Selections from the Upanishads

He knew that Brahman is bliss. For truly, beings here are born from bliss. When born, they live by bliss. And into bliss when departing, they enter.

-- Taittiriya Upanishad 3.6.1

The face of truth is covered with a golden disc. Unveil it, O Pushan, so that I, who love the truth, may see it.
O Pushan, the sole seer, O Controller, O Sun, off-spring of Prajapati, spread forth your rays & gather up your radiant light that I may behold you of loveliest form. Whosoever is that person (yonder) that also am I.

-- Isha Upanishad 15-16

I have overcome the whole world. I am brilliant like the Sun.
He who knows this, knows the secret wisdom.

-- Taittiriya Upanishad 3.10.5

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Man who Laughs by Victor Hugo - Part 2


Paul Cezanne - Boy with Skull

To continue.
In TMWL, Hugo’s unique and disturbing grasp of the nature of existence, life, & society – of human experience itself – is brought out precisely in the rich construction of paradoxes, and whelming use of antithesis.
Through this medium, Hugo effectively destroys the “rational” view of the universe which is fundamentally dualistic & separative.
According to a rational philosophy, the world can be understood properly only in terms of opposites: dark & light, night & day, beautiful & ugly, sublime & grotesque, high & low, rich & poor…
The very story of TMWL, its characterization, its plot-movement, and the inner meaning of all its elements serve this one crucial purpose: to show that dualities do not exist...
Human reality, or any part thereof, seen in its totality, seen in the context of the whole, eludes such convenient classification & definition.
It’s not that Hugo doesn’t have any notion of Good & Evil, or that “everything is permitted”, or that anything is as good as the other. The truth is the contrary: Hugo has a very definite view of what is Good & what is Bad.
But TMWL is not, primarily, an ethical novel (like “Les Miserables” or “Ninety Three”). It is primarily a metaphysical novel examining & portraying the truth about the way things are; the way things work.
And while there is Good and there is Evil – there is Light and there is Darkness – there is “Yin” and there is “Yang” – Life/Death - Presence/Absence - they are not found as such in their pure essence in this world.
In the same vein, at every step and at every turn, Hugo destroys the reader’s notion that God is an ultimately benevolent force & that Good finally triumphs. He sets up situations in which the cruelty & absurdity of things seems to have been swept away by the grace & love of Providence – but the very next moment, he dashes & shatters all our illusions as to a comfortable finale to pieces.
The moment the reader starts thinking that justice will prevail – from above – Hugo demolishes any safe, naïve, & illusory belief that God shall finally set things right.
But this doesn’t mean that Hugo did not believe in God or in the ultimate redemption of Man. He was a profound mystic and that must be kept in mind while examining the patent Godlessness of TMWL (or his other novels).
In the same way, it’s not as if Hugo did not clearly project a distinct notion of good & evil in the novel, or that one cannot think in terms of dualities: but, at the same time, he constantly shows how difficult it is (infact, impossible) to actually categorize, judge, & condemn our experience, the matrix in which we exist.

TMWL performs the highly “modern” task of demolishing any system of opposites which ensures certainty, and the security of certainty.
In the novel, the High is Low, the Low is High, the Small is Powerful, the Big is Weak, the Blind see, the Misanthrope loves, Wisdom shirks Life, the Beautiful is Grotesque, the Grotesque is Sublime…
In TMWL, Laughter is an expression, not of joy, but of cruelty… the image of Happiness & Mirth is a symbol of Pain… What Resurrects, brings Death… Death is a Liberation & a Union … the barrier between the Laugh & the Sob dissolves… and Laughter diabolically brings Death…
Vision comes, but not from (physical) sight (it comes from conscience)… the Base is an essential part of the Great… the Virgin may be a Whore… the blind can see Light...
By constantly merging all sorts of opposites, Hugo destroys the view that the world can be understood – clearly – in terms of precisely defined opposites… he shows that absolute contraries do not exist, -- and that every concept contains its opposite…
The most puissant symbol Hugo creates to project this idea is the nightmarish image of the rotting corpse of a malefactor dangling from a public gibbet: a malefactor whose deadbody has been preserved by Law as an “example” (deterrent) to other criminals: A thing can be, and yet not be … A man may be dead, and yet he may not be dead … Death may not be Annihilation… Justice maybe a crucial Injustice … being and non-being may co-exist in the one & same object...
One could consider statements Hugo makes in this context, such as: “He was on a plain, & on a hill, and he was not” … “He was palpable and yet vanished” … “this visible nothing”“it was naught, yet a remainder” “to exist no more; yet to persist; to be in the abyss, yet out of it; to reappear above death as if indissoluble. There is a certain amount of impossibility mixed with such reality. … This being – was it a being?
Hugo’s work destroys & subverts in a uniquely liberating & enlightening way.
It deals a violent blow to the half-truths of the ordinary, traditional, conventional view of life, and paves the way for more perceptive & truthful comprehension.
And thus, Laughter is not Joy … Beauty contains Deformity … Chastity is not Purity … Mutilation & deformity are not necessarily handicaps – they maybe an asset … Blindness is the root of true vision … To Rise is to Fall …
The very name Hugo gives to Ursus’s wolf: Homo – integrates several complex ideas bringing out a curious paradox: Man is an Animal … the Animal is Man… Given that Homo is a loving, gentle, tame creature, Hugo's scathing indictment of humankind by comparing Man to a wolf, and then explicitly symbolizing unreasoning hunger by the image of a wolf in Ursus' play "Chaos Vanquished" is yet another paradox …
Whom does Hugo vilify, what does he affirm? Does he make a final, definitive statement about the idea of the wolf? Does he establish an umambiguous, unequivocal idea relating to this symbol/image?
The Paradoxes keep multiplying; the stream of antithesis flows on in trembling fury -- the questions raised are innumerable; -- the perspectives, endless...

The All, as Hugo sees is, is a Gigantic Paradox. Existence itself is Paradoxical. God is a creator of Antithesis.
The crucial idea in religion & mysticism, that dualities are transcended only in the realm beyond the matrix of matter, of “binary oppositions” which characterizes our existence, is given a shattering blow in TMWL: here, in our very own human reality – there is nothing which is a pure opposite.
Everything runs into the other. Everything contains the other.
The realm beneath Transcendence can be now percieved in the same terms as the transcendental realm.
Everything in the universe is informed by both principles – No entity, no existent, no “concept” is free of inner paradox.
There are many, many other great ideas projected in this unsurpassable novel: but I have dealt, so far, and only cursorily, with only one element so far: the element of paradox.

1 comment:

Veronica said...

very good analysis. readers wudnt grasp these finer points. i hav been a great fan of Hugo, but never saw these ideas through the surface. it really changes the way I look at the novel. I am tempted to go back and read it again!! excellent. keep it up. looking forward to more posts on ur blog, that go this deep.