Notre-Dame as the Memory of Paris: Hugo, the Historical Novel and Conservation
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Controversies surrounding the restoration and representation of the narrative and memory of Notre-Dame de Paris are not new. The latest debates remind us that the building has been at the centre of conservation controversies since the nineteenth century. But why is Notre-Dame de Paris central to these debates? The answer appears to lie in its function as a mnemonic device for Paris and the French nation.
This paper focuses on the four literary pieces published by Victor Hugo in the period between 1823 and 1832 – ‘Le Bande Noir’ (‘The Black Band’), ‘Note sur la Destruction des Monuments en France’ (‘Note on the Destruction of Monuments in France’), ‘Guerre aux Démolisseurs!’ (‘War on the Demolishers!’) and Notre-Dame de Paris (also known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Through an analysis of these four texts, the paper will attempt to understand Hugo’s convictions about the role of buildings – especially Notre-Dame de Paris – in establishing the memory of the city and the nation, and how these in turn underpinned his arguments for conservation.
Whilst these texts were all written in a period before the development of key contemporary concepts in the psychology and neuroscience of memory, this paper nevertheless uses the concepts of memory, imagination and Mental Time Travel to try to understand the kind of memory work that the Cathedral performs, and that Hugo suggests it performs in his writing. By examining how Hugo’s literature augmented and engaged the reader’s memory and imagination of the past, this paper will explain how Hugo romanticised the idea that the building was a witness to history. The paper ultimately argues that Hugo positioned Notre-Dame de Paris not only as the centrepiece in his own fiction, but as a beacon of memory for Paris and France, and as such the building came to represent Paris, and indeed the nation as a whole.