Reading Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Ruin in Victor Hugo’s 'Notre-Dame de Paris’

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10 Citations (Scopus)


Walter Benjamin's readings of modernity are repeatedly strained by the tension he identifies between demystification and the drive towards the mythic. How are we to awaken from 'ideological dream-states' and engage with an indeterminate reality without positing the unity of an integrated whole to begin with? I suggest that Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris yields a compelling perspective on this dilemma. Hugo never denies the lure of myths in his novel, simply their possibility, recognising that they remain as irresistible as they are incredible. He energises the opposition between artifice and actuality, proposing that man can only oscillate between both the ideal and the real, even though he cannot overcome their incompatibility. This dynamic is observed upon Notre-Dame herself. Her hybrid edifice bears the mark of bygone values, yet as such stands as a monument to the transformative sweep of time. In turn, Hugo teases yet simultaneously refuses any absolute narrative viewpoint, stressing both the limitations of language and his own subjectivity. What makes this reading less an exercise of intellectual indulgence than a matter of critical urgency is Benjamin's widely overlooked attraction towards Hugo as a modernist writer. Indeed, the novel deploys two key tools of Benjamin's thinking: allegory, to expose meaning as arbitrary, and the ruin, which preserves the image of a history that is no more. I explore Hugo's representation of both novel and cathedral as realms of contrast, not integration, so as to make a productive return to the dilemmas Benjamin encounters.
Translated title of the contributionReading Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Ruin in Victor Hugo’s 'Notre-Dame de Paris’
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155 - 166
Number of pages12
JournalFrench Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2007

Bibliographical note

Publisher: Oxford University Press


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