The hypocritical octopus

Recently when reading what Victor Hugo had to say about octopuses (none of it good)in Travailleurs de la Mer,  I came across this line: “The octopus is a hypocrite. You don’t even notice it, and suddenly it unfolds itself.” For Hugo the octopus is murderous — it lies disguised  in ambush, and then suddenly it opens up and gets you! (which indeed it often does,  if you’re a fish). Elsewhere, Hugo writes of the sea itself  “The wave is hypocritical: it kills, hides the evidence, plays dumb, and smiles“.

To me, the English word hypocrite does not simply mean “someone who feigns innocence”, which is how Hugo uses it here. To me hypocrisy is the ostentatious affectation of virtue by someone who is unvirtuous, especially when the hypocrite also loudly condemns someone who has committed the same sin that he himself is committing.

This sent me on a long but interesting wild goose chase through the dictionaries. The consensus seems to be that Hugo, who has never been accused of not being vivid or emphatic enough, was stretching the French language for effect (possibly via an etymological reading of the word), and that his use of the word hypocrite is a bit odd and excessive in French too. Hypocrisy is one of the central themes of his book,  and when the vertebrate hypocrite Clubin is eaten by the mollusc hypocrite at the end of Book One, that’s to be understood as a grotesque irony.

Hugo dominated 19th century literature in French literature, and I started reading him as necessary background for writers I like better. What I’ve read so far has not what I expected: more grotesque, more excessive, and weirder. For me Hugo is an acquired taste, but he’s growing on me.

Here’s a freely-translated prose poem I have extracted from Hugo’s long reflection on hypocrisy in “Un intérieur d’abime éclairé”, in the same way I extracted a prose poem on the octopus from his long chapter on that beast. The hypocrite in question, Clubin, to all appearances had been a good man all his life, but he had been filled with resentment and anger the whole time, and in the novel he had just taken his revenge.

Hypocrisy had weighed on this man for thirty years. He was evil and he had shackled himself  to goodness. He hated goodness with the hatred of a mismatched spouse. Underneath, he was a monster;  the skin of a good man concealed the heart of a bandit. Virtue was for him a stifling thing.

To be a hypocrite is to be a patient in both senses of the word: he waits for his triumph, and he suffers torture. The eternal premeditation of  the cruel stroke, the constant need to put people off the scent, the impossibility of ever being oneself — these are  exhausting.

There are strange moments when the hypocrite thinks well of himself; within the phony there hides an enormous ego. The worm slithers like the dragon and rears up the same way that it does. A traitor is nothing than a failed despot who cannot attain his ends except as a lackey, a petty thing capable of enormities. The hypocrite is a dwarfed titan.

The hypocrite, being wickedness complete, has within him both  poles of perversity. He is a priest on one side and a courtesan on the other. His demoniacal sex is double. The hypocrite is a frightful hermaphrodite of evil.

The peculiarity of hypocrisy is to be cruel in hope. The hypocrite is someone who waits. Hypocrisy is nothing other than a terrible hopefulness, and this lie founds itself on a virtue turned vicious. Strange to say, in the hypocrite there is trust;  the hypocrite trusts in that mysterious indifference of the unknown  which allows for evil.

In the hypocrite there is emptiness, or to speak more truly, the hypocrite himself is an emptiness.

I only came to Toilers of the Sea looking for octopuses. I had not really expected to take much  interest in Hugo’s writing as such; I have always found romantic authors of Hugo’s type antipathetic, and I expected nothing more than standard average melodrama.  But either I’ve changed, or I was wrong all along. I found Hugo’s rambling, over-the-top, virtually avant-garde excess almost hypnotic, and while I must reject his Manichaean view of the octopus, hypocrisy will never look the same to me again.

See also: The etymology of hypocrisy


(Besides the excessively free online translation linked here, I have also consulted this not-very-good translation: Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo, tr. Hapgood, Heritage Club, 1961. besides being violently abridged, my translation is quite free)

“Hypocrite” in the works of Victor Hugo

“Hypocrite” in Travailleurs de la Mer

I:6:6:  Le Timoniere Ivre….:   Un intérieur d’abime éclairé (p. 232) / English translation of “Un intérieur d’abime éclairé”

I:6:7 Le Timonier Ivre….:  “L’inattendu intervient” (p. 242) / English translation of “L’inattendu intervient”

II:1:1  L’ Écueil: “L’endroit où il est malaisé d’arriver et difficile de repartir” (p. 275) / English translation of “L’endroit où il est malaisé d’arriver et difficile de repartir”

II-4-2 Les doubles fonds de l’obstacle: “Le monstre” (p. 445) / English translation of “Le monstre”

L’hypocrisie avait pesé trente ans sur cet homme (p.234)

L’hypocrite est un patient dans la double acceptation du mot: il calcule un triomphe et endure un supplice (p. 235).

L’hypocrite est l’épouvantable hermaphrodite du mal (p.239)

Le propre de l’hypocrisie c’est d’être âpre à l’esperance…. Le hypocrite est celui qui attend (p. 245)

D’ordinaire la mer cache ses coups…. Le vague est hypocrite (pp. 277-8)

La pieuvre, c’est l’hypocrite (p.449)

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Two things: 1) A friend of mine wrote a rather good first book on hypocrisy in 18th and 19th literature and cultural history. Jenny Davidson. 2) Victor Hugo’s drawings are completely awesome; he did a few strange pen-and-ink ones related to his Travailleurs de la mer.

  2. I have posted one of them down the page a bit.

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