But Aren’t Saints Dreadfully Dull?

But Aren’t Saints Dreadfully Dull? January 9, 2013

Tonight I’m seeing Les Miserables for the third time (there have been various outings as people have straggled back into DC after the holidays) and, a day or so after my second viewing, I ran across David Denby’s pan of the movie for The New Yorker.  Some of the criticisms are fair (the camerawork draws attention to itself in a bad way, Jackman’s voice isn’t as well suited to Valjean as it was to Curly, etc), but there was one plot-related criticism that I disagreed with big time.  Denby writes:

Is it sacrilege to point out that the Victor Hugo novel, stripped of its social detail and reduced to its melodramatic elements, no longer makes much sense? That the story doesn’t connect to our world (which may well be the reason for the show’s popularity)? Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another, while Javert pursues him all over France…

[T]he implications of Jean Valjean’s complete innocence are dismaying. Suppose he had actually committed some sort of crime as a young man. Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable? Saints do not make interesting heroes.

I think Denby is thinking of a Saint as a character class.  The distinction is baked into the character at the beginning the story, and the constraints of that choice limit and define the roles the character can play in the story.  And Denby thinks Fantine and Valjean are boring ol’ paladins.  Totally committed to the Good, incapable of making a selfish choice, they’re what Javert only thinks he is.  And no one really wants a paladin for a protagonist; since the fun of stories is getting to watch characters choose, maybe err, and rechoose.   Paladins are more like wind-up creatures than people; they just keep tick-stepping in the right direction.

But if that’s how Denby feels, I think he must be reading a different book and watching a different movie than I am.  In the part of the book that corresponds to “Who Am I?” Valjean does struggle to make the correct choice.  When Valjean has the opportunity, for the first time, to live without fear of discovery, provided he lets another man go to jail in his place, Hugo writes:

Undoubtedly it would have been splendid if, after the holy words of the bishop, after so many years of repentence and self-denial, in the midst of a penitance so admirably begun, even in the presence of so terrible a conflict, he had not faltered an instant… but it was not the case…

For the first time in eight years, the unhappy man had just tasted the bitter flavor of a wicked thought and wicked action.

In that line, we can see the fruit of making the right choice day by day.  It’s not winning the right to a love interest and getting a big, dramatic kiss at the climax of the story.  It’s the development of phronesis or practical wisdom.  By choosing the right thing day after day, Valjean is strengthening his conscience so that the wrong choice feels awkward and alien to him.

And even that isn’t enough to see him through this trial.  Valjean doesn’t decide to give himself up until he travels to the trial and is in the presence both of the suffering man he has the power to spare (the prisoner in the dock) and the suffering God who spared him (a crucifix on the wall of the courtroom).  He needed these visceral reminders to help him stand by what he already believed (before he arrived, he had already come to understand, “And, whatever he did, he always fell back onto this paradox at the core of his thought.  To remain in paradise and become a demon!  To re-enter hell and become an angel!”).

Valjean still has plenty of room to grow.  He is still struggling to make his conceptual understanding of God’s mercy and justice a moral reflex.  But not all progress is dramatic looking.  In The Presence of God by Fr. Anselm Moynihan, O.P., he describes how the growth of the soul can become more subtle as it becomes more intense:

When a sculptor is making a statue, he has first to hack and hew the marble somewhat in order to get it into a general rough shape. But then, when the rough outlines are complete, he can use smaller tools and more delicate touches. Finally he will finish off the work with touches of an exquisite fineness. That is the way God deals with us. At first he shows himself only in the big events of our life; only the big blows seem to come directly from his hand. Then, when these have knocked up into some sort of shape–which they will do in the measure of our submission to his will–he seems to touch the soul more frequently and more delicately. Finally, if we are true to these touches, God’s hand will appear in everything that happens to us; nothing, even the most trivial, but will have an essential part in the fashioning of our soul.

When Valjean is blessed by the bishop, he has been living entirely outside of human society.  To become M. le Maire, a man of public virtue, he has to put aside his despair and doubt that other people could look on him with love and respect, that he could be an instrument of grace in the lives of others.  But, even as he saves Fantine, he is not moved by personal love for her, simply a desire for redemption and goodness.

When he reveals himself, he is once again cast into infamy, but his time as mayor, his rescue of Fantine, and his growth in faith sustains him during his hermetical existence in hiding.  He does not doubt, as he did in his first exile from the world, that he is good and worth saving.  But his willingness to give up the world means that he won’t face the “Who am I” temptation again.  He gained a civil relationship with his fellow people and learned to put it aside in the service of something higher.

When he raises Cosette, he accepts new responsibilities which bring new virtues and temptations.  Hugo emphasizes in the novel that Valjean has not experienced love (caritas) since his release, though he has served other people in fellowship (storge and philia).  But Cosette’s innocence and dependence awakens awe in him.  This is love through pedagogy (my favorite kind) where the responsibility of forming her character overwhelms Valjean with joy and fear.  Raising a child is an act of hope.

When Cosette is grown, Valjean is called to make Hannah’s choice, and relinquish his daughter instead of reserving her for himself and allowing his love for her to eclipse all other responsibilities.  He struggles with this choice, just as he did in “Who am I” and once again needs to see the man he might betray by his selfishness (Marius) to make the virtue stick.

Valjean’s dilemmas have grown less dramatic, but the stakes are no lower.  It’s a poor sort of virtue that can triumph only when the temptation feels titanic.  Valjean’s nobility inspires us because it is ultimately expressed in the quotidian and the domestic.  And each daily, small Amen to virtue is worthy of song as the more public turning points that set him on his journey further up and further in.


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  • J

    love the “Presence of God” shout-out 🙂

    • leahlibresco

      SO GOOD!

  • Deacon Norb

    Back to the idea of saints being dreadfully dull. In a few short days I am giving a presentation at a local parish entitled “The Real Saint Paul.” My main text is the Letter to the Galatians — the only genuine autobiography of a first-century Christian hero. In that letter, Paul is not dreadfully dull, he is dreadfully angry! Try reading Gal 3:1-2. You can just see Paul pounding the table when he dictates to his scribe “You stupid Galatians !” or later in that same text where he yells at the Judaizers (who insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised just like the Jewish Christina were). Paul’s suggestion to them. . .here I’m paraphrasing Gal 5:12 — “Why stop at the foreskin — cut it ALL off!”

  • I think Denby is thinking of a Saint as a character class. The distinction is baked into the character at the beginning the story, and the constraints of that choice limit and define the roles the character can play in the story. And Denby thinks Fantine and Valjean are boring ol’ paladins.

    I regret now that I never played a paladin back in high school, back when D&D was an option in terms of both time to do it and participants willing to play. I, too, thought them boring in my callow youth. Now, in my curmudgeonly adulthood, I’m sort of intrigued by the character class, because of something like what Alan Jacobs says here in a defense of the moral depth of the works of Tolkien:

    It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

    Modern liberalism likes to think that all our problems are epistemological: we are afflicted by never knowing with sufficient clarity what we ought to do. Our fictions tend to reflect that assumption. Tolkien, not being a modern liberal, thought it more interesting to explore situations when people know what they need to know but may lack the strength of will to act on that knowledge. He might say, and with some justification, that contemporary literary fiction is not simplistic in regard to such problems but oblivious to them.

    Source: http://ayjay.tumblr.com/post/13589267620/modernist-ambiguity-or-realist-emotional
    So yeah. Paladins have stories, too.

    • Scott Hebert

      THANK YOU.

      This is my crushing weight, and I do not think that I overstate it.

      The question I have dealt with my entire life is not, “What should I do?”, but, “Can I do what I know I must do?” And, sadly, to this point in my life I have answered the second in the negative.

      This puts in a stark light what Chesterton says in the opening of Orthodoxy about sin and madness. The fact that Chesterton could take the first question and show how to get to the second question is, of course, a singularly compelling act, but sometimes words have to be a certain way before we can really understand them.

      • Without grace, Scott, none of us can do what we must. I’ll pray for you.

  • Your phrase “nobility… expressed in the quotidian and the domestic” reminds me of two sayings used by Servant of God Catherine Doherty (Foundress of Madonna House): “God is to be found in the duty of the moment” and Christ’s words to her in The Little Mandate: “Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.”
    A first year formation talk for seminarians in our community on Loving and Serving incorporates an essay by Denis Lemieux (now Fr. Denis) about life at Madonna House, which begins: “It was when I had to peel the same carrot four times running that I knew I’d come to the right place.” For the rest, see Give Your Life to God and search for “Give Your Life to God” on that page.

  • Rachel K

    I think, too, that by acting as though Valjean is 100% saintly because of his non-crime of bread theft, Denby is overlooking how awful it was for him to steal the silver–only one person treated him like a human being after he was released from prison, and Valjean repaid him by betraying his trust and stealing his only possessions of value. It isn’t as though Valjean never does anything sinful throughout the entire movie. The prologue shows us the kind of man he could have become if he hadn’t experienced redemption and mercy; he’s more than “slightly culpable” there, but he’s also certainly “worth our tears.”

    • deiseach

      I also find it odd that the review thinks the story (okay, yes, it is melodrama and intended to be such) has nothing to connect with our world: what, there are no wrongful convictions? No prisoners serving time for crimes they did not commit? No-one looking for justice and being denied it? Nobody let out on a pardon (which says ‘you’re guilty but the State chooses to remit the rest of your sentence’) rather than overturning the original verdict?

      And the struggles of such people, once they have left prison? The effect their imprisonment had on them, either to harden and confirm them in an attitude of rage against society (as Valjean demonstrates when he escapes and steals from the bishop), or to enable them to decide not to be changed for the worse?

      Valjean’s story has no resonance for contemporary society? Really?

  • Suzanna

    Brava. This is excellent.

    I’m trying to get a group together to see it a second time. 🙂

  • Cherie Walsh

    Thanks, Leah, for this post that expands my reading of the play and touches on questions I (we all?) live with. I am surprised by the flatness of Denby’s reading–Valjean steals not only the bread, which crime anyone would immediately forgive, but also then from the priest who shelters him. In the play, his first crisis and conversion to radical goodness (and the moment where his flight is no longer about his innocence) is when the priest forgives him and provides for him a second time. Then, he sees he belongs to God and faces that reality head-on. Understanding the implications of the priest’s act of mercy is what sets in motion the good works that Denby finds so boring. And Valjean’s repeating that act of mercy with Javert is what leads to Javert’s suicide–both are duly freaked out by the implications of mercy, and they respond in diametrically opposed ways. I think the culture responds to this text not because of its distance, but because of its nearness.

  • Saints do not make interesting heroes.

    Really? So all of the main heroes of my youth — Optimus Prime, He-Man, and, well, basically all of those old cartoon heroes — weren’t interesting? Saints do indeed make interesting heroes, in the right stories and with the right supporting cast. If you’re going to write a story of traditional good vs evil, you want saintly heroes and demonic villains to make the distinction clear. And saintly heroes work really well if you give them more pragmatic protagonists and potentially even antagonists to work from. Anti-heroes can be good, but sometimes you really do just want a hero, and a pure hero is generally a saint.

    • Saints need to be good in the way we want to become good. They can have heroic virtue in speaking truth to power and condemning hypocrisy and greed and so forth. But when we want to stay bad we have a problem. So when Mother Teresa talks about love and joy she is a hero. But when she talks about how prayer and chastity made her so effective then many people become bored. They don’t want to embrace prayer and chastity as part of what they see as good.

      So a hero can be too good. That is setting the bar too high. But what exactly is too high? That depends on your opinion of what goodness looks like and of what man is capable of. So Denby might just be saying Valjean crossed a line for him.

      • Well, how can a hero in a story be too good just by being too good? The hero can only be too good with respect to the story you’re trying to tell, not in general. It’s easier to fault a paladin for being too Lawful than being too Good.

        So, Denby might be saying that about Valjean, and I have never really read or seen Les Miz and so can’t really comment, but he goes farther. He talks about a saint not being an interesting hero period. And I personally think that a character who participates in a virtual contest where the cost of losing is his life, almost loses due to cheating, wins but only does so by causing a number of innocents to die, and then says that because of that he actually lost and so is destroyed is an interesting hero precisely BECAUSE he’s too good.

        • deiseach

          I think a lot of trouble people have with saints is from the kinds of hagiography that tend to be produced about them, which means that it sounds as if they were infused with piety from an early age, had dollops of supernatural help in the form of grace, revelations, etc. and had no struggles with anything ordinary people can identify with – and that’s not so.

          Take for a random example St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine. A superficial reading of her story makes her sound like an over-emotional interfering mother. But you look at her life even in the details we have, and she becomes much more rounded. As a teenager, she grew to like tippling wine when she went down to the cellars to fetch it for the family meals? She got into quarrels with her maid at that age? (Already we can see two teenage girls falling out over some petty incident, rather than a plaster saint who never let a cross word pass her lips from the moment she learned to talk). She married a non-Christian? Who routinely cheated on her and seems to have been bad-tempered and not great to live with? She had an interfering mother-in-law to deal with (who doubtless took her son’s side in everything).

          Her eldest son, the bright boy with the great future ahead of him, goes off to college and the big city and immediately drops the practice of his faith, gets hooked up with some dodgy cult, and shacks up with a woman by whom he has a son but never marries. Nothing there for contemporary mothers to identify with?

          She becomes the kind of person that you often see (and dread meeting) in church groups – the teary, emotional older woman who hangs around the clergy, practices odd obscure little private devotions and if you show any inclination to listen clings on to you like a limpet and regales you with the tale of her troubles. Despite what official accounts may say, I’m pretty sure the attitude amongst the married women of Tagaste was less “Here comes the pious and devout matron Monica, let us benefit by her council and good example” and more “Rats! Here comes Monnica*, quick! Pretend you don’t see her and maybe she’ll pass by!”

          (*The double “n” is supposed to be more authentically Punic in spelling her name).

          I don’t know, and if I’m wildly slandering the woman I apologise, but maybe she did have a problem with alcohol (that anecdote Augustine tells about her maid, in the quarrel, calling her ‘a little tippler’ and that local devotion she practiced of bringing offerings of wine and food to saints’ graves, where St. Ambrose “forbade her to use the offering of wine, since “it might be an occasion of gluttony for those who were already given to drink” sounds as if there was some inclination that way – Ambrose’s prohibition sounds like a tactful way of keeping her off the booze!)

          Maybe she was clinically depressed (explains all the weeping). Certainly, at the least, she was an elderly widow whose son was living the high life in foreign parts and she felt hurt and disappointed that he had abandoned the beliefs that meant so much to her. And yet, she is a saint in her own right, not just because she’s the mother of a prominent theologian.

          What it means is that if St. X had a bad temper, St. Y said dreadful things about the Jews, St. Z was frankly weird, this does not mean you get an excuse to yell and punch people or join Combat 19 or do that disgusting thing with the stuff. It means they struggled. It means that despite their defects of character and psychological problems, if they could be saints, so could you. You don’t have to be special. You don’t have to be perfect.

          But the inevitable whitewashing of the stories by succeeding generations, particularly when they’re used as moral instruction for the kiddies, means we have the notion that saints were boringly correct in everything they did and never had a moment’s doubt about what was right to do or if it was right to do it. So we think paladins are robots and no fun (unless they loosen up or turn to the darkside) and we think, as Denby says, that “Saints do not make interesting heroes”.

          • Um, you DO realize that Denby wasn’t talking about actual Saints, but about saintly/perfectly good characters, right? And that my argument was, counter to your comment here, that perfectly good characters CAN be interesting, and very interesting, depending on the story and surrounding cast. I think from my limited exposure to Les Miz (mostly from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine … I’m not kidding [grin]) that Valjean being innocent is CRITICAL to the plot, because that innocence highlights Javert’s obsession as, in fact, being an obsession, and an unjust one. If Valjean had not been innocent of the initial crime and then later rebuilt his life around a virtuous ideal through a conversion — talked about in this post — then Javert might seem justified in pursuing him so hotly, because he would be basically someone with, as Gowan put it, a “criminal mind”.

            Anti-heroes can be interesting characters in the right works. Yuri Hyuga from the “Shadow Hearts” games, for example, is an incredibly interesting anti-hero. But that doesn’t work for all works, and so I think Denby’s blanket statement that “Saints do not make interesting heroes” is simply false.

  • Erick

    I think we can accuse Denby of missing obviously important character details in his review of the story. For one, Valjean is not in jail for 19 years simply because of theft. Most of those years are added on to the original sentence due to bad behavior, such as attempting escape and such. He was (to take the arguments from the “enthusiastic consent” post from Leah) rationalizing his sin and considered himself entitled to moral leniency. There is something much more dastardly deformed in Valjean’s nature (as shown by his devolvement into hatred) than mere stealing bread.

    Secondly, to go against his thought that nothing in modern society identifies with Valjean… I give you Lance Armstrong. He has supposedly confessed to doping and cheating to win in cycling… wins which led to an incredible amount of good with his Livestrong foundation. If that is not stealing to feed your daughter’s kid, I don’t know what is. Lance and we as an audience are now faced with the same choices as the characters in Les Mis… should we be merciful? how does he atone for his sins? etc. etc.