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  • Victor Hugo's Paris:Reviving Palingenesis
  • Skyler Artes

After reading Victor Hugo's Contemplations, Jules Michelet wrote to the exiled poet. The historian criticized the text's apparent attachment to Christianity. In an epistolary response to the Michelet, Hugo refutes this claim. He declares that his true ambition is to detach Christ from institutional and ornamental distractions: "Je ne puis oublier que Jésus a été une incarnation saignante du progrès; je le retire au prêtre; je détache le martyre du crucifix et je décloue le Christ du christianisme."1 Once rid of preacher, crucifix, and dogma, the tortured figure of Christ represents pure progress. Though, for Hugo, the Christ narrative was not the only story of progress to feature immaculate conception, crucifixion, and resurrection. In the commissioned introduction to Paris-Guide, the city guide for the 1867 Universal Exhibition, Hugo offers an elegiac portrait of Christ's modern successor: Paris.2

The rarely studied Paris stands midway between differing views of a supreme Paris in the voluminous Les Misérables (1862) and Qua-trevingt-treize (1874).3 In Les Misérables, Hugo writes that Paris is "un total. . . . Qui voit Paris croit voir le dessous de toute l'histoire" (I: 748). Besides offering a lens through which to view the entirety of history, the capital produced both liberty and progress: "Il est superbe; il a un prodigieux 14 juillet qui délivre le globe; il fait faire le serment du Jeu de Paume à toutes les nations; sa nuit du 4 août dissout en trois heures mille ans de féodalité; il fait de sa logique le muscle de la volonté" (I: 752). Creating and guaranteeing revolutionary rights in France and aboard, the city becomes "le héros de tous les peuples" (I: 753). Whilst containing all of the past and instigating a grand revolution, Paris also promises a progressive future. Investing the capital with divine qualities, Hugo writes that the revelation of Paris spreads [End Page 1] because of its language, a language that becomes "le Verbe; il construit dans tous les esprits l'idée du progrès" (I: 752).

Where logic and language are the means of spreading the Word of Paris in Les Misérables, Parisian progress becomes militant twelve years later in Hugo's final work of prose, Quatrevingt-treize (1874). Written in the years following the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, this historical novel offers a view of the city during the Convention. In spite of the date in question, the Paris of 1793 takes on shades of the Paris of the Commune. This overlap brings into view Hugo's meditation upon the perpetuation of domestic turmoil. While still a source of progress, the Paris of Quatrevingt-treize is far more muscular and violent. It is the gleam of the guillotine, not the language of Parisians, which extends light and progress beyond Paris. Hugo speaks of piercing the dark and primitive Vendée with "les flèches de la lumière" (288-289). Only by puncturing the "ombre bretonne" could the Paris of the Convention hope to unify the new nation under the banner of universal revolutionary progress: "Les catastrophes ont une sombre façon d'arranger les choses" (288-289). Hugo does not seek to conceal the violence that the pursuit of unity demanded. He apologetically explains that "[u]n chirurgien ressemble à un boucher; un guérisseur peut faire l'effet d'un bourreau. La révolution se dévoue à son oeuvre fatale. Elle mutile, mais elle sauve" (332-333). In the wake of the Commune, Paris's light becomes surgical and unyielding when facing dissident voices. Hugo, who quickly returned to his exile home on Guernsey after only the briefest return to Paris in the early 1870s, appears to be fully aware that a universal Paris implicated violence.

Published in between Les Misérables and Quatrevingt-treize, Paris demonstrates Hugo's continued devotion to writing about the beloved city from which he was exiled. It also suggests that Hugo remained an authoritative voice of the city. More importantly, this overlooked text signals a transitional moment in Hugo's late-career descriptions of...


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