Monday, April 16, 2007

Jean Valjean and the changing identity

Tonight, I did something I can't recall doing for ages. Flickering through the TV channels only to find a program I've seen before, but nonetheless remaining absolutely absorbed hooked the next hour although every scene is familiar and totally predictable. I normally don't do that but when something as brilliant as the story of Jean Valjean and his move from being an prisoned thief to becoming a noble citizen and mayor of a small town is on the telly (in the Les Misérables from 2000), you simply got to make an exception.

And I'm not much of a superstitious person, but indeed a drama queen, and therefore, I'm amused by a coincidence here. I stumbled upon the show at a major turning point where Jean Valjean, the villain, chooses to alter his identity, name and to change his way of leading his life. That's one way of looking at it. Another is that he cowardly escapes and runs away as his noble turning point, that is returning the penny he stole from a child, came a bit too late and he's charged with theft and thus sought after by the police.

I'm also at a major turning point in my life where my decisions will influence my identity. I've decided to buy a house, which is a golden opportunity to express who you are to others. I know pretty much what I want, and in what surroundings I want it, but I was thinking the other day, could you get away with faking it? At the end of the day, what the brochures with new houses try to sell you is an identity, "the modern one", "the traditional one", "the arty one" etc. But what if you find yourself in seven years saying, this is not me (anymore)? I don't see myself in this house? Suppose that a city girl, much like Carrie in Sex and the city, fancies a big red house out in the countryside, and decides to get one with huge vegetable gardens, sheep, bees and apple trees, solar panels and a life style endorsing an ecology and sustainable living. And it'd turn out, she tires of it in a couple of years, then what?

What I'm ultimately chasing here is the volatility of identity, and in the long run, much like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables was pondering, the importance of appearance for how others perceive who you are. Foucault claimed that identity is not something you have or possess, it's a shifting discourse, a construction that emerges when you interact with others. Giddens talks about the reflexive project, that we keep working with, reconstructing and rebuilding, our identity our entire lives. If this is the case, how do you succeed in making a sustainable and honest (to yourself) choice as to how you're going to live the next 20 years, at least, and in what area you'll live and so on? What if in the midst of skyscrapers a desire for a lush garden emerges, or if a yearning for a city life with cafés and bars rages in the midst of fields of wheat? I doubt that my favorite character in Les Misérables, Mr Javert (magnificently acted by John Malkovich), would agree with the life project ideas of Giddens nor with Foucault as he states that once a thief, always a thief, there's no way a villain will regret his doings. And if this was to happen, the person will always remain a thief in the eyes of the public. He'd better not be right.

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