blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.

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.