In "Witness" by Whittaker Chambers, p. 134
The Education of Whittaker Chambers by Les Miserables - “Witness”
“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…
“The book, of course, was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – The 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.
“I took the book downstairs and read for the first time that first line of its story: In 1815, Charles Francois Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne.’ I do not know how many times I have since read that simplest of leads, which has for me, like many greater first lines, the quality of throwing open a door upon man’s fate.
“I read and reread Les Miserables many times in its entirety. I taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things - Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent. It taught me justice and compassion, not a justice of the law, or, as we say, human justice, but a justice that transcends human justice whenever humanity transcends itself to reach that summit where justice and compassion are one. It taught me that, in a world of force, the least act of humility and compassion requires the utmost exertion of all the powers of mind and soul, that nothing is so difficult, that there can be no true humility and no true compassion where there is no courage. That was the gist of its Christian teaching. It taught me revolution, not as others were to teach me – as a political or historical fact – but as a reflex of human suffering and desperation, a perpetual insurgence of that instinct for justice and truth that lay within the human soul, from which a new vision of truth and justice was continually issuing to meet the new needs of the soul in new ages of the world.
“I scarcely knew that Les Miserables was teaching me Christianity, and never thought of it that way, for it showed it to me, not as a doctrine of the mind, but in action in the world, in prisons, in slums, among the poor, the sick, the dying, thieves, murderers, harlots and outcast, lonely children, in the sewers of Paris and on the barricades of revolution. Its operation did not correspond to anything I knew as Christian in the world about me. But it corresponded exactly to a need I felt within myself.
“Les Miserables gave me my first full-length picture of the modern world – a vast complex, scarcely human structure, built over a social abyss of which the sewers was the symbol, and resting with crushing weight upon the wretched of the earth (…).
“It was, above all, the character of the Bishop of Digne and the stories about him that I cherished in Les Miserables. As a boy I read them somewhat as other people read the legends of the saints. Perhaps it is necessary to have read them as a child to be able to feel the full force of those stories, which are in many ways childish and appeal instantly to the child mind, just as today they appeal to what is most childlike in me as a man.
“That first day, when I sat in our living room and read how the Bishop came to Digne, I knew that I had found a book that had been written for me. I read how the Bishop moved into his palace with its vast salons and noticed next door a tiny hospital with its sick crowded into a few small rooms. The Bishop called in the director of the hospital and questioned him: How many rooms are there in the hospital; how many sick; how many beds in each room? ‘Look,’ he said at last, ‘there is evidently some mistake here. You have my house and I have your. Give me back my house and move into yours.’ The next day the bishop was in the hospital and the patients were in the palace. ‘He is showing off,’ said the solid citizens.
“The Bishop’s views on human fallibility fixed mine and made it impossible for me ever to be a puritan. ‘To be a saint,’ he sometimes preached to the ‘ferociously virtuous,’ ‘is the exception; to be upright is the rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright. To commit the least possible sin is the law for man… Sin is a gravitation.’
“He first raised in my mind the question of relative human guilt. Everybody was praising the cleverness of a public prosecutor. A man and woman had been arrewt3ed for some mischief. There was no evidence against the man. By a trick, the prosecutor convinced the woman falsely that the man had been unfaithful to her. She testified against him. ‘Where are the man and woman to be tried?’ asked the Bishop. ‘At the assizes;’ ‘And where,’ asked the Bishop, ‘is the prosecutor to be tried?’
“The Bishop lodged in my mind a permanent suspicion of worldly success and pride of place that never changed in all the changes of my life. He was not one of the ‘rich mitres.’ In Paris he did not ‘catch on.’ He was not considered ‘to have any future.’ For, said Hugo, ‘We live in sad society. Succeed – that is the advice that falls, drop by drop, from the overhanging corruption.’
“The story about the Bishop that I liked best also invovlved the question of worldly appearances. Once day the Bishop had to visit a parish in the steep mountains, where no horse could go. Few bishops would have gone there, either. The Bishop of Digne went, riding on a sure-footed donkey. The solid citizens of the town turned out to greet him. When they saw the Bishop climbing down from his donkey, some of them could not hide their smiles. ‘My bourgeois friends,’ said the Bishop pleasantly, ‘I know why you are smiling. You think that is pretty presumptuous of a poor priest to use the same conveyance that was used by Jesus Christ.’ Thus I first learned the meaning of the word bourgeois, so that, unlike most Americans, I was quite familiar with it when I came across it later in the writings of Marx and Lenin.
“Finally, the Bishop’s view of the world left a permanent, indelible impress on me: ‘He inclined toward the distressed and the repentant. The universe appeared to him like a vast disease; he perceived fever everywhere; he auscultated suffering everywhere. And without try8ing to solve the enigma, he sought to staunch the wound. The formidable spectacle of created things developed a tenderness in him…
“… Even as a Communist, I never quite escaped the Bishop. I put him out of my mind, but I could not put him out of my life.”