A Disenspired Age: Notre Dame, William Morris, and Gothic Lessons in a Post-Exquisite World

“So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say, civilization will die.”
—William Morris

We all love Gothic ruins, until we realize how you get them. Notre Dame is a heartbreaking tragedy, but a strong example. The collapse of its flèche, the central spire hastily added as part of a 19th-century restoration, has left me a little “disenspired” myself, if you’ll forgive my foundry of a new word for the sentiment. Even though the cathedral’s 19th-century fixtures are largely destroyed, and the 13th-century work is largely intact, it has a lot to tell us about how we treat our hallowed cultural landmarks. We live in an age that, like Notre Dame herself, is disenspired; and I mean here to offer some on-the-fly ruminations on what, exactly, that might mean.

First, let’s do what Mr. Rogers tells us to, and “look for the helpers.” It’s nice that in 24 hours, billionaires have pledged A BILLION DOLLARS to repair a mostly-intact landmark that would not cost even half a billion to build up from scratch.

The authorities are still investigating the cause of the blaze that toppled Notre Dame’s highest tower, but fortunately preserved her oldest surviving construction. It would be premature of me to offer a theory on what, exactly, sparked the disaster. But as an armchair historian of sorts, it occurs to me that the reason (if not the cause) for the fire in Notre Dame, or at least the reason that it did substantial and lasting damage, is that there has been a lack of financial support all the way along, resulting in cut corners when it comes to restoration. I don’t mean for weeks or for years, but for centuries. The building is 800 years old and has been crumbling for at least half of its life: when stone would fall from the roof, which happened quite frequently for centuries, it would be replaced with wooden supports. Everyone, not just the present-day scaffolders but the Napoleonic-era builders, knew that this was a problem, an unsustainable shortcut, but as a whole nobody cared enough do to anything about it. This was a known problem not for years but for centuries. The only time the public has much cared about continuing to repair and maintain the cathedral to the same level of craftsmanship as the original is now, when it has finally hit its tipping point. The fire that raged through did minimal damage to the medieval cathedral. It virtually gutted the shoddy repairs and piecemeal solutions that we’ve been putting there for a century or more–the ones we lean on to create the appearance that we’re stewarding one of the great glorious medieval churches, when what we’re really doing is shoring up a crumbling Gothic ruin a little while longer.

The Gothic novels are full of this stuff. They all take place in abbeys, cloisters, monasteries, cathedrals–century-old buildings, some of which became private family estates (after the purges of Henry VIII in England, for instance), other of which remain edifices of continental Papist terror for the Protestant English Gothic writers–but all of which are in a state of ruin, or disrepair. All of them create the facade of a castle or a cathedral, but Gothic books are at heart about real estate concerns. They’re all about depreciation of property, land transfer, ownership in equity and trust and escrow. They’re a serendipitous playground for me, a crumbling relic myself who can’t decide whether he’s a scholar of literature or of law. But in all cases they are fundamentally dishonest edifices whose ornamental facades hide subpar patchwork repairs, whose appearance of timeless nobility is a front for creeping entropy, for literal and moral decay just behind the surface.

So it goes with all our institutions, not just architectural ones. There was no failure of design or intent at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. There was not even a failure of design in most of the catastrophic oil spills in Alberta. What there was was the inherent disrespect of humankind for the prescribed quality of craftsmanship. There was the cutting of corners, the shoring up of expensive stone with cheap wood, the furnishing of lead where iron was called for. The replacement of permanent beauty with temporary stopgaps. The replacement of what is best with what “would do.”

The architectural vulnerabilities of the modern age, so colourfully displayed in the Notre Dame fire, are characteristic of a descent into “quick-fix” culture that prizes immediacy and fiscal efficiency (that is, minimal necessary effectiveness per dollar) over the creation of excellence. One only need look at our public buildings and our architectural disdain for ornament (and indeed, for difficulty of any kind) to see this principle at work. But it is not an architectural principle, but a cultural one. It’s crapism, an aesthetic that eschews aesthetics in favour of capitalist concerns, but does so erroneously because the corners we cut tend to cost us more–not merely financially, either–than producing works once, producing them exquisitely, and producing them right.

The value of old things and the love of ancient craftsmanship calls to mind William Morris, an eccentric Pre-Raphaelite polymath whose influence lies at the heart of my soon-to-be-existent small press (More on that later!), and who had a few choice words of his own on Notre Dame de Paris:

“I think those same churches of North France the grandest, the most beautiful, the kindest and most loving of all the buildings that the earth has ever borne; and, thinking of their past-away builders, can I see through them, very faintly, dimly, some little of the medieaeval times, else dead, and cone from me for ever,—voiceless for ever.”

—William Morris, “Shadows of Amiens,” 1856.

Did Morris know that throughout his lifetime the Lady of Paris was undergoing restorations and renovations of exceedingly inferior quality? Did he know that the flèche, the original spire of the church, erected between 1220-1230, wind-battered for centuries, was removed in 1786? Did he know that the one he looked upon 163 years ago, the same one we just saw heartbreakingly crumble to ash this week, was a phony and shoddy Victorian-age copy made not of stone, but of cheap oak clad in lead, rushed into place by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1848? Morris speaks reverently of the medieval builders while staring at least partially at the quick-fix work of modern architects working on budget. On one level, there’s nothing more Pre-Raphaelite than confusing contemporary imitations for medieval originals; on another, he above all craftspeople would have been disgusted by the corners cut reproducing the flimsy appearance of medieval grandeur—an architectural bluff finally called by this week’s fire.

Morris very nearly became an architect himself, apprenticing in the 1850s with Philip Webb, and later penning with him an impassioned manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which survives to this day. Had Morris not abandoned architecture for painting at the urging of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his contributions to the preservation of Medieval European culture might have taken a very different shape. If someone like Morris, albeit a few years older, had overseen the 1840s restoration of Notre Dame, the building would have been very different indeed. The project, like Morris’s Kelmscott books, would have been hopelessly expensive and unreasonably exquisite –but in fully duplicating the craftsmanship of a bygone age, might have fared better in the tragedy of last week.

As it is, we are now seeing Notre Dame for the first time as it would have appeared not to Morris, but Viollet-le-Duc in the 1840s, as a liminal space halfway between medieval glory and Gothic ruin. Our lady, even then, was hardly unblemished: the first flying buttresses were a late addition in the 13th century, replaced by larger and stronger ones in the 14th century: what we see today was not part of the cathedral’s structure for the first century of its existence at least. The original statues were vandalized in 1548 by rioting Huguenots who considered them idolatrous. Much of the stained glass from the 12th and 13th century was removed and destroyed during the reign of Louis XV, replaced with white glass to let in more light. A colossal statue of of St. Christopher dating from 1413 was destroyed completely in 1786. The original spire, images of which survive in the fifteenth-century Hours of Étienne Chevalier, was as mentioned taken down. in 1793, during the French Revolution, the cathedral was plundered and many of its relics destroyed. The twenty-eight statues of biblical kings, mistaken for French kings, were beheaded. The cathedral was turned into a warehouse for food storage. It was shot up during the Liberation of Paris in 1944, destroying more of the original medieval glass. The Cathedral was cleaned for the first time in 1963, restoring it to its original colour. The famous air pollution of Paris had eroded several gargoyles and turrets by the 1980s. Electric wires were installed on the roof to deter the invasive pigeons.

As far as medieval cathedrals go, Notre Dame is that one-eyed sailor in the back of the sailor bar who tells you, buddy, he’s seen some hard times.

The point of all this, other than to contextualize the latest scarring of the beloved cathedral with her roadmap of pre-existing, fascinating scars, is to consider the Pre-Raphaelite idea that a casualty of modernity is the loss not just of craftsmanship, but of the notion of exquisiteness, that lies at the centre of our nostalgic mourning for this most exquisite of structures. Why do we mourn harder for Notre Dame than for the Al-Aqsa Mosque? The answer is not entirely couched in our racism, though to an extent it certainly is. But Al-Aqsa’s exquisiteness is not so well-known to us, or not so easily understood, and its damage (which was thankfully less expansive) doesn’t send home as strong a message of Gothic ruination—that we have peaked and are in decline, as a decadent West, into a society more gluttonous than truly decadent. We are gourmands, not gourmets, and the loss of anything truly exquisite reminds us that our glory days of being able to produce truly exquisite things, from cathedrals to subways, are fighting for life.

We all look at this decline with the sneaking suspicion that it’s about more than just architecture. The “quick-fix” culture that shored up Notre Dame while making her vulnerable to collapse is the same culture at work in our medicine, in our politics, in our education most of all. It is the work and policy of buck-passing governments in the West to shore up at minimal cost every institution: as the ultra-rich hoard more and more money in late-capitalist stasis, and the sum total of all living, moving, liquid money dwindles, we are forced to do more with less, to discount the exquisite, to stop producing the great because the passable is expedient. It is an austere world in which the luxuries of the distant past vanish or are sequestered in the hands of a private few. It’s a world Morris wouldn’t be happy with. It’s a world where gutted health-care programs are shored up by desperate GoFundMe campaigns, where a few latte dollars begged from our family & friends hold up the façade of a crumbling economy whose quick-fix patches are cheap lead instead of stone and steel. They will hold until the first fire—and then they will betray us, too, as Viollet-le-Duc’s oak-and-lead knockoff spire betrayed him.

If crapism is an aesthetic, if disposable mediocrity is not just the governing principle of our architecture and art but of our medicine, our education, our justice system, our most important institutions of social policy, we are in for the same sorts of devastating fires as the century wears on—and not just in our buildings, either. We will see them in our courts and governments, in our hospitals, in our literature and our hit radio singles, in our crappy paintings and our crappy cars and our crappy social welfare programs. We are surrounded at all hours by institutional spires, real and figurative, with a melting point of 327.5°C (lead) instead of 1,539°C (iron). And under the heat and stress of an increasingly warm, increasingly anxious world, every great Thing in which we have vested our endeavours will show its mettle—or lack thereof.

The tragedy of Notre Dame is a double tragedy—first, in that there was a tremendous collapse, and second, in that the collapse was long overdue, bought and paid for by a century or more of divergence (forced or not) from our love of the exquisite. The theme of fallenness in Gothic literature is not just architectural, either—the ruination of Gothic buildings is metonymic, symbolic of the decay of the people and the society in which the ruins appear. Perhaps this is why Notre Dame haunts us more than Al-Aqsa: both are tragedies, but one of them has a lot to tell us about the tragedy of our own ruination.

And yet, people find it hard to believe when I tell them that the Gothic is at heart a comic genre—not in the sense that it’s comedic, i.e. ha-ha funny, but in the sense that it’s about progressive young people who outlive their cruel conservative aristocratic usurpers, and live to see the ruined world restored in some capacity.

Is there a Gothic ending for us on the far side of a disenspired age? We can hope so. It’s typical of late capitalism that the biggest hurdle to that Gothic ending, to a prelapsarian return to exquisite beauty in our lives and our physical and theoretical spaces, is that it’d be expensive. There is no barrier to it but the barrier of cost. Beauty is expensive, after all. The best things in life, maybe, are free; but the best imitations of them we can produce, the best homages to life, the best likenesses of life, cost an arm and a leg.

And yet, in less than twenty-four hours, France’s richest billionaires have fallen all over each other to throw fistfuls of cash at their exquisite medieval icon. Terrified of Gothic ruins, as perhaps we should all be, they have done away with the barrier of cost almost instantly, almost effortlessly.

Perhaps it behoves us to start rebuilding the Gothic ruin of education by reteaching our billionaires the beauty of the exquisite.

Perhaps that’s something Cynehelm Press can do, too, in the long term.

More on that exciting front soon.

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