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“A Foolish Adolescent” – The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

June 12, 2012

With the decades-long unfolding around the world of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it was chilling to come across this passage in Victor Hugo’s classic Parisian novel, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame:

“…I was happy, or at least I thought I was.  I was pure and my soul was full of limpid clarity.  No one held his head more proudly than I.  Priests consulted me on chastity and theologians on doctrine.  Yes, knowledge was everything for me.  More than once my flesh was aroused by the passing of a female form.  The force of a man’s sex and blood which, as a foolish adolescent, I thought I had smothered for life, had more than once convulsively shaken the chain of iron vows which attach me to the cold stones of the altar.  But then fasting, prayer, study and the austerity of the cloister would make my soul once again master of my body.  I shunned women.  Also, I had only to open a book and all the impure vapors of my brain vanished before the splendor of science.  After a few minutes I would feel the heavy things of the earth flying far away and I was calm again, dazzled and serene in the presence of the tranquil radiance of eternal truth. …[snip]…

One day, I was looking out of the window of my cell…. There, in the middle of the square—it was noon, bright sunlight—a creature was dancing.  Such a beautiful creature that God would have preferred her to the Virgin Mary, would have chosen her for His mother and wanted to be born of her if she had existed when He made Himself a man!  Her eyes were black and splendid; some of her black hair shone in the sunlight like threads of gold.  Her feet vanished in their movement like the spokes of a rapidly turning wheel.  Around her head, in her black tresses, there were pieces of metal which sparkled in the sunlight and formed a crown of star on her forehead.  Her arms, lithe and brown, clasped and unclasped themselves around her waist like two scarves.  The form of her body was amazingly beautiful.  Oh, that resplendent form, which stood out like something luminous in the light of the sun itself!  Alas, dear girl it was you….

…Half spellbound already, I clutched for something to break my fall, I reminded myself of the traps which Satan had set for me before.  The creature before my eyes had that superhuman beauty which can come only from either heaven or hell.  She was not simply a girl made from our common clay and poorly illuminated inside by the flickering light of a woman’s soul.  She was an angel!  But an angel of flame, not of light.  Just as I was thinking this, I saw a goat beside you, an animal of the witches’ sabbath, looking at me and laughing.  the noonday sun tipped its horns with fire.  Then I saw the devil’s trap and I no longer had any doubt that you had come from hell to bring about my perdition.  I believed it.”

Archdeacon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame Claude Frollo’s soliloquy continues on for pages as he attempts to explain (justify) himself to Esmeralda who has been unjustly arrested, tortured and imprisoned in the Palace of Justice because of Frollo’s false testimony.  For him, she exists not as a human person in her own right, but only as a means to his own sanctification or damnation, his pleasure or his pain.

In later centuries, men like him would be called psychopaths, sociopaths or sexual predators.  But Hugo’s intensely realized description—written in the early 19th century, set in the late 15th century—is evidence that the criminal and predatory actions of a self-described (and self-absolving) “foolish adolescent” aren’t caused by “secularism”, or the “sexual revolution” or “modern society”.  They originate deep within the human heart; and they are protected and nurtured by the veil of silence woven and sustained by a powerful institution that fears its own weaknesses more than it loves the truth.


From → Books, Religion

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