Scott (squid314) wrote,

♫ Valjean - at last - we see each other plain ♫

[Spoiler Warning | Minor spoilers for Les Miserables.]

I'm stuck for a couple of days just outside New City, New York. Trying to figure out if the mayor is named Mayor SimMayor, no luck as of yet.

Speaking of mayors with repetitive-sounding names, I finally got a chance to see the Les Miserables movie tonight with my cousin.

I did not dislike Jean Valjean's voice as much as most other people. I did dislike Marius' voice more than most other people, and wondered the whole time whether he was stoically filming a musical despite having a terrible head cold.

I thought Javert had a very good voice, but I was disappointed with his character overall. I feel like the actor who played him is probably a nice person in real life. He gave off a friendly, avuncular vibe. This is not the vibe one wants Inspector Javert to have. Worse, every time he made an on screen appearance, he was screwing up in some way - falsely accusing the wrong person, falsely accusing himself of falsely accusing the wrong person, or just letting Valjean get away. He pretty quickly picked up a bumbling cop vibe, a sort of 19th-century French Chief Wiggum. "I am the law, and the law is not mocked." Sorry. This Javert totally can be mocked.

Not that I would want to mock him. He looks so sad. If I met him I would just want to give him a hug.

Fantine was a great actress and a great singer. Both Cosettes were great actresses and very pretty, although adult Cosette sort of seemed too pretty, like she was a doll who sat around being pretty but not really having a part of her own. I liked little Cosette better. And speaking of little, obviously Gavroche stole the show.

Despite some of the problems, the overall film was very good and gave me exactly the emotional effect I would expect to get from Les Miserables. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Afterwards I went to dinner with my cousin, who had no previous familiarity with the story. She said "I really liked the movie, except for that one part where Jean Valjean spares Inspector Javert's life. Javert straight out said he wasn't going to change. Sparing him was just dumb." And I can sort of sympathize, but...

I fell in love with Les Miserables via the soundtrack, from the first time I actually understood what was going on in the scene with the bishop and his silver (which was not the first time I listened to that song).

One of the classic philosophical questions goes: "Is evil merely the absence of good?" Strip the religious baggage and you could equally well ask "Is good merely the absence of evil?" I think I used to be sympathetic to this second question. If you don't cheat on any tests, don't harm any other people, don't contribute to the destruction of the planet, and otherwise avoid evil, you are...well, further toward being a good person than most people ever manage.

Giving to charity does better, but when I give to charity it has always been out of a sort of guilt motive, the realization that I have so much and other people have so little and that unless I am very selfish indeed, I really ought to give a little of it to them. Someone who gives a lot of money to charity is avoiding evil - particularly greed and selfishness - even better than someone who just doesn't cheat on tests, but it still seemed to me just a more advanced extension of being non-evil.

That bishop had every excuse in the world to turn Valjean over to the police. No one would have called him evil for it; he would not have had to feel a second's guilt. On an emotional level - I'm not trying to make a philosophical case here, because I know that you can spin this one to non-evil too - but on an emotional level that was what first opened up this vast chasm between "non-evil" and "good" to me.

And then later in the story, when Valjean risked his own life to save Javert, that was another example. Now Les Miserables is at two examples of this goodness-beyond-non-evil that I had never recognized so much as even one example of it before.

Believing that goodness is something other than non-evil has been comforting to me. Once I recognized goodness - Plato would say "apprehended its form" - I got a little more motivation from my desire to be good than I had from my previous desire just to avoid evil. There have even been some times when it has changed my behavior, just a little.

There was one time I was with my grandmother, who loves to spoil me. I was buying something, probably a book, and she really wanted to pay for it as a gift to me. Usually in this situation I say no and buy it myself - I like being independent and not feeling any obligation to anyone else. This would have been the non-evil thing to do. It would have made me look like a good person, satisfied my social obligations, and made me an exemplar of various oft-respected virtues. Instead I gave in and let her buy me the book, which made her very happy - and saved her an argument in which I made her feel like I was doing her a favor by "allowing" her.

I know that as a sign of my moral progress, "I let someone else buy me something I wanted" is super unimpressive. But that's sort of the point. Anything that looks like an impressive sign of morality doesn't count as this weird Valjean-level super-moral skill. If it looked like an impressive sign of morality, it would be satisfying some moral obligation and it would just be non-evil. My own still-feeble abilities to understand good-beyond-nonevil sound (and are) silly. Valjean's is an expert at this skill even in his most important life decisions, and so he looks stupid, at least to my cousin.

I think there might be a corresponding epistemic skill, a correctness as opposed to being very good at avoiding error, a correctness-beyond-the-level-of-obligation. It is being correct even when you have complete social sanction to be incorrect, even when it makes you look stupid to everyone else. I am not yet very skilled in this area either, but I am feeling pretty good about myself for recognizing it exists.
Tags: literature, movies
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