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(Slightly (very very slightly) edited reblog of my Brick!club post on Bahorel's intro For Future Reference)

“Bahorel had figured in the bloody tumult of June 1822, at the time of young Lallemand’s burial.”

I’d like to pause right here and thank fandom for helping me appreciate what an absolute wheelbreaker of an opening line that is. Here we are traveling along, talking about very important but somewhat abstract things, the rights of citizens, the rights of nations, the patterns of personalities, and suddenly BRUTALITY BLOODSHED BETRAYAL and this guy was in the middle of it, personally involved. Anyone who’s read my freaking out about the Lallemand Thing (which, btw, 1820 not 1822. I…choose to see this as a typo. A 150 year old typo.) knows that *I* was about ready to booze and riot when I learned about it, and I AM PHYSICALLY INCAPABLE OF EITHER ACTION. Surely some of the original readers of the story would have remembered the days when it happened, and even more would have heard about it as a fairly relevant event— it was only about as far from Les Mis’ publishing date as, say, Kent State was from today (43 years), and it is not THAT hard to find people who can still tell you how they felt watching that happen, or people who grew up with parents who watched it happen, and told them about it. So the first thing we’re told is that this guy was in the middle of that disaster, and wow, depending on your politics at this point that’s gotta make you think he’s either carrying some righteous trauma or get you ready to go establishment-fury Gillenormand style—

and then the NEXT line is that THIS IS A TOTALLY FUN GUY. Good natured, good humored, good tempered, or well intentioned, depending on your translation—hangs OUT with a bad element maybe, but brave and generous and open-dealing and just buckets of fun. Some unpleasant tendencies, maybe, but he takes them so far they’re actually sort of great (and if duty and honesty and modesty can all be vices when taken too far, then it’s not outlandish to think carelessness and prattle and shamelessness can be virtues in excess going the other direction, is it?)The kind of guy you don’t want your daughter to go out with maybe (though you might understand if she did[1]) but you wouldn’t be upset to know your son was friends with him. A laugh riot and—and oh, an actual riot. LOTS of Actual Riot, apparently. Lots of VERY INTIMATE acquaintance with riots. And revolution. And the sheer physical acts involved in that. Forget philosophy and logic, this guy is TEARING UP PAVING STONES, SMASHING WINDOWS, DEMOLISHING, RIOTING.. None of the Amis are more specifically dangerous than Bahorel, none even approach his level of implied and stated violent action (or action, period. Bahorel is made of verbs.) This, right after Courfeyrac’s warmth and centredness— RIGHT after that, and for a reason.

Because Courfeyrac is Like Tholomyes through schooling and environment, but is AT HEART a good person— the soul of a paladin. Bahorel is basically NOT GOOD PEOPLE, not by ANY count. In person and environment he’s bad news. He keeps bad company, as might be said of Courfeyrac, but he’s got no particular inherent nobility— at least, not apparently. He is MADE to be used by the devil* . He’s described as a “creature” in half the translations, a “ mortal” in one, a “being” — forget being a GOOD man, he’s not even called a man! And yet all his vices turn to virtues, his commitment to his cause is unquestionable, he is beyond a doubt a constructive force—and what he builds highlights why he isn’t a villain. Because what Bahorel BUILDS, in place of all the things he tears apart, is connection, community. He’s the one connecting the group to others— not Feuilly, not even Courfeyrac. He’s the one, the ONLY one, with parents who expressly think well of their son— he has taught to respect him. That can be read as an intimidation, or a con, or as an honest respect between adults, but it is the ONLY parent-child relationship in all the Amis— the only biological parent-child relationship in THE ENTIRE BOOK, I think— that specifies both true, ongoing interaction AND mutual acknowledgment, with no mention of disdain on either side. He brags about his family roots, he revels in his current community, he MAKES his community, holding it together now and building out towards the future. For all his violence and aggression, Bahorel isn’t scary or repellent; he challenges as invitation, prompts and needles and encourages friends and strangers and new blood to NOT be afraid, to embrace action, to come together, join join join, while being dead set on maintaining individual expressionism.

I’ve harped on this before, I WILL NO DOUBT DO IT AGAIN, because this is a HUGE issue— the question of whether humans behavior is decided by environment or internal nature is still going strong and comes up in pretty much every philosophical system sooner or later. Les Miserables, once again, always, puts all its chips on the squares for Humanity, for love and connection, being the deciding factor. It’s a decision, AND it’s a question of environment— and it transcends both of those. A rough man in rough company becomes a hero when he reaches out to others and helps bring others together— say, that does sound a little familiar in this book, doesn’t it?— even while a smooth, proper sort in the best circumstances (hello, Gillenormand) can become destructive, parasitic, when he chooses to close himself away from the world and start severing those connections.

In a story that never stops calling people to reach out, Bahorel engages, in spirit and on the surface. Other people have written on what a great turn of phrase “rash waistcoats and scarlet opinions” is, so I’ll skip that—but I can’t let it go without discussing, there’s SO MUCH in this line. For one: despite Courfeyrac’s dandyism-by-implied-association and Joly’s cane, Bahorel and Jehan are the only ones in the group to have their clothing explicitly mentioned AS PART OF THEIR INTRO**. In both cases, these are people who definitely DO NOT FIT in general society,the dedicated flaneurs of the group— Jehan wandering in his flowers, Bahorel roaming his streets, both of the in society but observing it from an interior distance. In this they both specifically echo the gamin. Jehan’s only said to dress “ badly” , but it comes in with all the other descriptors highlighting his awkwardness, his shyness, his blushing— all the things that put him visibly apart and, in Jehan’s case, seemingly contradict his essential courage (although any real thought would point out that it takes a LOT of courage to stand out in the world when you are a shy, blushing, awkward sort of person). Bahorel’s waistcoats, though, apparently enhance what people would think his most obvious traits are—his violence, his physicality, his aggression— aggression that is essential to his connecting with others. We see him using it as exactly that later,and even now, it’s expressly linked to his opinions. The waistcoats are dialogue, they are considered, even if they are rash. He uses shock and outrage as his feint, to move in and get a better opening to pull things apart— streets, governments, ideas. Like a good stage magician, everything about Bahorel’s presentation announces exactly who he is, exactly what he’s about, exactly what he’s going to do— and invites people to watch closely and be amazed when that’s exactly what happens.

Yet I’ve never seen anyone say they thought Bahorel was intimidating or scary (dismiss the character as dumb or find him hard to write,yes, but that’s another thing…). I’ve been reading reactions to this chapter for a couple of days, and the general reaction to Bahorel’s introduction is pretty much LOL with a side order of Oh, YOU. Because he’s funny! Honestly and knowingly and purposely funny, with his filking and his melodramatic reaction to the law school, and his bluster. There’s something almost childish about it, really— a specific kind of child. In his studies he saw subjects for ditties (turns superstition into doggerel and sings them) , in his professors opportunities for caricatures (introduces caricature into all epic pomposities)—that’s the sort of thing a little kid would do, right? He carries himself to be funny. He enjoys life. And it is disarming, if you’ve forgotten the beware in Parvulus (3.1), if you don’t realize he looks on, ready to laugh; ready too, for something else.

A penetrating turn of mind, and more of thinker than he seemed— a thoughtful witness of our social realities and human problems.

He comes in with the memory of death and betrayal of the future by the present. He is the bond with what will take shape later, not just the tragic adventure we’ve been warned about but everything, 1830, 1848, on and on and on.

He thinks himself carefree.
He is not.

[1] Gross gender assignments brought to you in keeping with the 19th century

**Translation Things**
* I am very Not Okay with this line being changed in Rose.

**Unless you’re reading Denny, in which case, I’m just so sorry.

Date: 2014-03-29 04:49 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
Thanks for posting about this - Bahorel is one of the characters I have trouble getting a grip on and this has been really helpful!

I'm not yet so well read on the history, what is "the Lallemand Thing"?

Date: 2014-03-29 09:49 pm (UTC)
genarti: Knees-down view of woman on tiptoe next to bookshelves (Default)
From: [personal profile] genarti
I'm so glad you reposted this, because I had half-forgotten it as a discrete essay, and I love it. I LOVE ALL OF IT.

My thanks go out to fandom too for the Lallemand revelation -- the first time, I just read straight past that, as I did with so many other details. I mean, of course I did, because one can't pause to google every single reference in this book, at least not while also keeping the rhythm of, well, reading a book. (One can come back and research all the things, if one has sufficient patience -- hat-tip to [ profile] swutol-sang-scopes, e.g. -- but it's a very different experience.) But presumably it would've been well known to at least some of his audience, and yeah, it SAYS A LOT. Wheelbreaker indeed.

I also really love the contradiction inherent in Bahorel, as you spell out here. They're all contradictions, of course, every character and certainly every Ami in this quick succession of intro infodumps -- because humans are, and because Hugo especially loved his contradictory juxtapositions. But tying it back to the central thesis of Les Mis is so key, because YEAH. YEAH, perfect clay for the devil made into a great guy by his connections, by the people around him, by the uses he puts himself to, by the fact that he has leisure and breathing space to put himself to those uses. He has parents who respect him, he has money to pay rent and buy food and keep clothes on his back -- okay, in his case with plenty left over after he does all that -- and so he can afford to be cheerfully flagrantly generous to friends and to strangers, he can afford to be a great guy, because he has the elbow room to do that instead of spending every scrap of energy grubbing for a little more coin and a little more warmth. If Courfeyrac is Tholomy├Ęs with the soul of a paladin, what's Bahorel -- a Gueulemer with brains and good company?

...And now I really kind of think so, because in checking Gueulemer's name, I came across the actual passage of his intro: "A quartette of ruffians, Claquesous, Gueulemer, Babet, and Montparnasse governed the third lower floor of Paris, from 1830 to 1835. Gueulemer was a Hercules of no defined position. For his lair he had the sewer of the Arche-Marion. He was six feet high, his pectoral muscles were of marble, his biceps of brass, his breath was that of a cavern, his torso that of a colossus, his head that of a bird. One thought one beheld the Farnese Hercules clad in duck trousers and a cotton velvet waistcoat. Gueulemer, built after this sculptural fashion, might have subdued monsters; he had found it more expeditious to be one. A low brow, large temples, less than forty years of age, but with crow's-feet, harsh, short hair, cheeks like a brush, a beard like that of a wild boar; the reader can see the man before him. His muscles called for work, his stupidity would have none of it. He was a great, idle force. He was an assassin through coolness. He was thought to be a creole. He had, probably, somewhat to do with Marshal Brune, having been a porter at Avignon in 1815. After this stage, he had turned ruffian." WELP.

Hercules in a cheap velvet waistcoat, huh. You could just as easily say that Bahorel could have been a monster, but found it more satisfying to subdue them.
Edited (because I can never spell Swutol's name right first try) Date: 2014-03-29 10:20 pm (UTC)


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May 2014


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