Russell Crowe can carry a tune. He fronted a band called 30 Odd Foot of Grunts in the 80s and 90s and these days leads Russell Crowe & the Ordinary Fear of God. And I think he could croon his way through some old standards. if you were at a party with him and he gathered everyone around the piano to sing along with him on a medley of Songs From the Great War as My Old Grandad Sang Them To Me, you’d join in lustily and have a high old time. Both are very different from singing on stage in musical, but I think he could star on Broadway or the West End in the right vehicles. You wouldn’t cast him Emile de Becque in South Pacific and hand him Some Enchanted Evening to warble his way through or as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha and expect him to bring the house down with his rendition of The Impossible Dream. But he could handle Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady or Arthur in Camelot, both of which are really roles for non-singers. He’s made Javert in Les Miserables a non-singer’s part. And it works. But the best parts of his performance are his silences.
I’m not being facetious.
Javert can be played angry. He can be played cold. Crowe plays him sad. That sadness is always in his eyes even when he is playing Javert angry and cold. And it’s when he’s not singing, when he’s listening, watching, taking things in, judging, that we see the great depth of that sadness.
Javert is not obsessed with Jean Valjean. He doesn’t spend decades pursuing him. In fact, until he catches up with him in Paris during the revolt he’s probably spent very little time thinking about Valjean and probably wouldn’t have ever given him much thought at all except that they keep bumping into each other. Javert is a very busy, responsible, and successful policeman and there are lots of other criminals in France to occupy his thoughts and his time and new crimes to solve daily. When he recognizes Mayor Madeleine as Jean Valjean, he feels duty-bound to arrest him because as far as he’s concerned Valjean is a criminal and it’s his job to arrest criminals. He’s also furious that Valjean has fooled him for so long. But he’s not obsessed with him.
Javert is obsessed with his image of himself as an officer of the law, which in his mind is the same as a morally superior human being. He’s earned his position by rising above ordinary human weaknesses and resisting temptations ordinary human beings give in to without, he believes, putting up much of a fight. He has earned the right to judge and not be judged. At this point ought to come at least the qualification “except by God.” But Javert is a godless man because he serves a godless ideal. The Law as set down by the state in the person of his hero Napoleon.
Javert is a Republican through and through.
I’ll bet when you read the title of this post you thought I was going to compare Javert to contemporary American Republicans in Congress.
Wait for it.
But, first, back to Napoleon.
Javert serves the monarchy because the king is the current representative of the state and the state is the Law and Javert serves the Law. But he came of age during the Republic, he models himself on Napoleon who codified the Law as something unto itself apart from any king, apart from religious authority. It’s a wholly secular and rational Law, but, as Javert applies it, a Law without heart or conscience, without mercy. The only appeal from the Law is to the Law.
And as its instrument Javert has, not made himself inhuman, but cut himself off from human company and affections. So of course he’s lonely and sad.
When he meets Valjean he sees someone he’d like to be friends with. He respects and admires him. He recognizes a kindred spirit. But they can’t be friends. That would require Javert to acknowledge that there but for the grace of God goes himself. Javert isn’t what he is by accident or through luck---or so he’s convinced. He’s a completely self-made worldly and moral success. Admitting he’s like Valjean in any way, like a criminal, would be too much an assault on his pride. What causes Javert to “derail”, as it’s put in one translation, is that he’s forced to face the possibility that he is not like Valjean not in his being Valjean’s moral superior but in Valjean’s being the much better man.
Now, here’s where Crowe’s Javert reminded me of our Republicans, starting with one in particular. Paul Ryan.
With his rounded cheeks and wide-open, sad eyes, there’s something boyish about Crowe’s Javert. This fits if you think of Javert as someone who hit upon an idea when he was very young that he credited with saving his life and has clung to it with all his youthful passion and naiveté. A part of him will always be that boy. And as we know, something like that happened to Ryan when he was in high school when his father died. For Ryan, his personal savior was Ayn Rand. For Javert, it was Napoleon. For both, what “saved” them was an ideal of total self-reliance that also infected them with inflated senses of self and a contempt for those moral weaklings who fail to live up to the same ideal.
They’re different, of course. Javert is a nobler and more disciplined character. Ryan has constantly found ways to exempt himself, his family, his constituents, and his political allies and bosses from the disciplines and austerities his moral philosophy calls for. Basically, he’s a self-indulgent hypocrite. And it’s impossible to imagine him facing up to the refutation of all he says he stands for the way Javert finally does.
In the end, Javert realizes that if Valjean is right then everything he’s stood for has been wrong and must be rejected. In order for him to continue to live, Javert would have to give up being what he’s been but that would mean giving up being himself.
Tragically, that’s what he does.
Ryan would just continue to fudge.
Javert believes that all it took for him to rise above his disadvantages was strength of will and purpose. It’s not that he thinks poverty is a crime. But he thinks that it’s criminal not to do what it takes to better oneself. For him, there’s no such thing as luck. Only merit. There is no place in his philosophy for the fact that all that separates the criminal Jean Valejan from Mayor Madeleine is a chance encounter with the Bishop of Digne, that all that saves Cosette from the same fate as her mother Fantine is the lucky intercession of Mayor Madeleine. Our Republican Party has adopted a Javert-like attitude toward the poor and hard-pressed. This is convenient. It gives them an excuse not to have to act to help anyone, which would cost them money in the form of taxes.
But although the Republicans have adopted the idea, they didn’t invent it. It’s a natural human vanity. Lots of self-made men and women have felt it. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as exceptional. But they don’t want to admit they were lucky because that would mean admitting they might not have made it, a scary enough thought, but it also means admitting their luck might run out. So they cling to the belief that all it takes is a little hard work and self-discipline. “If I did it, so can you.”
I get the sense that even President Obama feels this way sometimes.
If he forgets to remind himself of how lucky he was, though, I’m sure Michelle is quick to do it for him.
You can’t will yourself lucky.
But here’s something you can do.
You can be someone else’s good fortune.
You can be someone else’s Jean Valjean, their Bishop of Digne.