Among the fine features of the recent Modern Library paperback of The Toilers of the Sea, the edition I read, are a selection of Victor Hugo’s watercolors, the ones which were illustrations not for the published book but for Hugo’s manuscript. He pasted them in himself. The friendly fellow on the left is acknowledging his creator with the V and H he is creating with his tentacles. If that is hard to see, please visit the much larger version at 50 Watts, from whom I borrowed the picture.
When God so wills it, He excels in the creation of the execrable. Why He should have such a will is a question that troubles religious thinkers. (II.4.ii, 349)
The chapter title is “The Monster,” the subject of which is described at length, and width and depth, too. As impressive as the description is (“It looks like a rag of cloth, like a rolled-up umbrella without a handle”) Hugo has not convinced me that religious thinkers, pondering the existence of evil, have actually given all that much thought to the jolly, squashy octopus. But in Toilers it is a physical embodiment of the evil of nature. What an odd idea.
These creatures almost cause her [Philosophy] concern about the Creator. They are hideous surprises. They are the killjoys of the contemplator: he observes them in dismay. They are deliberately created forms of evil. In face of these blasphemies of creation against itself what can be done? Who can be blamed for them? (354)
This is hardly Hugo’s only idea about the force or purposefulness of nature, though. He has plenty of ideas. The novel’s hero, Gilliatt, once he has survived, through heroic effort, the great storm I mentioned a couple of days ago, insults nature:
Then, taking up in the hollow of his hand a little water from a pool of rainwater, he drank it and cried to the clouds: “Fooled you!”
… Gilliatt felt the immemorial need to insult an enemy that goes back to the heroes of Homer. (343)
Hugo is clear enough about the tradition he wants to join. Achilles merely battles and defeats a river in the Iliad; Hugo’s champion defeats the sea.
Hugo’s profligacy, of ideas, of images, and of himself, of his own massive personality, is fascinating but also maddening. André Gide writes in his journal, developing a complaint about my nemesis Richard Strauss:
And same causes of shortcomings: lack of discretion of the means and monotony of the effects, annoying insistency, flagrant insincerity; uninterrupted mobilization of all the possible resources. Likewise Hugo, likewise Wagner, when metaphors come to mind to express an idea, does not choose, does not spare us a single one. Fundamental lack of artistry in all this. (Journals, Volume I: 1889-1913, tr. Justin O’Brien, May 22, 1907, p. 213)
The octopus is a rag and an umbrella, a wheel and a harpoon, “spiderlike” and “chameleon-like,” a disease. In a passage that approaches self-parody, Hugo lists every animal the octopus is not like: “The whale is enormous, the devilfish is small; the hippopotamus is armor-plated, the devilfish is naked,” and on to the howler monkey, the vampire bat, the lammergeyer, and many more. Inartistic, sometimes, yes, but it is still thrilling to watch Hugo perform his feats of superhuman literary endurance and strength, however preposterous. Who else could have done them?