Victor Hugo

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Hugo, Victor Marie [Vicomte] (26 February 1802 - 22 May 1885)

Hugo, whose fame is attributable as much to his political courage as to his literary output, wrote fiction, dramatic works, and poetry that has inspired devotees of romanticism for ages. Leopold, his father, met Sophie, his mother, while being a revolutionary officer during the republican army’s travels through western France. Victor, the third of their four children, was born two years before Napoleon’s coronation. He rarely saw his father, who as General Count Leopold Hugo governed Central Spain during the Peninsular War. During that war his troops nailed their enemies’ decapitated heads for all to see. Meanwhile, his mother was the lover of Victor de Lahorie, a fugitive military officer wanted by Napoleon’s secret police for his having conspired against the emperor. As described in Graham Robb’s biography, Victor Hugo (1998), Hugo’s father said his son had been conceived on a mountainside in southeast France. Hugo became a patron saint of human freedom despite his unorthodox childhood. Or, in Robb’s words, “The seemingly accidental wisdom of his mature work owes much to that endless patience with insoluble riddles which Hugo describes as the principal advantage of a miserable childhood.” Robb goes into detail about Hugo’s vast sexual energies for, in addition to his wife and Juliette, Hugo also paired up with actresses, maids, the barber’s wife, his son’s mistress, and others who could be seduced by the greatest master of the rhymed couplet.

Jean Cocteau in noting his colossal ego once quipped that “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo,” but Zola scholar Frederick Brown and others think that misses the point, “that fame may have been what girded Hugo against madness. Eugene, his brother, ended up in a lunatic asylum.” Hugo is said to have enjoyed séances and reveled in the recognition that life is filled with paradoxes. Not surprisingly, some of the hierarchs of the Catholic Church thought him to be insane.

The sufferings of mankind, presented with compassion and literary skill, are depicted in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862). Hugo eventually was elected to the French national assembly and the senate, and he is buried in the Panthéon.

In unfinished stories such as La Fin de Satan and Dieu, he expressed his outlook about the nature of the Universe. Critic Paul Berman (in The New Yorker, 26 January 1998) found that one such “sappy” poem, “Magnitudo Parvi” about stars and huts and the universe, makes Hugo look “like a man orating in front of a mirror. You find yourself wondering if, for all his talent, he wasn’t essentially a fake.”

Whether or not Hugo was a philosophic naturalist or a strict non-believer, two of his books were named in the Vatican’s list of prohibited reading in 1834 and 1864, respectively. According to Joseph McCabe, Renan met Hugo shortly before his death and was told by Hugo that Christianity would soon disappear and men would believe only in “God, the soul, and responsibility.” McCabe has commented, “Like most poets and literary men, Hugo had more confidence than depth in his opinions about religion, and expressed them with an emphasis that scientific men usually avoid.”

In a play of his Ninety-three, one of the lines is

  • An intelligent Hell would be better than a stupid Paradise.

At one time George Foote called Hugo a “fervent Theist, reverencing the prophet of Nazareth as a man, and holding that the ‘divine tear’ of Jesus and ‘the human smile’ of Voltaire ‘compose the sweetness of the present civilization.” He added that Hugo became a freethinker, free “from the trammels of creeds, and he hated priestcraft, like despotism, with a perfect hatred. In one of his striking later poems, ‘Religion et les Religions,’ he derides and denounces the tenets and pretensions of Christianity. The Devil, he says to the clergy, is only the monkey of superstition; your Hell is an outrage on Humanity and a blasphemy against God; and when you tell me that your deity made you in his own image, I reply that he must be very ugly.” Hugo’s great oration on Voltaire, in 1878, roused the ire of the Bishop of Orleans, who reprimanded him in a public letter. The freethinking poet sent a crushing reply:

  • France had to pass an ordeal. France was free. A man traitorously seized her in the night, threw her down and garroted her. If a people could be killed, that man had slain France. He made her dead enough for him to reign over her. He began his reign, since it was a reign, with perjury, lying in wait, and massacre. He continued it by oppression, by tyranny, by despotism, by an unspeakable parody of religion and justice. He was monstrous and little. The Te Deum, Magnificat, Gloria tibi, were sung for him. Who sang them? Ask yourself. The law delivered the people up to him. The Church delivered God up to him. Under that man sank down right, honour, country; he had beneath his feet oath, equity, probity, the glory of the flag, the dignity of men, the liberty of citizens. That man’s prosperity disconcerted the human conscience. It lasted nineteen years. During that time you were in a palace. I was in exile. I pity you, sir.

Concerning this, Foote remarked, “Despite this terrible rebuff to Bishop Dupanlocup, another priest, Cardinal Guibert, Archbishop of Paris, had the temerity and bad taste to obtrude himself when Victor Hugo lay dying in 1885. Being born on February 26, 1802, the poet was in his eighty-fourth year, and expiring naturally of old age. Had the rites of the Church been performed on him in such circumstances, it would have been an insufferable farce. Yet the Archbishop wrote to Madame Lockroy, offering to bring personally ‘the succor and consolation so much needed in these cruel ordeals.’ ” Monsieur Lockroy at once replied, according to the London Times (23 May 1885) as follows:

  • Madame Lockroy, who cannot leave the bedside of her father-inlaw, begs me to thank you for the sentiments which you have expressed with so much eloquence and kindness. As regards M. Victor Hugo, he has again said within the last few days, that he had no wish during his illness to be attended by a priest of any persuasion. We should be wanting in our duty if we did not respect his resolution.

Hugo’s death-chamber was thus unprofaned by the presence of a priest. He expired in peace, surrounded by the beings he loved.

His lack of consistency about religion has been commented upon by Colin McCall, who has written that Hugo dabbled in Spiritualism, suspected some supernatural hanky-panky, and held some belief in an unknowable God and a future life. Yet he was anti-Catholic and his revolutionary humanism included being opposed to the death penalty. Basically, Hugo was an anti-clerical, freedom-loving, rationalistic Deist.

Juliette Drouet, his long-suffering mistress for over half a century, had complained that he used her toothbrush, wore filthy underwear, had deplorable personal hygiene, and once gave her fleas. She died in his arms two years before his own death. Suffering from pneumonia and certain that he was about to die, Hugo told Paul Meurice, a close friend, “Death will be very welcome,” whereupon just before slipping into a coma he said softly, “I see black light.” According to the Times correspondent in Paris, “Almost his last words, addressed to his grand-daughter, were, ‘Adieu, Jeanne, adieu!’ And his last movement of consciousness was to clasp his grandson’s hand.”

There was great mourning at his death. Biographers Samuel Edwards and Joanna Richardson report he never came out of the coma. In order for a national funeral to be held, religionists arranged for the Pantheon to be secularized: the cross had to be removed. “All Paris” - two million or so, more than the city’s entire population—attended his funeral. True to the simplicity of his life he ordered that his body should lie in a common coffin, and his pauper’s hearse contrasted vividly with the splendid procession.

{BDF; CE; FFRF; FO; ILP; JM; Colin McCall, The Freethinker, April, 1998; RAT; RE; Graham Robb, Victor Hugo: A Biography (1998); TRI; TYD}