Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Identity & Integrity: Jean Valjean & Moses

The books that call to me like siren songs are those that wrestle with the question of identity. Is Hamlet mad or a consummate actor? Can Proctor live if he must sign his name to lies? Who would the Phantom have been if his genius had been respected, his skeletal face ignored? Why does the intelligent Anna Karenina fall for the foolish cad Vronsky? Does McMurphy care more for himself or for the plight of others? I seek to discover what it is in each character that makes them deeply human, as this is how I learn to love them.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in biblical literature occurs when Moses, adoptive son of Pharoah's daughter, chooses to ally himself with his Hebrew brethren. In that climactic moment, Moses must choose: is he a Hebrew or an Egyptian? Does he care solely for himself or also for others? Is he willing to risk his wealth, status, inheritance and very life for the sake of a man he does not know?

I realized tonight that Moses' choice is echoed in the famous work Les Miserables. In this work convict Jean Valjean escapes and reforms himself, becoming mayor of a city and enabling its inhabitants to live well and justly. Unfortunately, legalistic inspector Javert will not give up his search for the escaped convict. Through an accident of fate, a different man is assumed to be Valjean, and will be tried and sentenced in his place. Knowing this, the real Valjean must determine whether he has a moral obligation to expose himself and suffer the consequences of telling the truth. Originally, in the book, Victor Hugo portrays Jean Valjean's dilemma as follows:
There was a moment when he reflected on the future. Denounce himself, great God! Deliver himself up! With immense despair he faced all that he should be obliged to leave, all that he should be obliged to take up once more. He should have to bid farewell to that existence which was so good, so pure, so radiant, to the respect of all, to honor, to liberty. He should never more stroll in the fields; he should never more hear the birds sing in the month of May; he should never more bestow alms on the little children; he should never more experience the sweetness of having glances of gratitude and love fixed upon him; he should quit that house which he had built, that little chamber! Everything seemed charming to him at that moment. Never again should he read those books; never more should he write on that little table of white wood; his old portress, the only servant whom he kept, would never more bring him his coffee in the morning. Great God! instead of that, the convict gang, the iron necklet, the red waistcoat, the chain on his ankle, fatigue, the cell, the camp bed all those horrors which he knew so well! At his age, after having been what he was! If he were only young again! but to be addressed in his old age as “thou” by any one who pleased; to be searched by the convict-guard; to receive the galley-sergeant’s cudgellings; to wear iron-bound shoes on his bare feet; to have to stretch out his leg night and morning to the hammer of the roundsman who visits the gang; to submit to the curiosity of strangers, who would be told: “That man yonder is the famous Jean Valjean, who was mayor of M. sur M.”; and at night, dripping with perspiration, overwhelmed with lassitude, their green caps drawn over their eyes, to remount, two by two, the ladder staircase of the galleys beneath the sergeant’s whip. Oh, what misery! Can destiny, then, be as malicious as an intelligent being, and become as monstrous as the human heart? 
And do what he would, he always fell back upon the heartrending dilemma which lay at the foundation of his reverie: “Should he remain in paradise and become a demon? Should he return to hell and become an angel?” 
What was to be done? Great God! what was to be done?
In the musical adaptation, Valjean's conflict is portrayed within the moving song "Who Am I?"

The entire song is powerful, but the part which echoes Moses' choice is this:

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place

Who am I?

It is precisely this question with which Moses struggles. At his core, who is he? What does he stand for? What are his values? Can he choose passivity even if not apathy? Can he choose the life he has known since he was weaned or must he throw it all away due to an ideal? Those of us who grow up with the story as children fail to see the tremendous moral struggle with which Moses engages. He looks "this way and that way" - determining who he is. At his core, is he Egyptian or Hebrew? Is he Jean Valjean or Monsieur Madeleine?

And in the end, as we know, Moses determines that he is a Hebrew. He kills the Egyptian. 

When Valjean speaks to Marius towards the end of the novel, he tells him: "You ask why I speak? I am neither denounced, nor pursued, nor tracked, you say. Yes! I am denounced! yes! I am tracked! By whom? By myself. It is I who bar the passage to myself, and I drag myself, and I push myself, and I arrest myself, and I execute myself, and when one holds oneself, one is firmly held."

Valjean and Moses are both men of integrity. Their identity is constructed based on their integrity. They cannot lie. They are not men of words, able to dissemble and perform in a politically staged manner for the sake of their own benefit- or even the benefit of others. In the same manner that Valjean considers the welfare of the city that depends on him, Moses could have waited, biding his time until (perhaps) he would become monarch, resolving to change the working conditions of the Hebrews at that point. But both of them realize this would be wrong. There is a moment of very real crisis and the response must be now- one cannot wait.

To live a meaningful life is to embrace the message of Moses & Valjean. Live with integrity. Be willing to do what is right, no matter the cost. Construct an identity based on core values. And recognize that one must aspire to live a life where one drags oneself, pushes oneself, arrests oneself and executes oneself. One who lives thusly does not fear death.

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