Faith Works 1-12-13
The Triumph of Javert
If I were to tell you my intention is to write about "the triumph of Javert," some of you would say "are you still writing about that darn musical?"
Others might note that, avoiding spoilers, it is kind of difficult for Javert to win given the closing scenes of "Les Miserables."
So I guess what I'm talking about is sort of a symbolic victory, even more so since Javert is a fictional character.
But if you've not read the Victor Hugo novel (and it's a long one), nor seen the musical now nearing thirty years in production, let alone missed the movie trampling like a T. Rex across the local cineplexes, Javert is the relentless cop who pursues the fugitive Valjean across the decades.
Javert does not come out a winner, really, in the musical or movie versions of the mid-1800s book. He devotes a chunk of his life to pursuing this one paroled felon who skipped out on his terms and vanished, although both book and movie make it clear Javert is a dedicated police officer, stern and unyielding , whose work over the years is about law and order in general, not just this one fellow.
But oh, this one fellow. Valjean. Prisoner 26401. Mayor Madeleine. Monsieur Leblanc. Urbain Fabre. Ultime Fauchelevent. Jean Valjean adopts many names and identities, and by all accounts keeps on working his way, over and over, up from laborer to something of a success in a variety of positions, ending up a factory owner, a landlord.
As Valjean flees justice, Javert pursues. It began with a theft of bread for his sister's starving child, and it continues because of his attempts to escape cause Valjean to be branded an incorrigible, a dangerous character, a parolee who will be watched and labeled for the rest of his likely short and brutal life.
So Valjean escapes the net by remaking himself, starting with the aid of an elderly bishop whose humility and perceptiveness about Valjean leads him to a risk, and a request. For Valjean to make something more of himself than he had been, as the bishop asked, he had to remake his very identity, a tension that runs through the entire storyline.
What kept nagging at me as I watched these scenes from early 1800s France was how utterly impossible Valjean's journey would be today, and how mechanically the demands of Javert's sense of justice are imposed in our world now.
Let's just argue, for the moment, that someone in 2013 could be either unjustly accused, or be much less guilty than simple circumstances warrant. I'm not saying this happens always, or even often: maybe it never happens. I doubt that. But we'll say it might come to pass.
Can someone, in any way, escape the label of thief or predator or criminal if they come out starting with absolutely nothing and no one to help them? Can one "lift themselves by their own bootstraps," a phrase that hints of the essential impossibility in the idea, since you can't counteract gravity with a sharp tug on your shoelaces.
Your identity is in so many ways less personal than it is official, and your SSIN, your driver's license number, your fingerprints and retina scan and grade school permanent record . . . you are in so many more ways now than 1832 the person Javert says you are, and if that record says something bad about you, I fear it is ever so much harder to turn that around than it was then.
In "Les Miserables" we have the Thenardiers to remind us that the ability to shed one's past and take on a new identity can be woefully misused, even evilly twisted to sin and sin again without repercussions, and that's why we are so intent on "keeping track" of criminals . . . and others. It's not meant to be shackles for life, but it can be, and a weight that keeps people from climbing back up to where they might otherwise rise.
As you can tell, I'm not done meditating on "Les Mis," and Valjean, and Javert, and the good bishop of Digne. And even Valjean learns that you truly cannot remake yourself alone, but there has to be a loving community around you, and you need to let them share their aid, to enter your wounded heart, or no healing can begin.
But I worry about Javert, too, and how his compulsions might well be our own without our even recognizing in the mirror who we've become.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about how you've seen lives changed at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.