For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Victor Hugo on Architecture

Before anyone, wavering over their next choice of reading material, picks up Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, please pass on to another book. And if according to the law of reverse psychology you decide that this is a book you must read because someone said not to, you will soon find out your error in the first chapter, before page ten in fact. You will realise that you are not roaring with laughter (as are the crowd) at the Parisian students' supposed witticisms, and in fact you are struggling to smile.

Unlike Les Misérables where the imperfections as a novel are endearing, the faults of the Hunchback just make things worse.

For the long diversion in Les Misérables on the Battle of Waterloo which could stand alone as a truly dreadful depiction of war, as a great and noble piece of patriotism, as an elegy to human suffering - we have instead some endless insertions on the buildings of medieval Paris, or medieval justice. It is bad enough that the diversion on Paris before the Renaissance is unintelligible to anyone but a specialist in the history of Paris who has lived there for twenty years as a tour-guide, but the stuff about the Middle Ages shares all the retrospective silliness of the nineteenth century where the sins of the Renaissance, e.g. hysterical witch-hunts, are visited on the rational men of two hundred years earlier. And I am quite certain there is some nonsense too. Executing animals for witchcraft was "common"? Oh, really? Those dreadful medievals!

For the improbable but giant figure of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables who strides through the book like a myth, we have the rather ridiculous demonic archdeacon, or again the hunchback himself who goes from a senseless clod who is somehow simultaneously viciously cunning, to a sensitive and gentle soul, and all in a couple of chapters.

For the operatic quality of Les Misérables, we have the bathetic scenes of the Hunchback culminating in its super bathetic ending (I don't care if this is a "spoiler") of thwarted mothers dashing their brains out on walls, innocent beautiful girls being strung up by hangmen, and deformed monsters turning patricidal and throwing Satan-worshipping priests off Gothic towers. And that's just the last three pages.

There are better things to read, and the interest of the story of the Hunchback - that it doubtless has, apart from the novel - would be better conveyed in a comic strip, a silent film, or a mime. But there is one exception, I think, in one of the diversions of the Hunchback (on architecture) that I think is startlingly original, and Hugo's own. At least I haven't seen the same things said elsewhere. There are two things that struck me.

The first is that Hugo says that the Gothic - as a new form supervening on the Romanesque - is a popular form of architecture. The Romanesque is arcane, he says, hieratic, and symbolical. The Gothic on the other hand is popular, accessible, and representative art. The Romanesque is priestly, the Gothic democratic. I suppose that this aspect of the Gothic isn't what would strike a modern visitor to Wells Cathedral or York Minster. But the more I think of it, the more I think that Hugo is on to something. He is picking up on a profound difference between the Romanesque - or even the Byzantine, for that matter - and the Gothic that is very stark if one compares say, St Mark's in Venice and the Duomo in Milan. In the Romanesque, the round arch or the dome often depicts an image of the celestial in traditional symbolic form, interpreted by the priest and his function. The Gothic, on the other hand, its likeness to a vast forest, its pointed arch producing the optical effect of a building much higher in an illusion of retreating perspective, appeals directly to the people's vertigo, their nerves and ultimately their aspirations. By representing the divine in three dimensions (and not just two as in the mosaic) the Gothic introduces the revolution of appealing "over the head" of the priest to the people. I am not sure if I would go the whole way with Hugo here, but he touches on something that I have felt obscurely on walking into a Byzantine-style church, or even older Roman basilicas, and I think he is at least partly right.

The second thing in the diversion that caught my attention was the idea that the printing press was the death of architecture. His idea is that a culture will always seek to leave its artifacts in the most durable materials. The temple made of stone is the most durable for every age until the late medieval period: and into the supreme art of building every other art is integrated and finds its place and purpose therein. Music is the music of the temple - the liturgy of the office and the mass; the icon and the statue find their setting and their significance there; and the sacred poetry reaches its highest expression within the sacred precincts. With the printing press, however, words can be reproduced indefinitely if one wishes: it no longer needs the great labour of the copyist. The book began to dominate, and soon dominated utterly. The other arts, cut off from their theatre, their stage, began to develop an unhealthy separation and privatisation. Architecture became a matter of decoration; statutory degenerated into sculpture; painting into virtuosity; and music into composition. In a striking sentence, Hugo says that St Peter's in Rome was the last original piece of architecture. Since then all has been imitation.

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