Les Miserables 4: The Bishop in the Presence of an Unfamiliar Light

In the previous two posts we have looked at the character of Monseigneur Bienvenu as it has unfolded in the opening of Les Miserables.  We have looked at an incident in which the bishop took a risk to do the right thing by going to visit parishioners living in an area overrun by dangerous bandits.

The chapters which follow the Cravatte incident show a little bit more of Monseigneur Bienvenu in action.  In one chapter, we see him engaging in after-dinner conversation with a prominent senator with strong atheistic views.  The senator goes on for a long time laying out his philosophical position, and then Monseigneur Bienvenu shuts him down with this bit of self-deprecating wit:

Materialism is excellent, truly marvelous; reject it at your own risk.  Ah!  Once you have it, you’re no one’s fool; you don’t stupidly allow yourself to be exiled like Cato or stoned like Stephen or burned alive like Joan of Arc.  Those who have acquired this admirable materialism have all the joy of feeling irresponsible, of thinking they can calmly devour everything–high positions, sinecures, honors, power rightly or wrongly acquired, lucrative retractions, useful betrayals, delectable lapses of conscience–and that they will enter their graves with it all totally digested.  How nice!  I’m not referring to you, my dear Senator.  Nevertheless, I must congratulate you.  You great lords have, as you say, your very own philosophy–exquisite, refined, accessible to the rich alone, good for all occasions, admirably seasoning the pleasures of life.  This philosophy comes from great depths, unearthed by specialists.  But you are good princes, and you are quite willing to let belief in the good Lord be the philosophy of the people, much as a goose with onions is the turkey with truffles of the poor.

The next chapter is taken up almost entirely with a letter from Mademoiselle Baptistine to a childhood friend of hers which sums up everything which we have seen of Monseigneur Bienvenu to this point and which expresses how completely the women living with him submit to him, though they think him quite crazy at times.

Up to this point in the story the action has been ambling along at a very leisurely pace.  But here Victor Hugo takes another timeout to relate an incident which many of Monseigneur Bienvenu’s parishioners found to be even more dangerous than the Cravatte incident, and which is more troubling in many respects. Continue reading “Les Miserables 4: The Bishop in the Presence of an Unfamiliar Light”

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