Monday, October 10, 2011

in them an immense reservoir of facilities

I am about to give away the ending to Victor Hugo's book, The Man Who Laughs.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have come to Las Vegas, but Las Vegas doesn't have a Wall Street, Wall is a street in New York, so the protesters started their march outside the New York New York casino and moved on from there. We are an ingenious species. Our habit of drawing parallels may be unparallelled. (If we could read the minds of other animals, we would know.*) On September eleventh, people were laying flowers in front of the same casino. These things have their own logic. "Words give to the one who writes them the impression of being dictated to him by usage, and he receives them with the uneasiness of finding in them an immense reservoir of facilities and effects already assembled -- ready without his powers having any role in it," wrote Maurice Blanchot -- the phrases of the world coming into us invisibly, selecting themselves with a force of habit that might as well be their own, and going out on paper or on screen, one sentence not seeming right in the mind of its creator unless it ends itself with after all, and another wanting to include thing in place of a more exact word (a principle that must apply to Blanchot's sentence too, so that, as we read him, we witness the machine of language telling us about itself).

And the protests, the impulse coming in, entering, fed by various streams, and then it comes out, and a group of people walk along the Strip from Tropicana Avenue northwards, up the map where the Boulevard lies straight as a pipe all the way to the Bellagio, the indigenous habits of protest sitting evidently upon them, "an immense reservoir of facilities and effects already assembled," a protest as a kind of writing implement, and the casino standing there in a representative way, offering itself up for the role of a focus, and screaming at them as they march, screaming wildly and insanely at us all, this casino, through the throats of the tourists who have decided to ride the roller coaster on the roof.

When Victor Hugo introduces a rich woman to The Man Who Laughs he is moderate at first, filling in factual blanks, "Lady Josiana had her own fortune. She possessed great wealth, much of which was derived from the gifts of Madame sans queue to the Duke of York. Madame sans queue is short for Madame," but the blanks fill and then they overflow, and the author seems excited by his invention; and he heaps her up. "She wore great dresses of velvet, satin, or moire, some composed of fifteen or sixteen yards of material, with embroideries of gold and silver; and round her waist many knots of pearls, alternating with other precious stones. She was extravagant in gold lace. Sometimes she wore an embroidered cloth jacket like a bachelor. She rode on a man's saddle." Josiana is a "prude," he says, and she is also the most luscious and perverse soul in the book. She is one of the author's fantasy figures, she is full of sex but doesn't care for it, she is full of money and doesn't care for it, she compels awe and jealousy and barely bothers to notice, she is a Zenith!

The Zenith goes to the theatre and eclipses the stage. The audience stares at her.

The woman watched them, and they watched her.

At the distance at which they were placed, and in that luminous mist which is the half-light of a theatre, details were lost and it was like a hallucination. Of course it was a woman, but was it not a chimera as well? The penetration of her light into their obscurity stupefied them. It was like the appearance of an unknown planet. It came from a world of the happy. Her irradiation amplified her figure. The lady was covered with nocturnal glitterings, like a milky way. Her precious stones were stars. The diamond brooch was perhaps a pleiad. The splendid beauty of her bosom seemed supernatural. They felt, as they looked upon the star-like creature, the momentary but thrilling approach of the regions of felicity. It was out of the heights of a Paradise that she leant towards their mean-looking Green Box, and revealed to the gaze of its wretched audience her expression of inexorable serenity. As she satisfied her unbounded curiosity, she fed at the same time the curiosity of the public.

It was the Zenith permitting the Abyss to look at it.

One piece of footage from Wall Street shows the crowd walking underneath a balcony on which, for whatever reason, a group of people in formal clothes are drinking champagne and chuckling. Some websites assume that they were deliberately mocking the protesters, others say that the building was a restaurant just by chance; the people from the balcony don't seem to have said anything. The sources that have picked mocking are outraged; the sight of rich people laughing on balconies has a history, and so the shot seems perfect -- the Abyss below, the Chimeras above. But no one on the balcony is starlike, no one has a bosom you'd call splendid, and the light that falls on them is the same light that falls on the protesters and on the greyness of the brickwork; they have no special illumination, they look ordinary and it's not hard to imagine that no matter how much champagne was flying around, any party with these people would be uninteresting, and you'd wish you were somewhere else, possibly in the street below with a placard, protesting your own adherence to a stereotypical roundabout of balconies and champagne flutes, while, in another place, a police officer was filmed swearing that he was going to beat the protesters with his nightstick; see, we all have our expressive tools: there are placards for one occasion, champagne flutes for another, and flowers in front of casinos when we're mourning.

The zenith and the abyss look at one another in Hugo's book again, but this time Josiana is not present and the abyss is occupied by her diametric opposite, a poor blind humble young woman named Dea. Dea is in the book because she loves the hero, Gwynplaine. He rescued her from a snowstorm when she was a baby. They grew up together. Gwynplaine is deformed, but Dea can't see the deformity. She sees his good qualities, "Gwynplaine sympathetic, helpful, and sweet-tempered." This makes their love perfect. "Dea quivered with certainty and gratitude, her anxiety changed into ecstasy, and with her shadowy eyes she contemplated on the zenith from the depth of her abyss the rich light of his goodness. In the ideal, kindness is the sun; and Gwynplaine dazzled Dea." Gwynplaine adores her. "One nest and two birds -- that was their story."

This pair is so closely associated that when one half seems to have vanished, the other half wills itself to death. Gwynplaine goes missing, Dea falls into a delirium. "Father," she says weakly to the misanthrope who adopted them both, "look here; when two beings have always been together from infancy, their state should not be disturbed, or death must come, and it cannot be otherwise. I love you all the same, but I feel that I am no longer altogether with you, although I am as yet not altogether with him." There is a vacuum between these two matching halves and she is rushing into it.

Gwynplaine returns from his adventure and and finds her at the brink of death. He begs her to live but she is too far gone. "You will hardly believe that I have just explored the whole of life in a few hours!" he says. "I have found out one thing -- that there is nothing in it! You exist! if you did not, the universe would have no meaning. Stay with me! Have pity on me! Since you love me, live on!" She does not. "She folded her thumbs within her fingers -- a sign that her last moments were approaching." "Come to me as soon as you can," she says, "I shall be very unhappy without you, even in heaven." Then "she expired. She fell back rigid and motionless on the mattress." Gwynplaine cries "I come" and walks off the desk of a ship into the water, where he drowns: "the void was before him; he strode into it." Everything is voids and meetings with Hugo, plurals and singulars, either two words or ideas clashing together -- "His head lived, his face was dead" -- or one grand solid declaration of unity: "Gwynplaine was the religion of Dea." He goes from a pair of cymbals to a drum.

It was the upper classes who abducted Gwynplaine, doing it for their own purposes, without knowing that Dea was in love with him, or caring, or even suspecting that this love existed. They kill her, with her collusion. All the suctioning force of her love, which drags her into her death, has no power over the disproportionate strength of the aristocracy, which can carry a character away whenever it likes. The void in this book is not only between Gwynplaine and Dea when he leaves, it is also the gap between the poor and the rich, the untitled and the aristocrats, those who have houses and those who travel in a caravan, and the author isolates this gap, describes this gap, with his abysses and zeniths (or whatever French words the translator is translating; I'm taking it for granted that the meaning is intact) and occupying the gap is what? -- is him, Victor Hugo -- he is the filling in this sandwich, staring at both sides, he holds it together. He grapples it with the hooks of his prose. He talks about the power of a "will." (Ruskin in his autobiography grumbles about those French who can't get their minds off "gloire.") And the inequality being reported here in the US is the reporting of a vacuum -- a vacuum is an imbalance, too much over here, too little over there, that's a vacuum -- which nature abhors, and not only nature in its atomic, vegetable, and animal aspect, but human nature. Any move to fill that vacuum has the character of a necessary force.

* I wanted to branch off and start talking about alien species here, but the digression was getting unwieldy.

The person who translated Hugo is anonymous. The Blanchot quote comes from his his book of essays, Faux Pas, translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Here is someone else's footage of the New York New York roller coaster ride. The screaming that starts at about .50 is audible from the road. This is the video of the people on the balcony.

"Upper classes" in the last paragraph refers to certain aristocrat-characters and their immediate friend-underlings who are not aristocratic but still powerful.


  1. Now, what can one say to that Umbagollah ... except to wonder whether the flutes above, consciously mocking or not, recognised the gap they created by being there, in the picture.

  2. Watching the footage, I'd say they know there's a gap and they're playing up to it. They're waving their champagne at the crowd and some of them are taking photographs. How they understand the nature of that gap, who knows, and whether they expected to be the subjects of photographs themselves -- possibly it never crossed their minds. They look like a big sign reading, TUMBRILS, THIS WAY. I'll add a link to the video at the end of the post.

  3. I'm beginning to suspect this giving away of endings habit is a ploy to humiliate your readers by forcing them to admit the huge gaps in their reading.

  4. Every time I write one of those warnings I wonder if I should leave it out and assume that anyone who hasn't read the book yet, but wants to, will still pelt equally joyfully through to the end whether they know that A marries B or C falls off a cliff in chapter twenty, or not -- but when an author has been working so hard to get to his dramatic finale it seems unfair to undercut him. Although in Hugo the dramatic finish is always, "And then, ladies and gentlemen, characters DIED."