They had brought him there, and left him there.
They and There.
These two enigmas represented his doom.
They were Humankind.
There was the Universe.
For him in all creation there was absolutely no other basis to rest on but the little piece of ground where he placed his heel, ground hard & cold to his naked feet.
In the great twilight world, open on all sides, what was there for the child?
He walked towards this Nothing.
Around him was the vastness of human desertion.
- From "The Man who Laughs" by Victor Hugo
I have always wondered why critics have held that the genre of literature represented by Victor Hugo projected a pretty, sweet, romantic, tidy view of life. A false view of life which ought to be destroyed. That the world of Hugo – and all that he represented & stood for – was hypocritical, that it drew a veil over the harsh truths of life, and pulled down a blind on the horror & ugliness of reality.
When they read “Les Miserables” and “Notre-Dame de Paris” – novels which present human pain & suffering with more poignancy than most novels – they realize how pathetically wrong they are – how groundless their constant derision has been, so they catch on to other bromides: excessive sentimentality, oversimplified characterization, “contrived” plot structure, useless digressions, improbable situations & stunts, MELODRAMA (the worst & most common criticism of Hugo), an overdose of coincidences … etc etc etc.
But a careful reading by an unprejudiced, intelligent reader will reveal that there’s NOTHING of the sort.
Once in a while, one finds them reluctantly admitting that he is “nevertheless” a “genius” – that nobody can deny his “genius” – but, in all contradiction, keep on repeating debasing bromide over bromide, baseless denigration over denigration.
Honestly, there is NOTHING of the sort.
The usual academic-literary-critical view of Hugo has been so bad, that the man who was undoubtedly the greatest man of letters in the 19th century, has been relegated to the background of great literature as one of “great Romantic French poets”.
Three steppings-downs: he is JUST a Romantic, he is FRENCH, he is a POET.
In other words if you consider him as an author with a more universal aesthetics, if you start comparing him with authors outside France, and if you focus away from his specific stature as a poet, Hugo fares pretty poorly.
The most powerful indicator of this bias is the dark sea of total oblivion into which his novel “The Man who Laughs” has been sunk into.
The fact that people go on endlessly debating novels like those of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Hermann Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Emily Bronte, & Honore Balzac – without even mentioning Hugo, what to speak of “TMWL”, is a sufficient indicator to a reader of that novel, of the conscious, deliberate hostility (& prejudice) towards Hugo. Or of enormous stupidity.
Ayn Rand, perhaps the most famous & most eloquent & assertive of all of Hugo’s admirers in the 20th century, considered TMWL to be his best novel.
I would occasionally question Rand's grasp of Hugo's method, philosophy, & psychology - she did make some errors in judging him - but she also offered several very startling insights into his novels, the deeper meaning of his literary vision, and her glowing tributes to him DID propel a particular section of serious readers to (re-)discover Hugo’s dazzling universe.
She noted that TMWL was not merely a historical novel - but a symbolic fantasy of vast metaphysical dimensions.
Though she did not explicitly identify the theme in her introductory note to the novel, she said – very perceptively & correctly – that, transcending the mundane & the commonplace, the trivial & the boring, – Hugo had presented his view on man's existence itself in the form of a suspenseful, violent story.
I may disagree as often as I agree with Ayn Rand, but here, she is perfectly correct. (I doubt, though, if TMWL is really violent). One ought to salute her for stating this truth.
Victor Hugo had a penchant to present his novels as mere socio-political dramas. That is, works serving some republican, socialist, democratic, reformatory, & didactic idea. As such, he is right – unlike most indifferent men of genius, he played the role of acting as the conscience of his society & time – something which, again, bafflingly, – irritates many people; but his own wording gave the handle to the critics to dismiss his work as lacking philosophical depth & significant meaning.
“The Man who Laughs” is indeed a profoundly METAPHYSICAL novel.
It is a novel about the debasement of Man, the obscuration of the Truth about Man, the loss of his vision & perspective, his descent into the lower realm of existence, and his quest & struggle to realize his own highest truth.
Gwynplaine’s defacement is not just a symbolic representation of “Man’s cruelty to Man” (a dismissive interpretation of the novel’s essence); nor about the aristocracy’s suppression of the poor, i.e. social injustice (another over-simplification, albeit correct in itself).
His defacement is a symbolic representation of the Soul’s obscuration in the frame of Matter (the “Flesh”). It images the loss of the inner & highest truth about Man whose soul is couched by & hidden deep within the Body.
It is from such a perspective that one ought to view this novel, and only then can one grasp its immense profundity.
If PARADOX is one of the most exalted literary values of modern thought, then I doubt if there is any other novel which can be called “a novel of paradox”, if not TMWL.
Hugo deftly & seamlessly weaves several ideas into one coherent, comprehensive symbol. Every symbol, thus, becomes a veritable tapestry, intricate, made of several harmoniously interlaced strands.
The image of pain - Gwynplaine's deformed face with its eternal laugh - is, paradoxically, at the same time, an image of laughter.
This image of obscuration (of the truth) is, paradoxically, at the same time, a revelation of the truth.
It hides the truth about Gwynplaine, & yet it also speaks the truth about his condition.
The symbol of the injustice, cruelty & suppression in society – which ought to evoke horror – is, at the same time, the symbol of the apparent prosperity & happiness of society – which evokes mirth.
It represents the surface, not the depth - and yet, it also represents the deep, dark, stark truth of the human condition.
What more complex symbol? What, more profound?
A Mask is a Face. And yet, the Mask is not the Face.
Gwynplaine’s mask is a truth. And yet, it is an untruth.
Hugo was FULLY CONSCIOUS of his use of paradox: “That eternal and fatal law by which the grotesque is linked with the sublime—by which the laugh re-echoes the groan, parody rides behind despair, and seeming is opposed to being—had never found more terrible expression.”
Contrary to enforced perception that Hugo’s view of life was oversimplified, and cast in black & white, & hence, is not “modern”, TMWL comes across as a powerfully modern work.
With all the profound premises of modernism & post-modernism without any of their abounding half-truths & untruths.
Hugo's use of paradox has been criticized as an overuse of "antithesis" -- a completely useless, unprofound, & derogatory criticism, which merely amounts to criticism for the sake of criticism.
The extensive, constant use of antithesis is a logical consequence of all-pervasive paradox-construction in the novel.
Through paradox and antithesis, Hugo achieves something which is attempted, in a way, by Zen Buddhism too: to absolutely destroy a strictly "rational" view of society, life, & existence.
The absurdity of things, the absence of strict logic, the inherent contradiction that pervades All: these are projected through Hugo's paradox construction & use of antithesis.
Existence, God, Man, Life defy all rational analysis at every step - what is, isn't & what isn't, is - an unmistakably ambiguous, almost sinister, projection of God's benevolence & power - indeed, at every step Hugo destroy's Man's faith in God - these are just some of the philosophical implications of TMWL.
Do we call this irrelevant, unmodern, and unprofound?
I do not wish to categorize Hugo as Romantic or Absurdist or Existentialist or Modernist or Post-Modernist or Masonic or Rosicrucian or Hermetic: Hugo is simply Hugo.
(Even though he called himself a Romanticist, I seriously doubt if Hugo can be called a Romanticist in the conventional sense of the term. His vision is too complex for such simplification).
Comparison with Modernist & Post-Modernist literary thought is merely to show that he cannot be dismissed as "unmodern", that his works stand the test of contemporary literary criticism (though that itself is irrelevant) - and that one could only be baffled at why he is not hailed as one of the most profound of all the predecessors of our "modernists".