Last night, I finally went to see the much acclaimed (and otherwise lamented) film, Les Misérables. Never having read the book—and not being the "musical type"—I had no inclination of the plot development or outcome. Happily, though, my interests were soon piqued: within about thirty seconds, as soon as it became clear that the main protagonist was serving a wrongful, extended prison term, I knew only good things could await. Coupled with the shortly-to-follow descent of another protagonist into coerced harlotry, my expectations began to soar. (You can imagine, of course, my absolute bliss at the final, counterpunctual demise of Javert.)
Morals of the story and vocal aptitude notwithstanding (although not necessarily so), Les Misérables was a wonderful example of the universal power of prisoners, prostitutes, and their oppressors to function as maybe the most compelling literary agents available to our imaginations.
I've reflected on this possibility before, but now I'm quite convinced. Time and again, in film or paperback, I've noticed that the stories that most effectively stir my soul—those which communicate most clearly some undoubted yet still unspeakable beauty, and which warrant ever so gently my real response—are those that turn on the troubles of prisoners and prostitutes. Maybe more interestingly, it rarely seems to matter just why these troubles persist. Forced or willing, guilty or innocent, the simple reality of either is enough to make me ponder, cringe, and reconsider.
The same seemed to be true last night for my wife, as well as for the octogenarian couple beside me, and the row of (emotionally wrecked) teenage girls behind us. I've never had the chance to speak with any of these people, save my wife, about my affinity for Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, or Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's Das Leben der Anderen. (The latter, for those who haven't seen it, wins my highest recommendation.) Yet I suspect that they would all find in these something equally stirring—provided that Russian verbosity and the German language aren't too much of a distraction.
Whether it's the case or not that prison and prostitution are somehow so unthinkingly powerful, I take for granted. Instead—with those who already share my conviction—I wonder why it is so.
An obvious common ground between penal servitude and the industria vetustissima is the paradox of volition and possibility that governs either. On the one hand, the prisoner exemplifies a strange coexistence of extreme physical limitation alongside almost limitless aspirations. Despite—or perhaps even because of—very finite possibilities for action, the will of a prisoner is uniquely unrestrained. Although he cannot put into effect most of his volitions, he would act on many if he could. (This tension becomes especially gripping in the case of a freed prisoner, like Jean Valjean.)
On the other hand, prostitution evinces an almost absolute effect of the will. In the face of economic hardships and even otherwise certain death, choosing to submit to the animal passions of another represents the power of volition over and above material determinism. The tradeoff, of course, is a severe limitation of self-awareness, self-worth, and the possibility for emotional, interpersonal relationships.
While different, the two aren't exactly complements. A perfectly heroic marriage isn't necessarily one between prisoner and prostitute—although it seems to work out rather well for Raskolnikov and Sonya toward the end of Crime and Punishment. Instead, so far as I can tell, the literary force of such a pair arises less from their relationship to one another (or to others similarly disposed), and more within the context of storytelling qua an exercise of moral imagination.
This latter term—"moral imagination"—perhaps means many things. I mean it (probably not without some backlash) to connote a formative hypothesization about actual goods and evils in the context of fictional, literary circumstances. If fairy tales, as many regard them, are exemplars of moral imagination for the young and innocent, then a tale of prisoner and prostitute might well serve as the same for those of us older and more guilty. Indeed, even at first glance, many parallels exist between the two: for example, the ineffectual volitions of Aschenputtel correlate directly with the plight of the prisoner; and the wandering whimsies of one on a (usually strange and magical) quest with the anti-deterministic attitudes of the prostitute. What separates Jean Valjean from Cinderella is not the quality of their sufferings, but rather the causes.
As it turns out, we all desire the sort of moral reflection and education that is peculiar to fairy tales. For those of us who've trespassed beyond hypothetical evils, however, a new type of hero is required—indeed, an embodiment of the power of actions over the damnable and inhuman tendencies of indifference. (Certainly something more than what Chesterton laments, in Orthodoxy, as the meek ratification of childlike principles by "mere facts.")
It seems that, time and again, prisoners and prostitutes have been our best bet for seeing this through. It's worked in a host of stories, including Les Misérables—for my wife, for the eighty-year-old man beside me, and in the hearts of the three (otherwise culturally anesthetized) girls over our shoulders. I don't doubt that such characters, most of all, will continue to affect my own heart, too, for quite some time to come.