There’s something terribly abrupt in Javert’s suicide, in Russell Crowe’s performance of Les Miserables, and the way the song builds logically toward its climax doesn’t fully prepare you for the impact of his leap into the void. You keep expecting an alternate ending, the way he gazes over the edge – you can tell this is not what he wants, and that he regrets it, in the Homeric sense of regret (best described in Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force).
It calls to mind a vignette I read recently about a suicide attempt made by a young woman who had just had a fight with her husband – she survived, and tried to wipe the blood away herself when he discovered her in the bathroom, as if to smooth things over. He screamed, and took her straight to a hospital, whence began her journey into psychiatric care.
The patient in the vignette had a genetic disorder that caused cumulative liver disease which reached a breaking point in her early 20s and predisposed her to disorganized thinking and emotional distress (Wilson’s disease). So one would think she’s not representative of suicides, on the face of it. But there’s something necessarily abrupt and unnatural about a turn to suicide, in anyone who hasn’t already been contemplating it for years. And there’s that apologetic reaction face one naturally puts on when caught red-handed after a failed attempt. It’s not insincere, it’s just abrupt.
This poem, based on the 55th Psalm, captures Javert’s thoughts in between his escape at the barricades and his confrontation with Jean Valjean in the sewers, and highlights how differently things might have turned out, if they had never met again. (But could it have ever ended that way? Could Javert have let himself fail to find Valjean?)
Stars, bend your gaze, hear my prayer,
in your firmament, smile on my plea.
If you hear me below, shine the brighter!
For in turmoil, I stagger and groan.
From the press of the enemy,
from the onslaught of reckless, foul crime,
when the scoundrels of cheapstreet take up arms
and in fury the mob seeks my life,
my breast shudders painfully,
death-terrors flood my senses,
fear sends tremors through me,
and horror of vice floods my soul.
Would I could rise like the eagle,
to soar far from here and take rest.
I would wander the mountainous deserts,
and plunge in the lakes of the highlands,
to wash away all that has touched me,
and live far from the riotous crowds.
Stars, bring your silence to bear,
for I’ve witnessed the outrages here,
criminals ceaselessly circle their prey,
and all Paris is party to mischief,
preying on those most defenseless –
chicanery governs the market square.
No rascal defies me, that I might shrug,
no hatred pursues me, that I might hide.
But you – a pillar of industry,
my equal, a full citizen,
with whom I conferred on my duties,
to whom I once gladly deferred!
May his kind meet their deaths with more haste.
Perdition should take him alive.
For they feather their nests with the spoils of crime.
I call on the stars in dismay,
and their steadiness shows me my fate.
Through the night I have dreaded the dawn
and racked my soul with questions,
for only the stars know my thoughts.
This fugitive ransomed my life,
when in battle, outnumbered, I fell,
a captive among reckless men –
inflamed by their own penury,
such malcontents flinch at no crime.
He released me behind his men’s backs,
a traitor to even his own.
His smoothness was vile as a snake’s;
in his heart he desired my death.
His words were of mercy and peace,
but he came here to take up the sword.
I can only fall back on the law,
for the laws of the heavens are firm.
They protect righteous men from the mob.
I pray that the stars intercede,
and carry him down to destruction.
Men who hide vice in their hearts
will not long outrun death’s embrace.
For myself, I must trust in the stars.