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Victor Hugo on Deep Waters, Dark Shadows, and the Hiddenness of God

Les Miserables (Signet Classic: 1987) pp. 95-6.

Man overboard! ¶ Who cares? The ship sails on. The wind is up, the dark ship must keep to its destined course. It passes on. ¶ The man disappears, then reappears, he sinks and rises again to the surface, he hollers, stretches out his hands. They do not hear him. The ship, staggering under the gale, is straining every rope, the sailors and passengers no longer see the drowning man, his miserable head is only a point in the vastness of the billows. ¶ He hurls cries of despair into the depths. What a specter is that disappearing sail! He watches it, follows it frantically. It moves away, grows dim, diminishes. He was just there, one of the crew, he walked up and down the deck with the rest, he had his share of air and sunlight, he was a living man. Now, what has become of him? He slipped, he fell, it’s all over.

He is in the monstrous deep. There is nothing beneath his feet but the yielding, fleeing element. The waves, torn and scattered by the wind, close around him hideously, the rolling abyss bears him away; tatters of water are flying around his head; a populace of waves spit on him; vague openings half swallow him; each time he sinks he glimpses yawning precipices full of dark; frightful unknown tendrils seize him, bind his fee, and draw him down; he feels he is becoming the great deep; he is part of the foam; the billow toss him back and forth; he drinks in bitterness; the voracious ocean is eager to devour him; the monster plays with his agony. It is all liquid hatred to him.

He tries to defend, to sustain himself; he struggles; he swims. With his poor exhausted strength, he combats the inexhaustible.

Still he struggles on.

Where is the ship? Far away. Barely visible on the pallid horizon.

The wind blows in gusts; the billows overwhelm him. He raises his eyes but sees only the ashen clouds. In his dying agony, he is part of the sea’s immense insanity; tortured by its immeasurable madness. He hears sounds unknown to man, seemingly come from some terrible kingdom beyond.

There are birds in the clouds, even as there are angels above human distresses, but what can they do for him? They fly, sing, and soar, while he gasps.

He feels buried by the two infinities together, the ocean and the sky, the one a tomb, the other a shroud.

Night falls; he has been swimming for hours, his strength almost gone; the ship, a distant far-off thing, where there were men, is gone; he is alone in the terrible gloom of the abyss; he sinks, he strains, he struggles, feels beneath himself invisible shadowy monsters; he screams.

Men are gone. Where is God?

He screams. Help! Someone! Help! He screams over and over.

Nothing on the horizon. Nothing in the sky.

He implores the lofty sky, the endless waves, the reefs; all are deaf. He begs the storms; but impassive, they obey only the infinite.

Around him, darkness, storm, solitude, wild, unconscious tumult, the ceaseless churning of fierce waters. Within him, horror and exhaustion. Beneath him the devouring abyss. No resting place. He thinks of the shadowy adventures of his limp body in the limitless gloom. The biting cold paralyzes him. His hands cramp shut and grasp at … nothing. Winds, clouds, whirlwinds, blasts, stars, all useless! What can he do? He yields to despair; worn out, he seeks death, no longer resists, gives up, lets go, tumbles into the mournful depths of the abyss forever.

O implacable march of human society! Destroying men and souls in its way! Ocean, repository of all that the law lets fall! Ominous disappearance of help! O moral death!

The sea is the inexorable night into which the penal code casts its victims. The sea is measureless misery.

The soul drifting in that sea may become a corpse. Who shall restore it to life?