October 18

1862


The whole world knows about Emile Zola's open letter in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, or perhaps I should say in opposition to anti-Semitism and injustice, the one that begins with the words "J'Accuse"; it was published on the front page of the newspaper "L'Aurore" on January 13th 1898, and led to Zola's trial, conviction, and flight into exile from France; eventually his assassination (read the detail here). 

On the other hand, very few people seem even to be aware of the letter that Victor Hugo wrote, to a Monsieur Daelli, the Milanese publisher of the Italian translation of "Les Miserables", from Hauteville House, the home on the isle of Guernsey where he lived out the long years of his exile from France (1856 to 1870). That letter is dayed October 18th, 1862:


"You are right, sir, when you tell me that 'Les Miserables' is written for all nations. I do not know whether it will be read by all, but I wrote it for all. It is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of 'Les Miserables' knocks at the door and says: 'Open to me, I come for you.'

"At the hour of civilization through which we are now passing, and which is still so sombre, the miserable's name is Man; he is agonizing in all climes, and he is groaning in all languages.

"Your Italy is no more exempt from the evil than is our France. Your admirable Italy has all miseries on the face of it. Does not banditism, that raging form of pauperism, inhabit your mountains? Few nations are more deeply eaten by that ulcer of convents which I have endeavored to fathom. In spite of your possessing Rome, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Turin, Florence, Sienna, Pisa, Mantua, Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, Venice, a heroic history, sublime ruins, magnificent ruins, and superb cities, you are, like ourselves, poor. You are covered with marvels and vermin. Assuredly, the sun of Italy is splendid, but, alas, azure in the sky does not prevent rags on man.

"Like us, you have prejudices, superstitions, tyrannies, fanaticisms, blind laws lending assistance to ignorant customs. You taste nothing of the present nor of the future without a flavor of the past being mingled with it. You have a barbarian, the monk, and a savage, the lazzarone. The social question is the same for you as for us. There are a few less deaths from hunger with you, and a few more from fever; your social hygiene is not much better than ours; shadows, which are Protestant in England, are Catholic in Italy; but, under different names, the vescovo is identical with the bishop, and it always means night, and of pretty nearly the same quality. To explain the Bible badly amounts to the same thing as to understand the Gospel badly.

"Is it necessary to emphasize this? Must this melancholy parallelism be yet more completely verified? Have you not indigent persons? Glance below. Have you not parasites? Glance up. Does not that hideous balance, whose two scales, pauperism and parasitism, so mournfully preserve their mutual equilibrium, oscillate before you as it does before us? Where is your army of schoolmasters, the only army which civilization acknowledges?

"Where are your free and compulsory schools? Does every one know how to read in the land of Dante and of Michael Angelo? Have you made public schools of your barracks? Have you not, like ourselves, an opulent war-budget and a paltry budget of education? Have not you also that passive obedience which is so easily converted into soldierly obedience? Military establishment which pushes the regulations to the extreme of firing upon Garibaldi; that is to say, upon the living honour of Italy?

"Let us subject your social order to examination, let us take it where it stands and as it stands, let us view its flagrant offences, show me the woman and the child. It is by the amount of protection with which these two feeble creatures are surrounded that the degree of civilization is to be measured. Is prostitution less heart-rending in Naples than in Paris? What is the amount of truth that springs from your laws, and what amount of justice springs from your tribunals? Do you chance to be so fortunate as to be ignorant of the meaning of those gloomy words: public prosecution, legal infamy, prison, the scaffold, the executioner, the death penalty? Italians, with you as with us, Beccaria is dead and Farinace is alive. And then, let us scrutinize your state reasons. Have you a government which comprehends the identity of morality and politics? You have reached the point where you grant amnesty to heroes! Something very similar has been done in France. Stay, let us pass miseries in review, let each one contribute his pile, you are as rich as we. Have you not, like ourselves, two condemnations, religious condemnation pronounced by the priest, and social condemnation decreed by the judge? Oh, great nation of Italy, thou resemblest the great nation of France! Alas! our brothers, you are, like ourselves, Miserables.

"From the depths of the gloom wherein you dwell, you do not see much more distinctly than we the radiant and distant portals of Eden. Only, the priests are mistaken. These holy portals are before and not behind us.

"I resume. This book, Les Miserables, is no less your mirror than ours. Certain men, certain castes, rise in revolt against this book, — I understand that. Mirrors, those revealers of the truth, are hated; that does not prevent them from being of use.

"As for myself, I have written for all, with a profound love for my own country, but without being engrossed by France more than by any other nation. In proportion as I advance in life, I grow more simple, and I become more and more patriotic for humanity.

"This is, moreover, the tendency of our age, and the law of radiance of the French Revolution; books must cease to be exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish, or English, and become European, I say more human, if they are to correspond to the enlargement of civilization.

"Hence a new logic of art, and of certain requirements of composition which modify everything, even the conditions, formerly narrow, of taste and language, which must grow broader like all the rest.

"In France, certain critics have reproached me, to my great delight, with having transgressed the bounds of what they call 'French taste'; I should be glad if this eulogium were merited.

"In short, I am doing what I can, I suffer with the same universal suffering, and I try to assuage it, I possess only the puny forces of a man, and I cry to all: 'Help me!'

"This, sir, is what your letter prompts me to say; I say it for you and for your country. If I have insisted so strongly, it is because of one phrase in your letter. You write: —

"'There are Italians, and they are numerous, who say: This book, Les Miserables, is a French book. It does not concern us. Let the French read it as a history, we read it as a romance.'

"Alas! I repeat, whether we be Italians or Frenchmen, misery concerns us all. Ever since history has been written, ever since philosophy has meditated, misery has been the garment of the human race; the moment has at length arrived for tearing off that rag, and for replacing, upon the naked limbs of the Man-People, the sinister fragment of the past with the grand purple robe of the dawn.

"If this letter seems to you of service in enlightening some minds and in dissipating some prejudices, you are at liberty to publish it, sir. Accept, I pray you, a renewed assurance of my very distinguished sentiments.

VICTOR HUGO."


Nothing that anyone can really add to that, is there? Except to say, to those who haven't, or who think that seeing the musical is sufficient - go read the book.





Amber pages


Henri Bergson, French philosopher, born today in 
1859


Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister, and father of the current Canadian Prime Minister, born today in 1919


Chuck Berry, or rather more boringly Charles Edward Anderson, born today in 1926


Lee Harvey Oswald, presidential assassin, born today in 1939


Martina Navratilova, Czech exile, born today in 1956


Wynton Marsalis, jazz and classical trumpeter, born today in 1961


Alaska transferred from Russia to the United States, today in 1867


The Tribunal that established the Nuremburg trials and passed judgement on the senior German leadership convened in Berlin, today in 1945 - click here for the full archival document; the minutes of this first gathering, chaired by the Tribunal's President General Major General I. T. Nikitchenko, are on page 24. The first formal session would begin, in Nuremburg, on November 14th, and they continued until October 1st, 1946

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