Thoughts: Bug-Jargal

06 Jan

Bug-Jargal (A historical novel)Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Night and the day, when united,
Bring forth the light.

I am an addict.

Yet I do not scrounge for my fix, nor do I hope for it. But when I find it, I harken back to all the previous times when it satisfied me and shiver at the shock of its course. Then again, my drug fills everything and everytime. My needle and my pipe neither inject nor bellow smoke but rather peel away the layers of exhaustive thinking which blanket the brilliance of my drug.

When concluding a book, certain last sentences release the unutterable radiance of understanding – not an idea or a smart conjecture, but something already in existence, simply noticed. And I reach the high of a blown mind.

No other writer, for me, deserves my unwavering trust to fulfill my need for this graceful electricity. Bug-Jargal, albeit an overly-romantic novella, measures the quality of humanity in its capacity for true justice, honor, friendship, sacrifice, love, vengeance and failure.

Hugo bases the story on the Haitian slave uprising in the late 18th century. His protagonist, Captain Leopold D’Auverney, narrates his experience during the uprising. Hugo knits the entire story in the first-person narrative style which, in my opinion, adds a certain level of fallibility but humanity to it. I shutter to hear some readers chastise this work as inexcusably racist when the white Captain, a product of French imperialism and racial injustice, tells the story! And tell me: if the events dictated from his perspective began as morally obligatory to sensitive racial issues, what room is left for Hugo to transform the Captain himself? His judgement throughout the narrative had proven erroneous so why wouldn’t we, the reader, condemn him as a bigot with an opportunity for redemption rather than chastise the book as a promotion for racist sentiments?

Hugo layers his theme of justice and brotherhood through personal and societal levels. After the uprising, D’Auverney describes the character of the newly formed black army which, after several examples brilliantly symbolic of mental and physical oppression, simply emulates the oppressions of their white masters. Hugo readily condemns nearly every suppressive weapon employed by those in power by mirroring their uses by blacks on whites. Some readers may choose to end their reasoning here and enjoy the ignorant comforts of condemning one race for attempting to right a wrong with the same wrong – and thereby defending their wrong by displacing it on those perpetrating the same evil. In either case, the cycle of vengeance never ends! Where some see evil, reason to fear and hate, I see humanity! I see equality!

Hugo also sees disease – which spreads through all close-quarter groups whether in the grips of battle or the beds of separate peace.

Pierrot, a slave with a mighty history, patrols these happenings like Dostoevsky’s Christ visiting the Spanish Inquisition. He both commands obedience and the worship of his fellow slaves and befriends our captain. The nature of their relationship and the intrigue of his character add a particularly romantic, mystical and entirely fascinating element to the novella, which I will not spoil here. But I found their relationship and the circumstances which cultivated it starkly different from the relationship between the groups of blacks and whites. For D’Auverney and Pierrot, two individuals guided by virtue rather than vengeance, love for humanity rather than brother, the end proved bitter in a bloated and selfish worldly system without space for their substance.

My drug paraphernalia reads, “‘Who can tell if the bullets of the enemy nay not have spared his head for his country’s guillotine?'” If a man fights an enemy to take their power, he will likely enjoy the praise of those he leads. But a man who fights to liberate humanity, a true liberation of all life, will not only find an enemy in evil but also in those he seeks to save. In order to transcend such opposition, at both ends of the power pendulum, the liberator must honor his code of virtue, as opposed to the approach taken by oppressors, even to an unjust and ungrateful end for the sake of righteous living under the dictation of justice and love rather than pride, for the sake of all people whom he endeavors to liberate.

Through both Pierrot and the captain life itself seemed liberated from the chains of injured pride and hateful recompense. Where both white and black stood enslaved to the guttural urge to take the other eye, to shift power from one to the other only to perpetrate the same lingering evil, two men willfully succumbed to the graces of virtue, the abandonment of that evil, and the best of enlightened man.

In this sense, we can all be “the slave become king, the prisoner a liberator.”?

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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Victor Hugo


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