Les Miserables 6: The Solitude of Monseigneur Bienvenu

Right now we are in the middle of introducing the character of Monseigneur Bienvenu, bishop of Digne.  This is a long, drawn-out process which takes up no less than all of the first 14 chapters of Les Miserables.

We started out by looking at Monseigneur Bienvenu’s personal history prior to becoming bishop of Digne, we looked at how he went about his business as bishop, and then we looked at a couple of telling incidents in his life, one in which he went to visit some parishioners in a far-flung part of his diocese and had to pass through bandit-infested mountains to get there, and one in which he went to visit a dying pariah who was ostracized by the people of Digne because he had served as a revolutionary conventionist during the French Revolution.  This visit with the conventionist G—- was a highly emotional encounter which would prove to be a defining moment in Monseigneur Bienvenu’s life.

This leaves us with four chapters to take us to the end of Book One, and we will attempt to breeze through these in relatively short order.  This should be easy, since the action returns to a leisurely pace for the next four chapters.  Get used to this; this is a pattern which you will see throughout the remainder of Les Miserables–the alternation of highly dramatic passages with less intense, informative passages.

The first chapter deals with some of Monseigneur Bienvenu’s core beliefs, political and otherwise.  Here we see that for the most part he was a very apolitical figure.  At one point he was called to Paris for a synod of bishops from France and Italy.  But as bishop of a small mountain diocese, he felt immensely out of place there.

The fact is that he had offended them.  Among other strange things, he had dropped the remark one evening when he happened to be at the house of one of his highest-ranking colleagues:  “What fine clocks!  fine carpets!  fine liveries!  It must all be very bothersome.  How loath I would be to have all these superfluities forever crying in my ears: ‘There are people who are starving!  There are people who are cold!  What about the poor?  What about the poor?’ ”

We should say, by the way, that the hatred of luxury is not an intelligent hatred.  That would imply a hatred of the arts.  Nevertheless, among churchmen, if taken beyond their rituals and ceremonies, luxury is a fault.  It appears to indicate habits that are not truly charitable.  A wealthy priest is a contradiction.  He ought to stay close to the poor.  But who can be in continual contact night and day with every distress, every misfortune and privation, without picking up a little of that holy poverty, like the dust of labor?  Can you imagine a man near a fire who does not feel warm?  Can you imagine a laborer working constantly at a furnace who has not one hair singed, nor a nail blackened, nor a drop of sweat, nor a speck of ashes on his face?  The first proof of charity in a priest, and especially a bishop, is poverty.

That is undoubtedly what the Bishop of Digne believed.

But even Monseigneur Bienvenu had a bit of a partisan streak.  Victor Hugo notes that Monseigneur Bienvenu grew quite cool towards Napoleon during the waning days of his power, even to the point of refusing to see him as he passed by on his return from exile at Elba.  Victor Hugo comments on this as follows:

Although we contend that it was not for a political function that God created Monseigneur Bienvenu, we could have understood and admired a protest in the name of law and liberty, a fierce opposition, a perilous and just resistance to Napoleon when he was all-powerful.  But what pleases us in those who are rising is less pleasing in those who are falling.  We do not admire the combat when there is no danger; and in any case, the combatants of the first hour alone have the right to be the exterminators in the last.  He who has not been a determined accuser during prosperity should hold his peace in adversity.  He alone who denounces the success has a right to proclaim the justice of the downfall.

In other words, don’t kick a man when he’s down.  That is basically what Monseigneur Bienvenu’s coolness towards Napoleon at the end amounted to, according to Victor Hugo.

In the next chapter Victor Hugo offers a stirring critique of the institutional Catholic Church of his day, describing in full detail the ambitions of those who seek to rise through the system from priest to bishop, then to cardinal, then hopefully to pope.  Ambitious bishops who are rising through the system attract a veritable mob of followers and sycophants who jockey for position as their favorites; it is upon these favorites that the bishops bestow fat parishes, sinecures, archdeaconates, and other such blessings.  As an ambitious bishop rises through the system, so do the favorites who follow in his wake.  Victor Hugo uses the image of a whole solar system in motion to describe this; as the star advances, so do its satellites.

But Monseigneur Bienvenu is the complete opposite of this.  He is the bishop of a far-flung, sparsely populated mountain diocese, and is actually quite content with his position.  Victor Hugo describes it like this:

Monseigneur Bienvenu, a humble, poor, private person, was not counted among the rich miters.  This was plain from the complete absence of young priests around him.  We have seen that in Paris he did not fit in.  No glorious future dreamed of alighting upon this solitary old man.  No budding ambition was foolish enough to ripen in his shadow.  His canons and his grand vicars were good old men, rather common like himself, and like him immured in that diocese from which there was no road to promotion, and they resembled their bishop, with this difference, that they were finished, and he was perfected.  The impossibility of getting ahead under Monseigneur Bienvenu was so plain that fresh from the seminary, the young men ordained by him procured recommendations to the Archbishop of Aix or of Auch, and left immediately.  For after all, we repeat, men like advancement.  A saint addicted to abnegation is a dangerous neighbor; he is very likely to infect you with an incurable poverty, a stiffening of the articulations necessary for advancement, and, in fact, more renunciation than you would like; and men flee from this contagious virtue.  Hence the isolation of Monseigneur Bienvenu.  We live in a sad society.  Succeed–that is the advice which falls drop by drop from the overhanging corruption.

Victor Hugo then follows this with a lengthy diatribe about how men confuse success with merit; that that which is successful is considered by society to be good simply by virtue of the fact that it is successful.  In other words, a man who wins a billion dollars in the lottery is held in the same esteem by society as a man who makes a billion dollars by earning it and investing it wisely.  I would love to put some of this material here, but this post is long enough as it is and I don’t want it to degenerate into a succession of lengthy quotes strung together.  So you’ll have to actually read the story if you want to know what Victor Hugo has to say about this.  I can’t spoonfeed you everything.

Also, I believe that modern-day evangelical Protestant-dom is horribly afflicted by this disease of infatuation with success:  the simple fact that a church is successful and drawing lots of people is evidence that God is moving, that people are hearing the Gospel, and that the Great Commission is being fulfilled.  But that is another diatribe best left for another day.

In the final two chapters Victor Hugo gives us a summation of Monseigneur Bienvenu’s character, as it concerns his beliefs and thoughts.  Here is a sample:

When he talked with that childlike gaiety that was one of his charms, and of which we have already spoken, everyone felt at ease in his presence, and joy seemed to radiate from his whole being.  His ruddy, fresh complexion and white teeth, all of which were well preserved, and which showed when he laughed, gave him that open easy air that makes us say of a man:  He is a good man.  This was, we remember, the effect he produced on Napoleon.  On first sight, and to anyone meeting him for the first time, he was indeed nothing more than a good man.  But if one spent a few hours with him and saw him even briefly in a thoughtful mood, little by little the good man became transfigured, and took on something imposing; his wide and serious forehead, made noble by his white hair, became noble also through meditation; majesty radiated from this goodness, yet the radiance of goodness remained; and the emotion was something like the experience of seeing a smiling angel slowly spread his wings without ceasing to smile.  Respect, ineffable respect, penetrated by degrees and made its way to your heart; and you felt that you had before you one of those strong, tested, and indulgent souls, where the thought is so great that it cannot be other than gentle.

And that, my friends, is Monseigneur Bienvenu in a nutshell.  Victor Hugo closes out the chapter with the observation that Monseigneur Bienvenu was not given to philosophical or theological speculation; he simply preferred to let his thoughts and his heart be guided by the Gospel.

At this point many of you are probably wondering, why does Victor Hugo spend the first 12 chapters of his book introducing a character who never appears again after the beginning of the story?  Isn’t this a waste?

No, it is not.  The chapters in this story are not very long chapters; in my edition this section amounts to 58 pages out of 1463–not a sizeable percentage at all.  Also, this bishop represents the ideal that Jean Valjean will be attempting to live up to for the remainder of the story; it is essential for us to know what it is that he is attempting to live up to.  This bishop will be passing on his legacy of goodness and righteousness to Jean Valjean; it is essential for us to know what it is that he will be passing on.