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Leisure • Literature

Victor Hugo and the Art of Contempt

There have been few writers as brave as Victor Hugo. Over a turbulent sixty year career, he fought fiercely what he believed in: republican government, medieval architecture, an end to capital punishment, school and prison reform, a United States of Europe and the right to lead the kind of complicated private life that upsets prudes. We shouldn’t allow his posthumous acclaim to disguise how much he was, in certain quarters, loathed in his lifetime. 

Portrait of Victor Hugo, taken by Étienne Carjat, c. 1876

And yet, as his portrait suggests, he knew full well how to face critics down. In 1845, Hugo’s friend, the academic and politician Abel François Villemain, fell into despair because of rumours about his sexuality and attacks on his work by professional enemies. Only concern for his daughters prevented Villemain from killing himself. Fortunately Hugo was both a good friend and a great consoler – and came over one evening to shake him from his sorrow:

“You have enemies! Well who doesn’t have them? Guizot has enemies, Thiers has enemies, Lamartine has enemies. Haven’t I myself been fighting for twenty years? Haven’t I spent twenty years being hated, sold down the river, betrayed, reviled, taunted and insulted? Have my books not been ridiculed and my actions travestied? I’ve had traps set for me; I’ve even fallen into a few… What do I care? I have contempt. It’s one of the hardest but also most necessary things in life to learn to have contempt. Contempt protects and crushes. It’s like a breast plate and an axe. Do you have enemies? That’s simply the fate of anyone who has done anything worthwhile or launched any new idea. It’s a necessary fog that clings to anything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Don’t worry about it; just have contempt. Keep your spirit serene and your life lucid. Never give your enemies the satisfaction of thinking that they’ve been able to cause you grief or pain. Stay happy, cheerful, contemptuous and firm.”

People-pleasing carries grave risks, Hugo knew only too well — and it’s contempt that can save our lives.

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