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The Hugo Pages

  Authors and Politicians:
Describing Visions and Making them Reality

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What is one to make of Victor Hugo? It is amusing to note in this article, “Authors and Politicians,” that Hugo has drawn his share of scorn on both fronts. Gide’s comment, “Victor Hugo, hélas,” in response to the question, “Who was the greatest poet of the nineteenth century?” represents perhaps the most famous perspective on Hugo’s writing. As for his politics, Flaubert gave the subject a place in his Dictionnaire des idées réçues:

Hugo (Victor) --- A eu bien tort vraiment de s’occuper de la politique. / Truly was mistaken in going into politics.

And yet, Hugo was and remains something of a giant in both politics and writing. What may be more surprising is that in ways Hugo’s traits of an author, while limiting his ability to politic effectively in his own time, left him specially equipped to leave his mark on history and our understanding of politics. Today Victor Hugo is principally known for his literary career, most notably Les Misérables, a work made even more famous by its adaptation for musical theater. On the other hand, his political career—an opportunity to make concrete the agenda of justice and tolerance he advanced in numerous works—is little remembered other than as a context in which his works were written. Truth be told, we have no intention of changing that here; Hugo was appointed to the Senate under the July Monarchy on account of his prestige as an author; he was elected to the Assembly under the Second Republic for much the same reason. His most successful political act was probably the writing of Les Misérables, which has done far more to advance his agenda than any parliamentary session he attended. Yet Hugo’s political career is not a mere trifle, the stuff of footnotes in heavily annotated editions of his works explaining why one obscure figure was accorded such high praise while another was roundly eviscerated. Rather, consideration of his political career alongside his literature reveals differences between these two arts, differences that leave practitioners of each suspicious of the other and that shed illumination on some of the turmoil of the 19th century in France. In approaching these differences, we can also better see Hugo’s approach to the world and the some of the sources of his failures as a politician and successes as an author.

Words and ideas are the stock in trade of authors and politicians alike. However, for an author they are the end product; for a politician, they are tools. The definitions that follow may oversimplify the task of the politically engaged author while giving too much credit to politicians, but they mark a useful starting point all the same. Authors use words to construct realities shaped by their ideas and imagination; these constructs need approximate reality only to the extent that language, necessary for comprehension by the reader, is anchored in reality. At this stage, we do not propose to enter the debate as to what extent, if any, reality shapes language and vice-versa but only to note that language is the medium through which authors transmit ideas. Politicians also use language to transmit ideas. However, where the author’s ideas or constructs as transmitted in words represent an end product to be sold in book form, the politician’s serve not only to define the better reality they envision (or the troublesome one their opponents would bring) but also to lay out a path (however ambiguous) between present and future realities.

A politician’s vision does not need to be as clear or all encompassing as an author’s, but it must be grounded in a reality recognizable by everyday people. An author’s vision, by contrast, needs to be either exact or evocative enough for the reader to develop a clear impression of the world described, though that world may stand completely apart from any the reader has experienced. The arguments advanced by the two will also therefore differ. For example, even a politically engaged author need only show that there is hunger in the land when there should not be; the politician, on the other hand, needs a moving discourse on the suffering of the downtrodden less than a plan that suggests to voters that the problem can be alleviated without undue harm to their pocketbooks. The politician therefore faces special limitations on the scope of his rhetoric; he dare not dream too much lest he set expectations he cannot meet; in return, he has the opportunity to see his ideas made concrete through relatively direct action. The politically engaged author lacks the ability to shape events directly, but is neither held accountable for meeting the expectations he sets nor is constrained in the visions he advances. Therefore, though these two professions use language to construct new realities in the minds of the people, they are nonetheless drastically different, and the practitioner of one cannot transfer his use of language to the other without modification and hope to succeed in the long run.

An author’s short-term success is measured in book sales, a politician’s in votes. These measures both address immediate public response. However, in the long term, authors are judged by their ability to continue opening hearts and minds, politicians by the success or failure of their proposals first to be implemented and second to actually solve problems. An author achieves greatness because his works continue to warrant reading—a continued interaction is necessary. However, continuing relevance implies that the very horror the author crusaded against remains either present or sufficiently possible for the reader to connect with the work. Hugo’s preface to Les Misérables asserted in effect that his work would be necessary so long as hunger and injustice persisted; the flip side of this is that if the ills he regretted were solved, his relevance would lessen. A politician, by contrast, achieves greatness because his or her ideas are absorbed into societal structures and discussion about their merit ceases in favor a more or less uniformly positive judgment. One of George Washington’s greatest acts—stepping down from the presidency after two terms—came amidst a debate over whether greater stability would come if the president effectively served for life, establishing a new sort of monarchy, or limited his service, making the transition between presidents a more common and orderly process. Scholars today often mark Washington as great not because this decision warrants regular revisiting, but because it effectively settled the question to the point where when it was challenged by Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms, a constitutional amendment ensued to settle officially what was thought already settled by many. Roosevelt, for his part, is marked as great in part because his notion of the role government should play in the economy and in helping the retired and those in economic need was adopted and has not since been subject to a serious challenge on principle. For example, even the proposals for individually managed social security accounts advanced in some quarters presume the government will have a role in retirement planning. To summarize, an author achieves by maintaining a dialog on his ideas; a politician by closing it.

In a discussion of authors and politicians, Lamartine must be mentioned alongside Hugo. Like Hugo, Lamartine wore both hats; in both cases, the author hat was a decidedly better fit. However, Lamartine passed quickly from the triumphal leader (i.e. the politician who followed the crowd in front the fastest) of the 1848 Revolution to another Republican politician unable to stop Louis-Napoleon’s ascent to power. At the ballot box, he was “humiliated with a derisory 17,940 [votes]” (Furet, 415) to Louis-Napoleon’s 5,434,226. Hugo’s story is seemingly the same. He was successful as a short-term politician, handily winning election to the Assembly as a representative from Paris in 1848. But in the longer term, he too would find himself a victim of Louis-Napoleon’s electoral juggernaut, first exiled, then exiling himself, lest anyone think he had reconciled himself to the Second Empire.

It was on Guernsey that Hugo, seemingly at a low point as a politician—exiled, unable to seriously challenge “Napoleon the Little,” notwithstanding the popularity of L’Histoire d’un crime—may have reached a high point as an author in completing Les Misérables. It was most certainly here that Hugo reached his high point in politics, assuring that nearly 120 years later people would still be talking about those horrors of the 19th century—la dégradation de l’homme par le prolétariat, la déchéance de la femme par la faim, l’atrophie de l’enfant par la nuit—and condemning as brutish and unnatural these horrors which were as common at the time as the crowning of a king when George Washington gave his farewell address. Though Les Misérables remains unfortunately necessary, according to Hugo’s dictates, there has been a gradual shifting of the western conscience, a move to render his work unnecessary. All the same, the acceptance of his ideas would be enough to accord him status as a successful politician, if only he could have advanced them as well in the Chamber as he did at the printing press.

(Furet citations refer to The French Revolutions)


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