Below is the full text of the chapter “This Will Kill That” (Book V, Chapter 2), from “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame“, with links and photographs added.
When reading “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” I found myself pausing for long periods to argue with the author, particularly around the middle of the book. Here Hugo has a chapter, “This Will Kill That,” which calls back to an earlier episode in which Claude Frollo points first at a book sitting on his desk, then points to Notre Dame Cathedral, and makes the pronouncement, “This Will Kill That.” Hugo takes this declaration as partly expressing his own belief that the printing press will kill architecture.
I’ve copied that chapter in its entirety below. I’ve filled it with Wikipedia links and photos to illustrate all the architectural structures that he’s talking about, as well as his references to authors, artists, places, etc.
Every link will open in a new tab.
My own arguments with the author are interspersed in the text.
Now, I don’t know anything about architecture, so there were many passages about which I could say little or nothing. But as I’ve said before, when Hugo talks about architecture, he’s really talking about everything. So when he says that the printing press killed architecture, it grabs your attention. When he starts saying that all of the world’s intelligence migrated from architecture into printed books, well, you want to put your two cents in.
I realize, when I argue with Hugo, how overmatched I am by the author’s erudition. But I have some advantage in having seen more of history play out, into our post-Gutenberg era; having witnessed the near-destruction of Notre Dame by fire two years ago; and having the benefit of modern scholarship on some things that Hugo talks about, like the Bible.
And I love to argue. I couldn’t restrain myself.
Take my thoughts as simply one reader’s attempts to argue with a provocative idea. And even if Hugo is wrong in charging the printing press with killing architecture, the charge is based on his premise that human beings expressed their culture through buildings even before they did so in books, and that’s surely a lasting idea.
Buildings were books before books were books.
This is a chapter in which most of Hugo’s references sailed high over my head, but illustrating and linking Hugo’s many names, terms, and places has made the chapter live for me. I’ve now seen “in the flesh” what was no more than stone for me on the page, and maybe others will find it helpful as well.
(Note: A page just like this one, but without my own comments and only containing Hugo’s text and the links/pictures I provided, is here.)
This Will Kill That
Our lady readers will pardon us if we pause for a moment to seek what could have been the thought concealed beneath those enigmatic words of the archdeacon: “This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.”
Why lady readers?
To our mind, this thought had two faces. In the first place, it was a priestly thought. It was the affright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg. It was the pulpit and the manuscript taking the alarm at the printed word: something similar to the stupor of a sparrow which should behold the angel Legion unfold his six million wings. It was the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroning belief, the world shaking off Rome. It was the prognostication of the philosopher who sees human thought, volatilized by the press, evaporating from the theocratic recipient. It was the terror of the soldier who examines the brazen battering ram, and says:—“The tower will crumble.” It signified that one power was about to succeed another power. It meant, “The press will kill the church.”
But underlying this thought, the first and most simple one, no doubt, there was in our opinion another, newer one, a corollary of the first, less easy to perceive and more easy to contest, a view as philosophical and belonging no longer to the priest alone but to the savant and the artist. It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable. In this connection the archdeacon’s vague formula had a second sense. It meant, “Printing will kill architecture.”
In fact, from the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.
When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded, when the mass of reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil in a manner which was at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural. They sealed each tradition beneath a monument.
The first monuments were simple masses of rock, “which the iron had not touched,” as Moses says. (Ex. 20:25). Architecture began like all writing. It was first an alphabet. Men planted a stone upright, it was a letter, and each letter was a hieroglyph, and upon each hieroglyph rested a group of ideas, like the capital on the column. This is what the earliest races did everywhere, at the same moment, on the surface of the entire world. We find the “standing stones” of the Celts in Asian Siberia; in the pampas of America.
Later on, they made words; they placed stone upon stone, they coupled those syllables of granite, and attempted some combinations. The Celtic dolmen and cromlech, the Etruscan tumulus, the Hebrew galgal, are words. Some, especially the tumulus, are proper names.
Sometimes even, when men had a great deal of stone, and a vast plain, they wrote a phrase. The immense pile of Karnac is a complete sentence.
At last they made books. Traditions had brought forth symbols, beneath which they disappeared like the trunk of a tree beneath its foliage; all these symbols in which humanity placed faith continued to grow, to multiply, to intersect, to become more and more complicated; the first monuments no longer sufficed to contain them, they were overflowing in every part; these monuments hardly expressed now the primitive tradition, simple like themselves, naked and prone upon the earth. The symbol felt the need of expansion in the edifice. Then architecture was developed in proportion with human thought; it became a giant with a thousand heads and a thousand arms, and fixed all this floating symbolism in an eternal, visible, palpable form. While Dædalus, who is force, measured; while Orpheus, who is intelligence, sang;—the pillar, which is a letter; the arcade, which is a syllable; the pyramid, which is a word,—all set in movement at once by a law of geometry and by a law of poetry, grouped themselves, combined, amalgamated, descended, ascended, placed themselves side by side on the soil, ranged themselves in stories in the sky, until they had written under the dictation of the general idea of an epoch, those marvellous books which were also marvellous edifices: the Pagoda of Eklinga, the Rhamseion of Egypt, the Temple of Solomon.
The generating idea, the word, was not only at the foundation of all these edifices, but also in the form. The temple of Solomon, for example, was not alone the binding of the holy book; it was the holy book itself. On each one of its concentric walls, the priests could read the word translated and manifested to the eye, and thus they followed its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary, until they seized it in its last tabernacle, under its most concrete form, which still belonged to architecture: the arch. Thus the word was enclosed in an edifice, but its image was upon its envelope, like the human form on the coffin of a mummy.
And not only the form of edifices, but the sites selected for them, revealed the thought which they represented, according as the symbol to be expressed was graceful or grave. Greece crowned her mountains with a temple harmonious to the eye; India disembowelled hers, to chisel therein those monstrous subterranean pagodas, borne up by gigantic rows of granite elephants.
Thus, during the first six thousand years of the world, from the most immemorial pagoda of Hindustan, to the cathedral of Cologne, architecture was the great handwriting of the human race.
Have to remind myself that everyone in this time period — in Christian lands — regarded human history as only six thousand years old. Could they have regarded history as more knowable than we do? Genuine question.
And this is so true, that not only every religious symbol, but every human thought, has its page and its monument in that immense book.
All civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy. This law of liberty following unity is written in architecture.
This is not a law. It is not even a certain trend, and I wish it were.
For, let us insist upon this point, masonry must not be thought to be powerful only in erecting the temple and in expressing the myth and sacerdotal symbolism; in inscribing in hieroglyphs upon its pages of stone the mysterious tables of the law. If it were thus,—as there comes in all human society a moment when the sacred symbol is worn out and becomes obliterated under freedom of thought, when man escapes from the priest, when the excrescence of philosophies and systems devour the face of religion,—architecture could not reproduce this new state of human thought; its leaves, so crowded on the face, would be empty on the back; its work would be mutilated; its book would be incomplete. But no.
Let us take as an example the Middle Ages, where we see more clearly because it is nearer to us. During its first period, while theocracy is organizing Europe, while the Vatican is rallying and reclassing about itself the elements of a Rome made from the Rome which lies in ruins around the Capitol, while Christianity is seeking all the stages of society amid the rubbish of anterior civilization, and rebuilding with its ruins a new hierarchic universe, the keystone to whose vault is the priest—one first hears a dull echo from that chaos, and then, little by little, one sees, arising from beneath the breath of Christianity, from beneath the hand of the barbarians, from the fragments of the dead Greek and Roman architectures, that mysterious Romanesque architecture, sister of the theocratic masonry of Egypt and of India, inalterable emblem of pure catholicism, unchangeable hieroglyph of the papal unity. All the thought of that day is written, in fact, in this sombre, Romanesque style. One feels everywhere in it authority, unity, the impenetrable, the absolute, Gregory VII.; always the priest, never the man; everywhere caste, never the people.
But the Crusades arrive. They are a great popular movement, and every great popular movement, whatever may be its cause and object, always sets free the spirit of liberty from its final precipitate. New things spring into life every day. Here opens the stormy period of the Jacqueries, Pragueries, and Leagues. Authority wavers, unity is divided. Feudalism demands to share with theocracy, while awaiting the inevitable arrival of the people, who will assume the part of the lion: Quia nominor leo [because I am called lion]. Seignory pierces through sacerdotalism; the commonality, through seignory. The face of Europe is changed. Well! the face of architecture is changed also. Like civilization, it has turned a page, and the new spirit of the time finds her ready to write at its dictation. It returns from the crusades with the pointed arch, like the nations with liberty.
Then, while Rome is undergoing gradual dismemberment, Romanesque architecture dies. The hieroglyph deserts the cathedral, and betakes itself to blazoning the donjon keep, in order to lend prestige to feudalism. The cathedral itself, that edifice formerly so dogmatic, invaded henceforth by the bourgeoisie, by the community, by liberty, escapes the priest and falls into the power of the artist. The artist builds it after his own fashion. Farewell to mystery, myth, law. Fancy and caprice, welcome.
Art has its rules, sense, discipline.
Provided the priest has his basilica and his altar, he has nothing to say. The four walls belong to the artist. The architectural book belongs no longer to the priest, to religion, to Rome; it is the property of poetry, of imagination, of the people. Hence the rapid and innumerable transformations of that architecture which owns but three centuries, so striking after the stagnant immobility of the Romanesque architecture, which owns six or seven. Nevertheless, art marches on with giant strides. Popular genius amid originality accomplish the task which the bishops formerly fulfilled. Each race writes its line upon the book, as it passes; it erases the ancient Romanesque hieroglyphs on the frontispieces of cathedrals, and at the most one only sees dogma cropping out here and there, beneath the new symbol which it has deposited. The popular drapery hardly permits the religious skeleton to be suspected. One cannot even form an idea of the liberties which the architects then take, even toward the Church. There are capitals knitted of nuns and monks, shamelessly coupled, as on the hall of chimney pieces in the Palais de Justice, in Paris. There is Noah’s adventure carved to the last detail, as under the great portal of Bourges. There is a bacchanalian monk, with ass’s ears and glass in hand, laughing in the face of a whole community, as on the lavatory of the Abbey of Bocherville. There exists at that epoch, for thought written in stone, a privilege exactly comparable to our present liberty of the press. It is the liberty of architecture.
Yes, because architecture is speech. Happy to agree here, and it’s one permanent takeaway for me, from this novel.
This liberty goes very far. Sometimes a portal, a façade, an entire church, presents a symbolical sense absolutely foreign to worship, or even hostile to the Church. In the thirteenth century, Guillaume de Paris, and Nicholas Flamel, in the fifteenth, wrote such seditious pages. Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie was a whole church of the opposition.
Thought was then free only in this manner; hence it never wrote itself out completely except on the books called edifices. Thought, under the form of edifice, could have beheld itself burned in the public square by the hands of the executioner, in its manuscript form, if it had been sufficiently imprudent to risk itself thus; thought, as the door of a church, would have been a spectator of the punishment of thought as a book. Having thus only this resource, masonry, in order to make its way to the light, flung itself upon it from all quarters. Hence the immense quantity of cathedrals which have covered Europe—a number so prodigious that one can hardly believe it even after having verified it. All the material forces, all the intellectual forces of society converged towards the same point: architecture. In this manner, under the pretext of building churches to God, art was developed in its magnificent proportions.
Faith can drive art, and has historically done so; it’s much more than a pretext for art.
Dogma can serve as a pretext for an order to build a cathedral, but dogma could never inspire the artist at that point.
Then whoever was born a poet became an architect. Genius, scattered in the masses, repressed in every quarter under feudalism as under a testudo of brazen bucklers, finding no issue except in the direction of architecture,—gushed forth through that art, and its Iliads assumed the form of cathedrals.
All other arts obeyed, and placed themselves under the discipline of architecture. They were the workmen of the great work. The architect, the poet, the master, summed up in his person the sculpture which carved his façades, painting which illuminated his windows, music which set his bells to pealing, and breathed into his organs. There was nothing down to poor poetry,—properly speaking, that which persisted in vegetating in manuscripts,—which was not forced, in order to make something of itself, to come and frame itself in the edifice in the shape of a hymn or of prose; the same part, after all, which the tragedies of Æschylus had played in the sacerdotal festivals of Greece; Genesis, in the temple of Solomon.
Thus, down to the time of Gutenberg, architecture is the principal writing, the universal writing. In that granite book, begun by the Orient, continued by Greek and Roman antiquity, the Middle Ages wrote the last page. Moreover, this phenomenon of an architecture of the people following an architecture of caste, which we have just been observing in the Middle Ages, is reproduced with every analogous movement in the human intelligence at the other great epochs of history. Thus, in order to enunciate here only summarily, a law which it would require volumes to develop: in the high Orient, the cradle of primitive times, after Hindoo architecture came Phœnician architecture, that opulent mother of Arabian architecture; in antiquity, after Egyptian architecture, of which Etruscan style and cyclopean monuments are but one variety, came Greek architecture (of which the Roman style is only a continuation), surcharged with the Carthaginian dome; in modern times, after Romanesque architecture came Gothic architecture.
“Modern times” here means 500 – 1500 AD ! Just a reminder to myself.
And by separating there three series into their component parts, we shall find in the three eldest sisters, Hindoo architecture, Egyptian architecture, Romanesque architecture, the same symbol; that is to say, theocracy, caste, unity, dogma, myth, God: and for the three younger sisters, Phœnician architecture, Greek architecture, Gothic architecture, whatever, nevertheless, may be the diversity of form inherent in their nature, the same signification also; that is to say, liberty, the people, man.
In the Hindu, Egyptian, or Romanesque architecture, one feels the priest, nothing but the priest, whether he calls himself Brahmin, Magian, or Pope. It is not the same in the architectures of the people. They are richer and less sacred. In the Phœnician, one feels the merchant; in the Greek, the republican; in the Gothic, the citizen.
If this is true of the Gothic, why did the revolutionaries of 1789 not feel it? Why did they attack Notre Dame in their declarations and left it to rot?
The general characteristics of all theocratic architecture are immutability, horror of progress, the preservation of traditional lines, the consecration of the primitive types, the constant bending of all the forms of men and of nature to the incomprehensible caprices of the symbol.
Symbols, if not mere idols, are liberating to people and to art.
These are dark books, which the initiated alone understand how to decipher. Moreover, every form, every deformity even, has there a sense which renders it inviolable. Do not ask of Hindoo, Egyptian, Romanesque masonry to reform their design, or to improve their statuary. Every attempt at perfecting is an impiety to them. In these architectures it seems as though the rigidity of the dogma had spread over the stone like a sort of second petrifaction. The general characteristics of popular masonry, on the contrary, are progress, originality, opulence, perpetual movement. They are already sufficiently detached from religion to think of their beauty, to take care of it, to correct without relaxation their parure of statues or arabesques. They are of the age. They have something human, which they mingle incessantly with the divine symbol under which they still produce. Hence, edifices comprehensible to every soul, to every intelligence, to every imagination, symbolical still, but as easy to understand as nature. Between theocratic architecture and this there is the difference that lies between a sacred language and a vulgar language, between hieroglyphics and art, between Solomon and Phidias.
If the reader will sum up what we have hitherto briefly, very briefly, indicated, neglecting a thousand proofs and also a thousand objections of detail, he will be led to this: that architecture was, down to the fifteenth century, the chief register of humanity; that in that interval not a thought which is in any degree complicated made its appearance in the world, which has not been worked into an edifice; that every popular idea, and every religious law, has had its monumental records; that the human race has, in short, had no important thought which it has not written in stone. And why? Because every thought, either philosophical or religious, is interested in perpetuating itself; because the idea which has moved one generation wishes to move others also, and leave a trace. Now, what a precarious immortality is that of the manuscript! How much more solid, durable, unyielding, is a book of stone!
Digital trumps all.
In order to destroy the written word, a torch and a Turk are sufficient. To demolish the constructed word, a social revolution, a terrestrial revolution are required.
A mere fire could destroy a construction. An earthquake could do it. Or a common, non-revolutionary war.
The barbarians passed over the Coliseum; the deluge, perhaps, passed over the Pyramids.
In the fifteenth century everything changes.
Human thought discovers a mode of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but still more simple and easy. Architecture is dethroned. Gutenberg’s letters of lead are about to supersede Orpheus’s letters of stone.
‘The book is about to kill the edifice.‘
The invention of printing is the greatest event in history. It is the mother of revolution. It is the mode of expression of humanity which is totally renewed; it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete and definitive change of skin of that symbolical serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence.
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once.
We repeat, who does not perceive that in this form it is far more indelible? It was solid, it has become alive. It passes from duration in time to immortality. One can demolish a mass; how can one extirpate ubiquity? If a flood comes, the mountains will have long disappeared beneath the waves, while the birds will still be flying about; and if a single ark floats on the surface of the cataclysm, they will alight upon it, will float with it, will be present with it at the ebbing of the waters; and the new world which emerges from this chaos will behold, on its awakening, the thought of the world which has been submerged soaring above it, winged and living.
And when one observes that this mode of expression is not only the most conservative, but also the most simple, the most convenient, the most practicable for all; when one reflects that it does not drag after it bulky baggage, and does not set in motion a heavy apparatus; when one compares thought forced, in order to transform itself into an edifice, to put in motion four or five other arts and tons of gold, a whole mountain of stones, a whole forest of timber-work, a whole nation of workmen; when one compares it to the thought which becomes a book, and for which a little paper, a little ink, and a pen suffice,—how can one be surprised that human intelligence should have quitted architecture for printing?
Printing makes the easiest thoughts easily printable; it expresses both intelligence and superficiality, and spreads both.
Cut the primitive bed of a river abruptly with a canal hollowed out below its level, and the river will desert its bed.
Behold how, beginning with the discovery of printing, architecture withers away little by little, becomes lifeless and bare. How one feels the water sinking, the sap departing, the thought of the times and of the people withdrawing from it! The chill is almost imperceptible in the fifteenth century; the press is, as yet, too weak, and, at the most, draws from powerful architecture a superabundance of life. But practically beginning with the sixteenth century, the malady of architecture is visible; it is no longer the expression of society; it becomes classic art in a miserable manner; from being Gallic, European, indigenous, it becomes Greek and Roman; from being true and modern, it becomes pseudo-classic. It is this decadence which is called the Renaissance. A magnificent decadence, however, for the ancient Gothic genius, that sun which sets behind the gigantic press of Mayence, still penetrates for a while longer with its rays that whole hybrid pile of Latin arcades and Corinthian columns.
It is that setting sun which we mistake for the dawn.
Nevertheless, from the moment when architecture is no longer anything but an art like any other; as soon as it is no longer the total art, the sovereign art, the tyrant art,—it has no longer the power to retain the other arts. So they emancipate themselves, break the yoke of the architect, and take themselves off, each one in its own direction. Each one of them gains by this divorce. Isolation aggrandizes everything. Sculpture becomes statuary, the image trade becomes painting, the canon becomes music. One would pronounce it an empire dismembered at the death of its Alexander, and whose provinces become kingdoms.
Thought emancipates itself in all directions at the same time as the arts. The arch-heretics of the Middle Ages had already made large incisions into Catholicism. The sixteenth century breaks religious unity. Before the invention of printing, reform would have been merely a schism; printing converted it into a revolution. Take away the press; heresy is enervated. Whether it be Providence or Fate, Gutenburg is the precursor of Luther.
Nevertheless, when the sun of the Middle Ages is completely set, when the Gothic genius is forever extinct upon the horizon, architecture grows dim, loses its color, becomes more and more effaced. The printed book, the gnawing worm of the edifice, sucks and devours it. It becomes bare, denuded of its foliage, and grows visibly emaciated. It is petty, it is poor, it is nothing. It no longer expresses anything, not even the memory of the art of another time. Reduced to itself, abandoned by the other arts, because human thought is abandoning it, it summons bunglers in place of artists. Glass replaces the painted windows. The stone-cutter succeeds the sculptor. Farewell all sap, all originality, all life, all intelligence. It drags along, a lamentable workshop mendicant, from copy to copy. Michael Angelo, who, no doubt, felt even in the sixteenth century that it was dying, had a last idea, an idea of despair. That Titan of art piled the Pantheon on the Parthenon, and made Saint-Peter’s at Rome.
A great work, which deserved to remain unique, the last originality of architecture, the signature of a giant artist at the bottom of the colossal register of stone which was closed forever. With Michael Angelo dead, what does this miserable architecture, which survived itself in the state of a spectre, do? It takes Saint-Peter in Rome, copies it and parodies it. It is a mania. It is a pity. Each century has its Saint-Peter’s of Rome; in the seventeenth century, the Val-de-Grâce; in the eighteenth, Sainte-Geneviève.
Each country has its Saint-Peter’s of Rome. London has one; Petersburg has another; Paris has two or three. The insignificant testament, the last dotage of a decrepit grand art falling back into infancy before it dies.
It would be interesting to know what structures in London and St. Petersburg he is thinking of.
If, in place of the characteristic monuments which we have just described, we examine the general aspect of art from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, we notice the same phenomena of decay and phthisis. Beginning with François II., the architectural form of the edifice effaces itself more and more, and allows the geometrical form, like the bony structure of an emaciated invalid, to become prominent. The fine lines of art give way to the cold and inexorable lines of geometry. An edifice is no longer an edifice; it is a polyhedron.
Meanwhile, architecture is tormented in her struggles to conceal this nudity. Look at the Greek pediment inscribed upon the Roman pediment, and vice versâ. It is still the Pantheon on the Parthenon: Saint-Peter’s of Rome. Here are the brick houses of Henri IV., with their stone corners; the Place Royale, the Place Dauphine. Here are the churches of Louis XIII., heavy, squat, thickset, crowded together, loaded with a dome like a hump. Here is the Mazarin architecture, the wretched Italian pasticcio of the Four Nations.
Here are the palaces of Louis XIV., long barracks for courtiers, stiff, cold, tiresome. Here, finally, is Louis XV., with chiccory leaves and vermicelli, and all the warts, and all the fungi, which disfigure that decrepit, toothless, and coquettish old architecture. From François II. to Louis XV., the evil has increased in geometrical progression. Art has no longer anything but skin upon its bones. It is miserably perishing.
Meanwhile what becomes of printing? All the life which is leaving architecture comes to it. In proportion as architecture ebbs, printing swells and grows. That capital of forces which human thought had been expending in edifices, it henceforth expends in books. Thus, from the sixteenth century onward, the press, raised to the level of decaying architecture, contends with it and kills it.
Printing did not kill faith or architecture.
In the seventeenth century it is already sufficiently the sovereign, sufficiently triumphant, sufficiently established in its victory, to give to the world the feast of a great literary century. In the eighteenth, having reposed for a long time at the Court of Louis XIV., it seizes again the old sword of Luther, puts it into the hand of Voltaire, and rushes impetuously to the attack of that ancient Europe, whose architectural expression it has already killed. At the moment when the eighteenth century comes to an end, it has destroyed everything. In the nineteenth, it begins to reconstruct.
Now, we ask, which of the three arts has really represented human thought for the last three centuries? which translates it? which expresses not only its literary and scholastic vagaries, but its vast, profound, universal movement? which constantly superposes itself, without a break, without a gap, upon the human race, which walks a monster with a thousand legs?—Architecture or printing?
It is printing. Let the reader make no mistake; architecture is dead; irretrievably slain by the printed book,—slain because it endures for a shorter time,—slain because it costs more.
“God Is Dead” too. Only, it’s not true.
Every cathedral represents millions. Let the reader now imagine what an investment of funds it would require to rewrite the architectural book; to cause thousands of edifices to swarm once more upon the soil; to return to those epochs when the throng of monuments was such, according to the statement of an eye witness, “that one would have said that the world in shaking itself, had cast off its old garments in order to cover itself with a white vesture of churches.” Erat enim ut si mundus, ipse excutiendo semet, rejecta vetustate, candidam ecclesiarum vestem indueret. (GLABER RADOLPHUS.)
A book is so soon made, costs so little, and can go so far! How can it surprise us that all human thought flows in this channel? This does not mean that architecture will not still have a fine monument, an isolated masterpiece, here and there. We may still have from time to time, under the reign of printing, a column made I suppose, by a whole army from melted cannon, as we had under the reign of architecture, Iliads and Romanceros, Mahabâhrata, and Nibelungen Lieds, made by a whole people, with rhapsodies piled up and melted together. The great accident of an architect of genius may happen in the twentieth century, like that of Dante in the thirteenth. But architecture will no longer be the social art, the collective art, the dominating art. The grand poem, the grand edifice, the grand work of humanity will no longer be built: it will be printed.
Video killed the radio star. TV killed film. Internet killed cable. Music should have died long ago.
Music, actually, is our oldest art form.
And henceforth, if architecture should arise again accidentally, it will no longer be mistress. It will be subservient to the law of literature, which formerly received the law from it. The respective positions of the two arts will be inverted. It is certain that in architectural epochs, the poems, rare it is true, resemble the monuments. In India, Vyasa is branching, strange, impenetrable as a pagoda. In Egyptian Orient, poetry has like the edifices, grandeur and tranquillity of line; in antique Greece, beauty, serenity, calm; in Christian Europe, the Catholic majesty, the popular naïvete, the rich and luxuriant vegetation of an epoch of renewal. The Bible resembles the Pyramids; the Iliad, the Parthenon; Homer, Phidias. Dante in the thirteenth century is the last Romanesque church; Shakespeare in the sixteenth, the last Gothic cathedral.
These are fascinating comparisons and they imply that in every age, people will write in the ways that they build. It’s a lovely idea but I am skeptical that a 19th century Frenchman could know these other cultures well enough to make these comparisons. Hugo characterizes the poetry of ancient and physically distant cultures, but has he read them in the original languages? If not, is he speaking of something in the poetry that is independent of translation? I’m not sure what that would be.
I wish he had said more about the literary works he lists in the last two sentences. These works being more familar to any Western audience, maybe he thought the parallels would be self-explanatory. They are not to me.
I haven’t read Dante yet. I don’t even know who Phidias is; looking him up on Wiki, he was a sculptor who created the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Hugo likens this sculptor to Homer in general. Phidias also designed some of the statues within the Parthenon, a famous structure that even I remember from grade school; Hugo links this structure to the Iliad specifically.
Honestly I have no clue what any of this means.
The Pyramids are the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World, and I did visit them back in ’99. (I also saw Notre Dame, lamentably from the outside only, in ’97). So let me take a crack at them. They are the Bible, Hugo says. I can feel that comparison more than I can see it, but let’s go with it.
Firstly, though, let me say that when I saw the Pyramids just outside Cairo, while on a pilgrimage with my church to the Holy Land, I was unimpressed. They were bathed at night in a glittering show of lights, with a booming voice on the loudspeakers declaring how the Pharaohs had defeated time with these everlasting structures, and I just thought it was such BS. The faith of the Pharaohs was no longer a living faith, and yet here we were in this profoundly faithful culture, with signs of a very much living-faith all around us, and mosques everywhere calling believers to prayer. So I actually left the light-show early and made a visit to the local mosque, which was not hard to find.
All of which is to say, when I see the Pyramids, if I look only at the stones I’m impressed and fascinated, but if I think like Hugo that these structures were the books of their time, and I think of the ideas and the faith that they were trying to convey, I see words that no longer live. I see a ruin, which speaks all kinds of things, but without the people the language is no longer living.
It’s impossible to view a church or a mosque in that way, because those structures are still inhabited, still housing people and being used as they were designed.
The Bible does evoke the feeling of something weighty, immovable, foundational, like the Egyptian Pyramids — in the basic sense that the Bible is a foundational pillar of our culture. But if I’m not mistaken, Hugo is likening the Bible’s poetry and language to the Pyramids, and here, having studied the Bible a little, I am keenly aware that the Bible that we know is a translation of several ancient languages. I don’t read any of them, but I’ve read the Bible in English and Spanish, and I’ve heard some of it Latin — and all of those poetries sound very different. Even two different English translations can sound radically different, and I have no idea in what language Hugo might have known the Bible, apart from French and Latin.
The King James translation does give the Bible a certain unity, and I can see how its English has a certain elegance, consistent structure, ideas always reaching upward to a single point — all of which could be likened to the Pyramids.
A sample of the KJV’s structure, in its well-known use of “and” clauses:
1 And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
2 And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,
3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant
But here’s the thing — the Bible is a collection of 70 or more books that were written across the span of over a thousand years, so it’s not right to speak of it as something in which one era expressed itself. Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek all went into the composing of the Bible, and though the writers generally came from the land of Israel, there are significant influences in the Bible from cultures, ideas, and languages as distant as Egypt, Babylon, Athens and Rome.
Finally, Shakespeare as the last Gothic cathedral — again this is a connection I never would have thought possible, but here I could maybe see a connection. Shakespeare is widely credited today with inventing modern literature, the modern concept of characters as individual persons, what-have-you. For Harold Bloom, famously and controversially, it was The Invention of the Human. This can all be a little much, but there’s no doubt Shakespeare was modern in many ways, and Hugo does associate Gothic architecture with progress and with the freedom of the individual, particularly in this chapter which I’ve copied here.
Thus, to sum up what we have hitherto said, in a fashion which is necessarily incomplete and mutilated, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper. No doubt, when one contemplates these two Bibles, laid so broadly open in the centuries, it is permissible to regret the visible majesty of the writing of granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated in colonnades, in pylons, in obelisks, those sorts of human mountains which cover the world and the past, from the pyramid to the bell tower, from Cheops to Strasbourg. The past must be reread upon these pages of marble. This book, written by architecture, must be admired and perused incessantly; but the grandeur of the edifice which printing erects in its turn must not be denied.
That edifice is colossal. Some compiler of statistics has calculated, that if all the volumes which have issued from the press since Gutenberg’s day were to be piled one upon another, they would fill the space between the earth and the moon; but it is not that sort of grandeur of which we wished to speak. Nevertheless, when one tries to collect in one’s mind a comprehensive image of the total products of printing down to our own days, does not that total appear to us like an immense construction, resting upon the entire world, at which humanity toils without relaxation, and whose monstrous crest is lost in the profound mists of the future? It is the anthill of intelligence. It is the hive whither come all imaginations, those golden bees, with their honey.
The edifice has a thousand stories. Here and there one beholds on its staircases the gloomy caverns of science which pierce its interior. Everywhere upon its surface, art causes its arabesques, rosettes, and laces to thrive luxuriantly before the eyes. There, every individual work, however capricious and isolated it may seem, has its place and its projection. Harmony results from the whole. From the cathedral of Shakespeare to the mosque of Byron, a thousand tiny bell towers are piled pell-mell above this metropolis of universal thought. At its base are written some ancient titles of humanity which architecture had not registered. To the left of the entrance has been fixed the ancient bas-relief, in white marble, of Homer; to the right, the polyglot Bible rears its seven heads. The hydra of the Romancero and some other hybrid forms, the Vedas and the Nibelungen bristle further on.
Nevertheless, the prodigious edifice still remains incomplete. The press, that giant machine, which incessantly pumps all the intellectual sap of society, belches forth without pause fresh materials for its work. The whole human race is on the scaffoldings. Each mind is a mason. The humblest fills his hole, or places his stone. Rétif de La Bretonne brings his hod of plaster. Every day a new course rises. Independently of the original and individual contribution of each writer, there are collective contingents. The eighteenth century gives the Encyclopedia, the revolution gives the Moniteur. Assuredly, it is a construction which increases and piles up in endless spirals; there also are confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labor, eager competition of all humanity, refuge promised to intelligence, a new Flood against an overflow of barbarians. It is the second tower of Babel of the human race.
The great irony here is that the book did not kill the cathedral; Hugo’s novel practically saved Notre Dame. He wages a campaign to save such structures through his novels and in other ways. He recognized how the printing press could be put to the purpose of saving architecture, and even in this chapter he notes that in his time the printing press “begins to reconstruct” what it had destroyed.
And maybe for Hugo the revival of architecture through literature was not an irony but something that rather proved his point: architecture is so dead that only its killer could revive it.
Maybe. But it seems to me that new technologies always give new life to old texts. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, all live again every time we get a new movie.
It’s true that if new technologies are not invented, people continue to speak through existing technologies. If the printing press had never come along, the people of Europe would still have expressed themselves in illuminated manuscripts and stone cathedrals. Well enough. But I can’t see how the old would not have stagnated, without the new. Living on, never being replaced, is not the same thing as growing and thriving, not the same thing as renewal and life.