I went to see Les Misérables a few days ago. Amazing Film. And in the interest of full disclosure, I unashamedly cried like my three-year-old in several places throughout the film.
There’s a story about Victor Hugo that few people know. I stumbled across it a few years ago and I couldn’t help thinking about it as I watched the film. Hugo grew up as the son of an atheist father and a devout Catholic mother. Initially, he found spiritual meaning in the Catholic Church but over time he found himself wandering into the “spiritual but not religious” movement of that day: Mesmerism. People who embraced Mesmerism were looking for some of the same “buzzwords” you might hear today: holism, spiritual encounter, empowerment, connection and, above all, meaning.
Steeped in political activism, Hugo was exiled to the Channel Islands in the early 1850s where he penned some of his most famous works, including Les Misérables. But also while there, he continued to grieve over the death of his only daughter, Léopoldine, some ten years earlier. Though Hugo was technically a rationalist on paper, he saw Mesmerism as a way to make contact with his own dear “Cosette.” So using a Mesmerist trance medium, he reached out to his daughter in the afterlife. There are records of Hugo’s séances. They cite him pitifully pleading with his deceased daughter saying,
“Do you see the suffering of those who love you?”
It’s interesting to me that when Hugo reached for spiritual and emotional comfort, he did not embrace the formal religion of his youth. Rather, he sought contact with the spirit world through alternative spirituality. Someone who might be hailed as the political conscience of a entire country – like Hugo was – was really just like everyone else. He was simply a human trying to make sense of the world around him in the midst of tragedy and loss. He was simply someone willing to take risks to find a way to connect with God when more conventional means of religiosity had failed him time and again.
There’s a line in the song Red and Black that lodged in my memory as I watched the film the other day. As a political rebel fighting for a cause, Enjorlas chides the love-sick Marius, “But now there is a higher call. Who cares about your lonely soul?” But personally, Hugo was staging his own inner spiritual revolt on the Channel Islands while writing Les Misérables. And the question follows, is there really any higher call than each person’s desire to connect with God? Maybe the result of Hugo’s spiritual quest was unconventional. But we must admire someone who is willing to continue to look for something beyond what he could see.