Fragile Memory - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Fragile Memory

Paris, 1954

It is the evening of the eighth of December, and Henry de Montherlants newest play, Port-Royal, is premiering at the Comédie-Française. The stage is set, and 800 or so patrons are now filing into the Salle Luxembourg, passing through the ornate vestibule and mounting the grand staircases before taking their red velvet seats. Soon these seasoned Parisian theater-goers will be putting their powers of attention to the ultimate test, for Port-Royal has been conceived as a high tragedy in the Greek manner, and there will be no intermissions, no set changes, no entractes to interrupt the highly charged atmosphere of the play’s one continuous scene, which takes place on a single afternoon in the summer of 1664, and in a single locale, the visiting parlor of the abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs. What is more, Montherlant has written the play in the baroque language of the 17th century, an idiomthat comes as naturally to me,” the dramatist likes to boast, as faubourg slang comes to others.” The rich verisimilitude of Montherlants dialogue, and the intense concentration of the dramatic action, combine to produce an altogether uncanny effect as the plot of Port-Royal unfolds. For two and a half tense hours the assembled members of the audience will take in this daringly anachronistic performance, some of them bewildered, no doubt, but others spellbound, transported nearly three centuries back in time as they bear witness to an almost entirely forgotten historical tragedy.

The abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs that provided Montherlant with his source material was, in its mid-17th century heyday, an unparalleled center of learning, where luminaries including Blaise Pascal, Claude Lancelot, and Jean Hamon gave lessons at the innovative Petites écoles de Port-Royal, educating students like the future playwright Jean Racine and the future economist Pierre Le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert. Abutting the Petites écoles was the Maison des Solitaires, a sylvan retreat where members of the French nobility and haute bourgeoisie divided their time between agricultural and scholarly pursuits. This priory of Cistercian nuns, nestled in the rolling hills and orchards of the Vallée de Chevreuse, would have seemed to its denizens and visitors a sort of earthly paradise, were it not for one crucial disadvantage — Port-Royal had been built on the banks of a malarial pond. “At all epochs,” wrote Lilian Rea in her 1912 The Enthusiasts of Port-Royal, “this swampy pool seems to have been the evil genius of the monastery, for, frequently overflowing into the canal, it filled the precincts with malarial stenches and poisonous vapours.”

For the authorities in Rome and Paris, the reeking evil genius of Port-Royal came not in the form of a pestilential swamp, but rather a man, Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, Abbé de Saint-Cyran, the spiritual adviser and confessor to the nuns of Port-Royal-des-Champs who had transformed the abbey into a stronghold of Jansenism. A theological movement that emphasized human depravity and the need for divine grace, Jansenism was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church, and the Jesuit order worked tirelessly to suppress it, harassing and imprisoning its adherents without mercy, meaning that malaria was no longer at the top of the abbey’s register of pressing concerns. To make matters worse, Monseigneur Hardouin de Péréfixe de Beaumont, the theologically inflexible archbishop of Paris, had decided to venture from the capital to the Vallée de Chevreuse, arriving at the priory on August 26, 1664, with an ultimatum in hand. Upon his arrival, the nuns of Port-Royal were presented with a stark choice: submit to papal authority and sign a form condemning the five Jansenist theses, or else be imprisoned and deprived of the sacraments. As John Rey observed in his 1960 article “The Search for the Absolute: The Plays of Henry de Montherlant,” “the historical fact that this visit of the Archbishop occurred on a late summer day is fortunate for Montherlant the dramatist. He is able to use his setting with the greatest symbolism. The whole stage is diffused with the great summer sunlight in which the white robes with the scarlet crosses of the Sisters are “bathed in a dazzling light,” thereby underscoring “the great agony of spirit of the Sisters, their spiritual groping and struggle to reach the light which will illumine their night and make clear to them what they must do” when faced with state-sanctioned persecution.

Choose ye this day whom ye will serve,” Joshua demanded of ancient Israel, and likewise  these nuns of the Holy Sacrament, torn between their devotion to the Catholic Church and their commitment to a dissident spiritual movement, must decide on the spot whether to shelter under “laile du pouvoir” or “laile de Jésus-Christ,” under the wing of earthly power or that of their religious convictions. When 12 of them reject the archbishop’s demands, they are promptly arrested, dragged from their home, escorted past the gates under armed guard, and dispatched to the four corners of the kingdom, destined to spend the rest of their days in solitary confinement. As night begins to fall, the prioress of the abbey protests:

Elles détruiront en six mois ce qu’on a mis soixante ans à édifier. Vous ne savez pas comme c’est facile, de détruire.

[They will destroy in six months what it took 60 years to build. You don’t know how easy it is to destroy.]

It is indeed easy to destroy, very easy, so easy that is becomes addictive, which is why the removal of the recalcitrant nuns did nothing to end to the persecution of Port-Royal, which had already seen its schools shuttered and its Solitaires sent away. Novices could no longer be accepted, thereby guaranteeing the abbey’s eventual dissolution, yet the end of the establishment came not with the protracted senescence of a few elderly holdouts, but dramatically, with fire and sword. Port-Royal-des-Champs was officially abolished in a papal bull of 1708, and the few remaining nuns were wrenched from their priory on October 29 of the following year. A contemporary etching, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, hauntingly depicts the brides of Christ as they are drummed out of their cloister, menaced all the while by soldiers brandishing swords and halberds, all under the watchful eyes of police Captain d’Argenson and a pair of shadowy clerics. On January 2, 1710, the Conseil d’État issued an arrêt mandating the total demolition of the convent, its guesthouses, and other outbuildings; a subsequent arrêt added the abbey church to the hit list. Over the next two years the physical remains of the religious community would be systematically razed to the ground with pickaxes and gunpowder charges, while the thousands of corpses that had been buried beneath the church and in the churchyard over the centuries were clumsily exhumed, tossed into baskets and tumbrils, and unceremoniously dumped into a common grave at Saint-Lambert des Bois, a site now marked by a simple pyramidal memorial inscribed with the melancholy words:

Ici furent enfouis après avoir été transportés dans des tombereaux les restes des religieuses des solitaires qui reposaient à Port-Royal des Champs

Janvier 1712

Pater dimitte illis

[Here were buried, after having been transported in tumbrils, the remains of the Nuns and Solitaries who were laid to rest at Port-Royal des Champs

January 1712

Father, Forgive them]

In the face of such unmitigated cruelty and irreverence, we can, like Montherlant’s Sister Angélique, trust that “la nuit passera et la vérité de Dieu demeurera [the night will pass and the truth of God will remain.]” Or we can adopt an even more fatalistic attitude, as Montherlant did in a 1931 diary entry: “All the history of the world is the story of clouds that form, destroy, dissipate, and reform themselves in different combinations, and are of no more significance or importance in the world than in heaven.” Something about the demise of Port-Royal, however, prevented the playwright from maintaining such a Zen-like sense of worldly detachment. In his introduction to the essay collection Le treizième César, Montherlant described one of his dreams, featuring the “Sainte Face du monde antique,” the “Holy Face of the ancient world,” which had become “covered in spittle and insults [couverte des crachats et des soufflets] by the contemporary world, and notably by French society.” Recalling the words he had put in the mouth of the Port-Royal prioress, Montherlant added,

“Vous ne savez pas comme c’est facile, de détruire,” dit une des religieuses de Port-Royal. Il y a beaucoup d’autres Saintes Faces, que je n’ai pas vues dans les rêves, mais qui me hantent éveillé, parmi les ruines où je vis, qui sont les ruines de la France. La Sainte Face du catholicisme, couverte de crachats par des catholiques. La Sainte Face de la France, couverte de crachats par des Français.

[You don’t know how easy it is to destroy,” said one of the Port-Royal nuns. There are many other Holy Faces, which I have not seen in dreams, but which haunt me awake, among the ruins where I live, the ruins of France. The Holy Face of Catholicism, covered in spittle by Catholics. The Holy Face of France, covered in spittle by the French.]

Port-Royal was written in order to raise awareness of the damage that had relentlessly been inflicted on French cultural patrimony over the years, a message that clearly struck a plangent chord. By 1957, the play had been performed 300 times, while the published version went through three editions in its first year. The Pathé-Marconi record label even released the performance on vinyl as part of its “Chefs-d’œuvres de la Comédie-Française” series, a first for a living author. And so it was that the aristocratic dramatist Henry Marie Joseph Frédéric Expedite Millon de Montherlant, in an idiosyncratic bid to commemorate his greatest literary triumph, would ceremonially bury the Pathé-Marconi recording of Port-Royal under a slab in the Comédie-Française peristyle, while musing, “Will dogs dig these up one day, just as they dug up the bodies of those nuns exhumed in 1711? Dogs? Or men, rather … ”

Paris, 1832

It is morning on the first day of March, which means that the latest issue of the Revue des Deux Mondes is available at kiosques à journaux throughout the city — always something of a literary event. Flipping through the new edition, the reader first encounters the physicist Adolph Erman’s thrilling account of a Siberian voyage, followed by Jules Michelet’s translation of an excerpt from Martin Luther’s memoirs. One may be forgiven for skimming the next offering, Auguste Théodore Hilaire Barchou de Penhoën’s somewhat inscrutable analysis of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s idealist philosophy, before arriving at the article that will make the fifth number of the fifth volume of Revue des Deux Mondes famous — “Guerre aux démolisseurs,” or “War against the demolishers,” Victor Hugo’s spirited contribution to the issue.

Back on December 6, 1831, the French Hellenist Paul-Louis Courier had, in the pages of the Journal de l’Aisne, urged city administrators in Laon to tear down the Tour de Louis d’Outremer, on the grounds that the medieval structure was an abhorrent souvenir of “shameful debauchery, infamous treachery, assassinations, massacres, tortures, execrable crimes, luxury and lasciviousness, the crass ignorance of abbots and monks, and worse yet, hypocrisy” — vices which presumably had been eradicated by modern progress, leaving post-medieval architecture wholly untainted by any such negative association. Courier’s atrocious advice was heeded, and the ancient tower came tumbling down. The Anglo-Irish writer Louisa Stuart Costello, passing through Laon during a pilgrimage to Auvergne, expressed shock and dismay at how

La Grosse Tour de Louis d’Outremer, once the wonder of centuries, has, alas! lately fallen to give place to a new citadelle which is intended to protect the town from Russian invasion. Numerous workmen are carrying on their destructive operations, and a whole grove of Druidical trees have been felled for the modern defences considered necessary. When we saw this, and climbed with difficulty amongst the ruins and rubbish of the demolished tower, and discovered a party of men making bricks on the spot, we were seized with indignation and ready to weep with regret for the loss of so stupendous a monument of antique grandeur. One of the townspeople, observing our annoyance, encouraged its expression, and began to lament the destruction of all their antiquities. “We are being daily deprived of everything we prize,” said he.

When the Abbé Henri Grégoire coined the term “vandalisme” in 1794 to refer to those “barbarians” who “destroy monuments of the arts,” he had in mind men much like Courier. It was inevitable that Victor Hugo, author of NotreDame de Paris (1831) and a staunch defender of France’s medieval architectural heritage, would rise to the occasion in opposition to vandals like Courier, which is precisely what he has done in this installment of the Revue des Deux Mondes. (READ MORE FROM MATTHEW OMOLESKY: An Era of Vandalism: Part I)

A year earlier, in the best-selling NotreDame de Paris, Hugo had sounded the alarm at how “the wonderful churches of the Middle Ages have been treated for two centuries now. Mutilations have come from every side, from within and without. The priest distempers them, the architect scrapes them, and the people arrive and pull them down.” Cathedrals were being eroded by wind and rain, and scorched by fire, but were also suffering from neglect, revolutionary violence, and defacement in the course of botched renovations. At some point, only a “fragile memory” would remain, preserved in books like NotreDame de Paris. Now, in his follow-up “Guerre aux démolisseurs,” an essay begun in 1825, and then expanded in light of his recent novel’s success and the Tour de Louis dOutremer controversy, Hugo has the opportunity to elaborate on this theme, decrying the manner in which “profanation, degradation and ruin are all at once threatening what little remains of these admirable monuments of the Middle Ages that bear the imprint of past national glory, to which both the memory of kings and the tradition of the people are attached.” Architectural masterpieces are falling under the hammer, both literally and figuratively, as facades and spires come crashing down, and as English tourists buy up the contents of Jumièges Abbey and other lieux de mémoire.

“Monuments are no longer restored,” Hugo continues, “no longer spoiled, no longer defaced — they are torn down,” as “vandalism is celebrated, applauded, encouraged, admired, caressed, protected, consulted, subsidized, defrayed, naturalized.” France is rapidly approaching a point of no return. What is urgently needed at such a dangerous juncture, Hugo argues, is

a law for monuments, a law for art, a law for Frances nationality, a law for memories, a law for cathedrals, a law for the greatest products of human intelligence, a law for the collective oeuvre of our fathers, a law for history, a law for the irreparable that is being destroyed, a law for that which a nation holds most sacred besides the future, a law for the past — as for this good, excellent, holy, useful, necessary, indispensable, urgent law, we dont have time to wait for it, and we may not make it.

If only “active surveillance” would be placed on French monuments, and if “a few meager sacrifices” were authorized, France could “save structures that, all the rest aside, represent enormous capital. The church of Brou alone, built towards the end of the fifteenth century, cost twenty-four million, at a time when a worker was paid two sous. Today that would be over one hundred and fifty million. It takes only three days and three hundred francs to bring it down.”

Victor Hugo has grasped how easy it is to destroy, and how such destruction will leave nothing but regret in its wake, at least among those still attached to the stays and stanchions of tradition and faith, the land and the dead. Hugo has also grasped how irreplaceable are the glories of the distant past. “We would want to reconstruct these prodigious edifices, but we will not be able to,” he warned, but “we no longer possess the genius of centuries past. Industry has replaced art.” For his part, Hugo stands willing to fight a rear-guard action on behalf of French cultural heritage. “The author of this note will never stop repeating: ‘This is what I think, and France should not be demolished.’” Tour de Louis dOutremer might come tumbling down, Notre-Dame de Paris might be whitewashed, the abbey of Saint-Magloire pulverized, Saint-Germain-des-Près deprived of two of its three Romanesque spires, but Victor Hugo will never stop insisting that “we owe the future an explanation of the past.”

As a result of his stirring declaration of war on cultural vandalism in “Guerre aux démolisseurs,” Hugo will almost single-handedly inspire a preservationist movement that attracts the likes of François Guizot, Ludovic Vitet, Prosper Mérimée, and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. His defense of French cathedrals galvanizes future generations of writers, as when Marcel Proust inveighs against the Briand Bill on the Separation of Church and State in his August 16, 1904, Le Figaro article “La mort des cathédrales,” when Maurice Barrès confronts the destruction of provincial churches 10 years later in La grande pitié des églises de France, or when Montherlant warns of the danger of religious persecution and cultural destruction in his magisterial Port-Royal.

This does not mean that Hugo can claim victory. Cultural destruction is, after all, a one-way ratchet — every positive result is provisional, subject to the deference of future generations, while every defeat is irreversible. Proust, in “La mort des cathédrales,” mournfully acknowledged that “the dead no longer govern the living. And the forgetful living stop fulfilling the wishes of the dead.” Hugo put it more succinctly, adopting the motto tempus edax, homo edacior, “time devours, man devours still more,” although he preferred a looser, more memorable, translation: “time is blind, man is stupid.” The last line of Hugo’s 1832 essay, written with an unrestrained sense of urgency and distress, says it even better: “Risible! risible! risible!”

Paris, 2021

Here in the dying days of this annus horribilis, we have been treated to another dose of bad news: on December 9, France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission approved controversial plans for an interior redesign of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, which was ravaged by flames on April 15, 2019. The moment the fire broke out beneath the cathedral’s roof that spring evening, it was certain that the building would never be quite the same. As the novelist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle observed, medieval cathedrals “could not be built by the stunted or the melancholy [par des chétifs ni par des tristes]. There is both a rationalism and an audacity in the plan of those cathedrals, which cannot be understood solely as the effect of an ardent extra-terrestrial faith, but also of a confidence in life, a joy of living, an exuberant affirmation of the present,” all of which are sorely lacking today. Gothic cathedrals have long been offered up as irrefutable evidence against the notion of spiritual or artistic progress, products as they are of a technologically unsophisticated era that nevertheless, in their spectacular design and flamboyant ornamentation, far surpass anything we might create for ourselves. As early as 1826, William Cobbett was admitting that he “could not look up at the spire and the whole church at Salisbury without feeling that I lived in degenerate times. Such a thing could never be made now. We feel that, as we look at the building.” As for why are we unable to recreate the success of the architects of the Middle Ages, Heinrich Heine, writing about 10 years after Cobbett, proposed that “people in the old days had convictions, while we moderns only have opinions, and it takes something more than mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral.” We have plenty of opinions in this ever more degenerate age, but fewer convictions, and mustering all the ecclesiastical stonemasons in France, however many of those remain, cannot make up for the spiritual deficit we face in putting the pieces of Notre-Dame de Paris back together.

While French legislators had initially mandated that the project must “preserve the historic, artistic and architectural history of the monument,” the interior update plans that leaked in late November included, as reported by the Telegraph’s Henry Samuel and Tim Stanley, entirely incongruous “modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create ‘emotional spaces,’ ” which will replace age-old sculptures, altars, and confessional boxes. Artistic works by utter mediocrities like Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Anselm Kiefer, and Louise Bourgeois are being considered for inclusion. A discovery trail” will feature “themed chapels” emphasizing Africa and Asia; the final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.” Topping it all off, “quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin.” Fr. Gilles Drouin, who is in charge of the contentious project, has insisted that the alterations will make the cathedral more amenable to visitors “who are not always from a Christian culture,” including “Chinese visitors [who] may not necessarily understand the Nativity,” hence the projections in Mandarin.

Maurice Culot, a Paris-based architect and urbanist, countered that the plans were “as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame … What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peters in Rome. Its a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.” Following directly in the footsteps of Marcel Proust, some 100 intellectuals, including Stéphane Bern, Alain Finkielkraut and Pierre Nora, took to the pages of Le Figaro on December 8 to warn that “Ce que lincendie a épargné, le diocèse veut le détruire [what the fire spared, the diocese wants to destroy],” and that

what the diocese today is planning nullifies the patiently-elaborated conception by Viollet-le-Duc. The project provides for the installation of removable benches, lighting that changes according to the seasons, video projections on the walls, etc., in other words, the same fashionable (and therefore already terribly old-fashioned) “mediation mechanisms” [dispositifs de médiation] that can be found in all “immersive” cultural projects, where nonsense often competes with kitsch.

Presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, meanwhile, fired off a passionate op-ed in Le Point, in which he declared that he “cannot remain silent in the face of this appalling endeavor aiming to completely alter the worlds most visited structure, the center of gravity of French Christendom and the symbol of our nation.” The renovation, “hidden under a seal of absolute secrecy,” will only succeed in “disfiguring an extraordinary masterpiece in order to replace it with an idiotic phantasm.” The bold spirit of “Guerre aux démolisseurs” is evidently alive and well, but it has yet to staunch the bleeding inflicted by the vandals of our era. The Notre-Dame de Paris interior will be gratuitously defaced, just as Marcel Proust warned it would be in his “La mort des cathédrales,” when he predicted that cathedrals “will die on the day that they no longer serve the worship for which they were born,” when they become “museums or conference halls,” or mere tourist attractions full of kitsch, ersatz spirituality, and other such nonsense.

Proust, citing Ruskin, went on to suggest that “never will you be able to delight in architectural forms unless you are in sympathy with the thinking from which they arose.” Since we are, as a rule, no longer in sympathy with the thinking of the Middle Ages, we can neither delight in the architectural forms of the Romanesque and the Gothic, nor even maintain them for future generations that hopefully might prove more perceptive. What took 60 years to build, Montherlant cautioned, could be undone in six months. What took decades to build, Hugo cautioned, could be brought down in three days, and for a relative pittance. Thanks to these and like-minded authors, we understand how easy it is to destroy, and how much is at stake. “It is hard to repress a sigh,” Hugo wrote in Notre-Dame de Paris, “to repress indignation over the countless degradations and mutilations which time and men have simultaneously inflicted on the venerable monument, showing no respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip-Augustus who laid the last.” We have, in our relentless pursuit of idiotic phantasms,” managed to show even less respect for the cathedral, which is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.

Reims, 1825

Now it is springtide in Champagne, and Victor Hugo has joined his fellow novelist and antiquarian Charles Nodier in the northern French city of Reims, where Charles Philippe, Count of Artois is about to be crowned king. Hugo is taking the opportunity to explore the High Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims, whose façade, our hero observes, “is one of the most magnificent symphonies ever sung by that music, architecture.” One particularly fine day, the future author of Notre-Dame de Paris climbed to the top of one of the cathedral’s soaring towers, looked down through an embrasure, like Quasimodo avant la lettre, and saw how

the entire façade sheered straight down below me. I perceived in the depth, on top of a long stone support that extended down the wall directly beneath me to the escarpment, so that its form was lost, a sort of round basin. Rain-water had collected there and formed a narrow mirror at the bottom; there were also a tuft of grass with flowers in it, and a swallow’s nest. Thus in a space only two feet in diameter were a lake, a garden and a habitation — a bird’s paradise. As I gazed the swallow was giving water to her brood. Round the upper edge of the basin were what looked like crenelles, and between these the swallow had built her nest. I examined these crenelles. They had the form of fleurs-de-lys. The support was a statue. This happy little world was the stone crown of an old king.

Reflecting on this charming scene, Hugo supposed that “if God were asked: ‘Of what use was this Lothario, this Philip, this Charles, this Louis, this emperor, this king?’ God peradventure would reply: ‘He had this statue made and lodged a swallow.’” That, for any thinking, for any feeling person, should be more than enough.

Gothic architecture indeed represents the most magnificent collection of symphonies our civilization has ever composed. Its style, as Emerson among others have noted, “plainly originated in a rude adaptation of the forest trees, with all their boughs, to a festal or solemn arcade; as the bands about the cleft pillars still indicate the green withes that tied them” — a seamless fusion of nature and artistry, in the service of faith and tradition, no grotesque and misshapen Louise Bourgeois sculptures required. Modern society, increasingly dissociated and decerebrated, alienated from the land and contemptuous of the dead, cannot understand the “happy little world” that survives in medieval cathedrals. Sadly, there is an evil genius at work in the Notre-Dame renovations, flicking spittle and showering down insults, just as there was at Port-Royal, and at the Tour de Louis dOutremer. It is an evil genius, an idiotic phantasm, that will haunt us awake, all throughout the spiritual ruins of the present day, until we realize not just how easy it is to destroy, but how important it is to preserve what remains.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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