Victor Hugo: The Great Prose of Revolt

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This essay was first published in Ballast. Translated by David Broder. 



There are three kinds of conception of the novelistic. There is what we could call the official lineage, which the academy presents as the history of the French novel, proceeding by way of Stendhal and Flaubert. Here, the novel is the narrative, the capturing of the real, in a rapid, narrative and stylised prose. Then there is the current that I would call the tendency of great totalisations: the novel has the objective of capturing the spirit and the uniformity of an era, of constructing a sort of vast universe in which the spirit of the time takes hold, like in an orchestra. I would include Balzac in this totalising current — and it was perhaps him who invented it, with his La Comédie humaine — as well as Zola, perhaps Proust, and Martin du Gard. Then there is a third current, which is rarely recognised as officially making up part of the history of the novel (more than a current in itself, it is a sort of space apart, a freak case). In this current we have a certain number of freak novels: Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Three literary freaks. We don’t really know how they should be classified. We have the epistolary Julie, or the New Heloise, which is today little studied or read, whereas in the eighteenth century it was an extraordinary best-seller. We have the Mémoires d’outre-tombe, which is a novel only in that we know that Chateaubriand was just recounting what he wanted to (and with many of his wonderful stories, it is doubtful whether they are real). But we can, ultimately, take it as a magnificent historical and personal novel. And we have Les Misérables, which we will concern ourselves with here.   
These three books are hardly even considered novels, and they are not invoked as an essential element of the history of the French novel. But they have at least three distinguishing characteristics. Firstly, a formal mechanism — one that is in each case wholly singular.  Julie, or the New Heloise is an epistolary novel, able to bring together an extraordinary variety of points of view; whereas the Mémoires d'outre-tombe takes the form of memoirs, and not that of a novel. As for Les Misérables, it is difficult to characterise it purely as a novel, given its myriad elements that belong more to the order of narrations, exhortations, assessments, and prophecies. And that’s to say nothing of the characters who, as everyone knows, have become icons and symbols and not characters in the ordinary psychological sense: Jean Valjean, Cosette, and the policeman Javert are “novelistic” figures only in their immediate inscription, and they are figures who could perfectly well function in other registers (without doubt, Les Misérables is the one book worldwide that has had the most film adaptations). As well as the different scale at which they operate, there is also the matter of these works’ didactic intent. In each of the three cases, we have a certain engagement: the novelist also considered himself a teacher, a lesson-giver, an analyst, a prophet, even; he wholly consciously — and in a certain sense naively — assumed a didactic function with regard to the public. In Rousseau this is a matter of the analysis (such as he conceived it) of society, his time, and the prophecy of democracy; in Chateaubriand it is a matter of knowing what lessons someone who is still a partisan of the old world should draw from the French Revolution, and how to maintain the monarchical principle while integrating the lessons of the French Revolution into that principle. In Victor Hugo we find a far-reaching meditation, at whose heart is the recognition that the world is today divided between two possible visions of its destiny: and contradiction is therefore at the centre of Hugo’s political and historical analysis. In each of the three cases, the novel — the fiction and everything therein that goes beyond fiction, what we might call the real of fiction — has a function of teaching, revealing, educating, and not a simply aesthetic quality or dimension.

Finally, these are figures that can be distinguished through their evident link to political evenementality. Rousseau was the major ideological inspirer of the French Revolution; Chateaubriand was part of the current of the monarchical Restoration, but also took on board what had resulted from this Revolution; Victor Hugo was the radical republican who really wanted History to be opened up to popular sovereignty.

Les Misérables is a genuine singularity in French prose. This book is not inscribed in a continuous history and cannot be compared to the other monstrosities I have proposed to list. The question we must address is the following: does this novel have a place among “the great revolts”? Is it not paradoxical to situate this book — one of the best-known in the history of French literature, an atypical book in terms of its genre, a book at the heart of the nineteenth century — in an attempt to think and reflect on what the great revolts are? My answer to the first question is Yes. And for seven reasons. 

The first isn’t the most profound, because it is self-evident: the narrative of Les Misérables includes one of the greatest insurrectionary scenes ever written, namely what took place at the barricade on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine on 5 June 1832. At the centre of the novel is the narrative of this memorable — albeit defeated — insurrection, of which Hugo was the contemporary. Here Hugo was simultaneously meditating on another much more dramatic, important, bloody insurrection, namely that of the June Days of 1848. The thinking of the revolts of 1848 had a retroactive effect on Hugo’s presentation of the 1832 revolt. And let’s note this: the workers’ revolt of 1848, bloodily crushed by the colonial army led by Louis Eugène Cavaignac (the first great massacre of workers in the streets of Paris) is of considerable historical importance. It was this massacre that marked a long and permanent rupture between the working-class world and the figure of republicanism. It was here that the workers understood that it was not true that the republican proposition was in itself favourable to them — for it was a republican government that called on the colonial army to crush them, almost immediately after its own establishment, having already made expulsion orders against the workers of the city of Paris. This was, therefore, an essential political fissure — one that is still open, enduring even today — confirmed by the moment when the leading lights of progressive republicanism had the workers shot, as they did during the Paris Commune of 1871.

Yet Hugo was on the republicans’ side. He personally participated in the repression of the workers’ movement. In Les Misérables, indeed, he pleads his case, explaining that this really was necessary: there was the Republic, the workers rose up against the Republic, and the Republic had to repress them! But we can tell that he was wounded by this. It was a fundamental wound. It would only be healed later, with the Napoleonic coup d’état of 2 December 1848. We ought to read Hugo’s L'Histoire d'un crime: a book that sheds light on Les Misérables and relates his desperate opposition to the military coup; a pathetic book, because here we see Hugo running through the streets at night in search of an insurrection that was not there… And he has the workers saying “All that’s very well, but where were you in June 1848?” Hugo saw the workers’ passivity faced with the coup d’état: the Republic called them to its aid, but they did not hurry along to help, because only recently this same Republic had made its appearance by massacring them. And Hugo now became a tormented conscience… What are the great workers’ revolts? Are they on the Republic’s side or not? How can the Republic find itself so separated from the mass of the people? Les Misérables offers an assessment of this affair — a rather complex one. 

His description of the barricade, here, is epic, magnificent. It is in this historic moment of insurrection that Marius, the hero of the novel — in the sense of a didactic novel — arrives at the possibility of historical truth; it is in this moment that he will go through his apprenticeship in the great torments of history (just as he will go through his difficult apprenticeship in love, together with Cosette). Here we have — and without doubt this is what makes for the very substance of the book — the binomial revolution/love, with the section “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis.” Hugo said that Marius loved a woman and that it was then that his life began; and the barricade is the other beginning. So this is an epic, as well as a despairing description of the revolutionaries on this barricade:

This barricade was furious; it hurled to the clouds an inexpressible clamor; at certain moments, when provoking the army, it was covered with throngs and tempest; a tumultuous crowd of flaming heads crowned it; a swarm filled it; it had a thorny crest of guns, of sabres, of cudgels, of axes, of pikes and of bayonets; a vast red flag flapped in the wind; shouts of command, songs of attack, the roll of drums, the sobs of women and bursts of gloomy laughter from the starving were to be heard there. It was huge and living, and, like the back of an electric beast, there proceeded from it little flashes of lightning. The spirit of revolution covered with its cloud this summit where rumbled that voice of the people which resembles the voice of God; a strange majesty was emitted by this titanic basket of rubbish. It was a heap of filth and it was Sinai.

The second reason is that there is a very profound reflection in this book on the function of the revolt and the riot — and, more precisely, on the relation between revolt and truth. Is it not in revolt alone that something of historical and political truth is felt, encountered, experienced? This is the question that he poses; and his analysis is a very fine one, as it leads him to try and make a distinction between the riot and the insurrection — both of them intrinsic figures of the revolt and its relation to truth. In his eyes, this distinction is politically crucial (and it should be for us, too). The revolt is a road to political truth, but not in entirely the same way in the case of a localised riot as in that of an insurrection. The revolt is a historical phenomenon that may be infra-political; the insurrection is a phenomenon that ties politics to history. Let’s see how Hugo presents the former case:

Of what is revolt composed? Of nothing and of everything. Of an electricity disengaged, little by little, of a flame suddenly darting forth, of a wandering force, of a passing breath. This breath encounters heads which speak, brains which dream, souls which suffer, passions which burn, wretchedness which howls, and bears them away. Whither? At random. Athwart the state, the laws, athwart prosperity and the insolence of others. Irritated convictions, embittered enthusiasms, agitated indignations, instincts of war which have been repressed, youthful courage which has been exalted, generous blindness; curiosity, the taste for change, the thirst for the unexpected, the sentiment which causes one to take pleasure in reading the posters for the new play, and love, the prompter's whistle, at the theatre; the vague hatreds, rancors, disappointments, every vanity which thinks that destiny has bankrupted it; discomfort, empty dreams, ambitions that are hedged about, whoever hopes for a downfall, some outcome, in short, at the very bottom, the rabble, that mud which catches fire — such are the elements of revolt. That which is grandest and that which is basest; the beings who prowl outside of all bounds, awaiting an occasion, bohemians, vagrants, vagabonds of the cross-roads, those who sleep at night in a desert of houses with no other roof than the cold clouds of heaven, those who, each day, demand their bread from chance and not from toil, the unknown of poverty and nothingness, the bare-armed, the bare-footed, belong to revolt. … Revolt is a sort of waterspout in the social atmosphere ... If we are to believe certain oracles of crafty political views, a little revolt is desirable from the point of view of power. System: revolt strengthens those governments which it does not overthrow. It puts the army to the test; it consecrates the bourgeoisie, it draws out the muscles of the police; it demonstrates the force of the social framework. It is an exercise in gymnastics; it is almost hygiene. Power is in better health after a revolt, as a man is after a good rubbing down.

The revolt has an ambiguous status. It has a relationship with truth, in that it brings together the social question and the social atmosphere as a whole; but at the same time it is an essential political uncertainty, in its relation to power. The riot has a local, precarious character with a tendency toward anarchy; it remains in the dark. The insurrection is a revolt that encounters truth. That is its very definition. It is made up of the same movement of social agitation, but it is the moment where the relation is established between political truth and the real people — the support for the inscription of this truth in real History.  This point is fundamental. Four striking formulae condense this analysis: the people (that is to say, “les misérables,” in Hugo) is the place where political truth is visible; it is the only place where it is really visible. You can have ideas and conceptions and you can project plans, but in order to know if all this touches the real — if all this is susceptible to being true — the only place for that is what Hugo calls “the people.” The people’s relation to the idea is the key to politics-as-real. Les Misérables repeatedly says this: 

What is it to me if they do go barefoot! They do not know how to read; so much the worse. Would you abandon them for that? Would you turn their distress into a malediction? Cannot the light penetrate these masses? Let us return to that cry: Light! ... Who knows whether these opacities will not become transparent? Are not revolutions transfigurations? Come, philosophers, teach, enlighten, light up, think aloud, speak aloud, hasten joyously to the great sun, fraternize with the public place, announce the good news, spend your alphabets lavishly, proclaim rights, sing the Marseillaises, sow enthusiasms, tear green boughs from the oaks. Make a whirlwind of the idea. This crowd may be rendered sublime. Let us learn how to make use of that vast conflagration of principles and virtues, which sparkles, bursts forth and quivers at certain hours. These bare feet, these bare arms, these rags, these ignorances, these abjectnesses, these darknesses, may be employed in the conquest of the ideal. Gaze across the people, and you will perceive truth. 

“Gaze across the people, and you will perceive truth.” It’s an admirable formula, this! But the whole question is what “gazing across” means. How should we be within and gaze across the people?Hugo would have condemned today’s disdainful and suspicious reference to “populism.” He made exactly the opposite argument: there is no real politics that is not in and through the people itself — politics cannot claim to transcend the people, but must develop, see itself and watch itself through the people.

Another formula touches on the question of violence — a very important question in politics, in all eras. Hugo maintains that there is violence in politics and History when there are two sides to the dialectic people/truth (or people/Idea, people/political ideal) The insurrection is violent moment of this connection, this intimate link, between people and truth. Behind the 1832 barricade there is a philosopher, Combeferre. It is in him that an inner debate on violence plays out: he thinks that he is on the right side, but at the same time asks himself about the extreme violence that he is witnessing: he says to himself that perhaps there could have been a different relation between the people and the truth: “Possibly, Combeferre preferred the whiteness of the beautiful to the blaze of the sublime. A light troubled by smoke, progress purchased at the expense of violence, only half satisfied this tender and serious spirit. The headlong precipitation of a people into the truth, a '93, terrified him.” 

The insurrection is this “headlong precipitation of a people into the truth.” There’s few brakes, and little relent… The third formula, of the same style, is the magnificent “Insurrection is a fit of rage on the part of truth.” This is a definition. Here, Hugo says that violence is inevitable, for if the truth of emancipation and equality among men has to face too many obstacles along the way, it will necessarily appear in the shape of a fit of rage. The fourth formula further specifies — again admirably — that “there are accepted revolutions, revolutions which are called revolutions; there are refused revolutions, which are called riots. An insurrection which breaks out, is an idea which is passing its examination before the people. If the people lets fall a black ball, the idea is dried fruit; the insurrection is a mere skirmish.”If the insurrection is accepted, we have the revolution: the effectivity and reality of the Idea. Almost twenty years later Hugo saw this “dried fruit” in the streets of Paris, as he sought the insurrection capable of resisting Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état. But the people had dropped its “black ball”; nothing happened, and Hugo paid a personal price for this, with twenty years of exile. This exile was a lot of things, but I think it was also the punishment he inflicted on himself for the position he had taken in June 1848.

The third reason is the meditation on everything that is clarified by the anonymous existence of the people in this book. The heroes, for Hugo, are not the stars or the obvious big names. The true heroes are not known or recognised, but those who finally ratify the Idea, in the shape of the insurrection; they immediately incarnate the depth and the decisive character of the activity of the poor and the destitute [les misérables]. The destitute are the true heroes of History and of the novel itself. Take the presence of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. Hugo advances two arguments: that Waterloo was in reality a victory for the counter-revolution, because Napoleon embodied — in the eyes of reactionary Europe, and without himself wishing it — the last face of revolutionary France. “Let us behold in Waterloo only that which is in Waterloo. Of intentional liberty there is none. The counter-revolution was involuntarily liberal, in the same manner as, by a corresponding phenomenon, Napoleon was involuntarily revolutionary. On the 18th of June, 1815, the mounted Robespierre was hurled from his saddle.” The meaning of Napoleon must be seen from the viewpoint of the general history of the people, and not that of Napoleon’s own intentions. A few words on the response given by Cambronne: toward the end of the Battle of Waterloo, when there was nothing left but the old guard encircled on all sides, the English called on the French to surrender — to which Cambronne replied, “To hell with you!” A response which polite History has replaced with “The guard may die, but it will never surrender.” Hugo returns to the original formula, and says of Cambronne’s response: “The winner of the battle of Waterloo was not Napoleon, who was put to flight; nor Wellington, giving way at four o'clock, in despair at five; nor Blücher, who took no part in the engagement. The winner of Waterloo was Cambronne. To thunder forth such a reply at the lightning-flash that kills you is to conquer!”Here we see Hugo’s method! He delves into History to seek out the mostminimal and most intrinsically popular point, the one that bears the people’s historic victory, even through its very undoing and defeat. He calls this a “titanic scorn”: scorn for life, scorn for death, in the name of the people’s immediate position, dug-in against counter-revolution. Hugo continues: “This challenge of titanic scorn, Cambronne hurls not only at Europe in the name of the Empire — that would be a trifle: he hurls it at the past in the name of the Revolution. It is heard, and Cambronne is recognized as possessed by the ancient spirit of the Titans. Danton seems to be speaking! Kléber seems to be bellowing!”

Note his method. Taking the immensely important episode of the Battle of Waterloo, he makes it into a giant, epic historical scene, and, in this same moment, designates Cambronne’s reply as being at its heart, its most intimate truth. It symbolises the anonymous soldier in battle — who, ideally, from the viewpoint of thought and History, will prove the true victor. Of course, another famous example is Gavroche. The Paris boy on the barricade. He allows Hugo to play stylistically on the big and the small; the little boy bears the grandeur of the barricade — indeed, one chapter is entitled “In which little Gavroche extracts profit from Napoleon the Great”; another, “The atom fraternises with the hurricane.” And when he dies, Hugo describes him as “this grand little soul.” Gavroche is the immediate connection of the small and the great, to the benefit of the small. This is the Hugolian lesson of revolt: the thing worthy of grandeur is ordinarily considered miniscule.

The fourth reason is that it is always the poor — the Faubourg Saint-Antoine (“a reservoir of people,” as Hugo puts it) — who indicate the direction of choice. To the thinkers, the intellectuals and the writers in particular. The direction would remain impossible to grasp if it were not prescribed by an immediate contact with the people. As such, we must be wary — and this is important for today — of the unchecked distinction between the “barbarian” and the “civilised.” And in Hugo — a considerable, embourgeoisified figure — there was a very deep reflection on this subject. We have to look closely into this distinction between the barbarian and the civilised, for it could be that it serves still today to camouflage the very basis of injustice, namely, the absence of truth. 

Savage. Let us explain this word. When these bristling men, who in the early days of the revolutionary chaos, tattered, howling, wild, with uplifted bludgeon, pike on high, hurled themselves upon ancient Paris in an uproar, what did they want? They wanted an end to oppression, an end to tyranny, an end to the sword, work for men, instruction for the child, social sweetness for the woman, liberty, equality, fraternity, bread for all, the idea for all, the Edenizing of the world. Progress; and that holy, sweet, and good thing, progress, they claimed in terrible wise, driven to extremities as they were, half naked, club in fist, a roar in their mouths. They were savages, yes; but the savages of civilization. They proclaimed right furiously; they were desirous, if only with fear and trembling, to force the human race to paradise. They seemed barbarians, and they were saviours. They demanded light with the mask of night. Facing these men, who were ferocious, we admit, and terrifying, but ferocious and terrifying for good ends, there are other men, smiling, embroidered, gilded, beribboned, starred, in silk stockings, in white plumes, in yellow gloves, in varnished shoes, who, with their elbows on a velvet table, beside a marble chimney-piece, insist gently on demeanor and the preservation of the past, of the Middle Ages, of divine right, of fanaticism, of innocence, of slavery, of the death penalty, of war, glorifying in low tones and with politeness, the sword, the stake, and the scaffold. For our part, if we were forced to make a choice between the barbarians of civilization and the civilized men of barbarism, we should choose the barbarians. 

We should not be wrong-footed by an apparent conflict between two barbarisms. We have to choose the path indicated by the people, and not the path indicated by “the embroidered” — or as we would say today, the men in ties and suits. Echchouaf or Sissoko are almost certainly right, as against Valls or Hollande. 

The fifth reason is more philosophical. The revolt is the moment in which a dialectic of the finite and the infinite enters the stage. The philosopher Hugo envelops all the other Hugos. What becomes visible in the the revolt, the insurrection or the revolution, is the human capacity to access the infinite;  the fact that human finitude is not the last word on things; that the revolution indicates a wholly different potentiality in human action than that which man seems capable of  in ordinary sociological descriptions or in the philosophy of finitude. Hugo said of Les Misérables: “This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the Infinite. Man is the second.” Two great personages. He also says: “we must say that every time we encounter man in the Infinite, either well or ill understood, we feel ourselves overpowered with respect.” The infinite, in man, is the moment where he proves capable of what he did not know himself to be capable of. His infinity reveals itself, in that his capacities are no longer limited: at any moment, a historical opportunity, an encounter in his life, or a change, allow him to act even without knowing of his own capacity to do what he is doing. And that is how we encounter the infinite. Hugo concludes: “At the same time that there is an infinite without us, is there not an infinite within us? Are not these two infinites (what an alarming plural!) superposed, the one upon the other? Is not this second infinite, so to speak, subjacent to the first?” This is extremely profound. Hugo is not interested in simply opposing the finite and the infinite, but in the possibility that there exist different infinites. Indeed, human potentiality moves within the possibility that there exist infinites that are not only made up of finite and infinite, but which are infinites of different dimensions. Revolt and revolution are a moment of this kind. A moment in which this unknown infinite overtakes all the already experienced infinites.

The current era is a moment of negation of the infinite: we are taught that we must find our place within an irreparable finitude. The Hugolian figure — that of the multiplicity of infinites, within which thought and action can move — is in our time seen as a totally impracticable poetic fiction. Hugo continues: “The negation of the infinite leads straight to nihilism. Everything becomes ‘a mental conception.’ With nihilism, no discussion is possible; for the nihilist logic doubts the existence of its interlocutor, and is not quite sure that it exists itself … A faith; this is a necessity for man. Woe to him who believes nothing.” This is the Hugolian teaching: woe to him who believes nothing. This is not religious; it is the conviction that something like the (internal) infinite can exist. We are not programmed to find the “right place” in the world such as it is; we have to get in motion and find the opportunity to deploy this internal infinite. The nihilist is the typical contemporary figure — the man who has no illusions in anything and no longer believes in anything, except in getting settled down where he can live in peace, as best he can. Hugo would have replied: Woe to this man! This is a dead man!

The sixth reason pertains to class analysis. Here, we have an unexpected connection between Hugo and Marx.... Even though I think Hugo knew nothing of Marx, or even of his existence. Hugo really saw something that has become very important, in terms of the becoming of politics and revolutions: namely, that we should not imagine the bourgeoisie’s power to be the power of a small and separate oligarchy. Its power is rooted in the constitution of a very broad consensus, including a large section of the petit bourgeoisie and the middle classes. Hugo gives us a path to understanding what we call the West, the Western world: that is, the part of the world in which part of the population, including those who are not in any way part of the ruling aristocracy, give their support to this system because their interests are, essentially, satisfied — and that is more important to them than gambling on anything else. “Who arrests revolutions half-way?,” Hugo asks. “The bourgeoisie? Why? Because the bourgeoisie is interest which has reached satisfaction. Yesterday it was appetite, to-day it is plenitude, tomorrow it will be satiety. … The attempt has been made[by the communists, he means], and wrongly, to make a class of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is simply the contented portion of the people. The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down. A chair is not a caste. … Selfishness is not one of the divisions of the social order.” This could be questioned, in certain respects: but it remains very useful for understanding our world — that is, our bourgeois world. Grouped around the narrow oligarchy, there exist plenty of other interests that have “reached satisfaction.”

Finally, there is the seventh and last reason: Hugo speaks to us today both in a diagnostic sense and with regard to the subjective line to follow. The period in which he wrote Les Misérables was, like our own period, one of apparent setback for all attempts at revolution. The revolutions of 1848, which roused immense forces across all Europe, all failed — they all ended with forms of restoration and personal dictatorship… Hugo conducted his meditation in conditions similar to our own. Everywhere, there are obvious setbacks. For the moment, capitalism has won everything. Our subjective situation, as I make a habit of saying, is closer to the 1840s–50s than the last century. Everything has to be picked up and remade. We have to hold firm to this conviction. We still need the Idea: “Will the future arrive?,” Hugo asks. “It seems as though we might almost put this question, when we behold so much terrible darkness. Melancholy face-to-face encounter of selfish and wretched. … Shall we continue to raise our eyes to heaven? Is the luminous point which we distinguish there one of those which vanish? The ideal is frightful to behold, thus lost in the depths, small, isolated, imperceptible, brilliant, but surrounded by those great, black menaces, monstrously heaped around it; yet no more in danger than a star in the maw of the clouds.” This is our world: the Idea in the maw of the clouds, like a star, surrounded by menaces, lost in the depths, imperceptible… but perhaps also irreducible.

So what line should we follow in these times of defeat, or retreat? This one: “The past is very strong, it is true, at the present moment. It censures. This rejuvenation of a corpse is surprising. Behold, it is walking and advancing. It seems a victor; this dead body is a conqueror. He arrives with his legions, superstitions, with his sword, despotism, with his banner, ignorance; a while ago, he won ten battles. He advances, he threatens, he laughs, he is at our doors. Let us not despair, on our side. Let us sell the field on which Hannibal is encamped. What have we to fear, we who believe? There is no back-flow of ideas, any more than a river can reverse its course.” If you are tempted by renunciation, passively settling down, think of this maxim: “There is no back-flow of ideas, any more than a river can reverse its course.”
 

This text, transcribed (and amended by Alain Badiou) for publication on the Ballast site, was originally a talk that Alain Badiou gave at the Musée de quai Branly on 6 May 2015, entitled ‘Les Misérables’. This talk was part of the ‘Université populaire du quai Branly’, whose theme was ‘The great revolts’. 

All quotes from the English translation of Les Misérables are taken from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/135/135-h/135-h.htm, some edited.