Houellebecq on restoration beyond Notre-Dame

Saturday, 20 April, 2019

It has been described as “an ecumenical, conservative and, in some views, neoconservative religious journal.” It’s First Things and among the contents of the May issue is an essay titled “Restoration,” which is an “exchange of views on religion between Michel Houellebecq and Geoffroy Lejeune.” What can one say about Houellebecq? He’s a French author of international fame whose latest novel is Serotonin. There’s much, much more, of course, but that’s sufficient for now, and Geoffroy Lejeune? He’s the editor of Valeurs actuelles, a French conservative weekly news magazine published in Paris.

Their conversation took place quite some time before Monday’s catastrophic fire in Notre-Dame cathedral, but whenever Houellebecq is involved, prescience is to be expected. Snippets:

Houellebecq: “In a Romanesque cloister I feel at peace, connected to the divinity. With Gothic cathedrals, it’s already something different. Beauty takes on a character there that Kant will later call sublime (beauty accompanied by the sensation of danger, such as a great storm at sea, or a thunderstorm high in the mountains). In a baroque church it’s no good at all, I could just as well be in a palace, or at the theater.”

Lejeune: “If you choose to go by architecture, there is indeed a striking aspect: In the time of the cathedrals, monumental places of worship were erected and their construction lasted longer than a man’s lifetime. The cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, and Paris were built in 75, 134, and 182 years, respectively. At that time, preference was not for the minuscule. By comparison, Trump Tower in New York was designed, constructed, and delivered in four years, between 1979 and 1983. You can say that motorization, technological progress, and materials explain this difference. So much for the business angle, but when we see the ugliness of modern churches, these unhappy cubes of faded cement, sometimes so hideous, which hardly ever tower above the horizon traced by the surrounding houses, one understands above all that what differentiates us from the Christian builders is ‘functional thinking,’ instead of dedicating the construction to God. It was better before, when the supernatural was seen everywhere, even in the cathedral spires pointing toward heaven.”

The big question posed by First things is: Can the Catholic Church regain her former splendour? Lejeune feels it probably can but the road will be long: “Today, the Church in Europe has shrunk back into certain hard cores, sociologically very homogeneous – a social class – cut off from the majority of souls. Its embourgeoisement is perhaps, in the end, the greatest scourge that strikes the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Houellebecq, noted for his pessimism, is more optimistic: “Can the restoration of Catholicism to its former splendour repair our damaged civilization? Here we are in agreement – it’s much simpler, almost self-evident. The answer is ‘Yes.'”


Comments are closed.