Notre Dame Is Never Lost

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, the book will save the building

A shellshocked-looking gargoyle from Notre Dame cathedral
Photo by Adam on flickr

As any French Romantic knows, there is no love more profound, or more sacred, than that between man and a building. This was certainly true for Victor Hugo, whose novel, Notre Dame de Paris (often translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) inculcated a love of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in his society, and to generations thereafter.

Yesterday’s cathedral fire drove me back to the novel, in search of the soul of Notre Dame when its physical form seemed so likely to disappear before my eyes. I went automatically to my favorite digression, Hugo’s long contemplation on how the printing press had replaced architecture as the principal means of conveying meaning to the masses.

“Ceci tuera cela,” wrote Hugo. “Le livre tuera l’édifice.”

It felt odd to translate this in my head: “This will kill that. The book will kill the building.”

I don’t think he could have predicted we would all watch the destruction of the cathedral in a Twitter livestream—nor that after seeing the spire break and fall into a red and smoking abyss, I would seek out his book to remind myself of the cathedral’s previous existence.

‘Le livre tuera l’édifice,’ wrote Hugo. The book will kill the building.

The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris takes up such huge imaginative real estate not only in my mental map of Paris, but, I would guess, in the mind of any tourist who has seen it. How could it not? It bears the weight of generations of history and of fiction, its image is immortalized on postcards, tea towels, and key rings. It’s a featured stop on any tour, a monument every friend and family member back home asks about. For historians, architects, artists, Catholics, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris seemed an unshakably constant source of beauty and wonder. It was a helpful cultural touchstone. In conversation everyone could put their hand to the old stone first quarried centuries ago and understand what the other person was talking about. In personal reflection, one—or at least I—never got the sense I was alone with my hand literally or metaphorically on the cathedral stone.

I am always conscious of the hands before me that shaped the stone, the many hands that painted or repainted it, that passed by it, that touched it in reverence or curiosity or boredom in all the centuries following. I wonder if I’ve touched the spot where Hugo, while snooping around the cathedral, said he came across or an obscure corner, the word “Ananke,” engraved deeply in the stone. The Gothic calligraphy convinced him it was a hand from the Middle Ages, and the fatalistic, melancholy meaning of the word struck him deeply. “Ananke” is a Greek personification of inevitability. Who had been moved to write such a thing? When Hugo returned to the cathedral the word “Ananke” had disappeared. Someone had painted over it or scraped it off.

The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was a palimpsest of an edifice—something reused and rebuilt, showing traces of its past under the additional story of each new century. Each generation modified the cathedral according to its needs: a space for Catholic worship remodeled according to new trends and tastes, a storehouse during the French Revolution (with some statues of kings beheaded, according to the new prevailing ethos), an architectural marvel of the Romantic re-interpretation of the Gothic.

Hugo based upon that fragile memory of a vanished word perhaps the most popular story of the cathedral. The popularity of the novel helped cause the cathedral to be fully restored in 1844. It brought the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris to public consciousness not just in France but across the world.

The cathedral, through the novel, lives in thousands of new contexts, bearing the weight of meanings its architects could not have envisioned.

It is amazing how widely traveled Notre Dame de Paris has become. You can find it translated into almost every language, in the conversations and imaginations of people all over the globe. The cathedral, through the novel, lives in thousands of new contexts, far from its original home on the Ile de la Cité, bearing the weight of meanings its original architects could not have envisioned.

Each time I look into the novel myself, I see not just the story Hugo wrote, but all the stories I have brought to it and built on top of it. I’m hesitant to loan out my copy, much underlined, with scribbled translations in the margins, for fear that people will read all I have brought to the text. In it I can trace my development not just in French comprehension, but as a thinker, as a writer. It was the first novel of Hugo’s I ever read, the first novel that lead me to think critically about adaptations, the novel that evokes all that I felt when I visited the cathedral every Sunday, when I was studying abroad.

That was the year I began to drift away from religion—but within the cathedral I still found the sacred. Perhaps the stories in the stained glass windows were not straightforwardly true, but were true the way Hugo’s novel was. I found myself drawn back to the cathedral at different times of the day, attuning my ear to the differences between French Catholic services, watching the differing plays of light from the widows onto the walls and floors of the cathedral. My belief in story grew; my wonder at the material culture of human history developed. The cathedral became a linchpin of my emotional life, a source of go-to metaphors for the moments where the divine touched upon the mundane. When I met the man who would become my husband in Paris that year, I told him that being with him was like sunbathing in the light of a stained glass window.

The novel stood in for the edifice when my year abroad came to an end. But looking at the book again today made me think, “Perhaps this is all there will be.”

Mutilations come to Gothic cathedrals from every quarter. The priest paints, the architect rebuilds, and the people follow and destroy it.

Even then I know I am giving into the strain of Romanticism that usually annoys me: the almost maudlin devastation over change, over the inevitable and inexorable deterioration of the physical. Hugo and his contemporaries were brought together over shared enthusiasm more than anything else, seeking to preserve what they loved in the amber of their fiction. And, as Hugo once again points out in the preface, “mutilations” come to Gothic cathedrals from every quarter. The priest paints, the architect rebuilds, and the people follow and destroy it. This isn’t even the first or most famous time the cathedral has badly needed repair.

In losing Notre Dame, it feels almost, as if we have lost all that we have graven into its stones in our own hand: all the memories we associate with it, all the realizations we came to in it or because of it, all the stories we love that let the light into its high vaulting interior. The cornerstone of many an interior world has been shaken. I cannot claim my interactions with the cathedral to be particularly unique, and I can only imagine the devastation felt by those to whom the cathedral was the center of their spiritual lives.

Hugo’s preface concludes, in a characteristic mix of despair and hope, that the man who wrote the word “Ananke” has vanished, as has the word—and perhaps, one day, the cathedral. But it is on that word, writes Hugo, that the he has made his book. It echoes a pun that Hugo returned to in other writings—that Peter (Pierre, also the French word for stone) was the rock upon which the church was built. The novel built on that forgotten word has given the cathedral new life, new cultural resonances with every edition printed, every adaptation staged or filmed. It gives the cathedral new life again, with every person who reads it. And here I offer a stone to the cathedral’s rebuilding, in our memories if not in fact: I offer all that I brought to Notre Dame de Paris and its fictional form, in thanks for all it has given me.

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