Sunday, December 20, 2015

Victor Hugo and the Joker

Batman first, and now the upcoming Suicide Squad. As consumers of books and cinema, we love our Joker. Love his deviancy, his devilish mind. A grand villain shines in a graphic novel. He makes a film.

It is a fact - and I will let you discover that on your own - that when the Joker was imagined, he was based, at least physically, on this guy here. This guy, his name is Gwynplaine and he existed long before in Victor Hugo's wonderful novel, L'Homme Qui Rit - the man who laughs.

The plot of L'Homme Qui Rit is one of survival, love and identity. Gwynplaine's character is a far-cry from the Joker he has become. Yes, they both have that eternal mouth slit, revealing a somewhat grotesque smile, but their natures are entirely opposites. Sure, they are both outcasts of society, they probably both see clearly the world's injustices, but popular culture has obscured their differences, at least for those who have not read Victor Hugo.

The Joker
Courtesy DC Wikia

It is unfortunate. Unfortunate that a character who possessed not a shred of criminal behavior is known only today through his psychopathic offspring. Because Gwynplaine was not unlike Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean in Les Miserables - Jean Valjean who time and time again redeems himself, demonstrating endless humanity and selflessness. In the same manner, Gwynplaine who initially errs in the plot of L'Homme Qui Rit, and allows himself to be flattered by fate reversals, becomes, at the end of the novel, utterly self-sacrificing, placing humankind, love and friendship above everything.

For me this is never more true as when Gwynplaine speaks up in the House of Lords. He is himself a Lord, has been from birth, until he was abducted as a child, defaced by comprachicos (child buyers), and abandoned to die. He survived. He lived for years with a hermit named Ursus and his dog, both entertaining the masses in 17th century England. The crowds, poor and rich, come in droves to see that permanent smile upon his face. To them he is a clown and were he to weep inside, they still would believe he is laughing.

Gwynplaine and Dea entertain the crowds

Found again through Queen Anne's intervention, by some miracle of fate, Gwynplaine experiences a reversal of fortune. Once again, he is Lord. He is wealthy. But Gwynplaine has enough conscience to speak his mind and he attempts to enact change. Gwynplaine, who knows and understands the sufferings of the world, having endured for years, addresses the House of Lords and explains what he has seen.

Gwynplaine addresses the Chamber of the Lords, 19th century illustration

This is Victor Hugo speaking, make no mistake. Victor Hugo, after all, is more than any author, the friend of the poors. And so for me, it was one of the gem passages in L'Homme Qui Rit.

And addressing himself haughtily to Gwynplaine:

- Who are you? Where do you come from?

Gwynplaine replied:

- From the abyss. Who am I? I am misery. Mylords, I wish to speak with you.

There was a shudder, and a silence. Gwynplaine continued.

- Mylords, you are above. It is well. One must believe that God has his reasons for this. You have the power, the opulence, the joy, the sun sits immobile upon your zenith, the authority without boundaries, the enjoyment free of sharing, the immense oversight of others. So be it. But there is something that exists beneath you. And above you perhaps. Mylords, I come to bring you the news. Humankind exists. 

I am one who comes from the depths. 
Mylords, you are great and wealthy. It is perilous. You take advantage of the night. But be on your guard, there is a great power, an aurora. The dawn can not be vanquished. She will come. She comes. She has in her, the spring of the irresistible day. And who would prevent this sling from tossing the sun into the sky? The sun, it gives the right. You, you embody privilege. Be afraid. 

The true master of the house will strike at the door. 
What is the father of privilege?
And who is her son?

Neither fate nor abuse are solid. They have, one and the other, an adverse tomorrow.
I come to warn you.

I come to denounce your happiness. It is made of the unhappiness of others.
You have everything, and this everything is composed of the nothing of others.

Mylords, I am the desperate lawyer, and I plead a lost cause.
This cause, God will win it again. 
Me, I am nothing but a voice.
Humankind is a mouth of which I am the cry.
You will hear me. 

More than ever today, Gwynplaine and his cause are relevant. But his honest message has been buried.
The Joker, like Daesh, they are both extreme examples of dissatisfied outcasts, pariahs of society who, outraged by a corrupt universe, rebel through crime and bring nothing other than suffering and outrage. They hurt innocents and leave the infrastructures they wish to topple unchanged or more manipulative and powerful than ever. They reinforce schisms and intolerance.
They are figures we understand as evil because they are evil. And in fighting evil we forget the root and causes.

Gwynplaine, like Victor Hugo, understands this root, he only speaks his truth. He threatens nothing. He says:

I come to denounce your happiness. It is made of the unhappiness of others.
You have everything, and this everything is composed of the nothing of others.

Yet like the Lords who end up laughing at him, we laugh every day and every moment that this truth is encountered and ignored.

I wanted to give homage to Gwynplaine in this post because for me it was important. The Joker has one nature, Gwynplaine has quite another.

Victor Hugo,drawing