The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Books 4 and 5 | Musings

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I’m writing about Books 4 and 5 together because they’re each only twenty-five pages long. However, I will mostly focus on Book 5 because it’s a much more interesting chapter.

Book 4 gave me, finally, a glimpse into Quasimodo and Frollo. These two characters, though especially Frollo, were hardly touched upon in the first one hundred and sixty pages of the novel. However, all Hugo has yet given me about them were their back stories, which while necessary has been a long time coming. I feel that this could have been done near the beginning of the book or as needed along the journey, but Hugo chose neither. So, I am grateful to finally read about their characters, but again dismayed by the lack of movement in the plot.

Book 5 presented some more background information about Frollo, but was primarily focused on the philosophical musings about the progression of architecture in modern human history. I went about reading this section differently than I’ve read the novel thus far. I love architecture; it’s a hobby of mine, and I considered pursuing it as a career for some years in high school. However, I chose not to do so for several reasons, the biggest being that most architects today don’t get to be Frank Gehry. Most architects today build suburban developments, which just didn’t interest me. So, I went about reading Hugo’s meditation on architecture like I would read any book on architecture. I read it as an architecture geek, not as the literature geek.

Hugo used The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a means of reflecting on the whispering fancies of his mind. So, he took fifteen pages of the book to discuss the question of how the invention of the printing press affected architecture. His thesis was essentially that the written word destroyed the architectural statement, which reflects humanity’s desire to leave their mark on the world for the following generations.

I tend to agree with most of his observations, such as “To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake,” (p. 178) and “When put into print, thought is more imperishable as ever; it is volatile, intangible, indestructible; it mingles with the air. In the time of architecture, it became a mountain, and made itself the master of a century and a region. Now it has been transformed into a flock of birds, scattering to the four winds and filling all air and space.” (p. 178) But most importantly, “The press, that giant engine, incessantly gorging all the intellectual sap of society, incessantly vomits new material for its work.” (p. 184) However, I certainly agree with his thesis. I agreed with it from the moment he said it. His analysis left me wanting. Although, I won’t go into that here.

I agree with his thesis because of what I know of history, especially in the recent history of the 20th and 21st centuries. Look at what “architecture” has become! It’s the reason I didn’t pursue a career in it; it’s dead. Building stand alone homes with vinyl siding and shingled roofs is not interesting or creative. Building skyscrapers across the globe in vibrant cultural capitals has even become boring because all anybody wants is to make it look “sleek and modern” with glass, white, and silver. All anybody wants to do these days with their buildings is wipe away their individuality, their unique culture and beliefs. People want to use buildings to conform. So, unless you’re wildly successful like Frank Gehry, being an architect requires strikingly little creativity.

This idea contradicts my last post, where I agreed with Hugo that architecture is not “the outcome of a particular genius.” I feel that is what architecture has become in the recent decades. The reason I agreed was because of La Sagrada Familia, but that is a building designed mostly by a particular genius. The only reason it reflects the changing aesthetics is because it’s been being built throughout two centuries. Buildings today aren’t like that. Buildings today are built in a handful of years, so they can be the product of a particular genius.

I also find his point that writing is an inharmonious art particularly poignant today. He writes of how easy it is to create a book, to write. It’s so easy that anyone can do it, and it doesn’t require the collective effort of a community. Architecture, which required people from all classes and walks of life, created harmony because it represented a whole generation of people. Everyone had their piece of the building; in architecture “every individual work, however capricious or isolated it may seem, has its place and projection.” (p. 184). That changed with the advent of the printing press. Anyone could throw their thoughts down for the world without regard to what anyone else thinks, believes, or feels. Today, with ebooks, and self-publishing, and the publishing industry being profit-driven, the world has been flooded with millions of different ideas, hardly any of which matter. We simply produce more and more with less and less regard for quality.

Writing killed architecture because it was so much easier in every way. However, writing has gone and killed free thought, merit, and quality. Messages are nonexistent in most books today because we don’t care to leave one. All we care about is whether the books sells. If the book sells, who cares what your legacy is? Who cares if it’s any good? Who even cares if the story betters the world or is unique? Very few people care. Incredibly few.

So, ultimately I agree with Hugo. Writing killed architecture. I see that. I also see a reason I appreciate architecture so much; it took time to make, lots of forethought, and a whole community of people to make it. A book is one person, a cathedral is many. Architecture used to mean something, as did writing. Now both are lost to this brave new world.

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