From the “Soiree” series. Short essays incited by the Soiree de Poesie Francaise held monthly at the Cranford TeaSpot in Cranford, NJ with my careful co-host Carrie Pedersen Hudak.
The courage and freedom to imagine one’s society contains within it the capacity to re-imagine it. This is the deep seed of all revolutions. A renewal or re-imagining of conscience is what every change in the social order requires. The industrial revolution came upon Europe in Hugo’s era, calling forth the equally large energies of individual artistic innovation. Reality was changing–the imagination needed to change as well.
Hugo invented the “realistic” or “naturalistic” novel–a form of artistic expression as broad and multifarious as the new industrial reality confronting the France of his day. And this form, being reflective of reality (a mimesis, as the ancient Greeks would say) could keep pace with the breakneck changes of his Victorian era. Indeed, so effective was Hugo’s artistic solution to confronting his contemporary reality that a whole school of naturalistic novelists grew up in Hugo’s gargantuan shadow.
But it is Hugo’s poetry, acclaimed in his day by a poetry-hungry audience, that shows the fire of his spirit and the philosophical feeling that impelled his will to contribute to his society through literature. In his poetry, besides heroic and harrowing story-poems, we get some extended philosophical “meditations.” I wouldn’t put them anywhere other than in the category of “meditations” because it is the subjective feelings aroused by his philosophical conjectures that are the real focus of the poems.
Hugo imagines his individual mentality adrift in an infinite abyss of space–making his self infinitely tiny and insignificant in comparison. This is a philosophical correspondence with the religious notion of humility before the awful throne of God. And yet, at the same time, Hugo imagines–feels–that all the threads of thought and feeling that go zinging about in this infinite abyss actually meet at the crossroads of his heart and his head. Hugo is the humble egoist of infinite space!
In human terms, Hugo is a nothing–just like the rest of humanity before the infinite–and, therefore, he can use his private philosophical feelings as a basis to create universal art. His ambition springs from his humility before the vast, new, roiling experience of Life with a capital L. Hugo is nothing–but, we all are nothing–therefore Hugo can speak for all of us! This is a paradox made clearest in his philosophical poetry.
How much more marvelous a solution to the overwhelming dilemma of the Industrial Age. Instead of becoming an inward-looking miniaturist of his private feelings, Hugo leverages our shared insignificance before the infinite to create some of the largest, broadest, most weepingly human art since Shakespeare.