Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Fires Before Easter

For the second time in less than a year, a great work of culture, art, and history has burned. First it was the the National Museum of Brazil in September of last year. This time, of course, it was the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Things look better today than they did last night, but it's hard to see the fire at Notre-Dame as anything less than a disaster.

I wish to speak, and I might use any tenuous connection there might be between the cathedral and Weird Tales or weird fiction as a pretext, but the things I wish to say have little to do with the magazine or the genre. As it stands now, the fire is supposed to have been caused by an accident. Risking their lives, Parisian firefighters finally extinguished it several hours after it began. Other Parisians rescued relics and works of art from the interior as the fire raged, including the Crown of Thorns, saved by a heroic Catholic priest. (The Crown of Thorns, the flames, and the Cross--which at Notre-Dame survived--are among the elements of the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.) We can't take anything from these and the many millions of people of Paris and of France, and we can't exploit the incalculable loss experienced by them in this tragedy. But we also can't overlook the symbolism of the event, or a possible interpretation of it as something more than a mere fire in a centuries-old building. We are now in Holy Week and we will soon have the holiest day in the Christian calendar. It seems needless to point out that Western civilization in general and Europe in particular were built upon a Judeo-Christian foundation. The cathedral of Notre-Dame was constructed at the height of an age of faith, but in a later age of reason, after having been seized by the State, it was abused, plundered, and converted to the house of an atheistic cult. Soon returned to the Roman Catholic Church, the cathedral was again taken over by the State in 1905, and it is under the ownership of the State that Notre-Dame burned. For eight and a half centuries Notre-Dame stood, and now it burns.

I don't think it's any stretch to say that the current European State--and Western culture in general, at least among the élite--is secular, materialist, and anti-Christian, even radically and viciously anti-Christian. I don't think anyone in the French State has anything to gain and much to lose in the burning of a cathedral. Notre-Dame and places like it have become secular symbols of the cities or countries in which they are located. Even adherents to anti-Christian and post-Christian religions have their uses for things made by the Church and its members. The Hagia Sophia comes to mind as an example. It's curious to me, though, that the current president of France should ask for help from other nations to rebuild Notre-Dame. I guess his France is fiercely independent except when it's not. More to the point, people of faith built the cathedral to begin with. Are there not enough now in France to rebuild it? I'm certain there are in fact. Despite the best efforts of the State in that nation and elsewhere, Christianity lives and thrives, as do faith, hope, love, and charity in the hearts of Christians everywhere. And who has stepped forward to offer funds for the rebuilding? None other than the wealthy of France, the same kind of people who are ceaselessly vilified by the leftist and socialist State and its true believers, the same who are looked at as an endless source for legalized plunder. As always, though, that same State and its adherents survive on other people's money, and as always they bite the hand that feeds them. In any case, I believe that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt. I also believe that some people will see this as a symbolic event--"a wakeup call" as people say after there has been a terrorist attack. Some will even see it as an intervention or as a kind of miracle, as an act of God, not in the mundane, actuarial sense, but in the real, literal sense. In 1944, Adolf Hitler demanded to know: Is Paris burning? The German commander there stayed his hand and did not set the city afire. Yesterday a symbol of the city, of France, of Christendom itself burned. Are we paying attention? And if so, how will we respond, not just to the fire in the cathedral but to the flames that threaten to burn down Western civilization? With post-Christian lassitude and ennui? Or with vigor and confidence charged by belief? In the choice between fire and ice, we seem to have chosen ice. We are in trouble, perhaps without even realizing how seriously we are in trouble. Is this then a fire that might thaw us, that might warm us, warn us, and wake us?

* * *

From the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, selected titles containing the phrase "Notre Dame":
  • "The Fools' Pope," an excerpt from Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831) in The Monster Book of MonstersMichael O'Shaughnessy, ed. (1988)
  • "Notre Dame des Eaux" by Ralph Adams Cram in Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories (1895)   
  • "The Juggler of Notre Dame" by Anatole France in Tales from a Mother-of-Pearl Casket (1896) 
  • "The Specter of Notre Dame" by Lloyd Owen in Ghost Stories (May 1931)
I have written before about Weird Tales from France, but neither Victor Hugo (1802-1885) nor Anatole France (1844-1924) had bylines in "The Unique Magazine," even if Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame is recognizably a Gothic work (and his title character was an Aurora monster model of the 1960s). Today is Anatole France's birthday by the way, so Happy Birthday, Anatole!

Notre-Dame converted into an airbus station, from Le Vingtième Siècle (1883) by the French artist and writer Albert Robida (1848-1926), reproduced in Science Fiction: An Illustrated History by Sam J. Lundwall (1977). As I have written before, the artist is a canary in the coal mine of culture and history. In this case, the artist foresaw that a cathedral might one day be used for worldly purposes. At least these people are having fun: perhaps Robida and visionaries like him could not have equally foreseen the funlessness of our world today. (We may be hedonistic but there doesn't seem to be much fun and certainly no love or warmth in any of it. In America at least, that funlessness seems to come from a certain Protestant, more specifically Puritan, worldview that--even if they have thrown off Christianity as the most hateful of things--infects progressives like a disease. The creation of Utopia-on-Earth is, after all, a deadly serious business, partly because it must be done NOW, for there is no after.) Anyway, all of this makes me think of the opening sequence in La Dolce Vita (1960) in which a statue of Christ, dangling from a helicopter, shows religion in our age to be merely a worldly spectacle to distract and momentarily entertain bored and jaded people.

The box lid for the 1960s Aurora monster model of Quasimodo, from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1923), the screenplay for which was cowritten by Perley Poore Sheehan (1875-1943), who was, as it turns out, a teller of weird tales.

Text and captions copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Thanks a lot for this text. It's probably the most emotional article I read from an English-speaking writer about the burning of Notre-Dame.
    As an avid reader of weird fiction, and especially of American weird fiction, I take great pleasure in reading your blog regurlarly, but I never thought of thanking you for it, so now it's done !

    1. Thank you, Philippe,

      Please accept on behalf of many millions of Americans our best wishes to you and your countrymen and -women. I hate to see what has happened, but I believe this is also an opportunity offered to all of you to create once again, as a people and a nation, a great work. I am confident that the people of France can do it, despite whatever difficulties might come. Thank you also for reading my blog. I am happy to know that reading it has given you such pleasure.

      Terence Hanley