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21 May 2015 @ 03:23 pm
Les Misérables and Trigun and a Comparison of Moral Systems  
The Passion and the Blood: A Comparison
(Les Misérables through a lens of Trigun)

(big spoilers for both)

In Les Misérables, the musical, the Bishop and Marius, for a time, sing the same melody, the Bishop singing early on about his hopes for Valjean's redemption and Marius, near the play's end, lamenting the deaths of all his friends on the barricade. What's the connection between these songs? Why the thematic echo?

Both songs discuss sacrifice for a noble cause. The Bishop invokes the death of Christ and other martyrs as an illustration of the tenacity of Christian commitment to redemption:

By the witness of the martyrs,
By the passion and the blood,
God has raised you out of darkness.
I have bought your soul for God.

Such great sacrifices in the name of love and kindness must, he suggests, inspire us to like acts of goodness, such as forgiving a thief by giving him the silver he stole, plus candlesticks, and inviting him to use it to start a new chapter in his life.

Seventeen years later, Marius is grieving the loss of his entire community in a failed rebellion. He is (understandably) stuck at:

Oh, my friends, my friends, don't ask me
What your sacrifice was for.

All he can see is:

Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

But we know, of course, that the ultimate message of Les Misérables is "tomorrow comes," or as Enjolras puts it in the book, "We are entering a grave illuminated by the dawn." The June Rebellion, the story argues, lays groundwork for the more successful revolution sixteen years later. In a broader sense, such commitment to the possibility of social reform becomes part of the arc of humanity toward social reform even when specific endeavors fail. As the Bishop contended, the passion and the blood are not wasted: the effects ripple out in unforeseen ways generations, indeed centuries, later.

Marius in is a stage of grief. He's feeling exactly as any decent person would in the circumstances, but what he's perceiving is not the whole story. There is a profound hope outside the proximate tragedy. This, I think, is the reason for the reuse of the melody.

An intriguing part of this parallel is the idea that the "passion and blood" of the barricade is akin to that of Christian martyrs and even Christ's crucifixion itself. These two types of sacrifice have similarities: they are both great acts of courage and willingness to suffer personal harm, even death, to help humanity. Yet the moral systems out of which these two types arise are also very different. The essence of Jesus's teaching is to love your neighbor and turn the other cheek. He eschews all violence and renders unto Caesar. His concern is with his own and other individuals' conduct, with the state of souls, not of sociopolitical systems.

The post-Rousseauvian age the ABC inhabits, however, is invested in changing sociopolitical systems: the goal is to overthrow Caesar and create a structure in which having a decent standard of living will be more easily attainable. Loving one's neighbor is excellent, but it should not be relied upon as the method for promoting decent treatment of all people in a complex nation state. The state itself should have a social contract that will (to a degree) mandate decent treatment through the enshrinement of rights. And to attain this goal, the ends often justify the means. The men on the barricade do not kill lightly, but they are very willing to kill. In these respects, their moral system is fundamentally unChristlike.

These two value systems, to some degree incommensurate, are both praised within Les Misérables, play and novel, so that the tensions between them are not readily apparent. The complexity of this discourse is thrown into sharper relief for me by comparison to the manga, Trigun.

Trigun provides a text in which these two systems are openly at war. The story concerns the antagonism between twin brothers, Vash and Knives, who are vastly powerful beings called Plants, designed to generate energy for humans. On their planet, Plants are exploited by humans in the struggle to survive ecological privation.

Vash's moral system is essentially Christlike: based on kind behavior, "peace and love," for everyone, a refusal to kill anyone, and a general lack of any kind of systemic social planning. Knives, the antagonist, does nothing but systemic social planning: he is an ardent revolutionary willing (indeed eager) to commit genocide against the entire human race on their planet in order to change the system that enslaves his Plant people to human needs.

Now, Knives's plan is obviously not good. And yet, it is a plan for pulling the ecosystem they all exist in out of a death spiral in which too many humans are being materially supported by too few Plants, with the result that both Plants and humans are slowly dying off, the Plants from overextension, the humans from lack of resources. Vash has no plan. Left to his own devices, the Plants and humans on their planet might very well go extinct for all he would actually do to prevent it (though he'd be very nice to them as they dwindle away).

Trigun pits Vash and Knives against each other. But the triumph of Trigun is a direct result of the agency of both. Vash does stop Knives from genocide, essentially by awakening both humans and Plants en masse to empathy for each other. Once they understand each other's suffering, they have a motive to find a peaceful solution. However, Vash would never have done this if Knives had not forced his hand by apocalyptically pushing his social reform agenda. The two value systems have elements that are incommensurate, yet—perhaps for this very reason—both are needed to break the social stalemate and achieve positive change.

So too, perhaps, in Les Misérables: the boys from the ABC were, to a degree, not good Christians—I dare posit a number of them weren't Christians at all. But agency such as theirs is needed, as surely as Valjean's or the Bishop's. A social system without individual human kindnesses will be a Brave New World at best, but humans without a decent social system will continue to suffer and die, Fantine after Fantine. Hope is born of individuals and systems both. The passion and the blood prove the worth of the dream.