"Les Miserables" is a story not so much of love and misery, but of the utter obstinacy of people more devoted to their own grief than to life around them.
Perhaps you know someone like that. Don't throw away all your chances, giving them chances.
Hiroo Onoda died last week.
Mr. Onoda may be immortalized as the stubbornest man ever to put on a uniform, having spent 29 years in a Philippine jungle spying on American troop movements – after the Japanese Empire had already surrendered in 1945. Multiple searches, featuring his wife imploring him over loudspeakers to give up, failed to lure him from the jungle. It was only orders of a new assignment from a senior officer, which persuaded Mr. Onoda to climb out of the underbrush in 1974.
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I don’t know why I am still surprised to learn about new things. Some kind of arrogance or sublime ignorance deludes me into believing I’ve heard and seen it all, except for the next moment when I am forcibly reminded that I have heard and seen almost nothing. But I’m getting used to this now – like Hiroo Onoda, there are moments when I feel that I have finally walked out of the jungle and been re-introduced into an unrecognizable world. It is a good thing to be discovered on an island.
So it was with “Les Mis”, the epic musical which finally got my attention over the holiday season (29 years after it first appeared on Broadway, so I’m keeping up with Hiroo Onoda on the stubbornness scale). The Toronto production, which we saw in its final days just yesterday, features some artful stagecraft and a few performances of such sublime beauty that words really fail to describe it.
Les Mis goes on a bit – twenty years or so, actually (forty if you count Jean Valjean’s years in prison). The show is billed as being about “love, misery and hope” – all of which are prominently featured – but what it is really about is inveterate, immoveable obstinacy. Most of them stick to their beliefs with a tenacity that costs them their lives (twice: first being miserable while alive and then, by dying).
Almost all of the characters suffer from wilful blindness (the most obdurate of all is Javert, whose name ought by now to be a word in French meaning “blockhead”) and it is hard to fault the early 19th Century French for having limited horizons – life truly was nasty, brutish and short back then, after all. It is almost as if their experience of life is so intense, so blinding in its power, that nothing else is visible; it is the magic of Les Mis that, while they are trapped in this blinding and hopeless situation, we feel their agony so acutely.
The most sympathetic of these souls, perhaps, is Eponine: born to truly awful parents, surviving on the streets and most unfortunately of all, completely besotted with the attractively dim Marius. It is bad enough for Eponine to be in love with the rich school boy, but things turn dark indeed when Marius spots the perfectly pink, perfectly blonde Cossette across the way. He is smitten and Eponine is drafted into the thankless torture of delivering love notes to the shining apple of Marius’ desire.
This is a collision of obstinate souls: Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius who in turn, is hopelessly in love with Cossette (think Helena, Demetrius and Hermia. Thankfully Lysander didn’t show up too). Tired of loving “on my own”, Eponine decides to die on the revolutionary barricades rather than endure another day of her own feelings. And she does. Again, it is a tribute to the show itself and those who perform it, that this proves gut-wrenching to witness.
On the afternoon prior to witnessing Eponine’s fate, I was introduced to another truly, hopeless romantic: Jackson Frank. All those years in the jungle had kept me ignorant of him, too. Jackson Frank wrote and recorded “Blues Run the Game” in 1965 and others have covered it in the following years. All the others probably fared better in life than Frank did, and I imagine the reason is that while they could sing the song, they didn’t actually live it. Jackson Frank, apparently did, and he died from it too: broke and broken by a wall of depression that fell upon him too early, that he could never lift.
The song is beautiful, with a wise and almost sardonic self-knowledge that can be a curse if you let it:
Send out for whisky, baby,
Send out for gin,
Me and room service, honey,
Me and room service, babe,
Me and room service
Well, we're living a life of sin
When I ain't drinking, baby,
You are on my mind,
When I ain't sleeping, honey,
When I ain't sleeping, Mama,
When I ain't sleeping
Well you know you'll find me crying.
The song itself is gorgeous, a woolly, sweet and smoky thing. Like a glass of Scotch, strong to the taste and instantly affecting. I felt its glow inside me. It brought back memories of a girl, a bar, bad poetry and a sang, when the blues ran the game.
One suspects, though, that Jackson Frank knew “the blues run the game” too intensely and too long. Frank seems to have been a vulnerable soul, the survivor of a boyhood school explosion that left him physically scarred and psychologically fragile. He swallowed too much booze, steeped in it, slid from promise into poverty and was rescued too late. He died in his 50s – the way so many do, on the day after his birthday. A romantic view might be that Frank died of lost love; a more realistic opinion is that he died of obstinacy, from clinging too long and too fiercely to his own suffering.
As I recounted earlier this month, I know what it means to live with someone like Jackson Frank. And so I must admit that a black cold crept into me as I listened, and listened again, to “Blues Run the Game.” I would like to have written that song but I am damned glad not to have really lived it more than sporadically. Because, as pungent as sorrow can be – as alluring as it can be too – it must not run the game.
Jackson Frank’s song, and from all accounts his life too, was defined by an inability to climb out of the long, deep dark well of grief. A grief that cannot be escaped. It is that certitude, that there is no escape, which makes death the only way out of the dark. Whether slow or long, the road to the end is still the same road. The blues can run the game, for an hour or even months at a time. Most of us can be distracted by outside realities soon enough to re-engage with life, pulling ourselves up before we drown in grief. But for some, the blues are more stubborn.
There is another kind of grief: the kind that haunts and shadows you, in between moments of light. It may start out feeling like the blues run the game, but under all that snow, locked in the frozen soil, life still stirs. Life, in fact, can be even more tenacious than grief. It takes a supreme kind of human stubborness – the obstinacy of Javert and Eponine, for example – to overcome life and surrender fully to being miserable.
C.S. Lewis was almost that stubborn a man until he was, in his own words “surprised by joy” – first by God and later, by a woman. It was unexpected and welcome to Lewis when he met and fell in love with Joy Gresham: a person so powerful, so important to him, that he was prepared to break out of his shell, stop using words as defensive weapons and actually surrender his heart. And then, cruelly, she was afflicted with cancer and after a long illness, died.
As in his other journeys, Lewis was generous with what he learned: his “A Grief Observed” tells us what it is like to find, briefly hold and then brutally lose, true love. The book (and the beautiful film version of it, called “Shadowlands”) owns part of me. Some months ago, struggling to be of any possible use to someone coping with the death of his beloved, I gave my friend a copy of “A Grief Observed.” And just this week my friend quoted to me a passage which he said, describes the experience of mourning:
What is grief compared with physical pain? Whatever fools may say, the body can suffer twenty times more than the mind. The mind has always some power of evasion. At worst, the unbearable thought only comes back and back, but the physical pain can be absolutely continuous. Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment. Thought is never static; pain often is.
“Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead.” Yes, that is true – if you believe that the normal state of life is not to have bombs dropped upon you. If you believe in the force of life, trapped in your frozen soil. If you can somehow even pretend that there is an urgent hunger somewhere in the world for your presence, even in the absence of proof. If you can hang on.
There is, of course, a gulf between grief and depression. Grief is the aching agony of loss – of the loss of something precious, alive and beautiful. To grieve is to know joy is possible. Depression is the knowledge certain that this precious thing is not only gone, but does not and can never again, exist. That no such things can exist. Simply put, if you are in pain then you are alive, and you still hear the whisper of hope. But if you are depressed then that voice is silent – or perhaps you are just deaf – and all that is left is to endure living, until living is done.
To grieve is not to be depressed, nor is grief a sure path to depression. But a prolonged devotion to grief, pre-occupied with the object of loss and the pain of missing someone or something, can dim the senses till we lose touch with life. This, I imagine, is what Jackson Frank did to himself, in all those hotel rooms full of gin and tears. Wounded, he kept the wound open, perhaps to do what the Nine Inch Nails described so well, so many years later:
I hurt myself today
To see if I could feel
I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real
No doubt there are complex chemical and circumstantial causes which make a person vulnerable to such a collapse, to such an obstinate belief that life is empty. One way to become depressed is to forget that someone else needs you, to forget that when your soil goes sterile, other flowers cannot bloom.
I grew up with people like this, stubbornly married to their unhappiness. They didn’t just live in sin with room service – they married it. They either forgot, or didn’t care, that their feelings weren’t bigger than the world. You may know one of them too: the ache in them is so deep that it has blotted out all the other things that might stir inside. They can’t see the stars for their own clouds. It is an exhausting thing living with such people.
If you’re tied to one of these poor souls, you will feel pretty weighed-down much of the time. Here’s the thing to remember about them: they’re wrong. They are wrong first about you – you matter more than their misery. And however blue they may feel, their condition is not necessarily fatal – they don’t have to die on the barricades to escape agaony. They may not know the way out – and you probably can’t pull them out by yourself - but if you can get them to look up and see the light, even for a moment, they might be reminded that life can be more than the pain. That may be all you can do, to get them to look up.
But it may not be enough. So the other thing to remember is this: it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault that they’re in the dark, and it’s not your fault if they won’t come out. They just can’t hear your song.
* * *
Once finally relieved of military duty, Hiroo Onoda enjoyed a wide popularity and sank his teeth into life with renewed vigour. “I do everything twice as fast so I can make up for the 30 years,” Onoda said. “I wish someone could eat and sleep for me so I can work 24 hours a day.”
The man didn’t whine about his extended tour of duty in World War II, either: “I don’t consider those 30 years a waste of time,” Onoda said in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press. “Without that experience, I wouldn’t have my life today.”
I’m really glad Hiroo came out of the jungle.