Notes on “Les Miserable”

Abusus non tollit usum: an abuse of something doesn’t rule out the proper use.   We know that’s a long-recognized rule of logic because it has a pedantic Latin phrase.  That means the rule is older than your language and mine, which makes it amazing that artists, who should be learned and nuanced enough for this distinction, muff it everyday.

In the movie “Les Miserable”, there’s no effort to distinguish between the just penalty of the law and the abuse of the law.   We sympathize with Jean Valjean precisely because in his case the Law has not been just.  The original sentence – 5 years for stealing bread, then many more years for “running” – we all instinctively agree is inhumane.

What if he had recieved a reasonable sentence for stealing bread and served it out?  Would we have a bone to pick with “the law” then?  No?  So the problem is not “law”, or “justice”, in themselves, but law as an instrument of injustice.  Misused law.  That’s an important distinction.

So the dichotomy that runs through the rest of the plot is a false choice.  We are supposedly presented a repeated choice between the law and grace, but the choice is actually between a specific abuse of the law and a specific  grace.  This grace is just the kindness to undo this man’s injustice,  which is wonderful for those who are oppressed.  But not yet a picture of law and grace as told in the Bible.

The distinction is important because the grace of God in Jesus is given to people who DESERVE their sentence of death.  We don’t grasp the grandeur of Jesus as grace unless we first grasp the The Law of God is not unjust.

Further: is law, unjustly applied, really law at all?  Just because humans make bad laws or give other humans too much power in the name of law- is this a comment at all on the essence of law itself, or on the Law of God, or on justice and its relation to grace? Or are we simply abusing language?

Abusing language.

So the portrait of Jalvert as a man of justice is just a man deceived.  I suspect he is intended to represent Old Testament man.  I thought I heard echos from Psalms in his lyrics in the scene where he walks by himself gazing up at the stars.  But this is not Old Testament man, as represented for example in David (the Psalmist himself).  It is the caricature of Old Testament man only possible in this age when few understand those texts.

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Jalvert dies differently in the stage play than in the movie, and the change is important.  In the play, when he is freed by Jean, who could have killed him, he cannot receive grace and continue to live.   He goes right out, like Judas in the gospels, and kills himself.

But in the movie he doesn’t kill himself at that point.  He returns later, back in his prosecutor’s uniform, and traps Jean in the sewer like a doomed rat.  But when he can’t shoot Jean, at the moment of victory, this failure to follow the rigor of the law shatters his purpose.  He gives grace, then kills himself.

You catch that change?  In the play he can’t receive grace and survive.  In the movie he can’t give it and survive.  Not a minor change.

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In addition to this confusion about Grace vs. Law, there is another:  Private Love versus Public Revolution.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” – The culmination of the plot’s questions, ostensibly.   If the purpose of life is to love, then what does the story even mean?

Consider the ending scene of the movie:  is “tomorrow” just a bigger, and so successful, revolution?  All the dead are united on the grand barricade, all the friends are back together, and they sing the “song of angry men” together in the next and happy life.  But the soldiers aren’t there.  Are the only ones redeemed by tomorrow the ones who are on our side?  If so, do we just love the people who fight with us in the revolution?

How did Fantine make it to this tomorrow?  She who had sang “tomorrow never comes”?   By love and grace?  But, then,  how did the revolutionaries make it to this tomorrow?  By death in battle.  How do these fit together?

And what does “love” mean in this story?  We know it means different things to different people, and the meaning might even change from moment to moment for each of us.

If “love” means the experience of romantic love, then political repression might make it impossible for you to love, and so deprive you of life’s meaning, and so justify the need to throw off your political chains by violence.   But if “love” means  to commit yourself to the good of others, why would…slavery, even, prevent that?

For Jean Valjean, “love” was closer to the “agape” of the New Testament…if so, then it is possible to love while yet politically repressed.  Don’t the two themes of the plot, the two things that are glorified – love and revolution – explicitly contradict each other?

Some will say that to seek another’s good requires action, including political action, even violent revolution, because vulnerable people can be so imprisoned by society that they cannot be meaningfully loved.  Fantine is driven into the abject slavery of prostitution, trapped between class barriers and her own love for her child.  Fantine is on the streets, beaten, raped, used like a rag.  How am I to love her if I leave her there?  Freeing her might well require violence, and preventing a million Fantine’s might well require revolution.

I can see the argument but I don’t trust it in the actual mouths I’ve heard it from, the mouths of those most zealous politicos I’ve observed in my small slice of human history.   Power corrupts, and the drive to get power is the strongest hallucinogen.  It’s too easy to collect these compassion arguments like scraps of lead and melt them into your drive for power.  Did the revolutionaries in France and Russia unchain the wretched, or did they simply tear the whip out of ancestral grips to admire its heft and cut?

Les Miserable contains much Gospel.  But the superficial and bad conclusions fly so fast and thick it’s hard to see the Gospel through the fog.

Searching For Bobby Fischer: “Don’t move until you see it”

In the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, the child chess prodigy Josh has two teachers: the Fun Teacher and the Real Teacher.   (Am I revealing my bias yet?)   The Fun Teacher is the guy in the park who makes chess fast, freewheeling, aggressive, carefree – fun.   Under him, Josh gets to exploit his natural talent against less talented opponents.  It’s fun to bring your queen out early, to slash and burn, to make decisions in an instant and see them yield victory.  (Presumably, it is not fun to consistently lose at speed chess.   This part was not covered in the movie.)

The Real Teacher has a different set of values and a different agenda for Josh.   He wants Josh to be able see far ahead in the game.  He sets up an empty board and makes Josh play out positions in his mind.

These two teachers are in conflict with each other, and they pull Josh in two different directions.   The Real Teacher, in particular, wants Josh to stay away from the Fun Teacher, who he says is teaching Josh the bad habit of moving without thinking and taking stupid risks.    He’ll be ruined, says the Real Teacher; he wants to play like this, says the Fun Teacher.  Structure versus flow.   Discipline versus spontaneity.   Josh’s mom sides with the Fun teacher, while Josh’s dad sides with the Real teacher.

Continue reading “Searching For Bobby Fischer: “Don’t move until you see it””

Avatar

Stunning visuals, tired old plot.   With one sneaky twist.

By now this cartoon plot should be as familiar to everyone as, say,  the roadrunner and the coyote.  It is becoming the cultural air we breathe.   This Dances With Wolves myth, (in Avatar the indians are tall and blue) is the new founding myth of America, and indeed of the whole world. Evil Western imperialists, out to rape the land, attack indigenous innocents who are noble and peaceful and in tune with the Great Mother’s vibe.   That protuberant male hardness pokes  that soft dreamy woman-ness.   Paradise is the original state, within Her embrace,  and would continue forever if we were just nice to the Mom.  She is the planet.   We came from Her, She is the Oneness under our feet, and we someday return to her Herness.   But our aboriginal dream is spoiled by the phallic symbol of —  well, take your choice, because there are lots of stand-ins for the phallus to fill out this gender dualism:  machines, metal, engines, guns, buildings,  whiteness, masculinity, military culture, knowledge, and on and on.   Take your pick.

That’s the American flavor. It comes in a universal version: sometime after the beginning the Sky God, Yahweh, conquered by brute force the Earth Mother, Gaia.  All spirituality in the beginning was simple unity with Her,  until He raped Her,  and created a bloody, structured, law-filled religion.   She is so nice and undemanding.    He demands obediance and sacrifice.   Mom is sweet.   Dad is mean.  For millenia we were captives of the wicked step-father, until recently.   We are finally free;  we have awakened backwards  into the Dreamtime.

It is good that it is being stated so clearly and so often, because that makes the choice between this myth and rival stories clearer.     This mother-earth myth is weak; it is less then explanatory.

Gaia, essentially a huge womb, explains personhood poorly because she is less than a full person, being alone.   She brings forth life in a perpetual virgin birth, but she not only has no husband, she indeed is hostile to husbands.   She is alone, except for her children, so her only identity is mother.   It is easier to have children than to have a spouse.

She is slave forever to her own fructive cycle, which does not depend on any outside lover, but arises from within her over and over and over.   Since there are no companions, there is no other plot, such as, for example, any story YOU might find yourself in.   You can’t become her if you are male, and if you are female you wouldn’t want to replicate her cycle.     After your birth she can feed you but can do little else.   In particular, she does not answer prayer.   She is what She is; what She is on the day of your birth is exactly what She is on the day of your death, and all the events in between are up to you.   She offers comforts, but little help in fighting bullies.  All She asks is that you walk softly on Her, because She sickens easily.   It’s really a pallid plot.

I don’t mean to sound so sarcastic.  You see, She cannot do more, because her writers didn’t want Her to, and like all characters She is avatar to her writers.   A God who is a Person must of necessity be quite a complex character in quite a complex plot.   A Person would have to take some attitude toward evil, while respecting human choice.  A Person would be capable of anger as well as warmth, and would exude structure as well as fauna.   A Person with full-blooded love would be conflicted, and tempted to impose a plot on tragic creation.   A plot with a creator-person would contain the ultimate dramatic questions, and the ultimate dramatic tensions:  is the human an avatar, or is the god?  How can I deliver the avatars from death as long as I am separate from them?   And so on.

The cosmic mom story doesn’t really rise to this level.  It is simple.   It is inadequate.    Those who love the Mother-myth and tell Her down through the ages don’t actually want a personal God.   They want a womb.

There is so much to say at this point about how the Genesis narrative is superior by Occam’s standard…it accounts for more of the data.   And it is not just a Father myth, as opposed to this Mother-myth, but is in fact the Father-myth which cherishes the feminine.   Indeed, it is the one myth where the Father starts a plot He has never been in Himself: the marriage, in true companionship, of man and woman.   But no time for all that now.  Back to the movie…

In the movie, the character of Mother-planet (“Pandora”) is true to the myth at first.   When the male protagonist needs a savior from the evil imperialist army he prays to the planet-force.   The lady protagonist informs him that “She does not take sides”.   At this point, James Cameron (the writer and director), is faithful to the archetype.   Later, under assualt from his own narrative pressure, he cheats.

The problem with a God who does not take sides is that there are sides, and we empirically can’t just get along.   This does not mean the Father-myth is true and the Mother-myth is not, of course, just that the Father-myth is more ambitious.   It tries harder to account for the data.

Cameron cheats: at the last minute, when all seems lost, this Mother answers the prayer.   The animals — the agents of  nature — who earlier were wild dangerous beasts, turn into allies, fight off the evil army, and the happy couple live happily ever after.    The world is saved by a miracle.

The entire victory of good over evil hinges on the worst sin of a dramatist, which used to be called “deus ex machina”, a god who drops from the machinery — the rigging over the stage — to intervene and finish the story.   But that sounds so masculine now…let’s re-name this ancient sin “dea ex silva”: a goddess from the grove.   She may be mom, but She is as much an artistic and logical atrocity as Zeus was.

In the end, in this particular fiction, we needed a God who actually interacts with us.    So the archetype of the birthing but non-interventional Mother had to give way, under the force of dramatic necessity,  and take on all the characteristics of a traditional deity.   I suspect Cameron would usher Her back into the closet, in his worldview, before the whole business takes off on a life of its own, replete with temples and sybils.

You may have surmised by now I’m one of the Male religion people.   Quite, if that’s what you want to call vanilla Christianity.   But actually this debate between Dad and Mom is not what interests me just now.  I supose you could argue that God could be a girl who answers prayer just as well as he could be a guy in a robe and a beard.   I suppose.   But she never seems to become that in the logic of her own mythology.   I’d invite her adherents to wonder why.

What fascinates me in Avatar the movie is that the plot in the structure of the world implies a personal warrior God, and the “world-as-deity” complex  just won’t give us that.  Cameron, you imperialist, you mined the Gaia myth for all her resources, then, when she was exhausted, you just got dressed and went home.    You ravaged her, then didn’t know what to do with her.  You ended up with the Father myth at the end of the evening.

Writers, like all religionists,  should decide if they want to have their cake or eat it.

Shadowlands: the movie

Lewis’ religion was reduced to the only level Hollywood can muster:  vague ramblings about “faith” and “God” and “another realm”.     And since there was little actual Christianity, there was little intellectual content to Lewis’ character, and so the screenwriters had no raw material for the fierce friendly swordplay we associate with the Inklings.

Take away the Incarnation and Vicarious Suffering and Resurrection of the Body and there are no swords and nothing to fight or play about.   So the screenwriters had no story, other than two nice people falling in love, her dying, and he trying to figure out how to go on.   That’s poignant, but it is a common story.   It was not Jack and Joy’s story, which was aparently too scandalous in its cruciform particulars to keep in the script.