Les Misérables: What a Stinker!

I recently decided to patch a rather large lacuna in my reading history by reading first Les Misérables and then War and Peace. It did not take me long to tick off Victor Hugo’s monster work because I literally hurled it from me in disgust less than half-way through. Quite simply there is no way this book would find a publisher in the 21st century, furnishing us with an interesting take on 19th century tastes.

First, it is cloyingly, mawkishly sentimental, its leading characters one-dimensional cartoon figures embodying bravery, nobility of soul, sanctity, venality, outright evil or some other characteristic. At least one of Hugo’s themes, that grinding poverty and unrelenting struggle can ennoble rather than debase a person of the right character as depicted in the figures of Marius and others I find somewhat offensive and certainly condescending coming from a figure as grand as Victor Hugo. It cries out under the weight of verbiage excessive to the point of bloat, all the more of a shame for the fact that the language is often little short of wonderful. No character, even the most peripheral, is allowed to pass under our eyes without being supplied with a complete biography. In order to introduce two characters who will play important roles later on he does not give us just one or two scenes on a battlefield – he takes us blow by blow through the entire battle of Waterloo! Interesting enough, sure, but we are waiting for something to happen and so what should be fascinating becomes simply annoying.

In the section dealing with the Friends of the ABC when the writer wishes us to grasp a character’s political and philosophical viewpoint he does not just let him utter a few indicative sentences. No – he lets the man rant on for pages, teaching us nothing and adding yet another tree to the forest of roadblocks that slow the narrative to a crawl. Indeed he regularly brings the story to a complete standstill while he blathers on about the soul and “Infinity”, constantly repeating and reworking his celestial themes.

Furthermore, and in defiance of the basic rules of the novel, he thinks nothing of introducing the most outrageous coincidences to advance the story. When Valjean flees through Paris, surrounded and trapped by the posse led by his nemesis Javert, he takes refuge in a garden. And who is the gardener? None other than Fauchelevant, the poor cart driver whose life Valjean saved back in Montreuil and subsequently found a job working in this very garden. He could have ameliorated if not solved this problem by simply placing a sign over a gate or some similar mechanism to provide information and motivation to his hero. It would still have been a stretch but it would have given us something to hang credence on. But no. He just does not care as he blithely litters the narrative with the unlikely and the implausible. Another instance: Fantine, poor, poor Fantine and her little daughter Cosette. We are told that Tholomyès caroused for some considerable time with Fantine and her friends while apparently unaware that he had fathered Cosette. How Fantine got through pregnancy and birth while conducting this relationship is a question Hugo leaves unanswered. Certainly the character of Tholomyès Hugo draws for us would have dropped Fantine like a hot rock on discovering her pregnancy. It gets worse: during the whole grim arc of Fantine’s downfall our sympathy for her is fatally undermined by the evident fact that she is as thick as mince and hopelessly gullible, making every wrong decision available to her. Not tricky choices, either. She consistently avoids doing the obvious best thing under the circumstances, starting with leaving Paris in the first place. I ended up wanting to shout at her rather than weep for her.

So much for Les Misérables. Fingers crossed for Tolstoy.


The Buddha Christ – Pagola Erects a Lighthouse

A postscript to : That Wondrous Camino. My faith was, as reported, robustly restored by that long walk, but since reading Jesus: An Historical Approximation by Fr José A Pagola, the astounding product of thirty years’ study of everything – historical, archaeological, cultural, philological and linguistic – that can currently be known about Christ, I have acquired a much more nuanced acceptance of the modern church. Among many other of Pagola’s revelations is the clear understanding that the real Christ had no wish to start an hierarchical religion. What emerges is, in fact, astonishingly similar to the compassion-centred teachings of the Buddha. Why am I not surprised?

Pagola’s is probably the most deeply-researched book I have ever read, enriched with footnotes on, I think, every page. Some sections had such impact that I turned back and reread them at once. I began to count his bibliographical references and gave up at 43, covering A to E. Hundreds. His methods exemplify what is being called the ‘third wave’ of Christology, an explosion on multiple research fronts dating from around 1980. The denial of the historical Christ is a dead duck – he is mentioned, among others,  by Jewish contemporary historian Flavius Josephus, by Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and several times in the rabbinical sources which began to accumulate after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.

From deep linguistic study, scholars are now in broad agreement as to which words in the New Testament can be attributed with confidence to the mouth of Christ. The ‘New Testament’ can be understood to include the lost Q source which shows up in numerous identical fragments in Mark and Luke and the apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas, the latter now considered authentic although ‘tainted’ with Gnosticism.

It is utterly fascinating. Stripped of the redactions of the gospellers, parables appear with new and often different meaning. Luke 8:9-14, for instance, portrays the Pharisee praying in the Temple, thanking God for his virtuous life, as a hypocrite. Jesus intended no such thing; it was perfectly in order for someone to be grateful for the opportunity for righteousness, so important to observant Jews. Luke adds that the humble tax collector beating his chest at the back of the Temple ‘… rather than the other, went home justified before God.’ Not what Jesus was saying at all, apparently.

Another snippet: Matthew, writing around Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, constantly vilifies the Pharisees. At the time, with the Temple gone and the ruling Sadducees broken, the Pharisee movement was hard at work saving the Jewish faith and culture, bringing them up against the flourishing Christian community. In fact, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were a disparate, devout ginger group who probably respected Jesus, although they certainly debated with him.

So what emerges from the distortions of the gospels and the outright wreckage wrought by the guilt-ravaged, misogynistic and probably self-hating homosexual Paul? The message can be summed up as what Jesus himself consistently called ‘the good news’ that the poor and the rejected need not be down-hearted because, seen through enlightened eyes, the whole of creation is already the ‘reign of heaven’. (As anyone who has taken mescaline or psilocybin in the right circumstances may have glimpsed.)

This, I  am sure from reading his account in The Seven-Storied Mountain/Elected Silence, is what Thomas Merton experienced during his famous moment of satori on the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville Kentucky. Finding no satisfactory explanation  in Christian sources, he found his way to meetings with Tibetan Lamas in Calcutta, became an advocate for a close ecumenical relationship between Christians and Buddhists, and, at an ecumenical conference in Buddhist Bangkok, was apparently murdered. At the behest of what dark hand, we wonder?

Why am I not surprised that Christ’s message turns out to be so like that of the Buddha? At the centre, universal compassion and acceptance. Not so much the destruction as the disregarding of hierarchy, the rejection of rejection. Condemnation of the objectification of women and children.  And a teaching that, to those with open hearts and freshly opened eyes, heaven is already all around us, in ‘the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’. Sin is something to be cast aside, not agonised over, because the state of grace, what he called the father’s mercy, is neither rationed nor earned. The quality of mercy is indeed not strained.

His enemies called him a drunkard and a consorter with prostitutes and tax collectors. In fact, apart from his healing and preaching, these deeply significant meals were his principal activity. To eat with someone, and especially to recline while doing so, was to honour them. Note that he was never reported to dine with thieves and bandits, just the outcasts – the ‘sinners’ of the day. To understand why, we need to understand who these people were.  A wife was merely a man’s property and could be cast aside like any other thing, for any or no reason and without further obligation. Their only choices -beggary, prostitution, or both.

The tax collectors referred to were not swaggering thugs going about expropriating the fruits of people’s labour. They too were social rejects, frequently men who, for one reason or another, had been booted out of the protective family circle and left with neither status nor property.

Their choices – beggary, or a miserable life sitting in a booth on a wharf, or at the gates of a town, taking a cut for Herod, or the tetrarch Antipas in Jesus’ home territory of Galilee. Hounded from above to increase their takings, constantly reminded there were plenty of others who would take the job (sound familiar?), despised by all who passed by, riven by guilt at their unrighteous life.

Pagola’s revelation of Christ’s passionate defence of women is one of a number of areas where he directs us to conclusions impolitic for him, a priest and a seminary professor, to articulate. The Church’s stand on divorce for instance. The sole New Testament teaching against divorce is in Matthew 19: 3-12. Consider what Pagola writes about Matthew and the Pharisees. Now see that Christ specifically repudiates the Mosaic law authorising divorce in answer to a challenge from ‘some Pharisees’. The context is all-important. My conclusion? If Christ said it at all it would certainly have been in condemnation of the brutality of divorce as practised at the time. Imagine – the woman would never have been allowed to take her children, certainly not sons, anyway, who would remain within the extended family. She literally had the status of human rubbish.  Would the real Jesus have condemned a divorce within the framework of fair, judicial property and custody settlement? Of course not. This is one of several inescapable conclusions that Pagola avoids putting into words, but his signposts are large and clear.

Again, when Jesus says, “I come to bring not peace but a sword … to set father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law,” he was not speaking of anything like the families we know, so transformed by two millennia of Christianity. He was referring to roles within a merciless, virtually life-or-death authority structure.

No wonder, in spite of the fact that Pagola’s book has sold more than 150,000 copies, many to Christian clergy who rave about it and convene study groups around it, that Spain’s arch-conservative bishops have succeeded in having it banned in Pagola’s own country. A futile rear-guard action of course – the original Spanish edition had sold 60,000 copies before they got their way. These are the same people who are so entrenched in their defiance of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council that they send out spies to report on priests who share the wine of communion, even those who give the host dipped in wine.

A mad world, my masters. But a glorious one.


Reading Pagola launched me on a difficult journey. Since my return to Christianity I had been nourished by it, relying on the steady, gentle cycle of the ritual year to give balance and continuity to my always chaotic life. In my darkest hours, the final years of my marriage, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland had become a second home, a place where I would always be greeted as a friend. I knew that nothing, nothing I could say or do, would ever cause its doors to close against me.
Now all this was thrown into question and it would be painful months before I came to this understanding: whatever the Christian churches may have been at times, or may be now, they embody the authentic continuity of Christ’s primary intention to create communities where compassion, gentleness and worship flourished. Does the modern Catholic/Anglo-Catholic church meet this description? Absolutely, if not uniformly. Settling back into the community required a degree of surrender, a conscious act of intellectual humility. But I’m back. And grateful to be so.

My thanks to the remarkable Fr Michael Elligate, SJ, Order of Australia, of Melbourne University, for the generous gift of his time and the recommendation of Jesus:An Historical Approximation, by José A Pagola, Fourth (Revised) Edition, Convivium Press 2013, translated by Margaret Wilde.