This was a lot less of a slog than I was anticipating. I think, in large part, because I'm concentrating on each book at a time and not reading it straight through as a single coherent novel (I'm going "oh god, I need to get caught up!" and only reading what I need to for each book for this discussion).
This book struck me, through most of it, as Hugo having no real conception as to what the convent, as opposed to the monastery, means. He touches on it at the end, thank god, because I kept going "But Victor, there is freedom for the woman in not being preyed on by people like you!"
The second chapter, The Convent as Historical Fact, talks horribly about the convents of Italy and Spain - but it never goes into what women's married lives were like in Italy and Spain in the medieval and Renaissance heyday of convents. I'm far from an expert in the period, but when even I know that in Renaissance Venice, you had more freedom as a courtesan or a nun than you did as a married woman when it came to education, intellectual hobbies, writing, art - can you blame those women who elected the convent rather than prostitution? (Mère Innocente, in the next book, strikes me as a relic from that earlier period - in 1824, she has options outside the convent to exercise her mind, but within the convent, she has been permitted both study and leadership; she seems to see herself as subordinate to no man.)
Some of Hugo's objections are also based very much in his society though he tries to justify them as universal. Chapter 3 begins, "Monasticism, as it was in Spain, as it is in Tibet, is a disease to civilisation. It cuts off life. In a word, it depopulates. Incarceration, castration." Now, that last sentences goes straight to Hugo's personal issues, that a man who loves sex as much as he does cannot imagine a world without it as at all good. The depopulation thread, however, is interesting: France has a long history of fear of depopulation. Population growth throughout the nineteenth century was rapid, but France was always comparing itself demographically to Britain and Germany and felt itself coming up short even when it had better population growth than its perceived rivals. So the monasteries and convents, keeping people out of the breeding population, were dangerous for the future, even though they did not much take in the peasantry and served as a release valve for "overpopulation" of the upper classes, allowing the consolidation of estates by putting collateral heirs outside of the need for an inheritance. Hugo acknowledges this, but his insistence that monasticism depopulates, which it does not do to a meaningful degree (or even have a meaningful retardation of the growth rate, as opposed to creating a negative growth rate as he implies), is very much a production of nineteenth century social thought.
A bit later, as he's ranting, he says, "The persistence of superannuated institutions in striving to perpetuate themselves is like the obstinacy of a rancid perfume clinging to the hair, to the pretension of spoiled fish that insists on being eaten, the tenacious folly of a child's garment trying to clothe a man, or the tenderness of a corpse returning to embrace the living." I think this phrase is also generally political - it's one of those phrases that may have been written with Louis-Napoleon half in mind, though it also screams "Ultraroyalism" in the 1820s, the party of Charles X.
Chapter 4 is where we finally get a bit of appreciation for the ideal under which the communities were originally founded. "Where community exists, there likewise exists the true body politic, and where the latter is, there too is justice. The monastery is the product of the formula, 'Equality, Fraternity.' Oh! How great is Liberty! And how glorious the transfiguration! Liberty is enough to transform the monastery into a republic!" This is straight Enlightenment political thought that you'll see in both Locke and Rousseau. And it is perhaps true of the monastery. But Hugo continually makes no distinction between monastery and convent, and the very difference between male and female, at his period and in the past he is describing, is tremendously important.
Skipping to Chapter 6, I actually start to get caught up in Hugo's religious issues. "To set up a theory that lacks a source of truth in an excellent example of blind assurance." He's trying to use this to castigate atheists, though it is one of those truisms of religious discussion that both sides lack a source of truth that the other side will accept. He goes on, "There are, we know, illustrious and powerful atheists. These men, in fact, led back again toward truth by their own power, are not absolutely sure of being atheists; with them, the matter is nothing but a question of definitions, and, at all events, even if they do not believe in God, they prove God, because they are great minds." Kind of makes you want to smack him, doesn't it? With science still in an infant state, can you really blame the Deists for accepting a non-interventionist God when they feel the story of Creation is crap but they cannot prove otherwise? Can you blame the agnostics for being certain that they are uncertain? That logic and reasoning and science tells us all this doesn't hold up, so it's probable that there may be another explanation? Shut up about the moles, Victor - they pity those poor creatures who talk about something that can't exist. You're a creature of the underground, too - why do you believe in the difference between sun and bonfire when you only know the warming and cooling and have no view of what causes it? (Atheists living a century and a half after this was written were not Hugo's target audience.)
Chapter 8 ("Faith, Law"), has some pretty bits at the beginning about mental labour, and at least he backpedals a bit from his ranting: "We blame the Church when it is saturated with intrigues; we despise the spiritual when it is harshly austere to the temporal; but always we honor the thoughtful man." But it's only here that we at last get any recognition for what the convent itself means, as opposed to the monastery. "for woman suffers most under our system of society, and in this exile of the cloister there is an element of protest" - why is this, the most important part of the whole damned thing, this beginning of understanding the purpose and long existence of the convent, a mere parenthesis? If you understand that protest, and respect that this protest against women's condition is good, why leave it a mere parenthesis? This isn't just Hugo being a product of his society and his usual other not-so-advanced views on women. Because he does get it. But it isn't important to him, even when supposedly describing the convent. And that drives me nuts. Not because I expect better of him in feminist terms, but because this whole parenthesis is supposed to be about the convent, and it isn't. It is never about the convent, it is about the monastery, and the only acknowledgment of the difference comes in a parenthesis at the end and undermines a large part of his argument. Women have no liberty in the outside world, so mightn't they consider the rule of a convent freer than the rule of men? He's moved into generalities here rather than just the Bernardine-Benedictines, so I suppose I can, too, in my critique of his poorly stated argument.
If he's going to argue against the convent, as he claims he will do at the beginning of this book, then he should argue against the convent. Not the monasteries, for they are not the same, being constructed by men, for men, ruled by men. The convents, many orders being founded by women, but always for women and ruled by women, have always been different because they are a women's institution that provides a respite from a society that is men's institution! Make your argument, Victor; don't just pretend you will and then argue something else! And yes, I am arguing from the perspective of the founders of orders and the women who chose to enter these institutions; sadly, they often served as a place to imprison "wayward" women, those who refused marriages or were not "ideal" wives or came from families that could not afford dowries and thus had to dispose of their daughters (or at least their younger or less attractive daughters as they could not provide for all). There is plenty to be angry about re: convents, but the lack of sex and the lack of "liberty" aren't exactly the arguments to be made here.
Of course, then he pulls around all Romantic on us to describe the "certain majesty" of the cloister: "This monastic existence, austere and gloomy as it is, of which we have indicated a few characteristics, is not life, for it is not liberty; it is not the grave, for it is not completion; it is that strange place from which, as from the summit of a lofty mountain, we see, on one side, the abyss in which we are, an, on the other, the abyss where we are to be; it is a narrow and misty boundary separating two worlds, at once illuminated and obscured by both, where the faint ray of life mingles with the uncertain ray of death; it is the twilight of the tomb."
The man can drive me crazy when I'm looking for logical, reasoned analysis, but damn, his writing can be beautiful
ETA: I also wanted to add a link to this article from the International Herald Tribune: Bringing a Monastery Back to Life
, about the Erdene Zuu monastery in Mongolia. Not that Hugo had even this much info, I suspect, when talking about monasteries in Tibet (Mongolia practices Tibetan Buddhism).
What kind of literature and what kind of life is the same question. - Tom Stoppard