I’ve been reading a chapter a day (on average) of Les Miserables for almost nine months now. In this quarter, the big new development has been the love story of Cosette and Marius. A prime example of the Idealized Romance in its most passionately unrealistic form, this reminded me of some psychological texts I’ve been reading lately which argue that the modern, western concept of romantic love is a deflection of what used to be found in religious practice and ritual. The beloved becomes a projection of the divine, an impossibly perfect vessel for all that the lover is longing for but cannot find in earthly life.
This is obviously unsustainable in reality, since we are in fact imperfect human beings, and the supreme spiritual activity of loving needs to fit itself to our fragile, limited natures. Fictional lovers often have a hard time understanding this, though, and tragedy often results.
The novel began with a portrait of a highly developed student of the spirit, the Bishop, whose gift of love to Jean Valjean set this long journey in motion. Now in the pair of young lovers, contrasted with the cruel, duplicitous Thenardiers, a new kind of love is challenged to come to maturity. How will their high ideals play out in a world full of evil, suffering, and death? That’s what I’m looking to find out in the next three months.
In the meantime, Hugo has provided us with some beautiful quotations about love (as translated by Julie Rose), which we can ponder as the story comes to a conclusion.
“God is behind all things, but all things hide God. Things are black, human beings opaque. To love someone is to make them transparent.”
“The future belongs even more to hearts than to minds. Loving is the only thing that can occupy and fill eternity. The infinite requires the inexhaustible.”
“Woe, alas! to whoever has loved only bodies, forms, appearances! Death will take everything from him. Try to love souls, and you will find them again.”