Les Miserables 49: Requiescant

Before we move on, let us take a look at the salon which M. Gillenormand attended with Marius during his growing-up years.  Victor Hugo has a pretty good bit to say in describing this salon, and in looking at this we can discern what the political environment of France was like in those days and how this landed in Marius’s life.

Gillenormand’s salon was hosted and presided over by a woman referred to in the story as Madame de T.  This salon consisted of a number of conservative priests, ladies, and other aristocratic types.  Victor Hugo lists their names; though almost all of these names mean little if anything to readers here in present-day America, they were quite significant to people in 19th-century Paris.  In this salon they preserved a number of aristocratic quirks and customs, such as calling a woman “Madame la generalle”, or referring to the king as “the king”, in the third person, even when speaking directly to the king.  They would never use “Your majesty”; in their minds that phrase was “sullied by the usurper” Napoleon, so they avoided it like the plague.

What did they do in Madame de T.’s salon?  They were ultra.

…To be ultra is to go beyond.  It is to attack the scepter in the name of the throne, and the miter in the name of the altar; it is to mistreat the thing you support; it is to kick in the traces; it is to cavil at the stake for undercooking heretics; it is to reproach the idol for a lack of idolatry; it is to insult through an excess of respect; it is to find too little papistry in the pope, in the king too little royalty, and too much light in the night; it is to be dissatisfied with the albatross, with snow, with the swan, and the lily for not being white enough; it is to champion things to the point of becoming their enemy; it is to be so pro you become con.

You get the idea.

I could take you around to a number of self-appointed watchblogs which fit this description to a T.  In that world they denounce anyone and everyone from Kyle Lake to Rick Warren to the Catholic Church to the word-faith prosperity teachers (almost all of whom deserve to be denounced but that’s beside the point) to Thomas Merton; it is impossible to be so orthodox that someone doesn’t denounce you for being a heretic.  In that world the reigning ethos is to denounce first and ask questions later, because there are all sorts of wolves spreading false doctrine among the flock; if you do not publicly expose and denounce these wolves then you are fully complicit in the pernicious errors which they are spreading.

The “ultra” spirit is also very much alive and well in those parts of evangelicalism that are dominated by the culture war.  The culture war emphasis forces Christians to take sides on many political issues of the day and adopt a “Christ against culture” mindset.  Christians who are influenced by the culture war build their own subculture where they can maintain their own morals and customs and demonize the surrounding culture all from within the safety of a world where everyone thinks and believes like they do and they never have to interact with anyone who thinks or believes differently.

Kinda like Madame de T.’s salon.  Here was an alternative culture where people gathered together to maintain the customs and morals of the ancien regime prior to the French Revolution, even though that era was ancient history by the time of this story.  Here all were ultra-conservative aristocrats who thought and believed the same, and they never had to worry about interacting with anyone who thought or believed differently.  Here it was perfectly safe to demonize Napoleon and anyone affiliated with him–and they did so with impunity.  Those who sided with Napoleon were denounced as thieves and brigands who refused royal authority.

Victor Hugo then goes on to describe the evolution that happened in the early- to mid-19th century as the “ultra” spirit fell by the wayside and a new generation of royalists arose.  These new royalists sought to justify and defend the royalist view of things by persuading people of all the good that royalism has done for society and for France.  This was repulsive to the people of Madame de T.’s salon, that royalism should have to justify itself to anyone at any time.  But the new royalists were in touch with the reality that society had changed and was changing drastically, and that royalists simply could not go on, business as usual, just like they had prior to the Revolution.

Madame de T.’s salon was all that Marius saw of the world during the course of his growing-up years.  It was all that his grandfather M. Gillenormand would let him see.  What effect did this have on him?

Madame de T.’s salon was all that Marius Pontmercy knew of the world.  It was the only opening by which he could look out into life.  This opening was somber, and more cold than warmth, more night than day came through this porthole.  The child, who was nothing but joy and light on entering this strange world, quickly became sad there and, more unusual at his age, grave.  Surrounded by all these strange and imposing persons, he looked around with a serious astonishment.  Everything combined to increase his amazement.  In Madame de T.’s salon there were some very venerable noble old ladies, whose names were Mathan, Noah, Levis, which was pronounced Levi, Cambis, which was pronounced Cambyse.  These antique faces and biblical names mingled in the child’s mind with his Old Testament, which he was learning by heart, and when they were all present, seated in a circle around a dying fire, dimly lit by a green-shaded lamp, with their stern profiles, their gray or white hair, their long dresses from another age, whose mournful colors alone could be distinguished, at rare intervals dropping a few words that were both majestic and austere, the little Marius looked at them startled, thinking that he saw, not women, but patriarchs and magi, not real beings, but phantoms.

And what of Marius’s attitude toward his father?

…The child, whose name was Marius, knew that he had a father, but nothing more.  Nobody breathed a word about him.  However, into the society into which his grandfather took him, the whisperings, the hints, the winks, eventually dawned on the little boy’s mind; he finally understood something, and as he naturally absorbed by a sort of infiltration and slow penetration the ideas and opinions that formed the air he breathed, so to speak, he came little by little to think of his father only with shame and with a closed heart.

So what was the final outcome of Marius’s development as a result of growing up in this environment?

Like all children, Marius Pontmercy went through some sort of education….Marius went through secondary education, then entered the law school.  He was royalist, fanatical, and austere.  He had little love for his grandfather, whose gaiety and cynicism wounded him, and the place of his father was a dark void.

Otherwise, he was an ardent but cool lad, noble, generous, proud, religious; honorable to the point of harshness, pure to the point of unsociability.

We have seen how Marius took the death of his father; it meant nothing to him whatsoever.  But all that would soon change.

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