Notre Dame and humanism

I was surprised at my depth of emotion at the news about Notre Dame (initially it sounded like total destruction).

I’m a humanist, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. When I heard it mentioned that de Gaulle, after liberation in 1945, went to Notre Dame to thank God, I said he should have thanked America.

Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.

A great monument of human civilization. That was what hit me so hard. More than tragedies with lives lost. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique and seemed eternal. So integral to the Human story, to lose it is unimaginable.

Part of Notre Dame’s heritage, and part of that story, is Victor Hugo’s great 1831 novel — always conjured for me by the cathedral’s image. Conjuring up the world of its construction, and the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel, yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.

I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn’t watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo’s deformity. I’d known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.

As an adult I read the book. What Hugo did was quite extraordinary: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one’s take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most alien-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world’s unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.

The novel’s final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, “The Marriage of Quasimodo” — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.

This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.

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6 Responses to “Notre Dame and humanism”

  1. Robb Smith Says:

    It was a shock seeing the labor of a millennia destroyed so quickly. As a religious site, it was a place to connect with Mary and the black goddess she replaced in popular iconography. It literally hummed for me. There were alchemical secrets there too, carved in stone and offering insight to those who could interpret the symbols. Fun! Yet it was also a monument to the institutionalization of religion, which I found deeply disturbing. Apparently, much of it remains, and that’s good. It will always be a pilgrimage site singing for those who are open to it’s energy. As a house of institutionalized worship, however, the notion of rebuilding it leaves me cold. I’m a non-theist mystic. I’m just as happy to let it be, but it’s not my site. It belongs to the Roman Catholic Church and emotionally to the people of Paris. I’m sure they’ll rebuild something, and I may go back and look at what they’ve done some day, checkout the vibes.

  2. Lee Says:

    I think your sentence “The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.” is important. I don’t care so much about what it is that motivates people to make beauty, support truth, do good, etc., which is why I find it somewhat moot to argue one religion vs. another or theism vs. atheism. If you are making the world a better place then I am with you.

  3. Bob Ward Says:

    Frank, you’ve often written intelligently and eloquently (and I think correctly) about the wisdom of rational humanism and the foolishness and evil that too often result from religious belief and practice. I don’t know whether your admirably honest comment about lost lives being less personally troubling than the loss of an architectural icon represents a humanist concept. The religious traditions with which I’m familiar teach (in principle of not always in practice) the opposite view – that human life is sacred, such that the needless loss of even one life is to be mourned, and that while human life is inevitably limited in time, the same will always be true of our works as well. Still, having never seen Notre Dame, I do hope to be able to visit such a great monument to human civilization and the human desire to understand those things that are beyond our understanding.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Stalin said “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Of course humanism is centered upon the value of human life. And of course every life is important. And every death. But . . . how to put this? There are over 7 billion people, and over 150,000 die every day in the normal course of life. If some tragedy kills 1,000 people, it is indeed tragic, but hardly budges the needle of the overall picture. Losing something like Notre Dame would stand differently. Impoverishing human civilization as a whole. That is a humanistic perspective.

  5. Víctor-Polo De Gyves-Montero Says:

    I find it hard to follow how to call oneself humanist by giving more value to a monument to any single life. I hope God temple is the human heart, not iron and rock. Few days later there were deads on Phillipines and we did not saw the same media coverage and international funding to rebuild the lives of the survivors.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks for your comment. Interestingly, The Economist magazine addressed this very point: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/04/20/why-people-care-about-ancient-buildings

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