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
(Rejoice, for there is no hope!)
As I was coming home from work, I wondered whether my son had been selected to be on a jury. He had been called in to the district court that day for jury duty, but only a minority of those called in end up on a jury (‘Many are called but few are chosen’).
My thought process was something like this:
‘If he gets selected then the trial will clash with some commitments he has in the next few weeks that matter quite a lot to him. So from that point of view it would be better for him not to be selected.
On the other hand, sitting through a long trial and hearing first-hand stories from people who lead far less privileged lives than we do would be a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth for him, albeit maybe somewhat harrowing.
Dear me, what shall I hope for? Shall I hope that he is selected or that he is not?‘
Then that precious thought came to me that has often entered my mind recently:
‘It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.
Whether he gets selected or not is outside my control. Whichever happens, we shall try to make the best of the situations that arise. There is no need, and no point, in hoping for one outcome or the other.
So I didn’t. I just shut the thought process down and moved on to something else.
I aim these days to completely banish hope from my life.
That may sound bleak. But it isn’t. The apparent bleakness is just an artefact of our peculiar Western culture. We are taught to hope from an early age. The sentence ‘There is no hope‘ is regarded within Western culture as synonymous with despair and misery. Yet there is no reason at all that it should be so. If we can learn to be content with the present moment, what need have we of hope?
This message has a strong presence in many cultures in India and farther East. It is not unknown in Western culture, but its presence is less strong than in the East. In Western thought it is principally manifest in the Ancient Greek philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism.
I blame Saint Paul for the Western preoccupation with Hope. It’s that famous passage in Corinthians where he says that the three greatest virtues are Faith, Hope and Love. I’m not Paul’s biggest fan but, in between the misogyny and the homophobia, he did have his good moments. And I reckon the poor old fellow got unfairly misinterpreted on that epistle. His point wasn’t that faith and hope are particularly great. It was that love is far more important than the other two. Surely that’s something we can agree on. Paul may think faith and hope are pretty good. I think they’re rubbish! But at least we agree that love is much more important. If Paul says that love is what makes the world go around, then I applaud him, even if he wants to spend some of it on his god rather than on his fellow humans and other suffering animals, who need it so much more. Perhaps he finds it hard to love other humans, and loving his god helps him to love others as well. If so then loving God first sounds like a good strategy, for him. For me it actually works the other way around. I find humans more lovable than the idea of God because of their (our!) frailness, limited understanding, cantankerousness and emotional vulnerability. Virtue of the beloved is only very rarely a reason for love. Parents do not love their toddlers because of their great virtue (what virtue?) but because of their vulnerability, because they need us so much.
I grew up to feel that I ought to hope that certain things would happen and that others wouldn’t. It was almost as though by hoping I increased the likelihood of the desired event happening. Hoping was like a duty, and to fail to hope was somehow remiss.
I don’t know whether I am unusual in that regard or whether it is a common feeling of people in our culture. But in any case, What a lot of nonsense!
My hoping or not hoping has no effect at all on what will happen! What matters is what I do, not what I hope. If I am concerned at the lack of compassion shown to refugees and the lack of action about climate change, I can lobby politically for those causes, express strong views in the public arena, try to personally help refugees and the environment, and donate lavishly to organisations that work towards those ends. Hoping at the same time for success doesn’t seem likely to increase the effectiveness of my actions.
In some ways, hoping may make my actions less effective. If I am constantly longing for success, I may become discouraged and give up acting if the prospect of success does not become progressively stronger. Then the cause will suffer. But if I act not out of hope but out of a belief that the actions are right then the activity is its own reward. If success follows, so much the better, but if not it does not mean that I have failed or that my time was wasted.
Imagine having a family member or close friend with a very serious illness. It seems natural to hope for their recovery, and to hope that they will not deteriorate, suffer and die. But what good does that hope do? What is needed is to do whatever we can to alleviate their suffering, maximise their chances of recovery and let them know that they are loved. If we waste mental energy and thinking time on wishing for a recovery, we will miss the opportunity to fully experience and value the time we have with them now. So let us do what we can to help, focus on valuing our time with them, and leave the things we cannot control to work themselves out, in whatever way they must.
Imagine a damaged passenger aeroplane that is plummeting towards the ground. Should the occupants hope to be saved? Well, the pilots should be focusing on the technical problem of how to regain control of the plane, not on hope. The cabin crew should be focusing on ensuring the passengers are all seated, strapped in, braced and know the emergency procedures, not on hope. The passengers themselves have less to do. But they can comfort one another – speak words of encouragement and love, help calm fears, hold hands, supply and dispose of airsickness bags. Or if seated alone, they can meditate on the inevitability of death – if not now then later – and try to achieve a state of acceptance. Or even sing! The orchestra on the Titanic that played as the ship went down is legendary, not because they brought hope, because there was none, but because they brought relative calm, courage and acceptance.
Let me restate: there is nothing new in this. The message has been preached for thousands of years in Stoicism, Epicureanism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. It is only because our Western culture so often demands that we have hope, that there is any need to remind ourselves of the message.
My reason for discouraging hope is not only that it can distract from practical, helpful action. It is also that it is doomed to fail.
When we hope, we wish our life away. We diminish the importance of the present moment in order to elevate the importance of a potential future state. But if we prioritise the future over the past, what happens? As John Maynard Keynes said ‘In the long run we are all dead‘. Now I have nothing against death. It is a natural part of life, and is only sad when it comes too soon, too painfully, or leaves dependants in desperate circumstances. But while it is not bad, neither is it especially good. It is not something to be aspired to. It is simply blank, neutral (in fact it is, literally, nothing!). So the final consequence of hoping for the future, at the expense of diminishing the present, is to aspire towards the blankness of death, which seems a particularly empty and uninspiring goal.
It may be that in certain extraordinary circumstances hope may be beneficial. Perhaps parents whose child has disappeared, suspected kidnapped, may find that hope is helpful to them. My guess is that, even in those horrible circumstances, time spent thinking about hope may be more upsetting than time spent focusing on the practicalities of doing whatever one can to save the child. But I have no experience of such a situation, so my ideas are mere idle speculation. All I can say is that, although I have often hoped in the past, sometimes being quite obsessed by it, I have never experienced circumstances in which hope was helpful, and I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would expect it to be helpful.
I have one last reason for objecting to hope, and that is when it is used to focus beyond death, on a potential after-life. It is entirely reasonable and understandable that some people want to believe in an after-life. It is only when it starts affecting their actions in this world that it can become a problem. The after-life has been used as an excuse for terrorism (jihadists blowing themselves up in crowded market-places so they can go straight to Paradise where seventy-two virgins await them), for inaction on social justice (the poor will ‘receive their consolation in heaven’), and for inflicting self-misery (Roman Catholics with irretrievably broken marriages denying themselves the possibility of being in love again, because such ‘adultery’ would damn their immortal soul).
Maybe there’s an after-life and maybe there isn’t. But what we can be sure of is that no human knows anything about it. So whatever other humans tell us about it, whether in speech or via books such as the Bible or Quran, is pure speculation. Hence I suggest we treat after-life stories as just one more interesting, unfalsifiable hypothesis, like string theory, and get on with loving and helping one another here and now.
Notwithstanding all that, I still frequently find myself wondering which of two alternative potential events to wish for, when the outcome is entirely outside my control. Which should I hope for? Quick, this is important! Don’t hope for the wrong one! My running partner is five minutes late for our lunchtime jog and I’m tired. I wouldn’t mind giving the jog a miss today. Shall I hope that they don’t turn up so I can give my tired body a rest, or shall I hope they do turn up because I really need to lose that extra smidgeon of weight? What a responsibility! How can I decide? Then the blessed thought returns to save me:
‘It is not necessary for me to have an opinion on that‘.
Bondi Junction, June 2014
One bright winter Thursday, in my last years of high school, I went for a bike ride in the morning. Thirty kilometres, quite hard, with plenty of hills. I didn’t have to go to school until 11 o’clock because I had a double free period. After arriving home and having a shower I went into the lounge room, put on a record – Schumann’s piano concerto – and made myself a cup of instant coffee (this was long before the days of personal espresso machines, not that my parents could have afforded one anyway).
The lounge room had a large window into which the sun was streaming, and outside I could see the nearby gum trees and the far off blue-green hills. My leg muscles had that pleasant, achey feel that tells of a hard job, well-done, and I felt very relaxed – full of endorphins perhaps.
It was the first time I had fully realised how marvellous Schumann’s piano concerto is. It has great swelling surges and a captivating momentum, especially in the last movement. It is deeply romantic in its expressivity, yet has a classical sense of drive and purpose. I had read not long before someone’s opinion that Schumann was only really a “miniaturist”, writing well for solo piano or accompanied singer, but that his attempts at large orchestral works were failures. “How wrong that critic is!” I thought as I thrilled to the surges and rhythms of the orchestra and the piano in response. Relishing the music, relishing the warm sunlight (on a chilly but bright winter’s day), relishing the coffee, relishing the gentle, worthy ache of my quads. Relishing the fact that I, a mere schoolboy at an undistinguished Catholic school, was free until 11 o’clock, and that the ride to school was mostly downhill.
This, I thought, is an excellent experience. I must remember this.
And I have. More than thirty years later, the sounds of that Schumann concerto still transport me back to that sunny lounge room.
Last week I had another great experience. I was just riding along a bush-lined path next to the airport. I had been feeling a little seedy earlier but now, after about half an hour on the bike, I was warmed up and felt a harmonious unity with nature as I swooped around corners and over dips and bumps. I am dancing Nataraja, dancing the cosmic dance that is the universe.
I doubt I’ll remember last week in thirty years, should this body last that long. I’ve already forgotten key elements – there was more to the feeling of well-being than I can remember even at this short interval. Perhaps I need a musical accompaniment, a taste or a smell, to really fix something in my memory.
My life contains these rare moments when there is a feeling of tremendous well-being. There are many more moments of dullness, routine, embarrassment, discomfort, sadness, fear and anger, as well as plenty of feelings on the positive side – relief, comfort, amusement, intellectual stimulation, success, kinship, love – that are appreciated, but not remembered for a lifetime.
People sometimes talk of wishing to “bottle” a special moment, to make it last. I can’t make it last, and I realise that trying to do so would be counter-productive. Clinging destroys the beauty and pleasure of the moment. In fact, part of the reason why such moments are so special is that they are different from the everyday. They are precious because they are rare of occurrence and finite of duration. But we can preserve all of the moment that is worth preserving by fixing it in our memory. We can write it down, or just set some mental markers to make it easy to recall. The Schumann and the coffee are the markers for my marvellous Thursday in 1979.
Each life is a work of art, a pattern, a dance, a song, a tapestry, and each individual is the creator of their own artwork. The artworks of all the different individuals mingle to make a grand panoply of colour and movement. We can make decisions and perform actions that enrich our own art work and those of others as well. Works of art need contrasts: highs and lows, louds and softs, fast bits and slow, pastels and primary colours, rough and smooth textures. If we can internalise the understanding of that sufficiently well then perhaps we will appreciate times of sadness, fear or pain as well as times of pleasure.
So I will pay more attention to the feelings that life arouses. If they are negative, I will try to view them as interesting, curious anomalies, phenomena to be studied. If they are positive I may do that too, but I will also try to make mental bookmarks to be able to recall them later on. Perhaps at times of great sadness it will be helpful to view the strife in the context of past joys, to reclaim, at least in part, the feeling of aesthetic necessity of such times as part of the grand pageant that this life is.
Perhaps it’s even worth mentally bookmarking some negative times for later reference. That may enhance the enjoyment of the positive ones, as well as assisting the holistic perspective. I can think of some past experiences of fear, pain (physical and emotional) and embarrassment on which I can look back quite equably now, perhaps even fondly.
But I’ll not pretend that I don’t enjoy the good experiences more. I do. Even one of those experiences is enough to justify this life. I have been very fortunate. I hope that everybody can have at least one experience like my Schumann moment before they die.
Friedrich Holderlin’s marvellous poem “To the parcae” expresses this rather well:
Grant me but one good summer, you Powerful Ones!
And but one autumn, ripening for my song,
So that my heart, fulfilled by sweet play,
Might the more willingly die, contented.
once I lived as the gods live, and more we don’t need.
A postscript. It’s not just about the bike. The two positive experiences I relate above involve bikes, but that’s not always the case. Many involve exercise, it’s true. I can remember running around Centennial Park on a sunny winter morning about twenty years ago (there’s something about sunny winter mornings that seems particularly conducive to well-being), watching the fence fly past me and thinking “I’m running so fast, and I can’t even feel my feet touch the ground!”. There are also wonderful, memorable moments involving one’s children or spouse. I have less of them though. I think the mind is too distracted during the years of child-rearing, by tiredness, busyness and endless to-do lists, to be able to focus well enough to form sustainable coherent memories. But the rareness of memories of such moments makes them extra special.
Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 May 2013