Back in college my physics TA had the habit of writing a passage on the board before going into our lessons. It was over the story of Siddharta that he was translating. We never talked about it, just read it and appreciated the beauty of the language and whatever it was we wanted to do with it. Some people copied, some people ignored. I loved it.

From that I got to collecting favorite passages from the books I read. In many books there tends to be a line that captures a truth, or a dialouge that parallels human interplay, catches the notion of text and subtext expertly. Unless it’s a Where’s Waldo book, there are no lines there.

And sometimes there are just characters you don’t forget. One in particular I’ve been remembering of late, more often than usual, Sister Simplice, from Les Miserables.

” …she had never been young, and it seemed as though she would never grow old. No one could have told Sister Simplice’s age. She was a person– we dare not say a woman–who was gentle, austere, well-bred, cold, and who had never lied.

However pure and sincere we may be, we all bear upon our candor the crack of the little, innocent lie. She did not. Little lie, innocent lie–does such a thing exist? To lie is the absolute form of evil. To lie a little is not possible: he who lies, lies the whole lie. To lie is the very face of the demon. Satan has two names; he is called Satan and Lying. That is what she thought; and as she thought, so she did.”

But Sister Simplice’s virtue is really brought to light when Jean Valjean hides from Javert, and Javert comes in, having noted a light in the room and certain the convict is there, questions the praying nun.

“Sister,” said he, “are you alone in this room?”

The sister raised her eyes and answered:–

“Yes.”

“Then,” resumed Javert, “you will excuse me if I persist; it is my duty; you have not seen a certain person–a man–this evening? He has escaped; we are in search of him–that Jean Valjean; you have not seen him?”

The sister replied:–

“No.”

She lied. She had lied twice in succession, one after the other, without hesitation, promptly, as a person does when sacrificing herself.

“Pardon me,” said Javert, and he retired with a deep bow.

O sainted maid! you left this world many years ago; you have rejoined your sisters, the virgins, and your brothers, the angels, in the light; may this lie be counted to your credit in paradise!

The sister’s affirmation was for Javert so decisive a thing that he did not even observe the singularity of that candle which had but just been extinguished, and which was still smoking on the table.

Integrity itself is not a virtue  if it is in error. She sacrifices her reputation, her belief of evil itself, really, because there was, in a sense, a greater act to be done (<–I really dig commas).

What made me think of this? A video game, of all things. More on that later.

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Published in: on November 1, 2010 at 4:45 am  Leave a Comment  

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