But this is not quite true. Emotional tears, it turns out, have a different chemical composition from the tears that moisten our eyes. And empathetic tears, so far as we know, are not expressed by any other species. Showing vulnerability appears to serve the evolutionary purpose of building communities of cooperation and mutual support. We would help poor Fantine if we possibly could.
This may explain empathy, but it does not explain it away. The great temptation of modern science is reductionism. Because transcendence is experienced in a certain portion of the brain, the argument goes, the universe must be an impersonal void. Because religion serves an evolutionary purpose, religion is somehow an illusion. Because empathy has a physical basis, it is as purposeless as the response to a blow to the eye. Evolutionary biology and neuroscience deal in facts. Reductionism is a philosophy, and not a very sophisticated one.
People have been attracted to Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” for more than 150 years precisely because it is a comprehensive rejection of such skepticism. At 1,400 pages of suffering, vulgarity, pity, fury, revolution, worship and self-sacrifice, comprehensive is the right adjective. Other great romantics reveled in nihilism. Hugo gave the brief for life.
Part of Hugo’s message of empathy was political, calling attention to people — especially poor women and orphans — who seemed “as though they were on a planet much further from the sun than we.” When Hugo took in refugees from the Paris Commune of 1871, a conservative mob besieged his house chanting, “Death to Jean Valjean!” That is the reality a fictional character can assume.
But the main purpose of “Les Miserables,” says the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, is “to demonstrate the existence of a transcendent life, of which life on earth is a mere transient part.” Hugo himself was not an orthodox anything, much less an orthodox Christian. But his great book is a vivid description of the workings of grace. Valjean begins as a hardened prisoner. He is shown mercy and learns to show it. He is hunted through a series of resurrections — emerging from a live burial, from the sewers of Paris. His nemesis is broken by his moral certitude. Valjean is saved by his sacrifices. He learns love by raising a daughter, and then the far reaches of love by giving her away. The ending is not particularly happy. Handing over his child to the future also leaves the protagonist broken. In the end, he has surrendered everything he possessed except God. But that is enough.
There is a reason the great stories persist in provoking our lacrimal system: the hope that life is a story, that all the suffering, vulgarity, pity and sacrifice add up to something and lead somewhere.
So perhaps my sons will someday understand there is much to learn about being human from imagined lives. From Hugo and others, they may gain some skepticism about skepticism. They may even eventually discover why it is difficult for a father to contemplate giving up his children to the future, in the long, natural sacrifice of the best things about us. And I hope they will find, as Valjean does in the end, that “there is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” Which is worth a few tears.
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