Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Miserables - The Nobility of Jean Valjean

Les Miserables is a movie that is carried by the strength of the plot. At the center of that plot is the story of Jean Valjean (pronounced "jon valjon") set during the time period of the French Revolution.

Jean might be my favorite protagonist in all of fiction. Ayn Rand admired Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Miz) because he wrote about mankind as it ought to be rather than as it is. The heroes of Hugo's works present a better version of man, an ideal to strive towards. In Les Miserables Hugo's ideal is represented by Jean Valjean.

Jean is a hero, but he represents a different version of heroism than we are used to from Hollywood movies. Jean doesn't have superpowers or gadgets that help him fight evil. He doesn't get the girl at the end, or fame or riches. He doesn't save the world.

What makes Jean stand out is that he does the right thing even when it's hard. In a world of cynical  opportunism he deals fairly with his fellow man and protects the weak. This ultimately costs him everything he has, but these costs do not enter into his decision making. The human-scale of Jean's struggles and abilities makes his story relatable and his heroism all the more remarkable.

The story opens with Jean being released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. We don't hear about what happened to his nephew but he probably died while Jean was in prison.

Jean leaves prison to find a world that rejects him. As an ex-convict he cannot find work and no inn keeper will give him shelter. Angry emotions storm inside him as he sleeps outside in the cold.

At the end of his resources, Jean attempts to rob the home of a priest and there he finds the sympathetic help he needs to break out of his downward spiral. The priest forgives his attempted robbery and gives Jean enough money to start a new life. He makes clear that the gift is not for Jean's benefit alone - he is purchasing Jean's soul to do the work of God.

This act of kindness moves Jean. He breaks his parole and makes a new life with a new name in a different town. Jean grows into a pillar of the community. He becomes a prosperous businessman and is even appointed mayor.

If Jean's story ended there we would already consider it a success story. He overcame his rough start in life  to become a respected person in a position of authority.

It is the subsequent choices that Jean makes that reveal the true nobility of his soul. Some poor wretch is arrested by police inspector Javert under the mistaken assumption that he is the parole-breaker Jean Valjean. The real Jean is tormented by this news. If he speaks, he will be condemned to return to prison. If he stays silent an innocent man will go to prison in his name and he will be free from the law's pursuit. But Jean cannot bear to let that happen. He confesses his true identity to the court and thereby forfeits his new life.

While Jean waits for the police to arrest him, he stops by the hospital to say goodbye to a dying woman, Fantine, who worked in the factory he owns. She asks him to take responsibility for the care of her daughter and he accepts. Knowing that Fantine's child will die too if he goes to prison, Jean flees town with inspector Javert on his heels.

Here his stark life is warmed by the love of the Fantine's daughter Cosette whom he informally adopts. Providing for Cosette becomes the center point of his life. They live together as fugitives, fleeing the pursuit of the merciless inspector Javert.

There are three systems of morality at odds in Les Miserables. The conflict between the visions of justice represented by Valjean and Javert is clear. But that conflict plays out against a backdrop of a world dominated by nihilistic opportunism. People live on the edge of survival and they are perfectly willing to pull down others to get a little bit ahead. This ethic is represented by the crooked inn-keepers, the Thenardiers, and several minor characters.

Against this backdrop the heartless, legalistic justice of Javert is cast in a better light. We understand his desire to impose the order of the law on a chaotic world. We understand the purpose that Javert serves in society and we might prefer Javert's world to that of the Thenardiers. But Javert's inflexibility is his undoing. He lacks the moral sensibility of Valjean that enables him to distinguish between what is right and what is merely the law.

Valjean's morality is Christian humanism. His motivating principle is not order, but compassion. He values outcome over process. Valjean forgives his former jailer Javert, echoing Jesus's forgiveness of the Roman soldiers who served as his executioners (Luke 23:34). But his primary focus is his fatherly duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

This movie is "uplifting" in that it shows the very best side of humanity. It is a story of grit and courage, redemption, and heroic compassion. Evil is represented not by a cartoonish villain, but by the inhumanity of the economic, legal, and social systems surrounding the characters. For love to triumph in the face of such an inchoate, all-consuming evil is hard. But Jean's determination is up to the task.

In many ways Les Miserables is conservative, even reactionary in its philosophy. It feels odd to see religion unironically portrayed in a Hollywood movie in this age. The Catholic priest is not even a killer, a pedophile, or a demon in disguise! Jean takes his duty to God seriously. And at the end, his immortal soul joins Fantine in heavenly paradise. Underlying everything is the wholesome theme of fatherly love. It is a strange time we live in when a sympathetic movie about the French Revolution could be considered a conservative work. 

The film is not perfect. I liked the music, but I didn't love it. Musical theatre often suffers in translation to film - the energy of live performers can sweep an audience up in a way that film musicals can't. At times the pace of the film drags along. It is a moving film, it is a meaningful film, but it is not a consistently entertaining film - giving some reviewers good cause to dislike it.

The director makes some questionable choices of cinematography. During musical solos the camera lingers overlong on awkward close-up shots showing the top quarter of the singer's body. More  exploitation of the advantages of the film medium could have made this a more enjoyable cinema experience.

The bottom line is that you should see this film. It will make you cringe, cry, and smile. Professional reviewers call the film "moving" - I found out that is industry code for "I was openly weeping like a child at the end of the film". I found Les Miserables to be "moving" as well.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The week's links

Pure bliss for policy nerds - 2012: a year in graphs.

Advice from an American entrepreneur on doing business in Europe. I hear that Western Europe is a nice place to live, but it is a tough place for entrepreneurs. There is a high level of risk aversion enshrined in the culture and in public policy.

For many poor students, the dream of using college as a bridge to the middle class turns out to be an illusion, as the NY Times reports. Poor students often lack the social resources to get into college and to graduate successfully.

The NY Times article illustrates several of the big demographic trends of the last 20 years - males falling behind females in education, the ever-growing population attending college, its ever-growing financial cost, and the disappearance of two-parent families in the lower socioeconomic classes and its side-effects.

Apocalypse not: why you shouldn't worry about the end times. A look back on 50 years of predicted catastrophic events that failed to materialize. It's important to calibrate your worldview with this set of data points.

A radiolab podcast covering the state of psychedelic research in medicine. Starts at the 53:40 mark.

And now your moment of warm fluffies:

Progress and Skepticism

Nostalgia is often misplaced, but so is untempered confidence in the march of progress. Here is what social progress looks like in America: 

And this is progress in the arts:

I offer to you a motto for the skeptic of the modern age:
"I will praise nothing just because it is new, and despise nothing just because it is old. 
I will praise nothing just because it is old, and despise nothing just because it is new." 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Bubble

There is no doubt that living in California means that I live in a cultural bubble. But I have the advantage of knowing what the outside is like, having grown up in rural North Carolina.

What is it like to live in the United States outside of rich urban areas? I offer two points to illustrate. First, a vignette.

In high school I worked at a grocery store. When I gave notice to my boss that I was going to quit my job to go to college, he asked me what I planned to study. I said "Physics". He asked me "what does Physics mean?"

If that sounds like a perfectly normal question to you then you are not from California.

Secondly, I offer an observation. I am shocked at the amount that people travel in California. It's unusual to meet a 25 year old that hasn't been to at least 2 or 3 countries. And some have been to 10+! International travel isn't just considered leisure out here, it's considered a vital part of growing up and living a well-rounded life. When I tell people that I haven't left the United States, they look at me with pity as if I told them that I had some terminal illness.

People just don't have the money to travel in other parts of the country. Californians are really rich. In some ways their lives are similar to other Americans, but they eat better food, they have fancier phones, and they travel an infinite percent more. Those things are all viewed as an extravagant luxury in other parts of the country.

People under-appreciate how big of a class divide is caused by geography. I'm optimistic that the internet will close the gap. But the differences are really big.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mental Hygiene

One of the most important life skills I am developing is mental hygiene. For knowledge workers, concentration is the raw ingredient of getting things done. But concentration is hard to come by. Each morning I start my day at work by sitting down in front of an infinite information machine - not the most productive environment for an active mind.

Mental hygiene helps me ignore the siren call of the internet and get my work done. It means that I am careful to avoid preloading my brain with non-work topics in the morning from personal email or the internet. For example, I know that if I read something political in the morning on facebook or a news site I will end up reading dozens of political blog entries throughout the day. On the days surrounding the election this year, I made roughly zero progress at work. That is fine for small stretches of days, but I won't remain effective or employed for very long if I make it a constant habit.

The downside of practicing mental hygiene is that I become less informed about non-work topics. I have become a worse correspondent, a less frequent blogger, and I have ceased to be an MMA fan. But that is what "focus" means. The price of being good at a large number of things is to give up the opportunity to be great at any one thing - it's the difference between a flashlight and a laser beam. I am giving up a bit of breadth to acquire some depth.

In the knowledge economy depth is highly valued.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Blueseed, Investors, and Risk

If investors were rational, companies like Blueseed would have no problem raising funding. This is not because Blueseed is a sure bet, but because Blueseed is an unlikely but possible bet with huge payoffs - precisely the kind of risk which are supposed to fuel the Venture Capital business model.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Why does there appear to be so few conservatives in academia? Maybe because they want to keep their jobs.

The blue model continues to fail in California as high pension payments for public union members cuts into funding for police officers in San Bernardino.