Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Welcome to the internet, Victor!

The best parts of books never survive film adaptation. Here is a prescient vision of today from Victor Hugo's Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame):

"A book is so soon made, it costs so little, and it can travel so far! Why wonder that the whole of human thought should flow down this slope? This is not to say that architecture will not now and again have a fine monument, an isolated masterpiece. From time to time, in the reign of printing, we may well still get a column made, I suppose, by a whole army, from the fusing of cannons, as, under the reign of architecture, they had Iliads and Romanceros, Mahabharatas and Nibelungen, made by a whole people from an accumulation and fusion of rhapsodies. The great accident of an architect of genius might occur in the twentieth century just like that of Dante in the thirteenth. But architecture will no longer be the social, the collective, the dominant art. The great poem, the great edifice, the creation of mankind will no longer be built, it will be printed.

And in future, should architecture accidentally revive, it will no longer be master. It will be subject to the law of literature, which once received the law from it. The respective positions of the two arts will be reversed. It is a fact that during the age of architecture - admittedly rare - poems resembled the monuments. In India, Vyasa is intricate, strange and impenetrable, like a pagoda. In the Egyptian East, poetry, like the buildings, has a grandeur and tranquillity of line; in ancient Greece, beauty, serenity and calm; in Christian Europe, the majesty of Catholicism, the naïvety of the people, the rich and luxuriant vegetation of an age of renewal. The Bible resembles the Pyramids, the Iliad the Parthenon, Homer Phidias. Dante in the thirteenth century was the last Romanesque church, Shakespeare in the sixteenth the last Gothic cathedral. Thus, to sum up what we have said so far in a necessarily incomplete and truncated form, the human race has two books, two registers, two testaments: masonry and printing, the bible of stone and the bible of paper. When we study these two bibles, so fully opened through the centuries, it is permissible surely to feel nostalgia for the visible majesty of what was written in granite, those gigantic alphabets formulated as colonnades, pylons and obelisks, those mountains, as it were, which covered the world and the past, from the pyramid to the steeple, from Cheops to Strasbourg. We must re- read the past from these marble pages. We must constantly admire and turn the pages of the book written by architecture; but we must not gainsay the grandeur of the edifice which printing has erected in its turn.

This edifice is colossal. Some maker of statistics or other has calculated that if all the volumes which have issued from the presses since Gutenberg were placed one on top of the other they would occupy the distance from the earth to the moon; but that is not the kind of grandeur we mean. Yet, when we try to compose in our minds a total picture of the sum of the products of the printing-press up till our own day, does the whole not appear to us as a vast construction, with the entire world as its base, at which mankind has been working without respite and whose monstrous head is lost in the profound mists of the future? It is the ant-hill of the intellect. It is the hive to which all the golden bees of the imagination come with their honey. It is an edifice of a thousand stories. Here and there, on staircases, one can see the mouths of the murky tunnels of science, which intersect in its bowels. On its surface, everywhere, the luxuriance of art, with its arabesques, its rose-windows and its tracery. Here, each individual work, however isolated or capricious it may appear, has its own place and protuberance. Its harmony comes from whole. From the cathedral of Shakespeare to the mosque of Byron, innumerable bell-turrets jostle indiscriminately on this metropolis of the universal mind. At its base, a number of the ancient titles of mankind have been rewritten, which architecture had not recorded. On the left of the entrance has been affixed the old white marble bas-relief of Homer, on the right the polyglot bible rears its seven heads. Further on stands the bristling hydra of the Romancero, with other hybrid forms, the Vedas and the Nibelungen. For the rest, this prodigious edifice remains perpetually unfinished. The printing-press, that giant machine, tirelessly pumping the whole intellectual sap of society, is constantly spewing out fresh materials for its erection. The entire human race is on the scaffolding. Each mind is a mason. The humblest can stop up a hole or lay a stone. Restif de la Bretonne, contributes his hod-load of plaster. Every day a new course is added. And aside from the original offerings of individual writers, there are collective contingents. The eighteenth century gives the Encyclop├ędie, the Revolution the Moniteur. This indeed is a construction which grows and mounts in spirals without end; here is a confusion of tongues, ceaseless activity, indefatigable labour, fierce rivalry between all of mankind, the intellect’s promised refuge against a second deluge, against submersion by the barbarians. This is the human race’s second Tower of Babel."


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