Les Miserables 82: June 5, 1832

lesmiserablesIn our previous edition we saw Jean Valjean, Marius, and M. Mabeuf embark upon journeys that would take them into the climax of the story.  Now we are about to enter into the climax ourselves.

True to form, Victor Hugo brings the action up to a cliffhanger, then hits pause and goes off on a nonfictional aside.  This time his purpose is to set up the events of June 5, 1832 which will serve as the story’s climax by giving some historical context.

Hugo begins by pondering the word emeute and the question of what makes an emeute different from an insurrection.

What constitutes an emeute, a riot?  Nothing and everything.  An electricity gradually released, a flame suddenly leaping forth, a drifting force, a passing wind.  This wind brushes heads that think, dreaming minds, suffering souls, burning passions, howling miseries, and sweeps them away.


Almost anywhere.  Across the state, across laws, across the prosperity and the insolence of others.

Hugo critiques certain views of emeute, such as the government view that a certain amount of emeute is desirable because whatever doesn’t kill a society will make it stronger, and the bourgeois view that emeute is undesirable because of the negative economic repercussions.  Both of these miss the real question, which is:  Is emeute justifiable?  If so, when?

To get at this, he defines insurrection as war of the whole of society against a faction (as when a faction attempts to rise up and seize control and the whole puts it down) as insurrection and the war of a faction of society against the whole as emeute.  Insurrection is right, emeute is wrong.  He gives historical examples:  Israel against Moses, the soldiers against Alexander the Great, the sailors against Columbus would be emeute, while Paris against the Bastille in 1789 is an insurrection.  There is also a difference in intensity; insurrection is often a volcano while emeute is merely a straw fire.

At this point, let us make a passing observation on Victor Hugo’s view of God:

Be it said in passing, one should note that Tacitus was not historically superimposed on Caesar.  The Tiberii were reserved for him.  Caesar and Tacitus are two successive phenomena whose meeting seems mysteriously avoided by Him who, in staging the centuries, regulates the entrances and exits.  Caesar is great.  Tacitus is great.  God spares these two grandeurs by not hurling them at each other.  The judge, striking Caesar, might strike too hard, and be unjust.  God did not will it.  The great wars of Africa and Spain, the destruction of the Cilician pirates, civilization introduced into Gaul, into Britain, into Germany, all this glory covers the Rubicon.  There is a delicacy of divine justice here, hesitating to let loose the terrible historian on the illustrious usurper, saving Caesar from Tacitus, and granting the genius some extenuating circumstances.

Hugo sees God as a greatness orchestrating all of history and using it to suit His ends.  This is a view of divine sovereignty which would be perfectly at home in present-day Neo-Calvinism.  But more than that, Hugo sees history as being on an upward trajectory, from chaos to order, from simple to complex, from ignorance to enlightenment, with God or Providence or whatever you care to call it as the driving force behind it all.  We saw examples of this earlier in the story, such as in his analysis of Napoleon’s downfall at Waterloo–because Napoleon no longer fit with God’s plan for human history.  Such a view of history was common to the Romantic age of which Hugo was part.  Was it appropriate?  I don’t think so.  I think Hugo is over-the-top in his descriptions of God as the sovereign Lord of all of history directing it in its upward trajectory.  But bear in mind that this was written before World War I.  Much has happened in the 20th century to disabuse people of any notions of history evolving on an upward trajectory ordained by God.  Also bear in mind that we in the present day have our own views and prejudices with respect to history that future ages will critique us for.

C. S. Lewis takes a different view of things on the idea that human history is moving in an upward trajectory ordained by God.  His view is that the idea of Progress is arrived at by selective imagination; for every actual instance of progress in the material world there are at least ten instances of its opposite which must be slurred over.

The oak comes indeed from the acorn, but then the acorn was dropped by an earlier oak.  Every man began with the union of an ovum and a spermatozoon, but the ovum and the spermatozoon came from two fully developed human beings.  The modern express engine came from the Rocket:  but the Rocketcame, not from something under and more elementary than itself but from something much more developed and highly organized–the mind of a man, and a man of genius.  Modern art may have developed from ‘savage’ art.  But then the very first picture of all did not ‘evolve’ itself; it came from something overwhelmingly greater than itself, from the mind of that man who by seeing for the first time that marks on a flat surface could be made to look like animals and men, proved himself to excel in sheer blinding genius any of the artists who have succeeded him.  It may be true that if we trace back any existing civilization to its beginnings we shall find those beginnings crude and savage:  but then when you look closer you usually find that those beginnings themselves come from a wreck of some earlier civilization.  In other words, the apparent instances of, or analogies to, Evolution which impress the folk imagination, operate by fixing our attention on one half of the process.  What we actually see all around us is a double process–the perfect ‘dropping’ an imperfect seed which in its turn develops to perfection.  By concentrating exclusively on the record or upward movement in this cycle we seem to see ‘evolution’.  I am not in the least denying that organisms on this planet may have ‘evolved’.  But if we are to be guided by the analogy of Nature as we now know her, it would be reasonable to suppose that this extraordinary process was the second half of a long pattern–that the crude beginnings of life on this planet have themselves been ‘dropped’ there by a full and perfect life.

C. S. Lewis, “The Funeral of a Great Myth”, Christian Reflections

So now we get to what actually happened on June 5, 1832.  General Lamarque was a general who served valiantly under Napoleon, then went on to a long and distinguished career in the Senate after the Restoration, where he was a vigorous advocate for the people and well loved by the people.  But he was old and his health was failing, and it was no secret that he was about to go any day.  The city of Paris was in a state of unrest, because the July Revolution of 1830 had brought adverse changes to the economy while the hoped-for reforms were very slow to materialize.  The student and worker revolutionary groups were looking for any excuse to go off, while the government was on edge fearing the event that might set them off.  Finally General Lamarque died, and his funeral was set for June 5.  The funeral procession wound all through the city, and when it got to the Pont d’Austerlitz, that was when it happened.  Shots were fired, the call to arms went out, and mayhem ensued throughout the city.  Barricades went up all over town, and key buildings and factories were taken by the insurgents.

Paris is a strange city, almost surreal, in that you can have violent insurrection in one part of the city while, less than two blocks away, people are going on about their usual lives as if nothing is happening.

Paris grows accustomed to everything very quickly–it’s only an emeute–and Paris is so busy that it does not get worked up over such a trifle.  These colossal cities alone can contain such spectacles.  These immense precincts alone can contain at the same time a civil war and an indescribably eerie tranquility.  Usually, when the insurrection begins, when the drum, the long roll, the call to arms are heard, the shopkeeper merely says, “It seems there’s some squabble at the Rue Saint-Martin.”

Or:  “Faubourg Saint-Antoine.”

Often he adds coolly, “Somewhere down that way.”

…They fire at each other on the street corners, in an arcade, in a cul-de-sac; barricades are taken, lost, retaken; blood flows, the fronts of the houses are riddled with grapeshot, bullets kill people in their beds, corpses litter the pavement.  A few streets away, you hear the clicking of billiard balls in the cafes.

The theaters open their doors and play comedies; the curious chat and laugh two steps from these streets full of war.  The fiacres jog along; passersby are going to dine in the city, sometimes in the very area where there is fighting.  In 1831 a fusillade was suspended to let a wedding party pass by.

But on this night everything was different.  The city was afraid.  No one dared to go out.  Rumors flew about horrible things happening in the city; no one knew what was going on.  The theaters did not open that night.  Housewives went crazy when their husbands did not come home.  The jails were overcrowded with people who were detained upon suspicion of causing trouble.

This time, however, in the armed contest of the 5th of June 1832, the great city felt something that was, perhaps, stronger than herself.  She was afraid.  Everywhere, in the most distant and the most “disinterested” quarters, you saw doors, windows, and shutters closed in broad daylight.  The courageous were armed, the cowards hid.  The careless and busy wayfarer disappeared.  Many streets were as empty as at four in the morning.  Alarming stories went the rounds, ominous rumors were spread….Paris seemed more and more ominously lit by the stupendous flame of the uprising.