The Cardus Daily

Two Cheers for Javert

James K.A. Smith  |  February 6, 2013  |  Arts, Film, Institutions, Justice, Philosophy

According to our contemporary critical pantheon, I’m supposed to disdain Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Misérables (though Stanley Fish has me feeling a little better about it). But not since Moonrise Kingdom has the entire Smith family been so collectively taken with a film. My 16-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son both blast the soundtrack from their bedrooms, and they find the same when they get into my car. Where the ironist sees sentimental treacle, I see a sentimental education.

But I think I’ve fallen for the villain. Here, I will play the role of devil’s advocate and offer a few words in praise of Javert.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Javert is a prison guard and later an inspector or policeman, tasked with keeping the peace by maintaining law and order. He is the nemesis of the story’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, who has been imprisoned by the law that Javert upholds. And Javert has been pursuing him since his release and failure to obey the rules for his parole. In Hooper’s film version, the story is an ongoing dance between these two characters.

Let’s first resist the temptation to read this as an allegory of salvation, with personifications of Grace and Law in Valjean and Javert, respectively. When we do that, it seems clear that any Christian would of course side with Valjean, mourning the tragic fact that Javert has no room for grace or forgiveness in his worldview. But I don’t think the story is best read as an allegory, though it certainly invites us to consider the dynamics of grace and forgiveness in the life of Jean Valjean. If you insist on reading the film in this way, don’t treat it as an allegory of salvation; read it as hagiography—one of the “lives of the saints” which tracks the sanctification of Valjean.

But I want to look at the story through Cardus-coloured glasses, as it were, and consider the place and evaluation of law in the world that Hugo and Hooper have created. On this score, it seems to me that the story is in danger of demonizing law as such.

Granted, we feel the disproportionality between Valjean’s crime (stealing bread to feed a hungry nephew) and his punishment (nineteen years of hard labour). Javert’s dogged pursuit of a petty thief seems maniacal. And the fact that he can neither grant nor receive mercy has tragic consequences. Unfortunately he does all of this under the banner of “the law.” So in the end, Javert’s villainy is tied to the fact that he is an agent of the state.

My worry is that a number of people come away from the film with a negative reaction to law as such. That’s an easy sell in an age of libertarian self-expression, and it explains why there seems to be overwhelming sympathy for the revolutionaries as well. To side with Valjean is to side with “the people;” and to side with “the people” is to be for revolution and opposed to Javert. And before you know it—and without thinking about it—you end up thinking negatively about law per se. I think Christians will be especially prone to this if we lack a robust theology of creation that should undergird a fundamentally positive account of law (and order).

At this point I should note that many of us at Cardus are animated by a tradition that once proudly described itself as De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee—the philosophy of the law-idea. This wasn’t about legalism. Instead, it was a philosophy that recognized that norms and “laws” are inscribed in God’s creation for our good. This is the basis for a philosophy of cultural-caretaking that affirms the development of cultural norms, laws, and policies as aspects of a good creation—gifts for flourishing and the common good. In some ways, Javert has devoted himself to just this work.

It’s also why I can’t get too excited about the revolutionary impulse of the youth in Les Misérables. The philosophical tradition that stands behind Comment magazine is also identified with Abraham Kuyper’s “Anti-Revolutionary Party” for the same reasons. Because of that, once again I find myself unduly sympathetic when Javert, on the eve of the barricades, warns that “one more day to revolution/we will nip it in the bud/we’ll be ready for these schoolboys/they will wet themselves with blood.” (No, seriously: it’s worrisome that I love this line as sung by Russell Crowe. It’s akin to my deep sympathy with Mad Men‘s Don Draper when he asks the bohemian in the East Village, “So, Roy, if you had a job, what would you do?”)

The problem, of course, is that Javert can’t seem to distinguish between the good of law and good laws. He doesn’t seem to have any room for critical distance in his devotion to law and thus ends up uncritically affirming what are unjust laws. (This is a crucial distinction well-rehearsed in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”) As a result, contemporary viewers of the film, who have been trained by a host of cultural forces to value individual expression and be suspicious of institutions, end up coming away with a negative view of law as such. It’s no small part of the mission of Cardus to change that.



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