Friday, January 06, 2006

Victor Hugo on Perseverance

I have just finished reading Victor Hugo's remarkable, and widely unheard of in our age, epic novel The Toilers of the Sea (hats off to the Modern Library folks for rescuing this amazing tour de force from almost total obscurity, and restoring it to its rightful place as one of Hugo's most powerful works). Other than Moby Dick, it is probably the greatest novel I have ever read about the sea, and while it is not quite as great a work as Melville's in my opinion, it certainly reminded me of that monumnetal classic at times (especially with its voluminous philosophical passages and moral/spiritual themes running through the work like threads in a tapestry), and is without a doubt one of the most gripping tales of "man vs. nature" I have encountered.

There is so much I could say about this great and gripping book, but rather than bore you TST readers with yet more Duke Altum commentary, I thought this time around I might just let the author speak for himself. Novel concept, I know (no pun intended). Now there is one passage in particular in this novel that just screamed out at me to be shared, and I set it off right away with bold pen markings in my book, thinking I might just quote it in its entirety on this blog... the reason being, it is a passage that seems to be to exemplify what this blog is all about: reading the great works of literature in search of nuggets of wisdom, by which we might lead better, more principled, more moral, more deeply spiritual and truthful lives. I read this book of Hugo's for many reasons, one of which was simply that I had enjoyed Les Miserables so much; but I did not expect to find as much insight and wisdom in it as I did. Yet this is the glory of literature that is truly literature (and not just entertainment): it instructs us, it challenges us, it leads us to truths and insights about ourselves, about the world we live in, and sometimes even about that which transcends us, be it natural or Divine.

A little set-up is required before you can dive into the passage, but I'll keep it very brief: basically, in this novel set among the Channel Islands between France and England, a major plot element is the spectular wreck of a steam ship (under mysterious circustances) out on a reef in the middle of the sea. The owner of the ship is convinced that if the engines of the ship can still be salvaged, he will not be ruined and will be able to start his business (it was a ferry boat) anew, and so he challenges the local fishermen to see who might be willing to go out, find the wreckage and salvage the engines, though he knows it to be basically an impossible task. Well, one man, a humble, poor fisherman and something of a recluse named Gilliatt (a typical Hugo hero), decides to attempt it, and in this passage, he has been out there at sea for months on his own trying to salvage the engines by himself, and has yet to succeed. He is being mercilessly pounded by the elements, is living out on the open sea with very little for clothing and shelter, and has essentially run out of food and water. His situation, in a word, is desperate.

And now, Victor Hugo... on perseverance. See if you don't find this to be a remarkable passage! Yet one more example of The Secret Thread, running through all the greatest of books...


"...The empty waste, the boundless expanse, the space in which there are so many forms of rejection for man, the mute inclemency of natural phenomena pursuing their regular courses, the great general law of things, implacable and passive, the ebb and flow of the tides, the reef, this black constellation of stars in whirling movement, the focal point of an irradiation of currents, the mysterious conspiracy of things against the temerity of a living being, the winter, the clouds, the besieging sea -- all this enveloped Gilliatt, surrounded him, seemed to be closing in on him, separating him from living beings in the manner of a dungeon building up around a man. Everything was against him, nothing was for him; he was isolated, abandoned, enfeebled, broken down, forgotten. His stores gone, his tools broken and defective, he suffered thirst and hunger by day and cold at night; covered with rags, his clothes threadbare -- rags over festering sores, holes in his clothing and in his flesh, his hands torn, his feet bloody, his limbs emaciated, his face pallid; but there was a flame in his eyes. A proud flame; a man's will made visible. A man's eye reveals his quality. It shows how much of a man there is within us. We declare ourselves by the light that gleams under our eyebrows. Petty spirits merely wink; great spirits emit a flash of lightning. If there is no brilliance under the eyelid, there is no thought in the brain, no love in the heart. A man who loves exerts his will, and a man who exerts his will radiates light and brilliance. Resolution puts fire in the glance: a noble fire that results from the combustion of timid thoughts.

Sublime characters are stubborn. A man who is merely brave has only one method of action, a man who is merely valiant has only one temperament, a man who is merely courageous has only one virtue; greatness is reserved for the man who is stubborn in pursuing the right course. Almost the whole secret of men of great heart is contained in one word: Perseverando.

Perseverance is to courage what the wheel is to the lever; it is a perpetual renewal of the fulcrum. Whether the objective be on earth or in heaven, the only thing that matters is to make for that objective; the former case is for Columbus, the latter for Jesus. The cross is mad: hence its glory. To achieve suffering and triumph, it is necessary to leave no room for argument with one's conscience and to allow no relaxation of one's will. In the sphere of morality a fall does not exclude the possibility of a soaring. A fall is the starting point of a rise. The second-rate allow themselves to be put off by apparent obstacles; the strong do not. For them the prospect of perishing is merely a possibility; the prospect of conquering is a certitude. You can offer Stephen all sorts of good reasons for not allowing himself to be stoned. Disdain for reasonable objections engenders that sublime victory in defeat that is called martyrdom.

All Gilliatt's efforts seemed to be concentrated on the impossible. Success was meager and slow in coming, and much effort was required to obtain very little result. This was what showed his greatness of spirit; this was what was so poignant about his situation."

(pp. 292-293, Modern Library version)


I Am Not What I Am said...

An interesting post. As always, leave it to The Secret Thread to find and analyze books that go beyond the common reaches of literature.

However, here's something for you guys to ponder. When it comes right down to it, most of the great works of fiction are about perseverance, are they not.

On one hand the perseverance can be noble, take for example, the perseverance of Atticus Finch in
'To Kill A Mockingbird'. He withstands all the bigotry and intolerance a white man could receive in the deep south circa 1934 for defending a black man, and yet never wavers from his course.

Or the perseverance could be neutral, such as the perseverance of Jay Gatsby in 'The Great Gatsby'. Gatsby's only goal in life is to reclaim the lost love of Daisy (which is noble), by any means necessary (which is ignoble, thus canceling any nobility out).

Or finally (and easily the most interesting one) is that the perserverance can truly be ignoble.
Look to Victor Frankenstein in 'Frankenstein'. There can be no doubt that this man never wavered in his quest to make science his master, yet the end results were horrifying. And in an ironic twist, one can see that his creation was equally perseverant in looking to destroy his creator's life.

Hope this will give you a different way to look at books in the future.

Mutt Ploughman said...

I really enjoyed Duke's post on Hugo. That passage won't win any awards for brevity or for subtlety, but it sure is a passionate artist working there. 'I Am Not..' points out that many, or 'most', great works of fiction are about perseverance, and in a sense I think he's right. Most of them involve some kind of pursuit of something. After all, a character who sits around and does nothing or who gives up on his/her chase/quest/mission halfway through the novel would not be a whole lot of fun to read about. Although I Am Not... seems to be suggesting that Duke hadn't realized this, which I am not sure is the case, I think Duke was just trying to share a passage he really liked. In any case, I Am Not's comment was interesting too, and let's give him credit for reading and ringing in on our blog (just visited 'For The Home Team' myself....). Duke, you have to love 19th century novels, for these guys did not reign it in, and minimalism was a long way off the shore, so to speak. This novel sounds like it was really interesting, I would like to check it out some time, or anything by Hugo for that matter, since I ain't managed to fit his stuff in yet.....seeing 'Les Miz' 4 times hardly counts......

Duke Altum said...

It's an honor that this post generated two interesting comments from such worthy scribes as Mutt "Piers" Ploughman and I Am Not... as bloggers yourselves, you guys know how much good feedback is appreciated in these ventures...

To Mutt, I will just say: you need to get yourself some Hugo and read it. Soon. There's no question he's not the perfect writer, and he was a bit strange and eccentric as a personality (aren't most great artists though?), but his books are chock full of great moral and spiritual themes, as well as interesting creative plotting and good ol' rousing adventure. He is one of the greatest products ever to come out of France (besides wine, cheese and defensive military strategy, I mean).

To I Am Not... you raise up some great examples from books I am familiar with. I think your point is well taken, although I also think that my post wasn't at all contradictory to what you wrote... my motives for posting the passage were just to say that I found it instructive to us as human beings and as men. I found it inspiring and somewhat insightful on the topic of perseverance, that's all. Surely, perseverance can be both noble and ignoble, although one could argue that when it becomes ignoble, it crosses a line from "perseverance" to "obstinacy" or "stubborn pigheadedness" in that loss of nobility... anyway I really wasn't trying to make any kind of statement about the way in which perseverance is portrayed in great books... it was more about how this one passage from this one book spoke to me about the subject.

Still, I would concur with Mutt and agree that most great fiction deals with a character that is in earnest pursuit of something, be it material, emotional or spiritual (or all 3).