Frank S. Robinson is a graduate of New York University Law School and served at the New York Public Service Commission as staff counsel and then administrative law judge (1977-97).
He is the author of eight books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine (1973), Children of the Dragon, and The Case for Rational Optimism (2009).
Robinson is a professional coin dealer and writes The Rational Optimist blog. He is married to the poet Therese Broderick and has a daughter, Elizabeth.
Notre Dame, Victor Hugo, and humanism
By Frank Robinson
How writers change readers and change the world — this was the suggested theme — and I puzzled over how to approach it. Until seeing Notre Dame in flames.
The depth of my emotion surprised me. I'm a humanist, after all, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to civilization, to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.
I reacted more strongly than to tragedies entailing loss of life. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique, and seemed eternal. Integral to our human story.
Part of that heritage, that story, is Victor Hugo's great 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. A book which the cathedral's image always summons to my mind.
Fire raged through the roof and scaffolding at the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on the evening of April 15, 2019. Julien de Rosa / EPA / TASS
Conjuring up thereby the world of its construction, and particularly the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel — yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.
I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn't watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo's deformity. I'd known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.
As an adult I read the book. And what Hugo did there was quite extraordinary, especially for his time: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one's take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most other-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world's unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.
The novel's final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, "The Marriage of Quasimodo" — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of "the last full measure of devotion." That's what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.
This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.