Lessons from Victor Hugo

In 1831, Victor Hugo published the masterpiece of European literature known as the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I am currently working my way through the spirals, twists, and sophisticated nuances of its pages, and am struck by the already-present sense of regret over things lost. Victor Hugo presents a bitterness against those who would disregard the art and culture of the past for those of the present. In one of the passages, he writes a bitter diatribe against those who have desecrated historic buildings to conform them to current trends. I am going to quote the passage in full, as it is worth reading in its entirety. I apologize for the lengthiness, but I think you will agree as to the relevance and beauty of the passage:

“‘Tis thus that the marvellous art of the Middle Ages has been treated in nearly every country, especially in France. One can distinguish on its ruins three sorts of lesions, all three of which cut into it at different depths; first, time, which has insensibly notched its surface here and there, and gnawed it everywhere; next, political and religious revolution, which, blind and wrathful by nature, have flung themselves tumultuously upon it, torn its rich garment of carving and sculpture, burst its rose windows, broken its necklace of arabesques and tiny figures, torn out its statues, sometimes because of their mitres, sometimes because of their crowns; lastly, fashions, even more grotesque and foolish, which, since the anarchical and splendid deviations of the Renaissance, have followed each other in the necessary decadence of architecture. Fashions have wrought more harm than revolutions.
They have cut to the quick; they have attacked the very bone and framework of art; they have cut, slashed, disorganized, killed the edifice, in form as in the symbol, in its consistency as well as in its beauty. And then they have made it over; a presumption of which neither time nor revolutions at least have been guilty. They have audaciously adjusted, in the name of “good taste,” upon the wounds of gothic architecture, their miserable gewgaws of a day, their ribbons of marble, their pompons of metal, a veritable leprosy of egg-shaped ornaments, volutes, whorls, draperies, garlands, fringes, stone flames, bronze clouds, pudgy cupids, chubby- cheeked cherubim, which begin to devour the face of art in the oratory of Catherine de Medicis, and cause it to expire, two centuries later, tortured and grimacing, in the boudoir of the Dubarry.”


Hugo thus laments the destruction that has been directed towards the great monuments of the past in a way that tugs at all of our hearts (at least it does mine). One thing that is astounding and thought-provoking about this lament, however, is the fact that we often look to the age of Victor Hugo as a time to lament the loss of. The 1830s saw a world of sophistication and class. Culture was at an elevated state, with many brilliant authors, artists, painters, and poets gracing the world with their inspiring and sobering works of art. Yet, we find that those who lived in the era were looking to an earlier era. This is demonstrative of the futility of nostalgia. I am horrified at my own words here, so perhaps further exploration is needed. I think perhaps it is necessary to strike a balance between nostalgia and appreciation for the present. I look back to the modern era (1700s-early 1900s), and I see a plethora of virtues that would do our own society a great deal of credit. Unfortunately, these virtues are often shrouded in shame, as a great deal of travesty was ongoing throughout that time-period. Consequently, it is futile to look to the past and wish for a return, as none of us would really want that to occur. However, a nostalgia that pushes us to strive after the virtues that have existed throughout history is a healthy and restorative process. It is this type of nostalgia that I am trying to encourage in this writing project of mine, as I think that reflection on virtue and sophistication can help, and never hinder, our present world.

At the risk of extending my topic too far, I wanted to include a second quotation in this post, as I was somewhat overcome by the poetic imagery. For those of you more versed in the study of European literature, you may scoff at my giddiness, but I am content to enjoy the hidden treasures of the past, without entering a great deal of dissection into the methodology of the writer. The following is a perfect example of the lost language of English that I have spoken about in the past. The creative ingenuity utilized in describing the growth of a city to the reader-a seemingly boring topic to speak of, is entirely astounding. I wish people still wrote in this way. What is more, I wish people would talk like this, but I fear that time has passed forever. But we can still enjoy the poets and authors of yesteryear, as I hope that you do:

“Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards, overflows, devours, wears away, and effaces this wall. Philip Augustus makes a new dike for it. He imprisons Paris in a circular chain of great towers, both lofty and solid. For the period of more than a century, the houses press upon each other, accumulate, and raise their level in this basin, like water in a reservoir. They begin to deepen; they pile story upon story; they mount upon each other; they gush forth at the top, like all laterally compressed growth, and there is a rivalry as to which shall thrust its head above its neighbors, for the sake of getting a little air. The street glows narrower and deeper, every space is overwhelmed and disappears. The houses finally leap the wall of Philip Augustus, and scatter joyfully over the plain, without order, and all askew, like runaways. There they plant themselves squarely, cut themselves gardens from the fields, and take their ease”.

Beautiful. Thank you Victor Hugo, for your timeless novel.

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