What is it, exactly, that bothers us so about the April 15 burning of Notre Dame Cathedral? That vague feeling of something unsettling, almost approximating dread, was not simply in reaction to the partial but devastating physical destruction of one of the most magnificent structures ever dreamt by the human imagination. Nor was it merely revulsion at the asinine and arrogant statements to have been wearily anticipated from the usual suspects who “don’t give a damn about French history” as the Muslim head of a French student union put it, or, in the words of the smug Harvard professor, were relieved to see the cathedral “liberated from the burden of meaning”–whatever that might mean. It was not even the symbolic power of the West “going to ashes” as many so-called ‘conservatives’ passively bemoaned and scores of subversives actively cheered on. This crowd, as well as the just-a-pile-of-wood crowd, the Macron-globalist ‘we’ll-restore-it-as-a temple-to-humanity’ crowd; the who-cares-about-destroyed-churches fakestream media crowd…All this kind of thing was to be expected and therefore hardly emotionally evocative.
Rather, what was most disturbing about the tragedy of this sublime monument to heaven on earth turned fiery spectacle for secular cynics was the notion of “us”, as referenced in the first line of this essay. That is to say, a reference to this ever-thinning membrane of cultural consciousness that is the lifeline coursing through “Western man” and connecting him to all that is worth living for. Those who felt a sense of deep aggrievement at this unusual occurrence, a healthy fury at having to endure the witnessing of the erosion of the gorgeous hierarchies of civilization; at the lack of sobriety and solemnity one wishes to observe ats such times instead of being subjected to tepid, perfunctory journalese that deigns a nod or two to ‘great architecture’ and ‘historical significance’. The us here stands for those who can still as yet feel a psychological reaction to an event of this nature. For, it is we who now carry an enormous burden: that of the preservation of Beauty in an age of unrelenting and unapologetic physical, spiritual and cultural ugliness.
The origins of how such strange decline came about are elusive yet, at the same time, exact. In sum, it may be explained by an old legend of the American Deep South that recounts how one day the Devil was asked what his favorite accomplishment had been in the history of the world to date. Laughing at the question, he smiled and replied: ‘When no one ever suspected I was the Devil’. That, of course, says it all. Today, guise of tolerance, openness, compassion, progress, empowerment, equality, egalitarianism, diversity, multiculturalism, etc… in the onslaught of all these tired orthodoxies we have lost the proper sense of elitism that gives life both rooted and bloom. Beauty has no use for ‘equality’, only harmony; proportions and complementary relations of things and that is what is resented. It commands, but it does not impose. It rules by law, but appeals through contours and softness. Great works of art have the uncanny ability to ennoble and humble a person at once; cheap, platitudinous ‘expression’ inspires only egoism and snark.
We see the psychological toll of a society and culture in which there is nothing to admire. We see what happens when there are no chillingly awe-some cathedrals to look up to, just globo-uni-diversity that makes one look contemptuously from side to side, or down. Record levels of adult and childhood depression, a severe upturn in suicide rates, record drug overdose, brutal violence among increasingly younger age groups, filth ridden U.S. cities once the world’s glamor capitals, abysmal academic standards ranging from public schools to the Ivy League: this is the legacy of open-minded tolerance in which the concepts of (rational) discrimination, (proper) elitism, and (cultural) hierarchy are more or less regarded as forms of hate crimes. And Notre Dame itself? The ultimate ‘hater’–too Catholic, too Western, too hierarchical, too erudite, too pious, too male, too European– cast in stone. One sees what is taken for evil in these interesting times.
Speaking of which. “You mortals are on the wrong track”, stated a powerful editorial in the March 1917 issue of The Art Journal entitled “The Gospel According to Mephistopheles”. The anonymous writer continued: “In the past you have looked for salvation in transcendentalism and philosophy, and now science. All three have failed you. But there is a certain cult which you have never fairly tried, at least not in modern times–the Cult of Beauty.” How sad that we are not wise to that which is wise to us. But it was said almost a century ago, as has been said to us for most of the entire history of civilization–that only Beauty, as Dostoevsky once remarked, will save the world. By today’s aesthetic standards it does not appear it wishes to save itself.
“Whenever I travelled, I made it a rule to visit all the cathedrals I could”, wrote Auguste Rodin, the great French sculptor, in the late 19th century. He referred to cathedrals as “great, vast poems”. He commented: “Even in a small town there is often a real cathedral. I used to awake early in the morning, and hasten to visit what for me were the chief objects of interest. And I remember that the spires and the various parts of these churches gave me an exquisite joy. I would linger and walk round them until I was thoroughly tired out.”
To Rodin, a good friend of Victor Hugo, no architect or sculptor had ever been able properly to restore a Gothic church or cathedral because there was too much mystery to them. He even believed that in a certain sense those sculptors surpassed the Greek as ancient temples were more or less the same everywhere and that “similarity…is not a culminating quality of art.” He wrote: “Life is made up of strength and grace most variously mingled, and the Gothic gives us this. No one church resembles another. The tiniest leaf is perfectly chiselled and has its own importance as well as its proper place in the mass.” The moods and extreme emotions of life found their representation in such art as well. As he continued: “When I speak of light and shade, it is without reference to painting; I mean the rendering visible and perceptible certain geometrical points that make the planes of sculpture. In order to have such effects of light and shade, there must be strongly projecting surfaces, arranged with due regard to their position in foreground and background. These were achieved with infinite art in the old Gothic cathedrals and churches, whose every part invariably stands out or recedes with a fine chiaroscuro.”
The Gothic style, whose greatest example is Notre Dame, was itself is a natural outgrowth of the Roman, “the Roman raised and magnified”. When once adopted, it spread throughout Western Europe, the result being an architectural sum total, the likes of which had never been seen before and perhaps will never be seen again. Rodin stated that “the terrible thing is that our restoring of cathedrals is a quick way of destroying these masterpieces.” One can only imagine what the France of Macron has in store for Notre Dame’s post-inferno makeover and ‘modernization.’
One does not have to be “religious” in order to acknowledge that a major part of Western art that exists, whether it be architecture, sculpture, painting, music, craftsmanship, owes its existence and its glory to one power, the Catholic Church. In this concept of life, art and true religion are united by the bond of absolute life. Each strives for, each achieves the same end, “the realization’ of the ideal and the idealization of the real”. Art sought to express through-the mystic and sensuous symbolism of color and form, light and shade, music, emotions and impressions otherwise inexpressible. Religion, in this sense, “strove to voice the same things through the mediumship of art, to sway men’s minds and exalt their spiritual consciousness by means of the subtle influence of solemn architecture, splendid color, majestic detail.” It does not matter that Western history is full of bloodshed and violence, this did not lead to barbarism in religious art. When the Greek set out to establish Magna Graecia they built the temple of Poseidon at Paestum as beautiful as the Parthenon. When Roger the Norman conquered Sicily and founded a new civilization, artistic decline did not ensue–instead the art of the new Norman kingdom became in a relatively short period of time arguably more beautiful than the Normandy he and his troops had left. When the Spaniards conquered Mexico they founded a civilization in many ways more admirable than that of the Aztecs, with superb cathedrals that became the finest architectural monuments in the “New World”. Even the Spanish missions of California founded in the 19th century have no comparison. The list here is endless. But its roster is seemingly forgotten as our own violent times produce vulgarity, bareness and sterility–little by way of the exalted or the beauty of ritual or ornamentation.
“A noble and imposing service, complete in its reverent and solemn ritual, will, I suspect, do more good, have a deeper spiritual effect than many a sermon” , wrote Rodin. And, were Christianity to take the leadership role “in extricating the world from the slough in which it has lost itself”, we as a civilization would waste not a minute in restoring Notre Dame in exact detail those elements of her now-lost physical glory. For, were we able again to recognize the nobility of emotion that is closely connected to religious feeling, the art of the cathedral would stand as the most universal champion of humanity and with a power that no vapid ideology or its mind-numbing mantras will ever begin to approximate. Which is precisely why Notre Dame must burn–and continue and continue to burn.