I have an invented history with the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The first time I visited, I began to cry as I stopped through the encompassing doorway. I continued to blubber wandering through the inside, in a state of pure religious reverence that I had seldom felt through a largely religion-less childhood. The whole monument is incredibly grand, if not spectacular in every single meaning of the word. I see why anyone would believe in a higher power if this was their place of worship.
In one of my high school English classes, I remember discussing a woman named Erika Eiffel who was ‘married’ to the Eiffel Tower. I have no reasonable explanation for why we were discussing this in an AP English course. She has said from a young age she found herself attracted to inanimate objects and buildings (it’s called, hilariously, objectum sexuals). She had a commitment ceremony to the Eiffel Tower in 2007. They must be coming up on their 10 year anniversary now. She says they even have a sexual relationship. Mazel Tov, guys. Important note: I love talking about this woman so much; It’s one of those topics I will bring up without prompting. If you would like to do more research on Erika, please look up what she has said about the Berlin Wall (“I can feel how much he yearns to be loved”) or how curvy she thinks her wife is. It’s amazing, you’ll appreciate it.
I would first like to say that I’m not talking about this to say I’m romantically attracted to Notre Dame (but you totally thought I was going to say I want to bang a cathedral, didn’t you?). However, I would like to point out that it is entirely possible to love a building, and Notre Dame is a wonderful example of that. I am fully (and platonically) in love with it, and so is the city of Paris.
I idolized it from an early age after watching Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame like it was my damn job from ages 1 to 15. I wasn’t a Disney freak as a kid and I’m not one now but this movie affected me in such a profound way. The entire concept of the movie is something very childlike. I loved the idea of a man ringing the bells every day. Before I understood what electricity was I liked to think that tiny men ran through power lines handing each other energy that powered our objects. This reminded me of that but this time it was real. Quasimodo was an entirely relatable character, in love with Paris from afar. I could, at least artificially relate to him through the use of the never-ending line of Eiffel Tower pictures (cut out from expired calendars) coating my walls. As his could stare out at the city from above, I could stare at the postcard-sized photos of the landmarks. His song, “Out There,” could completely be read as an agoraphobe’s anthem. "Yes, I would love to be outside, but I physically cannot do it."
Also Claude Frollo is genuinely the scariest Disney villain, hands down. See: his rape-culture inspired song to Esmeralda invoking both God and hellfire (get you a stalker that can do both, am I right ladies?). But most of all I liked Esmeralda, the heroine who saved her people and just happened to make Paris fall in love with her at the same time. Her song “God Help the Outcasts” is maybe one of the most important and beautiful songs Disney has ever produced. The scene of Quasimodo yelling ‘sanctuary’ raising Esmeralda’s injured body above his head makes me fully shake with oncoming tears.
I loved this movie so much as a child that I read the unabridged Victor Hugo source material and religiously watched the Lon Chaney version as a pre-teen (I was obviously really popular and had to beat the boys away with a stick). In these versions, there are no more talking gargoyles, no more catchy tunes, no more happy endings. However, it is no less beautiful. Instead of the lovely, Disney ending of Quasimodo saving the city and earning the respect of the people, pretty much everyone dies. Also Phoebus is a total dick.
Esmeralda is hanged by Frollo after she spurns his advances. Eighteen months after her death her tomb is opened and her bones are found with Quasimodo’s cradling them. When someone tries to separate their skeletons they fall into dust. First of all, tone it down Victor Hugo. Some of us have work in the morning and cannot be filled with this much pure ennui. Second of all, it’s a perfect ending. Another important note: If you want to read more mood killing Victor Hugo books (other than this one I have just ruined for you) check out The Man Who Laughs. It’ll ruin your life.
The end, however, is the same in that the city both saves and is saved by Notre Dame. Although the building does not talk or move, it is its own character. In some translations, the Cathedral is referred to in the feminine pronoun and the name literally means “Our Lady.” Paris is a city dedicated to its treasures. Much of the reason France was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War is because the French would rather be under Nazi rule than have Paris bombed. I used to think this was incredibly romantic, but now I’m thinking it’s interesting that France was more interested in saving their historic city than protecting their (Jewish) people. (Don’t hit me with the ‘they didn’t know about the camps’ bullshit. Willful blindness and purposeful ignorance are not the same as not knowing.)
Anyway, the Notre Dame was one of these protected buildings and she always has been. “In fact I believe that this church offers such discerning cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul,” Jean de Jandun wrote of her. Their grand lady, center in the middle of the city in the diamond-shaped land created by the Seine. That protection and devotion is still very much alive in Parisians past and present expats and tourists alike. If you can, look up audio of her 10 bells, they are somehow the most meaning and haunting church bells in the world.
After arriving at the Notre Dame station, drenched in more anxiety sweat, I walked to the wrong end of the Metro and got mildly lost by the Sorbonne. Finally after maybe two hours of dealing with my own self-induced shenanigans, I finally saw her. My Dorothy in Oz moment had arrived and it was like stepping out of my own (again) self-induced sepia into Technicolor. I finally remembered why I had moved out of my apartment and quit my job. I was finally, finally home.