Monday, July 28, 2014

A Start on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as Found in Whittaker Chamber’s “Witness” (135-137)

“I lifted from the top of one barrel a big book whose pages were dog-eared, evidently from much turning by my grandfather. It was an old-fashioned book. The text was set in parallel columns, two columns to a page. There were more than a thousand pages. The type was small. I took the book to the little diamond-shaped attic window to read the small type in the light. I opened to the first page and read the brief foreword:
                ‘So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social damnation, which, in the face of civilization, creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny which is divine with human fatality -     ‘So long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by hunger, and the stunting of childhood by physical and spiritual night – are not solved; -
                ‘So long as, in certain areas, social asphyxia shall be possible –
                ‘So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
“I did not understand half the words. How should I know what ‘human fatality’ meant, or ‘social asphyxias’? But when I read these lines, there moved through my mind a solemn music that is the overtone of justice and compassion. A spirit moved upon the page and through my ignorance I sensed that spirit.
                The book, of course, was Victor Hugo’s Les MiserablesThe Wretched of the Earth. In its pages can be found the play of forces that carried me into the Communist Party, and in the same pages can be found the play of forces that carried me out of the Communist Party. The roots of both influences are in the same book, which I read devotedly for almost a decade before I ever opened a Bible, and which was, in many respects, the Bible of my boyhood. I think I can hear a derisive question:  ‘How can anyone take seriously a man who says flatly that his life has been influenced by Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables?” I understand. I can only answer that, behind its colossal failings, its melodrama, its windy philosophizing, its clots of useless knowledge, its overblown rhetoric and repellent posturing, which offend me, like everybody else, on almost every page, Les Miserables is a great act of the human spirit. And it is a fact that books which fall short of greatness sometimes have a power to move us greatly, especially in childhood when we are least critical and most forgiving, for their very failures confess their humanity. AS a boy, I did not know that Les Miserables is a Summa of the revolt of the mind and soul of modern man against the materialism that was closing over them with the close of the Middle Ages and the rise of industrial civilization – or, as Karl Marx would later teach me to call it: capitalism.


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