A Tale of Two… Alchemists?

I’ve read a series of books recently, starting with Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”, which reignited my Faith and helped me believe I might have a noble death after all.

I followed with Hilaire Belloc’s book on the French Revolution, which I’ve tried reading before but put down because his view was so distasteful to me.  I made it through this time; I wouldn’t have made it without having Dickens fresh in memory.  And while Belloc (as usual) does a wonderful job of showing his chosen period in “human” form (as opposed to relating dry, atomized facts), his view of the Revolution, especially in light of our present troubles, seems almost sinister.  I respect him enough though to call it “naive” instead.  Both he and Chesterton were infected with a tragic naivete that I didn’t detect at first, but am seeing the more I delve into their material.  I wont expound more on my thoughts of the book because this isn’t meant to be a review; suffice it to say that while I’ve gained a new understanding of the Revolutionaries and their point of view, and while I can better see how they came to it, I’d still, were I there, fall back to the Lyons countryside with my monarchist comrades and hang any Jacobin I met.

Tiring of the Revolution, but not of France, I went back in time with Victor Hugo, to Notre Dame.  Some of my friends informed me that Hugo’s was a degenerate life.

I don’t know anything about the man, other than what I’ve learned about him from reading “Hunchback”, but as his novel entertained and enlightened me, I said a few words in his defense.  Can a man in tune with hearth-fire feelings as evidenced by the following quote, be all bad?:

“I do not believe that there is anything sweeter in the world than the ideas which awake in a mother’s heart at the sight of her child’s tiny shoe…”

My mom still has some of my baby shoes, by the way.  She’s stowed them away somewhere.

His musings on architecture were the most interesting to me.  He says the printed word killed architecture.  Architecture, for Hugo, was the language of all humankind until the printing press made it obsolete. Masons crafted the human experience and every epoch of man had its reflection in its monuments. This is especially true of Notre Dame (on Hugo’s view), where the Roman architecture is covered by the medieval, which is, itself, swallowed up by the Gothic, which is utterly devastated by the “renaissance” and modernist travesties.

And like Claude Frollo, men have become obsessed with alchemy, only instead of escaping the confines of base metals or architecture, they’re now trying to escape their very bodies!  Woe to the man who transcends all bounds of “place” …he’ll end up like Sartre who found out that a man with no boundaries is, essentially, a dead man.  How can we freely choose when there are no choices to be made?!

I enjoyed “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, though I thought the last few chapters could have been rewritten for a happy ending.  That would have kept with the novel’s light-hearted feel.  And I’m still not sure what Hugo’s point was, unless it was an ambiguous notion of human alchemy, where his characters underwent some fundamental change that lead each of them to tragedy.

Maybe Hugo wasn’t a fan of alchemists after all?  And maybe Belloc was?


I got tired of France and decided to delve back into Middle Earth, which is where I’m at now.  Gandalf has just died in Moria and the gang are in Lothlorien.

Maybe I’m “low class” or showing my blue-collar genetics by running from France and heavy-handed literary themes?

But sometimes, a man’s just got to live in the Shire for awhile.

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2 Responses to A Tale of Two… Alchemists?

  1. Peter Blood says:

    The point of Hunchback was to write a novel about the cathedral. It was in disrepair at the time, and disintegrating, and Hugo wanted to save it; many were ready to let it go and dismantle it. His novel saved it.


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