Notre-Dame is a thing, but it is also a thought, which is why, as soon as the fire broke out, any number of commentators began speaking about Victor Hugo, who invested the cathedral with an exceptionally large and wonderful thought, and gave it eternal life. Notre-Dame is not, after all, merely the landscape of Hugo’s novel. Notre-Dame is the protagonist. In the English-speaking world, we like to call the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is a marvelous title, given how marvelous is Quasimodo the Hunchback, born of a Jew and a sow (according to a nasty old lady in Book IV), who has got to be the most heartbreaking brokenhearted lover in the history of literature—Quasimodo, whose deformed and decayed skeleton turns up on the final page, entwined in posthumous and pathetic embrace around the skeleton of the hanged “Egyptian,” La Esmerelda, the “bohemian” (who, since I have mentioned the Jews, plainly owes something, derivatively speaking, to the exotic Rebecca of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe). But the actual title is Notre-Dame de Paris, the cathedral, and not its carillonneur.

And the cathedral goes into action, as protagonists are supposed to do. It breathes, which may not seem like much, but is rather a lot, for a building. It sings (through the bells), which is a bit more. It surveys. It presides. Public executions take place before its unblinking cyclopean rose-window eye. But mostly it emblemizes. And what does it emblemize? Hugo brought out the novel in 1831, when he was 29 years old, and the edifice-protagonist emblemized the great and thrilling philosophical idea of that particular moment. This was the idea that Hegel expressed in his lectures from 1830, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, and Tocqueville expressed in his own book from 1835, Democracy in America, Vol. I. It was a theory of history.

Hugo’s way of expressing the idea was naturally a little different from Hegel’s and Tocqueville’s. Hugo, unlike them, was happy to contradict himself, and happy to make things up, and happier still to let words get the better of him. Poetic caprice was his intellectual system. His version of the great idea of those years was therefore more human than anything you can find in Hegel or in Tocqueville, and more colorful—a vibrational version, aglow in turquoise, blue, magenta, and red, emitting geysers of vocabulary not just in French but in Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Italian, in a delirium of Babel. Deep down, though, Hugo’s idea and theirs were the same.

It was the idea of progress. It was the idea that, in his phrase, “All of civilization begins with theocracy and ends with democracy,” which is not how Hegel would have put it (though Hegel’s theory was fully compatible), but was Tocqueville’s idea in a nutshell. It was the idea that mankind is universal; that what is true for one people must basically be true for all peoples; that progress, therefore, is likewise universal, or will turn out to be universal, in time; that conscious and rational self-government reflects the inner essence of man; and ultimately the inner essence will have its way. It was the idea that religion is the premonition, and democracy, the fruition.

Only, Hugo gave his own spin to that idea, and, because the spin revolved around the enormous cathedral, it added up to a theory of history in a distinctly architectural mode. It was the idea that, for 6,000 years, architecture was the great repository of the signs of human thought—religious architecture in particular, architecture that is intended to mean something. Religious architecture was the repository because giant temples were built to last, and they were accessible. Books and manuscripts were, by contrast, fragile tissues, vulnerable to every passing thing. “To destroy the written word, a torch and a Turk will suffice,” said Hugo (those being the times of Greco-Turkish war). But architecture in its massive ancient style was indestructible.

Architecture was a mountain, it was sturdy, it was visible, and it was all-encompassing. It agglomerated, organized, summarized, displayed and expressed the achievements of civilization. Theology was the master-science, and architecture was the master-art. And the master-art presided over the lesser and subordinate arts—sculpture, painting, music—that prospered within its welcoming niches and naves.

The original temple architecture, in Hugo’s theory, was Egyptian, or else Hindu (meaning vaguely Asian, I guess), and was, in any case, monolithic, as was proper for conveying and preserving theology’s unitary dogma, under the despotism of the guardian priests. The principle of monolithic massivity guided the architecture of Egypt’s heir, as well, which was Rome. And Rome bequeathed the same principle to the Romanesque cathedrals of the early Middle Ages—an architecture intended, in each instance, to affirm and enforce the dogmatic theological truths, whatever they might happen to be.

But there was another strand in world architecture. It was the architecture of the ancient Phoenicians and the ancient Greeks—an architecture of freedom and the people, and not of the priestly caste: an architecture for merchants and republicans. And, in Europe in the later Middle Ages, the architecture of freedom and the people began to triumph over the architecture of dogmatic unity and priestly tyranny.

Popular uprisings and religious schisms took place. The republican and artisan communes of the later Middle Ages arose. The city bourgeoisie arose. And, in the world of cathedral architecture, the humble artists began to prevail over the tyrannical priests. Statues and paintings of every sort began to go up in the cathedrals—not just the illustrative works of the unitary theological past, but quizzical works of every kind, portraying the enemies and subversives of religion, as well as the saints and sacred figures. Cathedrals became an architecture of whimsy, no longer Romanesque and monolithic, but Gothic and chaotic, filled with novelty and invention. All of Europe mobilized to construct the new architecture, in a vast continental effort. And Notre-Dame in Paris was the sign and product of those developments—a cathedral that was begun under a monolithic Romanesque inspiration, and continued under a chaotic Gothic inspiration, without quite reaching Gothic completion: a transitional cathedral.

Hugo gave to his novel the subtitle 1482, meaning the year, and, in setting his novel at that particular moment, he invoked another theme, as well, which was the great technological innovation of those late-medieval days. This was the invention of the printing press. Books printed on Gutenberg’s press were different from all previous books and manuscripts. Printed books were not, in fact, fragile. You could put any number of those books to the torch, and it would hardly matter. There were lots of them, and they were relatively cheap, and they scattered in all directions like a flock of birds, and there was nothing to be done about it. “One can demolish a mass, but how to extirpate ubiquity?”

Notre Dame
Roof of Notre-Dame struck by German bomb in October of 1914 during World War I (Library of Congress.)

The printing press was, in that respect, stronger than a cathedral, and, because of its strength, was destined to replace the cathedral as the repository of civilization. Or, as the sorcerer-archdeacon of Notre-Dame observes, with reference to printed books and his own cathedral, “This will kill that,” which does not make him happy. Or, as Hugo, who did feel happy, says, “The invention of the printing press is the greatest event in history.” The invention will render knowledge universal, it will change the texture of thought. “It is the mother revolution.” And this, the mother revolution, occupies the central pages of Notre-Dame de Paris: the birth of the true freedom, the only freedom, which is the freedom that comes from knowledge that spreads everywhere.

What was Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame, then? It was the emblem of history, and of history’s meaning. What was history’s meaning? Progress. What was the meaning of progress? Freedom. Were progress and freedom realities of 1831, when he published it, which have ceased to be realities in our own day? We can hardly read Hugo’s novel today without realizing, bug-eyed, that he has identified the forces at work in the great technological event of our own era, which is the rise of the internet, and the fall of the printed book and magazine and newspaper—a new theme for “This will kill that.” We worry, then—we and the sorcerer-archdeacon.

But Hugo was confident. And, lo, by the end of his novel, back in 1482, he has sent the medieval masses converging violently on the cathedral—the masses, who consist of people of every chaotic sort and especially the underclass, the Parisians who, instead of speaking French, speak Spanish and argot, which are the subterranean languages of Paris, the hoodlums, thieves, and prostitutes, the “Egyptians,” and even (as Hugo tells us in his fabulous chapter about the criminal underworld) a bearded Hungarian Jew. The masses converge on the cathedral in a barbarous rage, but their uprising is plainly pointing to the great event that was going to take place some 300 years later, which was, of course, the birth not just of freedom of the imagination, but political freedom, too. It is, in prospect, the French Revolution! Or perhaps Hugo had in mind the lesser revolution that had just then taken place in the Paris of his own moment, the Revolution of 1830, which was not much of a revolution, though it did affirm the principle of freedom of the press—the greatest principle of all, in the Hugolian architecto-semiotic theory of history. Or he had in mind future revolutions to come, democratic and free.

And so, the flames went up a few days ago, and people all over the world held their breath, aghast, and wept, and, in my interpretation, it was not because, as Christopher Caldwell argued just now in a New York Times piece titled “Why Did Nonbelievers Grieve for Notre Dame?,” the nonbelievers are yearning for belief. I think that people held their breath, aghast, and wept because Victor Hugo had affixed a gigantic meaning to the cathedral. I do not mean to suggest that large numbers of people all over the world have read the novel or would be capable of summarizing its themes and ideas. But Hugo had a genius for branding things, as the phrase goes, and, as a result, a worldwide public does understand his fundamental point. This is an appreciation of the playful imagination—an appreciation of a certain somber joyfulness that is built into Notre-Dame: the joyfulness of whimsy and invention, sometimes in a subversive spirit, sometimes in a spirit of divine awe, which Hugo thinks of as freedom, struggling to emerge.


Nobody seems to remember that Hugo devoted his novel to a smaller cause, as well. This was the sacred cause of architectural preservation. On this topic, he did worry. The preservationist idea was invented by a mentor of his named Charles Nodier, the author of vampire tales. But Hugo took up the idea, and, in Notre-Dame de Paris, he composed preservationism’s first and greatest and most eternal masterpiece. He observed in the novel and in a couple of pamphlets that edifices of one sort or another from the Middle Ages were undergoing destruction all over France—victims of time, of fanatical anti-medieval revolutionaries, of greed, and (worst of all) of changes in taste: a matter of mutilations, amputations, dislocations, and, most grievously, restorations. Architecture, dethroned from its place as the master-art of human wisdom, had descended into vandalism. Notre-Dame itself, as of 1831, had been partly ruined, with empty niches where statues were supposed to be, and the wrong statues in other niches. So he raised his voice. War on the Demolishers was the name of his collected pamphlets. Antiquity is good, and demolitions are bad: a chief point of the architecto-semiotic theory of history.

Did he worry about fires, too? You have only to read the very first pages of Notre-Dame de Paris to see that he did. His opening scene takes place in the grand hall of the Palais de Justice in Paris in 1482—and, as he goes about describing the hall, he pauses to explain that, on March 7, 1618, the palace and the hall were destroyed in a fire. Devastating conflagrations were not merely on his mind—they were the very first possibility he thought of, rather as if, on this point, too, he predicted our own moment.

The grief, in any case, has been undeniable around the world. Church bells all over France tolled in mourning last week, in coordinated carillon. And anyone who opens the pages of Notre-Dame de Paris will discover or rediscover that Hugo rang his own enormous bell. The hunchbacked carillonneur clambers breathlessly up the bell tower of the biggest and most magnificent bell of all, “Marie.” His assistants are on a lower floor, and, at his orders, they set the bell to teetering by hanging from the cables:

The bell’s frenzy got hold of him; his look became extraordinary; he waited for the big bell to come by like a spider waiting for a fly, and brusquely he threw himself on it with abandon. Suspended above the abyss and launched into the fearsome oscillation of the bell, he seized the bronze monster by its little ears, squeezed it between his two knees, spurred it on with his heels and redoubled the fury of its peal with the entire weight and shock of his body. The tower was quaking, himself shouting and gnashing his teeth, his red hair bristling, his chest making the noise of a blacksmith’s bellows, his eye flashing fire, the monstrous bell whinnying, panting, beneath him; and now it was no longer the great bell of Notre-Dame and Quasimodo, it was a dream, a whirlwind, a tempest; vertigo on horseback above the noise …


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.