Last week, TCM had a Les Miserables marathon, screening 3 different film versions of Les Miserables, one right after the other. Host Robert Osborne told us that this Victor Hugo novel has been filmed 11 times, which must be a record for any work of fiction--I don't even know what novel could follow it as second. Ben Hur I think rated four versions, but at any rate, Victor Hugo's extremely long dense tale has absolutely captured the feelings and imaginations of generations. Its latest incarnation is a very popular musical (which I've never seen) but this very Christmas the musical, known in show biz lingo as "Les Miz," will open on thousands of screens all over the country and the world, generating mountains of publicity, promotion, marketing, hooplah, and craziness I'm sure.
While I was watching the first of these TCM versions, the one from 1935 with Frederick March as Jean Valjean, the crude convict-thief who repents and is transformed into an example of bravery and saintliness by the intersession of a noble man (a country priest known as Bishop Myriel, played by Cedric Hardwicke), and who is pursued by the close to psychotic Inspector Javert, played by a superb Charles Laughton, I was brought back to the time when I read Le Miserables, in high school. I was maybe 14 years old--and it was an abridged version that ran to only about 400 pages; the actual book hits close to 1400 pages--and I cried my eyes out at Jean Valjean's death at the end. I was devastated by it. I'll never forget it. I felt like I knew Jean, that his rashness, impulsiveness, his transformation and desire for goodness were things I could touch: he was that real to me. There was also the priest, Bishop Myriel--the term "bishop" here is actually an honorific, he was a simple country priest, not an actual Catholic bishop--who offers himself completely to Jean who is truly, in Myriel's mind, a Christ-like figure. Myriel represented to Hugo all the best of the French Catholic Church, a church repeatedly mired in cycles of public hostility and doubt, alternating in moments of reconciliation, because . . . well, obviously Hugo understood that Catholicism at its most stark, shorn of glitz and power-grabbing, has a central place in it for simple, plain, deeply-moral goodness.
A goodness without hypocrisy that offers itself, without reservation, to God.
And, by this very definition, this is an extremely hard thing to accomplish--because the human attraction towards, let's say, the "baser instincts" which we usually attribute to down-and-dirty survival, does get in the way. People have too many excuses why they can't be good--or even should be good--and there are always too many people who will listen to them. And even better, join in with them. In fact I get the idea that at this point, as our cynicism rises faster than even the sea level from Global Warming, too many people feel that goodness is not only uncool, but close to insane. It's like: "Are you out of your mind doing that--what's in it for you?"
So, strangely enough, we can accept the insanity of evil people, or, let's say, violently unbalanced ones, but how about that type of goodness that escapes most of what we try to cling to as basic "common sense"?
That's scary to us. Genuinely frightening. We can easily condemn people for having the wrong kind of images on their computers, or sending the wrong sorts of texts, or smoking the wrong kinds of substances--or even smoking at all. But how do we accept and even encourage and support people who want to give up their lives for goodness: to accept a heroic destiny, even if means that they will court poverty, misery, outcastness, and loneliness?
Here is where the 21st century falls apart and the 19th century, as awful as it was (and it was still tame compared to the brutality of the last one: with two genocidal World Wars under its belt), has a place that still attracts us: a place where genuine goodness glowed. Where people took their clothes off and gave them to others; where priests were seen as selfless instead of merely closeted pedophiles; where dying for a belief was still acceptable, and beliefs did have silver linings: they hadn't been destroyed by the menacing shadows of global totalitarianism yet.
That was to come later.
So to me, as a gay Jew at this difficult Christmas, thinking about Jean Valjean (and his creator Victor Hugo), even remembering crying my eyes out over him, are all very good. Because goodness is definitely its own reward, and we need to remember that.
Perry Brass is the author of 16 books. His latest is King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, awarded a Bronze Ippy for Best Young Adult Novel, 2012. His previous book was The Manly Art of Seduction; both books are available as Ebooks and in print. He is currently working on a book about the power of desire, and can be reached through his website, www.perrybrass.com.