Feb 26: Shut up, Victor

Before we get to Victor Hugo today, I should note that this is from Volume 39, Famous Prefaces. This is a fantastic idea for a general here-is-all-human-knowledge project like the Harvard Classics. If you read the preface, it’s almost like reading the work -- the perfect thing for people like me, who pretend familiarity with books and movies that we’ve only read reviews of. (Actually, I don’t pretend, these days – I come right out and admit that I’ve only read the review. I think it adds to my mystique.)

This preface (to a play called “Cromwell,” which, Wikipedia tells us, “was considered ‘unfit for acting’”) is kind of hilarious, in the laughing-at-not-with sense. Hugo, who was twenty-five when he wrote this, is exactly the kind of twenty-five year old artiste who, on a perfectly good Saturday night, would corner you in the narrow kitchen of someone’s shitty apartment, constantly refill his the red plastic cup with box wine, and give you The Big Picture:

“The same type of civilization, or to use a more exact, although more extended expression, the same society, has not always inhabited the earth.”

Jesus. Although this is the start of his argument, it doesn’t happen until 10 paragraphs in, because first he has to settle some scores, using (if I may borrow the language of Stephen Potter), the Fake Third Person Variant of the Fake Innocence Ploy:
Considerations of an altogether different sort acted upon the author. It seemed to him that, although in fact, one seldom inspects the cellars of a building for pleasure, one is not sorry sometimes to examine its foundations. He will, therefore, give himself over once more, with a preface, to the wrath of the feuilletonists. Che sara, sara. He has never given much though to the fortune of his works, {bullshit – ed.] and he is but little appalled by dread of the literary what will people say. In the discussion now raging, in which the theatre and the schools, the public and the academies, are at daggers drawn, one will hear, perhaps, not without some interest, the voice of a solitary apprentice of nature and truth, who has withdrawn betimes from the literary world, for pure love of letters, and who offers good faith in default of good taste, sincere conviction in default of talent, study in default of learning.
There then follows one of my least favorite just-so speculations ever, The History of All Aesthetics Up To This Day. I.e.
Now, as poetry is always superposed upon society, we propose to try to demonstrate, from the form of its society, what the character of the poetry must have been in those three great ages of the world—primitive times, ancient times, modern times.
There’s not enough box wine in the world to get me to go along with this speculation. Or rather, there is, but it’s not to hand. Suffice to say that Christianity apparently invented melancholy. Aristotle, Virgil, Sunt lacrimae rerum? Idiots!

This brings us to the almost interesting part of the preface – and also the end, since the actual preface is about three times as long as the assignment, which makes you wonder how full of hot air the play must have been -- Hugo’s love of the grotesque, which is also been brought to perfection by Christianity:

We will simply say here that, as a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in our view, the richest source that nature can offer art. Rubens so understood it, doubtless, when it pleased him to introduce the hideous features of a court dwarf amid his exhibitions of royal magnificence, coronations and splendid ceremonial. The universal beauty which the ancients solemnly laid upon everything, is not without monotony; the same impression repeated again and again may prove fatiguing at last. Sublime upon sublime scarcely presents a contrast, and we need a little rest from everything, even the beautiful.
Of course, speaking from the Age of Howard Stern, maybe we went overboard with the whole grotesque deal. The dwarf/ceremonial ratio is not in our favor, I’m afraid.