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Victor Hugo's Immortality Post by :ezeaarua Category :Essays Author :William Cowper Brann Date :July 2011 Read :1101

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Victor Hugo's Immortality

Philadelphia's school board has barred Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" from the list of books to be used in the high school in the teaching of French, as a book not fit for girls. What would not one give for a diagram of the heads of these educators? It must be a nasty mind which can find anything immoral in that book as a whole. One may take a chapter out here and there, and show it to be broad and coarse, divorced from the context, but the whole effect of the book is moral. The mind of the man who can say that "Les Miserables" will not tend as a whole to make a girl more womanly, a boy more manly, must be poisoned by the miasma from a filthy heart. What and who in it are immoral? Not Valjean! Not Fantine even, nor Cosette! Not Marius! Not Javert, the detective! Is the chapter on Cambronne's surrender the offending fragment of the great literary masterpiece? That chapter is the sublimity of disgust! There never was anyone hurt spiritually or morally by the great French masterpiece of fiction. The man who can say the book is defiling, would draw defilement from the fount of Castaly. The Philadelphia school board has declared itself an aggregation of asses. "Les Miserables" is the greatest poem of divine humanity that this world has known since Shakespeare wrote "Lear." But I suppose "Lear," too, is immoral. I suppose everything is immoral, from "Oedipus, the Tyrant," to Hall Caine's "Christian," that teaches that men are born of woman, and that love will have its way, even unto all bitterness. It is eminently fitting that "Les Miserables" should be condemned as immoral in the most immoral city in the United States. A Philadelphian may be depended upon to see immorality in one of Raphael's Madonnas.--St. Louis Mirror.

My esteemed contemporary should bottle up its indignation, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by lambasting idiots, by criticizing cretins. Editor Reedy is but casting his pearls before swine--is talking to people who, having eyes see not, having ears hear not, and whose cerebra are filled with sawdust. They are like unto a lot of sheep that follow the master ram, not because they comprehend or care whither he is going, but because they smell him, and point their proboscidi in his direction as naturally as the needle lines the pole. It was Jean Paul--was it not?--who discovered that if a cane be held horizontally before the lead ram of a flock, compelling him to saltate, then removed, the thousandth ewe lamb will jump at that point just as did the pioneer. So it is with a pietistical and puristical people--they will follow some stupid old bellwether because utterly incapable of independent thought, of individual ratiocination. When "Les Miserables" first appeared some literary Columbus made the remarkable discovery that it was a French book, that it was shot full of "slang," the expressive patois of the race, that it was liberally spiced with argot, the vernacular of vagabonds. Hugo's immortal masterpiece has not yet recovered from this discovery--the thousandth ewe lamb is still blithely saltating over the blackthorn. It is as useless to contend against the purist fad as against the holiness fake. Like a plague of army worms or epidemic of epizootic, it must run its course. Preternicety of expression, an affectation of euphemism, has in every age and clime evidenced moral degeneration and mental decay. When people emasculate their minds, they redouble their corporeal devotion at the shrine of Priapus, for nature preserves the equipoise. Every writer of virility is now voted obscene, every man who strikes sledge-hammer blows at brutal wrong intrenched in prescriptive right is denounced as immoral. "Les Miserables" not fit for young ladies' reading!--and this the epocha of the New Woman, of the single standard of mind and morals. While woman is insisting that she is every way man's equal, entitled to share with him the wardship of this world, Detroit is putting bloomers on the statues of Dian, Boston refusing the Bacchante, Waco draping the marble figure of a child exhibited at her cotton palace, Anthony Comstock having cataleptic convulsions, "Les Miserables" excluded from Philadelphia high schools and the ICONOCLAST denounced by certain bewhiskered old he-virgins as obscene! And so it goes. This world is becoming so awfully nice that it's infernally nawsty. It sees evil in everything because its point of view is that of the pimp. Its mind is a foul sewer whose exhalations coat even the Rose of Sharon with slime. A writer may no longer call a spade a spade; he must cautiously refer to it as an agricultural implement lest he shock the supersensitiveness of hedonists and call down upon his head the Anathema Maranatha of men infinitely worse than Oscar Wilde. What the Mirror means by "Cambronne's surrender" I cannot imagine, unless Editor Reedy was indulging in grim irony. I present extracts from the account of Cambronne, which he suspects may have given the pietistical Quakers a pain. It is the finale of Hugo's matchless word-painting of the Battle of Waterloo:

"A few squares of the guard, standing motionless in the swash of the rout, like rocks in running water, held out till night. They awaited the double shadow of night and death, and let them surround them. Each regiment, isolated from the others, and no longer connected with the army, which was broken on all sides, died where it stood. The gloomy squares, deserted, conquered and terrible, struggled formidably with death, for Ulm, Wagram, Jena and Friedland were dying in it. When twilight set in at nine in the evening, one square still remained at the foot of the plateau of Mont St. Jean. In this mournful valley, at the foot of the slope scaled by the cuirassiers, now inundated by the English masses, beneath the converging fire of the hostile and victorious artillery, under a fearful hailstorm of projectiles, this square still resisted. It was commanded by an obscure officer by the name of Cambronne. At each volley the square still diminished, but continued to reply to the canister with musketry fire, and each moment contracted its four walls. Fugitives in the distance, stopping at moments to draw breath, listened in the darkness to this gloomy diminishing thunder. When this legion had become only a handful, when their colors were but a rag, when their ammunition was exhausted, and muskets were clubbed, and when the pile of corpses was greater than the living group, the victors felt a species of sacred awe, and the English artillery ceased firing. It was a sort of respite; these combatants had around them an army of specters, outlines of mounted men, the black profile of guns, and the white sky visible through the wheels; the colossal death's head which heroes ever glimpse in the smoke of battle, advanced and looked at them. They could hear in the twilight gloom that the guns were being loaded; the lighted matches, resembling the eyes of a tiger in the night, formed a circle round their heads. The linstocks of the English batteries approached the guns, and at this moment an English general, Colville according to some, Maitland according to others, holding the supreme moment suspended over the heads of these men, shouted to them, 'Brave Frenchmen, surrender!' Cambronne answered, 'Merde.' To Cambronne's exclamation, an English voice replied, 'Fire!' The batteries flashed, the hillside trembled, from all these throats of brass came a last eruption of grape, a vast cloud of smoke vaguely whitened by the rising moon rolled up, and when the smoke had been dissipated, there was nothing. The dreaded remnant was annihilated, the guard was dead. The four walls of the living redoubt lay low, with here and there a scarcely perceptible quiver among the corpses. Thus the French legions, grander than those of Rome, expired on Mont St. Jean, on the earth sodden with rain and blood."

Hugo quite needlessly apologized for quoting the Frenchman's laconic reply to the summons to surrender. He was writing history, and no milk-and-water euphemism could have expressed Cambronne's defiance and contempt. Of course John Bull pitilessly shot to death that heroic fragment of the Old Guard, which forgot in its supreme hour that while foolhardiness may be magnificent, it is not war. I would have put a cordon of soldiers about that pathetic remnant of Napoleon's greatness and held it there to this good day rather than have plowed it down as a farmer plows jimson weeds into a pile of compost; but John Bull is not built that way--is impregnated with the chivalry of Baylor. Cambronne's reply is the only objectionable word in the entire work, and certain it might be pardoned in a scrap of history by people whose press and pulpit have apotheosized "Trilby," Du Maurier's supposititious prostitute. I presume that the Philadelphia school board is about on an intellectual and moral parity with the trustees of Baylor--haven't the remotest idea whether merde means maggots or moonshine. Victor Hugo was a lord in the aristocracy of intellect; his masterpiece is nature's faithful mirror. Ame de boue should be branded with a hot iron on the hickory-nut head of every creature whom its perusal does not benefit. His description of the Battle of Waterloo is to "Ben-Hur's" chariot race what Mount Aetna in eruption is to a glow worm. It transcends the loftiest flights of Shakespeare. Before it even "The Wondrous Tales of Troy" pales its ineffectual fires. It casts the shadow of its genius upon Bulwer's "Pompeii" as the wing of the condor shades the crow. Byron's "sound of revelry by night" is the throbbing of a snare drum drowned in Hugo's thunders of Mont St. Jean. Danton's rage sinks to an inaudible whisper, and even Aeschylus shrivels before that cataclysm of Promethean fire; that celestial monsoon. It stirs the heart like the rustle of a silken gonfalon dipped in gore, like the whistle of rifle-balls, like the rhythmic dissonance of a battery slinging shrapnel from the heights of Gettysburg into the ragged legions of General Lee. I have counseled my contemporary to be calm; but by Heaven! it does stir my soul into mutiny to see a lot of intellectual pismires, who have secured positions of trust because of their political pull in the Tenderloin, hurling their petty scorn at Victor Hugo. It were like Carlyle's "critic fly" complacently rubbing its hinder legs and giving its opinion of the Parthenon, like aesop's vindictive snail besliming the masterpiece of Phidias, like a Baylor professor lecturing on the poetry of Lord Byron. Every writer of eminence since the days of Moses has had to run the gauntlet of these slight people's impotent wrath. While slandering the prophets of progress and religion they have vented their foul rheum on all the gods of literature. Kansas, I am told, put a man in the penitentiary for sending through the mails biblical texts printed on postal cards. Speaking of Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister," Carlyle says:

" 'Meister,' it appears is a vulgar work; no gentleman, we hear in certain circles, could have written it; few real gentlemen, it is insinuated, can like to read it; no real lady, unless possessed of considerable courage should profess having read it at all!"

And yet "Wilhelm Meister" changed the whole current of European literature--the work was practically committed to memory by the noblest men and women of the world. We hear the venerated Queen of Prussia repeating from it in her cruel exile,


"Wer nie sein Brod mit Thranen ass,
Wer nicht die Kummervollen Nachte
Auf Seinem Bette weinend sass,
Der Kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Machte."

Let the Philadelphia school board and the Baylorian managers construe it if they can.


"Udi vura udorini udiri cicova cilti mora
Udorini talti hollna u ede caimoni mora"

What? I guess "nit." The idea of keeping "Les Miserables" away from the ladies!--just as though there could be found in the whole country a sixteen-year-old maid with any pretensions to intelligence who hasn't wept over little Cosette, been in love with Enjolras and "doted on" Gavroche and Jean Valjean! So ultra nice has the world become that we must skip the Canticles. Shakespeare's plays must now be clapper-clawed to make them palatable. Alexander Pope's philosophic rhyme must be deleted with dashes. Walt Whitman's poetry is too strong for the average stomach. But we continue to fire into the bosoms of our families the daily press with its specialization of Hogan's Alley and the Yellow Kid, reeking with its burden of ads. of abortion recipes and syphilitic nostrums--even take our wives and daughters to the Tabernacle to be told by Sam Jones that if they don't think he has backbone he'll "pull up his shirt-tail and show 'em!" Byron was vigorously denounced by the vindictive Miss Nancys of his day, but scornfully replied:


"I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flatter'd its rank breath nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee."


There seems to be nothing left that we may safely read except Watts' Hymns, Talmage's sermons and the pathetic story of Mary's Little Lamb--a promising diet truly, upon which to rear intellectual titans. The remarkable thing about this purist fad is that all the Podsnaps wear pants--the ladies are not on tenter-hooks all the time lest something be said or written that will "bring a blush to the cheek of a young person." It is the he-virgins, the bearded women who are ever on the watch lest young femininity become impregnated with an idea. This country's got a bad case of malus pudor--and needs an heroic dose of double-action liver pills.


(The end)
William Cowper Brann's essay: Victor Hugo's Immortality

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