Victor Hugo's Message -- America Needs Community
This summer movie-goers are flocking to see Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, just as theater-goers are still flocking to the Broadway musical version of Hugo's other great classic, Les Miserables. If Hollywood's successful revival of Jane Austen convinced moguls that audiences had some deep yearning for the mannered life, what are we to make of the mass appeal of France's greatest novelist of the dispossessed? Politicians and social critics pinpoint America's calamity as the widening gulf between rich and poor. Victor Hugo's characters -- Quasimodo, the half-mad monster, and Jean Val Jean, the fugitive convict -- are nothing if not poor. But Hugo offers a deeper insight into their suffering that comes closer to the ache of contemporary American culture than anyone at Walt Disney studios probably guessed. Quasimodo and Jean Val Jean are outcasts -- without any meaningful human relationships, let alone ties to social structures. To be poor is one thing, Hugo knows; to be poor and alone is to be immiserated.It's a lesson that must resonate powerfully with the loneliest people in America -- American youth. For a decade at least, the biggest news about the new generation is either its predilection for violence or the fact that most young people won't match the living standards of their parents. Ask some teenagers to describe the defining quality of their lives -- what keeps them awake in the dark -- and many will recount the moment they heard the front door slam, discovered father's closet bare, realized the parent was never coming home.The public forum is filled these days with a lament about our ravaged social structure and the need to rebuild community. But every kid in America will tell you the message at school; on MTV; plastered on billboards, is exactly the opposite: You make it in the USA by being on your own.In this individuated culture, the jobs at the lowest end of the ladder, in status and pay, are those that involve physically ministering to others. Even in the non-profit world where the mantra is service, the classic way foundations honor community activists these days is to offer them a "fellowship" -- a ticket out of town. The Disney version of the Hunchback preaches compassion as the solution. "God Bless the Outcasts" is the movie's anthem. Hugo's vision of redemption is indeed religiously inspired. Jean Val Jean survives 20 years of unjust imprisonment only to find himself hunted for another 20 by a law-and-order fanatic. But the turning point in Val Jean's life comes when a priest shows him mercy and Val Jean learns to do for others what the priest did for him.What are the chances that today's young people will encounter someone like the priest who will convince them their lives have meaning? A lot of teenagers I know would say pretty unlikely. Talking recently about the worst thing to be called in school, a group of teenagers ticked off ho, nigger, faggot, fat. The conversation came to a halt, and the heads nodded in silent agreement, when one kid finally recalled, "The worst thing is when you've been in school for four months and the teacher still doesn't know your name."Throughout his institutional life, Val Jean was number 24601. The secular culture needs to take a page from religion, where ministering to others earns the highest reward. Instead of prizing only individuality, we need to provide incentives for those whose very presence guarantees a relational texture to other people's lives. Consider providing free housing for the teacher who lives on or near the school site; exempting small businesses that service blighted neighborhoods from charging sales tax; create a category of non-profit people -- as opposed to institutions -- who live in and serve ravaged communities.The Disney corporation will doubtless make millions from its cartoon version of Victor Hugo's vision. The harsh truth of America is that we are becoming a nation of alones. If there is a silver lining in acknowledging the relevance of Hugo's message for today it is this: aloneness is a condition that implicates everyone. No one is redundant if the major challenge is reconnecting people to each other's lives.