He’s no Charles Dickens, but…

…Victor Hugo is pretty great too.  I realized this in 2012, when Tom Hooper’s lavish film adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical Les Miserables came out.  The musical is very much in the spirit of Hugo’s novel of the same title, which I read last summer over the course of several months (and I’m not a slow reader).  Last November, I got to see the musical on stage in London, and while I didn’t buy one of those iconic t-shirts with Cosette’s waifish face and streaming hair, I think this experience qualified me as a Les Mis fangirl.  So I’ve been meaning to blog about Les Miserables for a while, but what really prompted this post was my attendance this past weekend at Alluvion Stage Company’s production of the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is directly adapted from the Disney animated film of the same title, but apparently is closer in plot and tone to Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris.*  (I say “apparently” because I haven’t read the novel yet, so please forgive any factual inaccuracies in what follows.)

I compared Hugo to Dickens because they lived around the same time and wrote big, sprawling novels with themes of poverty and systemic injustice that nevertheless entertain.  They even met each other once.  I think I’m biased toward Dickens because I’m able to read his works in their original language, which eliminates any linguistic awkwardness that might come with translation.  But Dickens also does humor a lot better than Hugo, who takes himself and his subjects too seriously, and he also was a lot better at editing himself (probably because of the serial format in which he wrote), as anyone will attest who has read Hugo’s encyclopedic mid-novel histories of the Paris sewer system and of the convent where Jean Valjean and Cosette found sanctuary.  Dickens was able convey an intimate knowledge of London without having to bring his plot to a screeching halt.

But I’m supposed to be writing about what’s so great about Victor Hugo.  Well, there are a number of things I could say, but I think the most significant is that he treats the subject of mercy–and its foil, justice–better than any other writer I know of.  Jean Valjean is a flawed Christ figure whose life is transformed by mercy, whereas his counterpart Javert is doomed because he doesn’t understand mercy either as an abstract concept or a practical act.  In Notre Dame, the priest Frollo has a nominal understanding of mercy from his reading of Scripture, but he can’t accept it or extend it, so he, too, is doomed.  If the musical I saw is anything like the novel, Notre Dame is an ironic tragedy because although it takes place in and around a building where the gospel is proclaimed many times a day, nobody really understand the gospel.  Les Miserables, however, ends with hope (despite its title) because most of its central characters have learned to forgive because they were forgiven.

I know I’m stating the obvious to those who are familiar with these stories, but if you’re not familiar with them, watch one of the musicals or pick up one of the novels.  Victor Hugo’s stories have certainly deepened my understanding of my own Christian faith.

*By the way, I’m intrigued by the title of the novel because it means that the protagonist is not Quasimodo, the hunchback, but rather the cathedral itself–or maybe we’re supposed to read Notre-Dame not as a proper name but as “our lady,” in which case the novel is really about Esmeralda, the sanctified pagan Mary.

“Satisfaction is not in my nature.”

I’ve recently read several books and articles that argue that nearly everyone’s deepest motivations can be placed into one of just a few broad categories, such as power or belonging.  I also recently read The Gift of Being Yourself, in which the author, Christian psychologist David G. Benner explains the ugly side of that same concept: everyone’s besetting sins can be traced back to a deep need they feel is unfulfilled, and that these deep needs can be organized into one of nine categories.  Of course, there’s infinite variety in the manifestations of our motivations, needs, and sins, but at the root, we’re all more similar than we like to think.

The title of my post is something that Loki, in an unusually honest moment, said to Thor in Thor: The Dark World.  His point was that taking revenge on those who had killed the brothers’ mother, Frigga, wouldn’t bring him any closure or contentment.  In fact, as is abundantly clear in the series of films, nothing can really content Loki, because he wants EVERYTHING: a throne, Odin’s respect, the world, the universe…and even that wouldn’t be enough.

Satisfaction isn’t in my nature, either.  I’m realizing that a lot of my surface-level sins and struggles–anger, for instance–arise from a deep desire to have it all.  Here are some examples:

I envy other people their talents.  Because I don’t want to just be good at writing and teaching.  I want to be good at everything.

I sometimes eat more than I should.  Because I want to try one of everything!  And maybe more than one.

I crowd my schedule and wear myself out by saying “yes” not only to too many work obligations and volunteer commitments, but also to too many fun activities.  Because FOMO.

The tricky thing about this lack of satisfaction is that most Western societies today act like it’s a good thing.  Contentment gets associated with mediocrity, laziness, and an unnatural lack of desire.  Lack of contentment, on the other hand, is repackaged as ambition (which is supposed to be good unless you’re talking about Slytherin House or Macbeth), willingness to change and improve, and an insatiable thirst for learning, excellence, awesome experiences . . . you name it.

This is one of the many reasons why the Christian message is so counter-cultural.  Today we use the term “sheep” to refer to lazy conformists who can’t think for themselves, but David in Psalm 23 and Jesus in the gospels use sheep as a symbol for people who admit their dependence on God and who are humble enough to receive, as a gift, something as simple as their daily food.  Content, satisfied people don’t worry about missing out, because they trust that what their shepherd has given them is exactly what they need.

I get where Loki is coming from because I have the same desires.  I mean, I don’t want to rule the Nine Realms, but I want to be the ruler of my own life.  But I’ve learned, over and over again, that I’m a really bad ruler.  I’m a sheep.  And I think I’d be a lot happier if I just admitted that.

food speaks

In Fear the Walking Dead, my current Sunday night TV show, a major character named Nick recently wanted to comfort a little girl whose father had been fed as a sacrifice to the infected dead.  But the little girl speaks only Spanish, and Nick speaks only English, so he ended up communicating his care by giving her a Gansito–a little individually-wrapped snack cake he obtained at some peril to his life.

In The Tale of Despereaux, a book I’m getting ready to discuss with my children’s lit students, soup is a pivotal symbol.  The cook makes a surreptitious batch of soup (which has been outlawed) as an act of courage and defiance.  The hero–a mouse–draws strength for his climactic act from a few spoonfuls of the cook’s secret soup.  And at the end of the story, the major characters, some of whom were formerly enemies, celebrate by eating soup (now legal) around a lavish dinner table.

I spent this past weekend at Virginia Beach with three of my dearest friends, and as we discussed on the last night, some of our favorite memories from the trip had to do with meals: the conversations around the table, the atmosphere in the restaurants (or outside on the patio next to the boardwalk), and, of course, the food.  At lunch on Saturday, I traded my last fried shrimp taco for the rest of one friend’s macaroni and cheese, and we both got enough joy out of this simple swap that we were still talking about it hours later.  It was an act that involved giving, receiving, and trying new things: some of life’s greatest joys.

I’ve told these stories because it’s hard to say what I want to say any other way, without resorting to platitudes.  If you’ve ever been moved to tears by a gift of food (even a vending machine snack cake), felt disproportionately happy watching people eat something you cooked, or looked forward for days to a dinner party (or a pizza and movie night), you know what I mean.

This topic isn’t as simple as I wish I could pretend it is.  Not everybody gets a warm glowy feeling from eating with other people.  Some people have dietary restrictions due to allergies, illnesses, or convictions, and other people say insensitive things to them because they can’t understand (I have said these kinds of things more often than I care to think about).  Others have eating disorders that make this a painfully thorny issue.  And we can’t ignore the fact that millions of people don’t have enough food for basic subsistence.

So I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations like “Food is a universal language.”  It’s not.  But just like anything that functions as a vehicle of communication between people (only more so, because food literally becomes part of us), food allows us to make small steps toward understanding.  Small steps like refraining from judging someone because of what they eat or don’t eat, or how they eat.  Like accepting a meal without feeling obligated to give something in return.  Like taking the time to know what a person really likes, wants, and needs.  This is how we connect with people.  This is how food speaks.



For your listening and reading pleasure

Today, I offer you some podcasts and blogs you should check out.

  1. This one is shameless self-promotion: I was recently a guest on my colleague Clifford Stumme’s pop music podcast.  In this episode, we discuss the story arc of Mumford & Sons’s first album, Sigh No More.  In other episodes, Cliff discusses the meanings of songs by a dizzying array of artists, not all of whose music you might have thought worth taking seriously.  He shows you that pop music (a term he defines broadly) is a lot more than just a great beat you can dance to.
  2. I mentioned the podcast Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This? on my blog years ago, and I think it’s time to give it another shout-out.  Mark Stockslager (who, if you couldn’t guess by the name, is my brother) gives his often strong opinions on movies, books, TV, music, sports, and more.  His most recent episode, is a good one to start with, because in it he introduces some regular segments on some of the above-mentioned topics.  In another recent episode, he and his guests analyze–a more appropriate word would be “dismember”–the season 6 finale of The
    Walking Dead
  3. Another colleague recently sent me two articles from the religion, arts, and culture blog Mockingbird, based out of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.  The two articles he sent me (this really long but worthwhile one and this shorter one) are both about Harry Potter (people are always sending me Harry Potter stuff, which is fine by me!), but I’m looking forward to reading what these thoughtful bloggers have to say on other topics as well.
  4. If you work at a desk on a computer all day and aren’t using Spotify Free to provide a soundtrack to your day, why aren’t you?  I mostly listen to post rock (Spotify has a good playlist for this genre) and movie scores because they don’t have lyrics to distract me, but they also aren’t boring.  As I write this, I’m listening to John Powell’s exciting scores to the How to Train Your Dragon movies.

Now you have your assignments; go read and listen!