Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Les Misérables and Ayn Rand

I delight in finding flaws in Ayn Rand's reasoning using the tools of logic she promoted. This isn't because I hate Ayn Rand; to the contrary, she has been highly influential and I respect her greatly.

Just as she did, I enjoy battling contradiction where ever I find it. Rand herself said, in the (in)famous John Galt speech of Atlas Shrugged, "To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality." This woman who espoused individual thinking and death to dogma created perhaps one of the greatest contradictions -- followers who question not a word she spoke, who thirty years after her expiration date continue to walk in lock step and exile anyone who dares question or have an original idea.

Perhaps it is also because I have the heart of a hacker that I love to poke. Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, is a complex yet elegant machine, so self-assured of its own function, wholeness, and security, that I cannot resist breaking it apart whenever I can. Objectivism is a machine that has a place in this world, but it should not run the world. It should click along quietly in the shadows, cranking out interesting ideas, and keeping corruption of certain types in check. It should not produce a type of corruption itself; a corruption which has, unfortunately, permeated much of our society, corporate culture, and government.

It is in this spirit I write this post.

Just as Ayn Rand is one of my influences, she often cited Victor Hugo as one of hers. She idealized romanticism, which she saw as a type of art which distilled reality down into its most poignant, beautiful, powerful parts. Art should lift up humanity's highest values as a guide for all to follow, and she found this in Hugo's work. Her favorite of these works is also my favorite: Les Misérables.

[Spoiler warning: Les Mis is one of those timeless stories that shouldn't require a spoiler warning. Ruining the surprise doesn't really ruin the surprise. Nonetheless, I speak in detail from here on out.]

Rand spoke often of the "ideal man" in fiction, and Jean Valjean stood tall as the most ideal of ideal men. She respected his dignity and unremitting honesty, his determination and perseverance, his independence and industry. If these are the traits Ayn Rand loved, she detested their opposites. She had the harshest words about selflessness, altruism, sacrifice, piety, and devotion to God. The poor were probably poor because they refused to lift themselves up, and in a properly structured Capitalist, atheist society, greed would motivate those who wanted a better life badly enough to work for it, and punish those who did not.

Hugo's novel exposed the levers in French society with which the upper class oppressed the lower class. Of this, she said, "Les Misérables was the big experience. Everything about it became important to me, holy, everything that reminded me of it was a souvenir of my love. It was my first view of how one should see life, wider than any concretes of the story. I didn’t approve of the ideas about the poor and the disinherited, except that Hugo set them up in a way that I could sympathize with; they were the victims of government, of the aristocracy, or established authority."

Clearly Rand was inspired by Les Misérables for many of the same reasons I am. Aside from the complex and interesting plot, there is something about the actions of the characters, the unjust world, and the fight for a future freedom, that resounds with the post-Enlightenment soul. I read an abridged version of Les Misérables as a teenager and became familiar with the musical long before I encountered Rand in my late 20's. By then I had seen every film production and had the lyrics to most of the songs memorized. 

Yesterday I watched the new film production with Objectivism tickling the back of my mind. The movie fills in details that the musical glosses over. They added quite a few lines of speech and music to explain some of the holes you might not understand from the musical alone. Most of the story fit the Objecticist worldview. In spite of the injustice established by moochers like the French aristocracy and the Thénardiers running around making life generally suck for everyone, Jean Valjean manages to succeed. He never complains. He starts a factory and becomes the mayor, and as he is perused by the unrelentingly lawful Javert throughout France, he manages to continue to succeed, keep his promises, and be an all around great guy.

Clearly an ideal man in a novel that Ayn Rand could have easily written herself. The few times Valjean gives anything to anyone, it's in exchange for something he values. Even his promise to take care of Cosette springs from his personal feelings of justice, since it is by his own inadvertent actions that Fantine, an honest hard-worker, gets fired and eventually dies. Those who give their lives at the barricade do so for the sake of freedom. Marius is a sort of mini-Valjean full of his own ideals and values and noble pursuits. The love between Marius and Cosette is a love of equals, two worthy human beings who find value in each other.

In Hugo's work, altruism loses, virtuous selfishness wins.

Except for one thing. Here is where it all falls apart. All of Valjean's admirable actions and heroic deeds hinge on a single simple act by a minor character -- one act without which Valjean would have died a bitter, thieving moocher of a man. Just another Thénardier, a nameless, faceless, undignified whining wretch. This act is not only altruistic and selfless, it is done in the name of God, by a man of God. 

Valjean is given shelter in a cathedral by Bishop Myriel. At his first chance, Valjean steals the silver. When he is caught fleeing, he knows he will be sent back to prison for life. Yet when confronted by the police, the Bishop tells them he gave the silver to Valjean, and offers him two candlesticks that he "forgot". After the police leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to take the silver and begin a new life. In the musical, the Bishop sings, "I have bought your soul for God."

This one action causes a crisis of conscious for Valjean (in contrast to Javert's later crisis when Valjean saves his life). Valjean's cynical view of the world is shattered. He takes the silver and invests in the engines of capitalism, starting the factory and becoming the mayor. He employs hundreds of workers and lives a life Ayn Rand would wholly approve of.

Up until that moment, Valjean was a filthy freeloader. His savior was a selfless man of God. Both Valjean and the Bishop have every trait to qualify as a villain or a victim in a Rand novel. In her story, Valjean would have run off with the silver; blown it all on drugs, charity, taxes, or something equally vile; and returned to steal again. In her story, the Bishop would have used Valjean for his own ends only to meet destruction through his altruistic folly.

Though I respect the values of Objectivism, I am no longer an Objectivist. It is too single-minded, too caught up in the rule of the Laws of Logic to see the exceptions, to see that goodness in life is a balancing act of a whole spectrum of values. Just as Javert could not believe Valjean had been redeemed in spite of all the evidence before him, Ayn Rand ignored that a well-timed selfless act does as much good as well-implemented capitalism. All of our values have a place, and any of them can be taken too far. 

Those in power are resourceful at remaining in power. I am as mistrustful of corporate power as I am of the government. Yes, we have come a long way since 19th century France. But we haven't changed as much as we think. Our system is better, yet it still works to keep the poor down. Businesses require money. Intelligence requires good nutrition. Education requires skilled teachers and adequate facilities. Success requires good health, access to computers, and social connections. All of which are out of reach of millions of people. It's not that they are unwilling to climb the ladder of success, but that the first rung is held too high for them to reach.

Without a little help, like the help Bishop Myriel gave Valjean, even the most capable and idealistic of the unfortunate are no more capable of lifting themselves from the gutter than Valjean would have been. Capitalism does not solve every problem. Sometimes it takes a little senseless charity.


  1. I guess I wasn't well versed enough in Rand's personal history to make the Hugo connection, but I arrived at a similar conclusion about her work. This is an interesting way of looking at it.

  2. Thank you for this excellent expose of Les Miserables. I read the book years ago because I knew Ayn Rand loved Hugo's works. But I failed to see clear connections to what I loved about Rand's writings.

    Recently my girl friend feel in love with the Musical. She wants me to see it. But the bits and pieces of the music I've heard do not inspire me. And the story seems hard to follow. I do remember the stealing of the silver and the Bishop and that those confused me too those many years ago.

    Your expose has helped me decide it is not worth the time and expense to see this work.

    Thank you.

    1. If you are an Objectivist, you do yourself a disservice to close off sources of outside information and arguments for other ideas. Jean Valjean is in most senses one of Ayn Rand's ideal men, and as she stated, was the inspiration for the ideal men she wrote. Hugo's character just needed a little kickstart from someone who treated him kindly.

      If you watch it, and it doesn't speak to you, at least you can speak intelligently on the subject. I'm no longer an Objectivist (tho I retain many of the philosophies with a pragmatic, balanced bent, more like a Neo-Objectivist), and if I were to talk to you at a party, I'd think your unwillingness to entertain other "sides" made you childish and small-minded. You cannot see the world objectively, and cannot take in the data needed to make logical choices in life, if you limit your exposure to things you agree with.

  3. See: LaVache
    The bishop had evaluated Valjean and deemed him worthy of charity/generosity. He enjoyed giving to Valjean. He could just have easily decided Valjean was unworthy of the silver. Or Valjean might have wasted it as so many of us do with something fortitous. As LaVache says, altruism is not synonymous with generosity nor charity.
    I want to read more by Hugo.