II.VI & II.VII: Petit-Picpus / Parenthesis

Well, it took me a while to work up the energy to dive into Victor's latest diversion: one book devoted entirely to the history/layout/workings of his fictional Petit-Picpus convent, and another in which he tells the read all his feelings about convents in general. And yes, he has a lot of feelings about convents. 

Once I motivated myself to tackle these chapters, they turned out to be a lot easier to get through than I expected. Particularly the latter, which may not have been relevant to the plot but remains a potent cultural and political critique of oppressive institutions. Take this passage, for example: 

From II.VII.III: On What Conditions We Can Respect the Past

"The persistence of antiquated institutions in perpetuating themselves is like the stubbornness of stale scent clinging to your hair, the urgency of spoiled fish clamoring to be eaten, the oppression of childish garb expecting to clothe the adult, and the tenderness of corpses wanting to come back to kiss the living.


To dream of the indefinite protraction of defunct things and of embalmment as a way of governing mankind ... to force the past on the present -- this seems strange. Still, there are theorists who propound these theories. Such theorists, and they are intelligent people, have a very simple method: they put a gloss on the past, a gloss they call 'social order,' 'divine right,' 'morality,' 'family,' 'respect for elders,' 'ancient authority,' 'sacred ',' 'legitimacy,' 'religion,' and they go about shouting, 'Look! Take this, honest people.' This logic was known to the ancients. The haruspices practiced it. They rubbed a black heifer with chalk and said, 'It's white.' Bos cretatus.

We ourselves respect the past in certain instances and in all cases grant it clemency, provided it consents to being dead. If it insists on being alive, we attack and try to kill it. 

Superstitions, bigotries, false pieties, prejudices, these spectres, for all that they are spectres, cling to life. They have teeth and nails in their vaporousness, and they must be tackled head-on, and war must be waged against them, and it must be waged constantly. For it is one of the fates of humanity to be doomed to eternal battle against phantoms. Shades are difficult to throttle and destroy.


In ordinary times, all it takes to disperse and dispel an anachronism is to make it spell out the date. But these are not ordinary times. 

Let us fight. 

Let us fight, but let us discriminate. The characteristic of truth is never to be extreme. What need has it to exaggerate? There is that which needs to be destroyed, and that which simply needs to be elucidated and examined. Well intentioned and serious examination, that is a force to be reckoned with! Let us not put to the torch where it is enough to bring light."

Up next: We return to Jean Valjean, who is in hiding in a place he's not technically allowed to be ...