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The Meaning of Notre Dame in a Humanist Age

A country whose revolution tried to erase history has drawn us mercifully back to our past.
Notre Dame

As Notre Dame Cathedral burned on Monday night, I felt saddened by the damage done to one of the great churches of Christendom and grateful that I’d gotten to visit it in 2011, before the fire destroyed its roof and iconic spire. But I also found myself wondering why the French cared as much as they did.

In a nation in which only 5 percent of professed Catholics (less than 2 percent of the total population) attend Mass and priests are dying eight times faster than they’re being ordained, it seemed absurd for French President Emmanuel Macron to treat the fire as a national tragedy that necessitated both a period of mourning and a decisive response from the French people. Surely, I thought, this level of grief demands an explanation beyond a cynical desire to keep a steady stream of euros flowing through France’s greatest tourist attraction.

Seeking answers, I turned to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, which most English speakers know as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but which, in the original French edition, is called simply Notre-Dame de Paris. At one point, the villainous Archdeacon Claude Frollo gestures toward a printed book on a table and then out his window at Notre Dame before making the cryptic remark, “This will kill that…the book will kill the edifice.” Hugo, of course, never misses an opportunity to shoehorn a long-form op-ed into his fiction and proceeds to devote an entire chapter to explaining these 10 words.

In the four decades since the Revolution displaced the Catholic Church as the center of French life, Notre Dame had suffered. The mob had decapitated its royal statues (mistaking biblical kings for French ones) and its leaders had rededicated it to the Goddess Reason (even replacing statues of the Virgin Mary with allegorical likenesses of Reason) and then to the vaguely defined Supreme Being. Eventually, the great edifice ended up as nothing more than a warehouse. Even after Napoleon’s agreement with the pope restored the cathedral to the Church, it remained in a state of disrepair. Those parts that weren’t crumbling had been brought “up to date” by classically minded architects who found the building’s Gothic style embarrassingly passé.

Hugo’s goal was to convince his readership that Notre Dame, and Gothic architecture more generally, was worth preserving. To do so, he attempted to link the Gothic style with the populist politics of his own 19th century: “In…Romanesque architecture, one feels the priest…in the Gothic, the citizen…[Gothic churches] have something human, which they mingle incessantly with the divine symbol under which they still produce.” This theory presents a Notre Dame that no good secular French Republican need scoff at. The cathedral is not an attempt (undertaken mostly by humbly anonymous craftsmen) to create heaven on earth through its proportionality, grandeur, and light, but rather a humanistic declaration of freedom from the very forces of religious superstition to which the building is dedicated. It was the final architectural flowering of the same spirit that, once channeled through the printing press, would eventually bring civilization from theocracy to democracy.

It is, perhaps, this vision of Notre Dame that Macron and his countrymen are eager to preserve. In his address to the nation, Macron spoke about the upcoming restoration of the cathedral in progressive, humanistic terms without ever (at least in the clip I saw) mentioning Christianity: “[This is an opportunity] to become better than we are today. It’s our duty to find our national project—the one that made us, that unites us. A human project that is passionately French.”

Hugo was right. Printing killed architecture. We don’t know how to build cathedrals anymore. Just look at the disastrous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, a quarter-billion-dollar monument dedicated more to the ego of some postmodernist architect than to the Virgin and embodying the impenetrable theorizations of avant-garde manifestoes rather than any sort of popular piety. If medieval France was built on its cathedrals, those foundational texts have been replaced by products of the printing press: Voltaire, Rousseau, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Hugo himself, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir. Hugo’s populist, secular interpretation of Gothic architecture attempts to place Notre Dame in the same tradition as the writers and documents listed above.

And yet, this interpretation offers only a partial explanation of Macron’s reaction to the fire. His commitment to Hugo’s idea of Notre Dame as a humanist cathedral may be a historical misreading that furthers the erasure of Christianity from French culture. But at the same time, Macron’s speech exhibited an understanding of the importance of the past and a rebuke to the forward-looking utilitarian progressivism that is so often the norm in modern secular states.

“Everything that makes France, material and spiritual, is alive and for this reason it is fragile and we must not forget that,” Macron said. “And it is for us French people today to be able to ensure this continuity, which is the French nation.” Later in the speech, he said that the fire reminded him that “to be the head of a country is [not] just to administer things,” but “to be conscious of our history.”

America has no Gothic cathedrals. We are entirely a nation of the printing press. We have no thousand-year ancien régime with which to contend. Macron carries a heavier historical burden than most Americans can fathom, and in his speech, though it deserves criticism for his failure to mention Christianity, he shouldered that burden willingly. In 1792, the French National Assembly declared Year One, attempting a total break from the past. Subsequent generations of French Republicans, Macron included, have not been so foolish, despite their commitment to laïcité. As long as they continue to recognize the undeniability of the past, I have hope. As should all Christians who, on this Good Friday, look backward, not forward, to our Lord’s victory over sin and death.

The French Church may be dying, but Notre Dame will nevertheless be rebuilt. And perhaps in a hundred years, after the last French priest has died and no one has taken his place, some tourist who knows nothing of Christianity will walk around the outside of the cathedral, now disused except as a tourist attraction. He’ll admire its flying buttresses and densely carved tympanums and compare it favorably with the dull utilitarian cubes and gaudy postmodern monstrosities of his own godless century. Maybe he’ll go inside and bathe in the light of the intricate north rose window, reach his hand out toward the dramatic statues at the altar, and trace the lines of the soaring ribbed vault until he finds himself wondering what sort of faith could have inspired people to build something like this. He will wonder if, in its victorious march toward the future, the city of man might have left something valuable behind. Before he realizes what’s happening, his eyes, mind, and heart will be drawn upward, towards God. Just like the architects intended.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.



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