August 19, 2010
I heard a promo recently about a segment on Public Radio, and the gist of it was, “What book did you read when you were young that changed your life?” I heard only the promo, but it got me to thinking about the question, and my answer — momentous if not quite life-changing — seemed to be Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and in French as “Notre Dame de Paris.” I was around 13 or 14 years old when I spotted a paperback copy of the novel on one of those carousels in a sweet shop near our house. I think I was attracted to it because of the suggestive illustration of the gypsy girl Esmeralda on the cover. (Did I mention that I was about 14?) In those days a paperback book cost less than a buck, so I bought it and sneaked it into the house, figuring the cover might attract unwanted attention.
I went to elementary school from the late ’40s to the mid ’50s, and the most provocative thing I read was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” I was taking quite a leap from that curriculum to Victor Hugo — although I didn’t know it at the outset because writers like Victor Hugo weren’t mentioned at Memorial School. I was mesmerized by the book. I read it over and over. I certainly had never read such descriptions of lust and violence, and I was scandalized but fascinated by the idea of all this immorality in the Church.
What I found most absorbing, however, was not the salacious aspects of the plot nor the images of Esmeralda but the deformed bell ringer, Quasimodo, who has become the popular symbol of this story. As I mentioned in a post about six months ago, Quasimodo was so named because when he was an infant his mother abandoned him at the cathedral of Our Lady of Paris (“Notre Dame de Paris”) on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.
When I first read the novel, I was especially energized by the passage in which Quasimodo defies both public and ecclesiastical authority and rescues Esmeralda from imminent execution, and I was deflated by his ultimate failure to save her. Aside from the drama, though, one seemingly innocuous phrase in the translation I read had a permanent impact on me — so much so that I recall it more than 50 years later. It was Hugo’s reference to Quasimodo as “the unfortunate man.”
In the popular retelling of this story, what is frequently lost is that core reality that the grotesque figure who plays a critical part in it was a human being with the same desires and sensibilities that motivate all human beings. The very fact that the story is popularly known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — as though his misshapen spine defined Quasimodo as a person — suggests a disregard for, or at least an ignorance of, Hugo’s intention to present Quasimodo as a man motivated by two understandable feelings — a sense of loyalty to the archdeacon Claude Frollo, Esmeralda’s nemesis, who had provided the foundling with a home, and a chaste affection for Esmeralda, the only person to show Quasimodo compassion.
This experience of the fictional Quasimodo resonates in the experience of the real Joseph Merrick, the 19th century Englishman who was known to his contemporaries and is widely known now as “the elephant man” because he was so “unfortunate” as to suffer from a disease that badly deformed his body. Life gave Merrick two choices — to be alternately displayed and hounded as a freak or to withdraw from society almost entirely and live in seclusion in London Hospital. I think it is a telling detail in Merrick’s biography that once he was living permanently at the hospital he asked to be confirmed in the Church of England. I suppose that request was an indication of his hope, or faith, that in the mind of God he was as much a human being as any other amalgamation of body and soul.
Hugo’s novel was my answer to the NPR question both because it introduced me to classical fiction and because it made me aware for the first time of the whole creature that may be imperfectly displayed in the features and posture of a man, woman, or child — something, I am sorry to say, I have had to be reminded of many times since.
While I have been musing over the question posed by NPR, I have learned that among Hugo’s many concerns was what he construed as a threat to the integrity of architecture in Paris and throughout Europe. In his mind, Hugo connected this fear with what he worried would be the numbing effect of the recently-invented printing press, an idea he touches on in “Notre Dame de Paris.”
The cathedral itself, which was begun in the 12th century and completed in 1345, was in disrepair in the early 19th century, partly as a result of the protracted political turmoil in the city and partly because of simple neglect. Hugo writes:
The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still, no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it as been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last
On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. “Tempus edax, homo edacior,” which I should be glad to translate: Time is blind, man is stupid.
The attention Hugo called to the condition of the cathedral was at least partly responsible for a major renovation of the structure, which is the focal point for many visitors to Paris. You can see interactive panoramic views of the cathedral by clicking HERE.
When I learned last night that Michael Jackson had died, I was at a fair – kiddie rides, foot-long hot dogs, funnel cakes – in a town in Bergen County. I drove about an hour and half to get there — not for the hot dogs, which were fine, but to listen to Noise from the Basement, a band in which my son plays keyboard. I would do it again.
When I got home and checked my blog here on wordpress, I saw that traffic on my journal had already soared beyond the normal number of daily visits – by a factor of eight. This was caused by the death of Farrah Fawcett. Her passing apparently sent many people scurrying to a search engine, and some of their searches tripped over two entries I have made in the past couple of months complaining about the way some of the media and some of the public were reacting to her illness.
It might be fortuitous for Farrah Fawcett’s memory that she and Michael Jackson died almost simultaneously. Because of the complicated life that Jackson led, there is likely to be an endless stream of speculation about the nature of his death, and even some serious commentary on the meaning of his life.
I have to say that Michael Jackson meant nothing to me, one way or the other. I didn’t pay close attention to the coverage of his life, but I did see and hear enough to know that the difference between fact and fiction was difficult to discern. If the far more sedate lives of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Sir James Matthew Barrie are any example, some of the questions about Jackson’s behavior will never go away.
One small issue in Jackson’s life that did get my attention was the report in 1987 that he had offered to buy the remains of Joseph Carey Merrick, known in popular culture as “John” Merrick, the “elephant man,” a 19th century Englishman who was severely deformed by a disease that has not been conclusively identified. I have spent far more time learning about Merrick than I have ever devoted to Michael Jackson, because I have been interested in Merrick’s determination to achieve some sort of human dignity despite a condition that, through no fault of his own, made it impossible for him to live in society. In fact, he had to be protected from the public. It’s worth noting that Dr. Frederick Treves, who was principally responsible for providing Merrick with a home at London Hospital, had misgivings about his own role in making Merrick something of a darling of British society, including the royal family.
My initial reaction when I heard that Jackson had tried to buy Merrick’s remains was disgust. I couldn’t imagine any legitimate purpose to such a thing, and I felt strongly that Jackson would be violating Merrick’s memory by removing what remains of him from the hospital that gave him the only true sanctuary he ever knew. Although there have been many public reports that Jackson did, indeed, acquire Merrick’s “bones,” my reading indicates that it never happened. Some have claimed that Jackson himself deliberately spread that rumor after having viewed the remains in London, but I haven’t found any substantiation of that idea. The bizarre tones and the uncertainty of this bit of Jackson’s history or legend is a microcosm of the odd and often mysterious biography that will be written and re-written for years to come.
Peter Conrad wrote an interesting essay in The Guardian about Michael Jackson in anticipation of Jackson’s appearance in London next month. It’s at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/14/michael-jackson
Tammy Paolino — the name is no coincidence — also wrote an insightful piece about the impact of Jackson’s death. It’s at http://blogs.courierpostonline.com/mamadrama/ in an entry dated June 26.