The Two Headed Sphynx of Paris


“And opening out the door of his cell, he pointed out with his finger the immense church of Notre Dame, which, outlining against the starry sky the black silhouette of its two towers, its stone flanks, its monstrous haunches, seemed an enormous two-headed sphinx, seated in the middle of the city.

The Archdeacon gazed at the gigantic edifice for some time in silence then, extending his right hand with a sigh, towards the printed book which lay open, and his left towards Notre Dame….’Alas’ , he said, ‘This will kill that.'”

Victor Hugo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1831

What, the book will kill the cathedral? his listeners ask, baffled, and then they realise: no, that is not it. What will deprive that monster of its power is the printing press. For from the day it was invented, L’Homme Ordinaire would no longer need the church to interpret things of heaven and earth for him.

Since forever, the church had financed the building of cathedrals to evince the glory and majesty of God to his subjects. Those soaring pillars seemed to belong more to Heaven than Earth. They represented everything that was learned, learning itself. Would it be too much to say that cathedrals  kept man tame by way of its architecture?

And then there was the way books had always been reproduced. They were hand-copied, lavishly embellished by teams of monk-scribes. they were the preserve of the church, as high above the heads of Everyman as the finials of those cathedral-pillars. Learning was an impossibly distant thing, which belonged far away from everyday living.

The Abbey of St Genvieve was no exception. Since the sixth century they had been copying books there, at the oldest abbey in Paris: and their library was, well, magnificent.

But its great collection – after the revolution, was there a place for it any more?

Hugo posted words brazenly into the mouth of his Archdeacon. In the spirit of Liberty, Man could equip himself with the learnings of mankind simply by picking up a printed boke and reading it.

As Hugo wrote, the final patina of dust was settling after the revolution. In France, the reaction against the old establishment had been savage. They threw away time itself; there was no room for compromise. Love, or death. It must be one or the other and ne’er a middle way. This must kill that, and bring about a beginning, start time again, wash away the grime and wisdom of a past which belittled L’Homme Ordinaire.

So the book must kill the very infrastructure of the old ways, their towering cathedrals.

Yet, there it stood, just yesterday: Notre Dame, that hoary, bewitching old creature. Had the Parisians wished to take it down it would have done its best to beat them, you may be sure: but those city folk, toughened and numbed by hardship and hate, would have taken it down stone by stone.

Somehow, here it is, still standing. The greatness and beauty of a building soaring heavenwards proved, somehow, too much for the scurrying ants at its foot.

This did not kill that.

With thanks to Michael Maher, husband of Andra Watkins, who walked us through the streets of Paris yesterday and told us a bewitching story.

To be continued….




21 thoughts on “The Two Headed Sphynx of Paris

  1. I wonder if people will return to a realisation that these wonderful edifices can still serve to focus minds on the divine and refresh the spirit. Whether or not one is any sort of believer.

    1. I agree. I have my favourites: many here in the UK but so very many in France. One day I shall go on a grand tour of them all, Lou. Good to hear from you: hope all is well with you both out there in gracious Charleston.

  2. Kate: The article that delves into this best is called “The Book and the Building” by Robin Middleton. I believe it is in a compilation book of architectural theory in the Ecole des Beaux Arts period. I have a copy, but not electronic….I will try to scan it for you this weekend….I have not searched fully online, so it may be available that way…it is not an uncommon article for academic courses, and so you might find it scanned and available on a university course website…. Best,Michael

    From: Kate Shrewsday To: Sent: Monday, February 16, 2015 3:34 PM Subject: [New post] The Two Headed Sphynx of Paris #yiv1872195692 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1872195692 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1872195692 a.yiv1872195692primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1872195692 a.yiv1872195692primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1872195692 a.yiv1872195692primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1872195692 a.yiv1872195692primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1872195692 | kateshrewsday posted: “”And opening out the door of his cell, he pointed out with his finger the immense church of Notre Dame, which, outlining against the starry sky the black silhouette of its two towers, its stone flanks, its monstrous haunches, seemed an enormous two-he” | |

    1. Hi Michael, apologies – this is the first moment I have had to get back to my investigations in this regard. I shall go looking for the article now! Thanks! And thanks again for a wonderful walk to the Bibliotheque.

  3. This is a magnificent post, Kate, and clearly inspired by your encounter with an unparalleled cathedral. Victor Hugo is a favorite of mine and has been since high school–when I attempted, ridiculously, to read his works in French. You are a wonderful story-teller and I’m glad you do it English. My French is terrible! 🙂

    1. Hello Debra, and apologies for a tardy reply! My French is patchy: enough to decode the odd website, but my conversation is diabolical. Thank you for that wonderful comment. Hugo is a favourite of mine, too.

    1. Cheers Laurence: it’s probably temporary, but it’s nice and clean and clear for the time being….ah, Paris. I’m off back there the first chance I get: it will be the opera house and the catacombs for me this time. I suspect you will wait for a decent game of football to be staged in the city?

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