Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).
I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.
Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:
“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”
Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;
“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …
I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”
This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:
“I am reaching, but I fall.”
Realism and Idealism
There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.
Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice. J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:
“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”
What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.
One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:
“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”
A Christian Pessimism and Optimism
How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.
Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …
“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”
Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see
“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)