. Or perhaps they were ousted by a more powerful interloper. While the actors may change, the role – the archetype – remains constant. ‘The possum’ is the unitary force of darkness that seeks to turn my garden to a barren, Mordorish wasteland, regardless of which particular possum is playing the role in any given year.
There are now two trees that the possum does it best to kill, but at first it was only one tree – an Albizia or ‘Silk Tree’ – a deciduous tree with a spreading canopy of lovely, silky-soft fern-like fronds.
They remind me of the Truffula tufts in Dr Seuss’s story of The Lorax, who tried to save the Truffula trees from the greedy depredations of the Once-ler. The tree was planted about twelve years ago to replace a tree that died, grew quickly and flourished for several years, delighting us with its beauty and its cool shade in summer. But then the possum arrived!
But did the possum arrive, like the greedy, destructive Once-ler in Seuss’s book? Was it a possum explorer that ‘discovered’ this ‘uninhabited’ territory in the same way that the plaque below Captain Cook’s statue in Hyde Park claims that he “discovered” this territory of Australia. Did the possum claim the territory for his possum king, thereby instantly erasing the rights of any existing residents, just as Cook did? Or was the possum there all along, never bothering about the Albizia until one day it munched some as an experiment and discovered how delicious it was? Were we ever peaceful cohabitants? I don’t know. But whatever the genesis, the war started a few years back when I realised one day that it was December and the Albizia had no leaves. It had always been late waking from its winter slumber, so I had never been concerned when it lagged other deciduous plants. But December? I thought maybe it has some disease, and took some of the skeletal fronds – stripped of greenery – to a garden shop, where they told me it was either possums or rats. I did the experiment they suggested (leave cloths around base of tree overnight, then examine for droppings the next day) and confirmed that it was a possum – they have larger droppings than rats.
I was devastated. They say you don’t realise how much you love until the subject of your love is threatened. Well, I realised.
What followed was a series of all sorts of strategies to protect the tree. I won’t bore you with the details, but the list includes spraying repellant on the leaves, hanging camphor balls from branches, installing a motion-activated ultrasonic noise-maker, winding fairy lights over the branches, putting various types of plastic spikes on branches and the nearby fence, leaving a powerful, timer-activated floodlight pointed at the tree and even shrouding possum-accessible parts of the tree in clear, flexible perspex that a possum cannot grip. At times the tree has looked more like a missile bunker than a beautiful piece of nature.
The most successful strategies have been the floodlight and the perspex sheeting. But neither seems sustainable to me. Although it’s very energy-efficient LED, the floodlight uses 50 watts of energy for eight to ten hours a night, depending on the time of year – almost half a kilowatt hour per day. That may not sound like much to you but to a radical greenie like me that feels like treason to my most dearly-held principles. As for the perspex sheeting, the trouble is that it acts as a sail in the wind, putting enormous strains on the connection points and the branches when we get our ‘Southerly Busters’ that bring blasts of welcome cool air from the Southern Oceans at the end of some scorching summer days. After particularly windy days there is often repair work to be done, and I feel bad that the loud noise the sails make may disturb our neighbours.
Further, every now and then, even those Best Practice strategies fail. A new possum takes up residence that is less afraid of light, or the possum works out a sneaky way around the perspex barricades. I am always in search of a solution that doesn’t have such loopholes, or the high maintenance of the sails or the energy consumption of the light.
In war the most important weapon is information. My primary source of information is an infrared camera that I mount on a tripod and which wirelessly transmits to a base station that records video. When I suspect the possum is breaching the defences, I deploy the camera overnight and review the footage in the morning to see if it has broken through and if so how. I then use that information to work out how to plug the gap.
Reviewing the video in the morning is an angst-ridden experience. You watch hours of nothing happening, at 32 times fast-forward speed, then suddenly the possum creeps into view, its eyes glowing in the infrared like a demon. It contemplates the tree, tries this approach – blocked, then that – blocked again. On a good day it goes away defeated. But on a bad day it tries something new and by some unbelievable feat of gymnastic agility manages to get a claw hold on some part of the trees wood and wrestle its way up into the canopy. Once there it proceeds to massacre the tree at its leisure. It’s like watching CCTV of a bully beating up a dear friend, with no help in sight, and you, the viewer, helpless to intervene because it has all already happened. Words cannot do justice to the sick feeling I get in my stomach when that happens. But I have to force myself to watch the torture, second by miserable second, because only by doing so can I hope to learn how to prevent its recurrence.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay – obsession. My family and friends chuckle about me and my war. I can well understand that it appears as a monomaniacal obsession – the sort of thing that arty fiction is written about. But what sort of obsession is it? There are two great works of fiction that in my mind compete to represent my battle: Moby Dick and The Fourth Wish.
You probably know the story of Moby Dick, even if you haven’t read all of it (I never made it past about page 100). The story is of Captain Ahab who, having had his leg bitten off by a huge white sperm whale, spends the rest of his life pursuing the whale around the seas, obsessed with obtaining his revenge, and (spoiler alert!) eventually being killed by the whale in a final battle. Ahab’s obsession is beyond all reason. It consumes him, when he could have led a perfectly enjoyable and prosperous life as a ship’s captain. Is The Possum my Moby Dick?
The Fourth Wish is quite different. It is a three-part TV drama from 1974, remade as a movie in 1976, about a single father whose school-aged son is dying of leukaemia. The father asks his son to make three wishes, and then does all he can to make the wishes come true before the child dies. Fulfilling those wishes for his son is the father’s obsession (the father is played by the late John Meillon, who became much more famous subsequently for his role as Walter in the Crocodile Dundee movies). He is an inarticulate, emotionally repressed, not terribly capable person. But he rises to the occasion in his desperate quest to make his son’s limited remaining life memorable and fulfilling. It is the first television or movie drama I can ever remember having been moved by – I would have been eleven at the time. Meillon does a marvellous job of conveying the father’s tremendous sadness.
My story is of the tree and the possum and me. If we focus on the enmity with the possum, it parallels Moby Dick. In Moby Dick there is no counterpart to the tree – no character that needs protecting. On the other hand if we focus on the nurturing side, it is like The Fourth Wish. In that case there is no counterpart to the possum, unless we anthropomorphise the leukaemia and cast it in that enemy role.
Having written all that, and read it over, I think it is more Fourth Wish than Moby Dick. Ahab’s obsession was founded in hatred and revenge. I don’t hate the possum, even though it is my enemy. I expect I would kill it if I could, but humanely, and as a regrettable necessity, certainly not as revenge. The creature is only trying to live. If it would agree to go easy on the Albizia I would readily forgive its past savageries. I’m sure we could become great friends. But alas, it will not. It is not the possum’s fault that it doesn’t have the foresight to spread its foraging between many different trees in order that all of them may flourish. I feel great sorrow when I see the tree’s ravaged limbs. I so want to do something to help it, yet I feel as though I am up against implacable odds.
The story of the second tree is similar to that of the first. A red gum, it was planted about three years ago as a mature sapling, and very soon grew and flourished. It has almost tripled in height. But a few months ago I noticed that its canopy of leaves – formerly rich and luxuriant, was looking thin and sickly. Going up closer to look, I saw that many branches had had most of their leaves bitten off – the tell-tale chewed stubs bearing testament to what had happened. Deploying the camera overnight, my fears were confirmed – it was the possum. From then on I knew that I had two patients to protect from the predator, when before there was only one.
There is another story that this saga reminds me of – Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In that novel, Lucy Westenra, a vivacious young friend of the narrator’s fiancee, is vulnerable to the hypnotic spell of Count Dracula, who is able to lure her in the middle of the night, in a sleepwalking trance, out of her heavily protected house to the wild lands that surround it, where he feasts on her blood. Each time that happens she loses masses of blood and gets weaker and her friends don’t know how to help her. They save Lucy’s life several times after she has suffered otherwise fatal blood loss, by giving her transfusions of their own blood. Each time they do this, they take further measures to try to keep Dracula away and Lucy safely in her room. But repeatedly, after Lucy has recovered for a few days and is starting to look healthy again, Dracula finds a new way to lure her out, and she is found near death’s door again. Finally, this happens one too many times, and she dies (sort of, but to say any more would be a spoiler).
It may seem a little melodramatic to cast the possum as Dracula, and my beloved trees as a Victorian heroine, but when I see those eyes suddenly appear out of the dark, glowing like demonic coals in the infra-red image of the CCTV, it doesn’t feel far-fetched at all. By trying every strategy I have, I manage to keep the demon at bay for a few days, so the tree can recover and grow a few new leaves (so it can breathe! – just like we need blood to carry our oxygen). Then, one night, the possum gets into the tree, savages it and I find it in the morning at death’s door again.
Here’s a picture of the possum, demonic coal-like eyes and all, posing grimly atop the almost-cadaver of its victim.
The war continues. I have bought another floodlight. Now I am using 90 Watts when both lights are on – one for each tree. I will have to buy carbon credits to offset the electricity. I have also devised new defences involving longer spikes arrayed along the top of the fence, in an attempt to deny the possum a launching pad. If they turn out to be effective, maybe I can turn the lights back off so that I won’t be single-handedly responsible for pushing global warming beyond the point of no return. Time will tell.
Bondi Junction, October 2017
I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.
After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.
But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.
That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).
Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.
That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.
And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.
Today is international polysyllablitis awareness day. I hope you can spread the word so that people will better understand this debilitating condition and try to support those that suffer from it.
Polysyllablitis is a communication disability that primarily affects people that read too many fancy books. The main symptom is a swollen vocabulary, leading to frequent difficulty in finding an acceptable word to express a concept they are trying to convey. Such difficulty typically manifests in uncomfortably long pauses mid-sentence, because the speaker was about to say that the proposed expedition to a nightclub would be ‘inimical to his health‘, but didn’t want people to think him a ponce for saying a fancy word like ‘inimical‘, yet the alternatives ‘it would make me feel bad‘ or ‘I’m tired‘ (average syllable count per word = 1.0) refused to present themselves to his desperately searching mind.
For this to happen just occasionally – say every couple of months – is manageable. Many people have such experiences. But people with really serious polysyllablitis (known as PSI to health and remedial vocabulary professionals) can suffer such attacks as often as several times a day. At such frequencies it can become terribly debilitating. Sorry, I mean it makes the person feel really bad.
Chronic sufferers have complained of persistent diffidence (meaning they often feel shy), disorientation (they feel dumb or lost), isolation (they feel lonely) and melancholy (they feel sad).
I have studied this phenomenon (sorry, I mean thing) for many years now. I think there is hope for the sufferers, as long as they don’t get excluded (shut out) from society. That’s why we need this awareness day. If people can keep a look out for others that may be suffering this malady (it makes them ill) they will be able to find ways to help them, reassure them (make them feel good) and put them on the road to rehabilitation (get better).
The best way to help these unfortunates (poor guys) is to include them in your conversations. When they say an unnecessarily fancy word, or get stuck mid-sentence with that look on their face that says they can’t remember the normal-people’s word for ‘lugubrious’*, the best thing to do is to gently correct them, remind them of the normal-person word while making clear that we still love and accept them. (*it’s ‘sad’). Studies have shown that these inclusionary strategies (being nice to them) are in most cases highly efficacious (they work).
However, in my years of study, there is one word for which I have simply never found a way of translating it into normal person speech, and that is the word ‘interlocutor‘ – being ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation‘. I have searched in vain for a simple alternative. The closest I’ve seen is ‘discussant’ but that has the dual problems that (1) it’s ugly and (2) I suspect it’s not a real word.
The next most reasonable alternative seems to be to replace the word with its definition ‘the person with whom one is having a conversation’. But that doesn’t really help much, as that ‘whom’ is bound to raise eyebrows, not to mention the monarchical ‘one’ (sorry – I mean like how the queen would speak). Plus inserting that long string of words into a sentence raises the risk of apparent poseur-ness because of the length of one’s sentences.
‘He’s always interrupting those with whom he is having conversation‘ just doesn’t have the pizazz of ‘He’s always interrupting his interlocutors‘.
I doubt Hemingway would approve.
It wouldn’t matter if it was a useless word, like that silly old ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ that schoolboys used to quiz each other on, but nobody ever used in a genuine sentence. That was, until the Guinness Book of Records people wanted to get in on the act and invented ‘floccipausinihilipilification’, just so that people would buy their book to find out about the new record-breaking word.
Of course if you want a long word that’s actually used by proper people, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which at 34 letters is longer than either of those non-words to boot. Plus it’s used by Mary Poppins, who is cool and not anything like a social reject that got her head stuck in a dictionary, so it must be OK.
But, unlike antidisestablishmentarianism, interlocutor is not a useless word. How can one talk about conversations one had yesterday without using it? More importantly, how can one give counselling and therapy to PSI sufferers if one cannot tell them useful things like ‘try to use the same words that your interlocutors use‘? The word is simply too useful to discard. I find myself needing to use it at least seven times per day on average. I’d be lost without it.
I can only see one way out of this conundrum (tricky thing). That is to make interlocutor an honorary normal person’s word. We could do that by all making an effort to use it at least once a day. Then before long it would seem as normal as ‘but’. There are precedents for this. Normal people use the pentasyllabic ‘qualification’ when talking about who might get into the finals in the footy, and the quadrasyllabic ‘ceremony’ when talking about who earns the right to humiliate themselves in the next round of a reality TV show. So I think, If we all make an effort, we can create some space for ‘interlocutor’ in normal people’s language.
I leave you today with these two requests:
- Please keep an eye out for PSI sufferers, and try to be kind to them (and help them to get better); and
- Try to use interlocutor as often as is consistent with common decency.
Just remember, no matter how strange and scary they seem, every PSI sufferer is somebody’s son or daughter.
Bondi Junction, October 2016
Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.
There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.
They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.
Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.
There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.
What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.
I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.
A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.
I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).
Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.
I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?
Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.
But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.
Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.
I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?
Bondi Junction, March 2016
i And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.
ii Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!
When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.
When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).
There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!
Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.
In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?’
But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.
And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.
How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.
One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.
But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).
Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.
Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:
‘Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’
No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.
He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:
Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?
HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.
Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!
HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?
Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.
One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.
But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.
In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.
Bondi Junction, February 2016