Sunday, May 12, 2013

By the Witness of the Martyrs

Oh, goodness. Victor Hugo. Les Misérables. Look, man, I get that you have to totally pad out this thing, so that when I read it I can admire all the clever prose and gain historical context and all, but honestly? Two full books about convents? 

Well, I was going to make a separate post for each book, but I just can't do it to you for these two. Sorry, Guiding Principles of the Les Mis Project, you are overridden. 

Houses of God: good.
But not for living in.
Book Sixth - Le Petit-Picpus
Book Seventh - Parenthesis

Plot-wise, nothing happens. There. Done. 

Okay, fine. Rue Petit-Picpus is the location of the mysterious convent on the other side of the wall that Valjean super-humanly scaled with his little charge in order to escape Javert and his minions. They're hiding in the hut of the gardener, who was the same guy that Valjean lifted a cart from long ago, saving his life. (Yes, yes, we covered all that in the last post. I'm just place-holding it because otherwise you'll forget by the time any actual plot happens.)

For whatever reason, though, Hugo sees fit to go into a lot of detail about the convent, the history of convents, worship, etc. (He claims it is "to say, without transgressing the proper bounds, things which story-tellers have never seen, and have, therefore, never described." (p.328) I have my doubts, though. I think he was just stalling.)

So - this convent in particular: super harsh, lots of rigor, no men allowed, Perpetual Adoration. The nuns "make no use of the bath, never light a fire, scourge themselves every Friday, observe the rule of silence..." (p.329) and other such uncomfortable practices. This is a fun bit: "All their teeth are yellow. No tooth-brush ever entered that convent. Brushing one's teeth is at the top of a ladder at whose bottom is the loss of one's soul." (p.330) Nice!

"These nuns are not gay, rosy, and fresh, as the daughters of other orders often are. They are pale and grave. Between 1825 and 1830 three of them went mad." (p.332) So that's clearly a fun place for a school for girls. The pupils were allowed to talk, of course, but they weren't all chitter-chatter, other than the exercise hour when they dashed around giggling and cheering the place up some. There are various anecdotes regarding visiting relatives not being allowed so much as a hand-clasp with the students, the whole 'no nuns ever seen outside the convent' rule, the personalities of the nuns.

Anyway, that's the place. Oh, and there's a good but about of the architecture of the place. And, like, the system of bells that calls everyone because of the not-talking thing. There, you know about this convent now.

But! That's not all! (Well, it's all for Book Sixth. But Book Seventh is here, too.) You see, "This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the Infinite. Man is the second." (p.345) Which is great and all, but now we have to read several pages about the whole concept of convents. (Parenthesis indeed!) And, sure, Hugo gets pretty funny here:

  • "Monastic communities are to the great social community what the mistletoe is to the oak, what the wart is to the human body." (p.346)
  • "Monasticism, such as it existed in Spain, and such as it still exists in Thibet, is a sort of phthisis for civilization. It stops life short. It simply depopulates. Claustration, castration." (p.347)
  • "The obstinacy of antiquated institutions in perpetuating themselves resembles the stubbornness of the rancid perfume which should claim our hair, the pretensions of the spoiled fish which should persist in being eaten, the persecution of the child's garment which should insist on clothing the man, the tenderness of corpses which should return to embrace the living." (p.348)
  • "'Ingrates!' says the garment, 'I protected you in inclement weather. Why will you have nothing to do with me?' 'I have just come from the deep sea,' says the fish. 'I have been a rose,' says the perfume. 'I have loved you,' says the corpse. 'I have civilized you,' says the convent. To this there is but one reply: 'In former days.'" (p.348)
So basically, convents, etc. were fine, once upon a time. But now? Not so much. On the other hand, God? We're good to go. Keep praying. Don't deny Him. ("There is, as we know, a philosophy which denies the infinite. There is also a philosophy, pathologically classified, which denies the sun; this philosophy is called blindness.")

But convents - "A convent is a contradiction. Its object, salvation; its means thereto, sacrifice. The convent is supreme egoism having for its result supreme abnegation.... The taking of the veil or the frock is a suicide paid for with eternity." (In case you were in any doubt as to his opinion.)

So, that's that. Convent: restrictive, unnecessary, possibly full of zombies, but! Talk about secluded. No men except the occasional priest no one looks at, and the gardener who wears a bell to ensure the women don't note him. And, hey, a safe school for little girls, too! I predict Valjean will find this intriguing....

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