G.K. Chesterton on Victor Hugo
Have you seen Les Misérables yet? You probably don’t know that in 1902, G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay on a nearly-forgotten writer named Victor Hugo, predicting that he would become very popular again. Chesterton wrote,
“…Hugo is a vague and remote figure, a doubtful and little discussed author. Yet he was, beyond question, one of the greatest men of letters that Europe has seen, and the day of his return into intellectual triumph is remote indeed, but certain.”
“Every one of his great novels was in itself a small French Revolution. In Notre Dame de Paris he revealed to the modern world all the beauties and terrors of the old medieval order, and showed how pitilessly the individual was sacrificed to such an order. In Les Misérables he showed, with a far more sensational illumination, how our own modern order of law and judgment and criminal procedure was, as far as the sacrifice of individuals was concerned, as cruel as any medieval order. In Ninety-Three he showed that such a sacrifice of individuals became necessary, and in a strange, bitter manner, attractive, even in the modern age.”
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by G.K. Chesterton
From Pall Mall Magazine, 1902
The Centenary of Victor Hugo, which has just been celebrated in Paris, arouses some of the deepest thoughts which are possible in the human mind. Hugo represents the culmination of a revolution which almost in our own time shook the foundations of humanity, and already that revolution is old, and Hugo is a vague and remote figure, a doubtful and little discussed author. Yet he was, beyond question, one of the greatest men of letters that Europe has seen, and the day of his return into intellectual triumph is remote indeed, but certain. There can be little doubt that we are divided from the generations that immediately precede us by a gulf far more unfathomable than that which divides us from the darkest ages and the most distant lands. There are art-critics who maintain that the most archaic and Byzantine beginnings of Christian art are superior to everything that goes by the name of an Italian master. There are art-critics who maintain that a portion of a Persian carpet contains and eclipses everything that can be found in the National Galleries of Europe. It is, upon the whole, exceedingly probable that there are art-critics who maintain that the two idols from the Fiji Islands which used to stand outside the British Museum are artistically superior to all the Greek gods and goddesses which are to be found inside. But there is a limit to this modern liberality: there are certain forms of art which are most recent and most effective upon the minds of our immediate forbears. No one declares that the Regency style of dress, or style of poetry, or style of architecture, was the most perfect in the world. No one says that Opie was the first painter, or Flaxman the first sculptor, or George IV the first gentleman of Europe.
The time is no doubt coming when a languid and aesthetic collector will exhibit, as treasures dating from the true time of art’s supremacy, the furniture and costume of the Early Victorian Era. He will boast of possessing a real case of wax flowers under glass, an authentic sampler, and a real lustre chandelier from a real Brighton landlady. But that time is not yet. For the present we are doomed to misunderstand the time which produced us. We can comprehend the most immoral outbursts of ancient Israel; but our immediate progenitors are strangers to us. We worship our remotest ancestor, but we teach our grandmother.
I have dwelt upon this particular aspect of the matter because it is supremely necessary to understand it if we wish properly to understand Victor Hugo. He represented two great revolutions, the first artistic and the second political. The artistic revolution was that connected with the word romanticism: the political revolution was that connected with the word democracy. And the great difficulty involved in properly appreciating him lies in this, that both romanticism and democracy have conquered and therefore become commonplace. They have been so triumphant as to become invisible; just as existence itself is triumphant and invisible. And like existence itself they have become truisms: and while it is fatally easy to turn a truth into a truism, it is fatally difficult to turn a truism back into a truth. We may sympathise with a dead faith, but it is difficult to sympathise with an apparently dead scepticism. In history even a molehill is more expressive than an extinct volcano. Those who may be called, with all respect, the eternal tootlers of the ages, Horace and Catullus and Villon and Tom Moore, are always sure of sympathy. But those who have blown the trumpet to a veritable charge, like Luther and Victor Hugo, are doomed to exhibit themselves to history as making a gigantic fuss about nothing. The great achievements of Hugo are sufficiently obvious even if we consider only his novels, which are probably the most popular, though certainly not the most important of his works. Every one of his great novels was in itself a small French Revolution. In Notre Dame de Paris he revealed to the modern world all the beauties and terrors of the old medieval order, and showed how pitilessly the individual was sacrificed to such an order. In Les Misérables he showed, with a far more sensational illumination, how our own modern order of law and judgment and criminal procedure was, as far as the sacrifice of individuals was concerned, as cruel as any medieval order. In Ninety-Three he showed that such a sacrifice of individuals became necessary, and in a strange, bitter manner, attractive, even in the modern age. In all his works alike there are two common characteristics. The first is a tendency to what is called sensationalism; the second is a tendency to what is called democracy. It is necessary to realise his feeling upon both these points before we do anything like justice to him.
It is the custom among certain literary men of this era to sneer at the novels of Hugo, chiefly on the ground that they are sensational; as if all art were not sensationalism and the whole artistic temperament best definable as the temperament which is sensational or receptive of sensations. But the novels of Victor Hugo have one very actual and direct claim upon the attention of everybody. They are, in one sense, the most interesting of all novels. The reason is that Hugo is typically a mystic, a man who finds a meaning in everything. We all know what are the uninteresting, the inevitably uninteresting parts of fiction; we all know what parts of a novel to skip. We skip the long description of the country where the hero was born, with its flat sandy wastes, made ragged with fir trees and tumbling towards the West into low discoloured hills. We skip the long account of the heroine’s room, with its quaint old carved furniture and the portraits on the wale dim with age but gorgeous with ancient colour. We skip the account of the hero’s great-grandfather, who was so manly and honourable a lawyer in a country town.
Now the greatest and boldest tribute that can be paid to Hugo, the greatest and boldest, perhaps, that can be paid to any novelist, may be stated in the form that it is not safe to skip these passages in a novel by Victor Hugo. In other novelists all these details are dead; in Hugo they are all alive. In Hugo we may be certain that the sandy waste will be made typical, in some wild way, of the type and tribe of characters to which it gives birth; we may be certain that the furniture in the room will be packed with symbolism like an antique chapel. There will be something human and horrible about the tree, something significant and psychological about the three-legged stool. This is no exaggeration; in this sense it is literally true that there is not a dull line in Hugo.
The description of the wooded Breton country in Quatre-Vingt-Treize is really a string of primeval epigrams about the effect of the forest-darkness upon the soul of man. The description of the room of the Duchess in L’Homme Qui Rit is really a riot of a kind of bestial mysticism and of evil sanctities, such as might have filled some forgotten Phallic temple. This is the first and most admirable thing about Hugo as a novelist – that he is always interesting, and interesting for the best and most impressive reason, that in everything, however small, he is interested. Those parts of a novel, scenery, minutia’, explanations, which in most novelists are the most tedious, in him are almost the most fascinating. He takes the details which the best authors alive are forced to make too tame and too long, and at the end our complaint against him is that they are too brilliant and too overstrained. Where none else can be tolerably vivacious, he contrives to be intolerably eloquent. For to him there is neither a large thing nor a small one; he has abolished the meanest and most absurd of all human words, the word ” insignificant”: he knows that it is impossible for anything to signify nothing.
Thus in what is, as a work of art, perhaps his most successful novel, Notre Dame de Paris, the sumptuous and fantastic details of Gothic architecture are practically almost as alive as the people that pass underneath them. In the presence of the mazy background of pious sculpture that runs like a pattern through the tale, we have something of the same sensation which we have sometimes in looking at such a facade as that of Rouen Cathedral; the network of stone is so rich and changing that we can almost believe it to be continually in motion, rippling underneath like a sea, with writhing serpents and fluttering birds. Hugo’s backgrounds are never “setpieces”. So again in Quatre-Vingt-Treize the background to the two or three central figures is the most appalling of all possible backgrounds – a sea of faces. Cimourdain and Lantenac and the young Republican soldier have to act as stern and simple a drama as any old Greeks in a glade or wood; but instead of acting it in the midst of a wood they act it in the midst of a mob. “A two-legged forest” Hugo would probably have said. But his subordinate features are always thus terrific if our eye falls upon them; he will slaughter millions to make an accessory. In Les Misérables, as in Notre Dame, Paris is almost the chief character of the novel. In L’Homme Qui Rit the best description is that of two very weird and fierce and inscrutable things – the sea, and the English aristocracy according to Victor Hugo. In Les Travailleurs de la Mer he spends a vast deal of trouble on the reality of the cuttle-fish, and very little on the possibility or probability of the gentleman who fights with him. Hugo is not a successful novelist according to the conception that a novelist must understand human nature. He does not even pretend to understand human nature; he is a poet, and boasts of understanding nothing; he glories in an astounded and uplifted ignorance. Human nature to Hugo was a spontaneous and unbegotten and thrilling thing, a thing like the lightning and the burst of song among the birds. He did not profess to have vivisected man in the modern manner. Man was to him an awful thing, a thing to fly from, as he must have been to the animals in Eden.
The manifest theatricality and vanity of Victor Hugo have undoubtedly interfered with his appreciation by English readers, for we English people have thoroughly embedded in our minds the idea that vanity is a morbid and fantastic thing, developed by a high degree of hyper-civilization. We think this although every one of us has constantly noticed vanity in a child of three. We think this although every one of us knows that savages are vainer than civilized men, and that even the bonnets of Bond Street are not more elaborately feathered than the head-dresses of the Cannibal Islands. The truth is that Hugo represents all the ultimate and fundamental things – love, fury, pity, worship, hatred, and consequently, among other things, vanity. Vanity is not only not the same thing as self-consciousness, it is very often the opposite of it. When a man becomes self-conscious he very often becomes painfully and abominably humble. But so long as a man is healthily unconscious he is almost certain to be healthily vain. He will take a delight, without a moment’s arriere pensee, in any of his own powers or characteristics. Hugo had, more than any other great man of modern times, this self-enjoying faculty. To him delight in himself was the first condition of all optimism, and faith in himself the first condition of all faith. If a man does not enjoy himself whom he has seen, how shall he enjoy God whom he has not seen; To the great poet, as to the child, there is no hard-and-fast line drawn between the Ego and the Cosmos.
Anyone who has ever watched a child for the first five years of its life will know that when the human soul first awakens to the immensities of mere existence, the first thing it does is to begin to act a part. In that first movement of the child we see the great part of the literary and political history of Victor Hugo. He had in all things an innocent arrogance; he had, if a paradoxical but accurate phrase may be employed, an utterly unconscious self-consciousness. And this quality fitted him supremely to be the expression of France in the nineteenth century; for France, having renewed her youth in that century, was really young. She had not only the fire and anger and hope of youth, she had also that more obvious and more painful characteristic of youth, its cleverness. Quatre-Vingt-Treize, the great novel of the Revolution, was not the most successful, perhaps; it was possibly the most Hugo-esque of the works of Hugo; for Hugo was supremely at one with the spirit of the Revolution, and his novel, like the Revolution itself, was one mass of epigrams. The story of the Revolution, indeed, gives an exceedingly good example of how misleading are many of the narrow English notions about sincerity and affectation, and how artificial is their idea of artificiality. If an Englishman read in a novel by Victor Hugo that a man about to be beheaded asked permission to take leave of a friend, and when forbidden exclaimed in a resonant voice, ” Our two heads will seek each other in the sack,” he would say that it was a monstrous example of Hugo’s exaggeration. In the best style of the latter-day realist and psychologist he would point out how impossible it would be for a man paralysed with the last proximity of death to have his wits polished for such neat and fantastic discourse. If he read it in a novel of Hugo’s, in short, he would say that it showed all the weakness of Hugo; but as a matter of fact it does not occur in a novel of Hugo’s, but in the actual history of the French Revolution. The words were the precise words, attested by numerous witnesses, used on this prosaic earth of ours by a living man, Georges Jacques Danton, within ten minutes of becoming a dead one. Until we have realised this fact about the Revolution, all criticism of Hugo must remain vain and superficial.
Forms of expression always appear turgid to those who do not share the emotions they represent: thus the Hebrew songs appeared turgid to Voltaire and the critics of the eighteenth century; thus the epigrams of the French Revolution appear turgid to ourselves. The reason is not that the Hebrew psalmists or the French Revolutionists were affected, but that we are not so interested in religion as the Hebrew psalmists, nor so interested in democracy as the French Revolutionists. The great demagogues of the Terror were so filled with the unifying convictions, that their life became a poetical unity, a work of art like the legend of a medieval saint. The extravagant appropriateness of Hugo’s conversations are thoroughly in harmony with the extravagant appropriateness of the actual incidents of that period of French history. If Hugo does not honestly copy the Revolution, the only possible alternative is the somewhat improbable one that the Revolution honestly copied Hugo.
The second of the misunderstandings which interfere with the general appreciation of Victor Hugo is the misunderstanding of his idea of Republicanism or democracy. He appears at the first glance, from our point of view, a furious poet and an ineffectual politician, who was exiled from his country by the decision of a Bonapartist majority of his countrymen. He never ceased from calling down curses on the majority which was the basis of his own political creed, he never ceased from clamouring and praying for the rule of the very people whose decision had set him upon a lonely rock in the Channel. To the ordinary eye of these days nothing can be more pitiable than the position of the unpopular democrat. There is nothing more contemptible, at the first glance, than the man who has appealed, as Hugo appealed, from the people to a tyrant, and who finds immediately that the people and the tyrant are indissolubly allied against him. But to misunderstand Hugo on this point is to misunderstand the whole idea of democracy as Hugo understood it.
If there be one thing more than another which is true of genuine democracy, it is that genuine democracy is opposed to the rule of the mob. For genuine democracy is based fundamentally on the existence of the citizen, and the best definition of a mob is a body of a thousand men in which there is no citizen.
Hugo stood for the fact that democracy isolated the citizen fully as much as the ancient religions isolated the soul. He resisted the rule of the Third Napoleon because he saw that it had the supreme and final mark of the rule of the tyrant, the fact that it relied on the masses. As if a million of the images of God could by any possibility become a mass. He made his appeal to the individual, as every poet must do, and asked the solitary citizen to act as if he were really not only the only human being on the earth, but the only sentient being in the universe. He realised the obvious and simple truth, so often neglected, that if the individual is nothing, then the race is nothing – for the plain mathematical reason that a hundred times nought is nought. Therefore his sublimes” figure, his type of humanity, was not either a king or a republican, but a man on a desert island.