John R. Teevan III is Global Academic Programs Assistant in the Center for International Education & Global Strategy at the University at Albany. A UAlbany alumnus, he is the author of  Secret Weapon and Last Hope (2019); The Traveler’s Sketchbook (2018), a collection of his favorite drawings from his travels around the world; The Love Letter with a Bullet Hole (2018); and A Mysterious Evening in Vienna (2017).

 

"Seventeen days after submitting this story to Trolley, the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire, which is ironic since  "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" -- my favorite book -- is about books and writing living on as buildings and cathedrals are destroyed.  When Notre Dame was threatened by demolition in the early 19th century, Hugo’s book saved the historic cathedral and made it an icon of Paris. His story – whose main character is not a person but the cathedral itself – gained such popularity that the cathedral was no longer neglected but preserved. 

That’s the power of writing. A stroke of a pen can inspire a nation. Ideas can make peace – or wage war. Discourse can unite – or divide – in ways that very few things in the world can.

Hugo’s novel is currently #1 bestseller on Amazon France."

Defining our Humanity: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

By John R. Teevan III

Victor Hugo says he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the Greek word ΆΝÁΓΚΗ. But what does this word mean? He defines it as fatality: the kind of ominous fate as if our destiny were chosen for us and slated for demise.

It may be a common theme in his novel, but as far as my outlook on the world, I don’t buy that. Luck, chance, fate, it’s all superstition. A façade designed to hide from the responsibilities of our own choice. But free will – within the confines of what we are given – this is what defines us. Our personality. Our humanity. Our individuality. Our freedom. Our choice.

After all, free will is what makes us human. We are not stimulus-bound like the animals. Being free – taking responsibility for our decisions – that is a choice we make. In a sense, choosing to be human is what makes us human. And our free will is what defines our humanity.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a historical novel that takes place in 1482 – the very cusp between Medieval times and the Renaissance. Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. A time of transformation. A time of contrasting dualities as the printing presses replace cathedrals and the Bible replaces the Catholic Church.

 

Likewise, the word ΆΝÁΓΚΗ should have a contrasting duality in its meaning. The ominous fatalism in Ancient Greek ΆΝÁΓΚΗ becomes in Modern Greek ανάγκη, an optimistic choice stemming from necessity. Necessity is the driving force of innovation. We do what we do because of necessity. Because we decide not to let the other option happen. The other option is fatality. If we reinterpret most of what life gives us with a positive spin we can change something fatal into an opportunity, a necessity that drives innovation and prompts self-growth.

It is up to each of us how we interpret this Greek word. Is life about fate – where we’re doomed and screwed and it’s never our fault? Or is life an opportunity to make the best of what we have – with necessity driving innovation and making a better tomorrow? It’s the same word in Greek. I think that’s the value of literature. Each reader brings their own personal experiences and perspectives to interpret the meaning of squiggles of ink on paper and what they mean. My interpretation is different than your interpretation. But, alas. That’s what makes us human. Our choice. Our individuality. And our freedom.

Upon his death in 1885, more than two million people watched Victor Hugo's funeral procession in the streets of Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried.

(undated photograph)

Victor Hugo's preface to The Hunchback of Notre Dame

 

A few years ago, while visiting or, rather, rummaging about Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure nook of one of the towers, the following word, engraved by hand upon the wall: ΆΝÁΓΚΗ.

 

These Greek capitals, black with age, and quite deeply graven in the stone, with I know not what signs peculiar to Gothic caligraphy imprinted upon their forms and upon their attitudes, as though with the purpose of revealing that it had been a hand of the Middle Ages which had inscribed them there, and especially the fatal and melancholy meaning contained in them, struck the author deeply.

 

He questioned himself; he sought to divine who could have been that soul in torment which had not been willing to quit this world without leaving this stigma of crime or unhappiness upon the brow of the ancient church.

 

Afterwards, the wall was whitewashed or scraped down, I know not which, and the inscription disappeared. For it is thus that people have been in the habit of proceeding with the marvellous churches of the Middle Ages for the last two hundred years. Mutilations come to them from every quarter, from within as well as from without. The priest whitewashes them, the archdeacon scrapes them down; then the populace arrives and demolishes them.

 

Thus, with the exception of the fragile memory which the author of this book here consecrates to it, there remains to-day nothing whatever of the mysterious word engraved within the gloomy tower of Notre-Dame,--nothing of the destiny which it so sadly summed up. The man who wrote that word upon the wall disappeared from the midst of the generations of man many centuries ago; the word, in its turn, has been effaced from the wall of the church; the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.

 

It is upon this word that this book is founded.

Trolley c/o NYS Writers Institute

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