The Cathedral of Imagination
by Jude Joseph Lovell
We all watched as the images came across our laptops, our TV screens, and our phones on April 15—the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris engulfed in catastrophic fire. I can’t speak for others, but the horror that seemed to claw out of my gut and climb upwards was something that felt bigger than me alone. It felt more like a collective feeling of loss, of something dying before the eyes of the entire world, and a nascent grief that is hard to name.
I’ve never been to Notre-Dame—I’ve never set foot in Paris—so my reaction has nothing to do with direct experience. You may have read that construction on Notre-Dame began in the twelfth century and continued for over one hundred years. For me it is impossible to separate that massive endeavor from the faith of the countless hard-working men and women from long ago who accomplished it. And while this is not the place for to me to offer my views on that faith, I understand well the purpose this awe-inspiring church was constructed for in the first place.
Nonetheless, I did have another thought as I watched the cathedral blaze and the harrowing image of that magnificent spire toppling over in broad daylight, its lone iron bell like a molten heart inside a flaming ribcage. I realized that, while I do not know Notre-Dame from any personal experience, it is a part of a great structure that stands in my own imagination. I remember the time six summers past, in 2013, when I decided I needed to correct a wrong—the fact that I had never read anything by the great French writer Victor Hugo. So I chose to read his classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831.
The story, set in the fifteenth century, concerns the unrequited love the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo, who resides in the cathedral, feels for the young gypsy woman Esmeralda, whom he rescues from death early in the novel. A third character in the ill-fated triangle, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, emerges as a villain and a foil to Quasimodo’s more innocent pursuit of Esmeralda.
But most readers and critics agree that the main “character” of the novel is Notre-Dame itself, which Victor Hugo had strong feelings about and which, at the time he was writing the book, had fallen into a state of disrepair. This towering work of literature is like many other gothic novels from the nineteenth century in that it immerses the reader fully into its language, its imagery, and its time.
I could only imagine as I watched the tragedy unfold what Victor Hugo might have experienced if he were witnessing the same. But I felt a terrific debt of gratitude towards him for his industry and creative vision in bringing the cathedral to vibrant life in my own imagination.
When you finish The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, with its thorough invocation of the magnificent cathedral on the page, you almost feel as if you once lived there yourself, much like that unfortunate creature tolling the giant bell.
But I felt more than this. I thought, too, about the way Hugo’s masterpiece helped me, a guy from New Jersey who also writes, feel as though I had a stake in Notre-Dame’s fortune. And I considered how the experience of consuming great works of art is a bit like constructing a cathedral within our own minds. When we read classics, listen to symphonies, or appreciate masterworks of visual art, we are building a sacred vestibule of the imagination.
This is achieved over not just months or years, but over decades. Our internal cathedrals grow and expand, taking on greater majesty and importance. They become a place where we store sacred relics of our own lives in the form of memories and revelations. They stand tall against all elements as a sanctuary for our thoughts, our dreams, and our hearts—until the roaring flames of time take them down along with us.
Victor Hugo wrote about the period Notre-Dame was built that, “in those ages, whoever was born a poet became an architect.” After feeling that deprivation while watching this great landmark of human faith and enterprise burn, I would extend that notion to anyone who endeavors to consume a poet’s, a painter’s, or a composer’s work. We, too, become architects of the mind.
May we never grow weary of it. We should always continue to erect these sanctuaries within, where, in the splendor of our very existence, we can wander, our eyes drifting up to breathtaking cloisters and arches, and continue to dream uninhibited.
Photo credits by wptv.com and oddizzi.com.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.