One more ‘Hunch’ joke, and I’ll… I’ll…

One of the things that struck me most, as I watched that edifice (the real one, this time) go up in flames, was the sheer outpour of human emotion, in real time, from literally all parts of the world

Life is full of unexpected little coincidences. Just a few weeks ago – for some unearthly reason that I still haven’t fully fathomed – I took a sudden interest in cinematic treatments of Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’…. or should I say, Hugo’s 1836 novel ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ (which was given a somewhat sexier title for the English version, much to its author’s ‘malhereusement’.)

Without having any clue that the building in question was soon to be ravaged by flames, I watched as ‘Notre Dame Cathedral’ – and the original film-set still exists, intact and unincinerated, as a Universal Studios Hollywood attraction: how ironic is that? – served as backdrop for the 1923 silent epic starring Lon Chaney senior as Quasimodo… the 1939 version with Charles Laughton, and an astonishingly beautiful Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda… and, eventually, the animated Disney version of 1996. And I watched all three versions, hunchback to hunchback, in one night.

There is a lot I could write about that experience, you know. I could fill this entire newspaper just with an analysis of how Esmeralda’s character evolves –  devolves, more like it – over the course of 70 years: and what it tells us about changing attitudes towards the female form in the movies. I would have to start by admitting to my own biases: which, in any case, I’ve already revealed. Yes, Maureen O’Hara is very beautiful in the 1939 Universal film (and it’s black and white, too: just wait till you see her in ‘The Quiet Man’…) But in my defence, I didn’t emphasis it merely because I am a man and she is a woman. Esmeralda’s radiance is an integral part of the plot: it is thrown into sharp focus by Quasimodo’s deformity – and this effect is actually far better achieved in the 1923 version, where Lon Chaney really is monstrously, horrifically, and abhorrently... UGLY.

But it also underscores that beauty of a different kind may exist elsewhere… that beneath his ghastly prosthetic hump, the ‘monster’ is infinitely more human than the human gargoyles who persecute him. And he gets by far the most beautiful lines, too: ‘Why am I not made of stone, like thee?’.

Sigh. Not even Disney managed to rob that moment of its magic. But it still stems from his ugliness compared to Esmeralda’s beauty.
So even the fact that I homed in directly on that aspect of ‘Hunchback’ – and not, say, the monstrous ugliness of pretty much all the other characters - tells me something about Esmeralda’s degeneration into, effectively, a whore over the decades to come. If Disney sexualises the gypsy girl to such an outrageous degree, it is precisely because their target audience includes people like myself: who go all gooey at the sight a pretty face on the silver screen.

That makes me, and others like me, partly responsible for cinema’s  ‘sexploitation’ of women. Much as I hate to admit it: it makes ‘Harvey Weinstein accomplices’ of us all…

Like I said, however, I could write volumes about this, and other aspects of those films. For instance, representation of persecuted people such as the Roma. There are immediate, obvious reasons why the 1939 version – starting with the date itself, and the fact that it was both directed and produced by German Jews – offers the most sympathetic portrayal of gypsies by far. But I still struggle to understand how a film made in the 1990s – supposedly an age of greater racial tolerance than the flipping 1930s, for crying out loud – would just buy wholesale into the idea that… yes, they really were the human equivalent of insect vermin, just crying out to be squashed ‘one, by one, by one’…

But I’ll save all that for another time. Notre Dame Cathedral. That is the reason I’m writing all this to begin with. One of the things that struck me most, as I watched that edifice (the real one, this time) go up in flames, was the sheer outpour of human emotion, in real time, from literally all parts of the world. My Facebook feed naturally offers a limited view… but reactions of ‘My God’ and ‘Oh no!’ seemed to come from pretty much everywhere you looked. Russia, Argentina, Iceland, Outer Mongolia… I happened to notice an Australian Facbook acquaintance posting holiday snapshots, with Notre Dame as backdrop once more.

But let’s face it: most reactions will have been from people who have no holiday memories of their own to fall back on; who never went to Paris, or had any other discernible reason to feel any form of ‘connection’ to that building whatsoever.

Why the sense of attachment, then? Could be it be, in part, the effect of those very movies? Speaking only for myself, I’d say: you damn bet it could. (Then again, I watched them all just a couple of weeks ago). But that, in turn, only points us back to the Hugo novel.

Here, I have to confess that: no, I haven’t actually read the book… yet. But I read (and watched) enough around it to get a rough idea. The change in title already points in a certain direction: Hugo was a lot less concerned with the fate of his human characters – whom, in any case, he kills off in some rather spectacularly nasty ways - than with… Notre Dame Cathedral itself, and the importance of its preservation.

It’s difficult to make this point without trailing off into a never-ending digression about the importance of architecture – as a means of social communication – in a pre-literate age. Suffice it to say that Hugo famously predicted that: ‘This will kill that. The Book will kill the Edifice’. By the time Hugo wrote that novel, architecture had already been toppled from its position as a global cultural communication medium by the printed word: including, paradoxically, his own ‘Notre Dame de Paris’. Hugo – quite accurately, it must be said – predicted that buildings would lose their cultural significance as communicators, and will eventually communicate nothing but ugliness.

And he spelt it out in no uncertain terms, too. This is from an 1832 Victor Hugo essay, ‘War on the Demolishers’:

“The hammer that mutilates the face of the country must be stopped. One law would suffice. Let it be made. Whatever the property rights may be, the destruction of a historic and monumental building should not be permitted to these ignoble speculators whose interest blinds their honour; wretched men, and such imbeciles that they don’t even understand that they’re barbarians! There are two things in a building: its use and its beauty. Its use belongs to the owner, its beauty to the whole world, to you, to me, to us all. Thus, destroying it is exceeding one’s rights.”

Can we have those words emblazoned on a national monument somewhere, please? Because – and I’m not being deliberatively provocative here – I myself did not share in all this outpour of emotion over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Yes, naturally, it saddened me to see such a beautiful, historical building engulfed in flames (it also sort of reminded me of Disney’s Hellfire scene, which… to be fair to absolutely everyone, including old Walt… was a pretty effective add-on).

But I didn’t feel anywhere near the same emotion as when I walked past the brutalised remains of Villa Ignatius in Balluta. I may have visited Notre Dame more than once over the years – and, somewhere, I may have even tourist snapshots to prove it – but I used to walk past Villa Ignatius every other day. I used to imagine it as the backdrop of a Dracula-style horror-film, or even a Shakespeare play (you could take your pick of the lot, too… its battlements could have been Elsinore, its front garden could have doubled up for Birnam Wood… its bougainvilla-strewn balcony… well, you can work out that one for yourselves…)

And it’s gone. Just like that, from one day to the next. And unlike Notre Dame, it was not demolished by mistake. I won’t go into issues of whether it was a ‘misinterpretation of planning permit conditions’, or anything like that… but, with or without a permit, that building was bulldozed to the ground on purpose.

In case you’re wondering: yes, I did feel an emotional connection with Villa Ignatius. I did grieve internally for its loss. Victor Hugo’s sentiments came to me, too… only not quite in the same way he expressed them (I would have added ‘criminal delinquents’ to the ‘imbeciles’ part, and much of the rest would have been unprintable.)

So I can fully understand the global outpour of dismay at the incineration of Notre Dame Cathedral in ‘not-so-gai Paris’. It resonates with how I feel each time I read about great chunks of our archaeological heritage – Punic tombs, cart-ruts, the foundations of Roman villas, etc. - being ripped out of the earth, along with the rest of the soil and stones, to make way for apartments and petrol stations. That, to me, is more than just ‘destruction of a historic and monumental building’. That is also robbing future generations of the opportunity to study those remains with new eyes, and new technologies. And maybe learning a little something more about our collective past, than the little we managed to learn ourselves… before just demolishing it all.

What upsets me a little more in the case of Notre Dame Cathedral, however, is that – just like Quasimodo’s ugliness enhances Esmeralda’s beauty, only in reverse – the mismatch in emotional attachment shows up our callousness towards the loss of our own cultural monuments. With Notre Dame, it immediately becomes an imperative to ‘rebuild it exactly as it was’. And the funds to do precisely that – E300 million, s’il vous plait – were collected before the building had even crumbled into ashes. (In fact, they’re now reporting that… oh, wait, maybe the damage isn’t so bad after all…)

With the Royal Opera House in Valletta, on the other hand…

Anyway, by now you will have surely got the point. I hate repeating myself – did I ever tell you that before, by the way? – but I can only conclude by pointing back to that 1832 Victor Hugo quote, and asking, once again: can we have those words emblazoned on a national monument somewhere, please?

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