The recent publication of a profile piece on Daniel Mitsui at the National Catholic Register reminded me of an essay he posted last year concerning the rebuilding of the fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral. Entitled “Beautiful, Traditional, Interesting, Real,” Mitsui opines on the broad gulf between restoration and the making of art within a tradition:
The commentary in the aftermath of the tragic fire at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris is telling of this. Certainly I understand the dread that its reconstruction will be entrusted to some architect with no religious sensibility. But the reactionary demand to rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it was before is equally troubling. If the faithful never saw in a church fire the opportunity to build something even better, the Gothic cathedrals would never have existed at all. (There are rumors even that the Archbishop of Reims started the blaze himself in 1210!)….
Many who consider themselves religious and æsthetic traditionalists will celebrate this approach. Even now, I know that the easy availability of printed reproductions of 15th century paintings affects the demand for my own artwork. I don’t oppose such reproductions themselves; I have them on display in my own home. What I oppose is the notion that traditional art can be fostered through attitudes that would have made its existence impossible in the first place.
It indeed seems likely that, if Notre Dame is ultimately salvageable, it will be reconstructed almost exactly as it had been before. The French preservationist societies have significant sway, and the wilder concepts for rebuilding will probably be left in the dustbin of history. As preferable as this result would be, Mitsui is correct in worrying that our modern inability to rebuild the cathedral according to a traditional mode without resorting to mere mimicry is a sign of failure.
Sometimes I peruse iconography of the Eastern traditional style. Most of what I find online is either a carbon copy of ancient icons or a bizarre pseudo-realistic depiction of contemporary figures for whom we have (too many?) photographic records. Only rarely do I find an icon of a more recent subject which works within the artistic tradition in such a way that feels like it is actually part of that organic whole.
T.S. Eliot expressed similar sentiments in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:
[T]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.
Ever since the West tired of the Renaissance’s glut of classical-revivalism it has attempted to remain in a cycle of constant reinvention. Deconstruction, reconstruction, and whatever supposedly Hegelian synthesis is meant to emerge—all these fail to produce anything substantial that the larger culture can assimilate and make its own across generations. Even the rebranding of prose fiction as the “novel” assures us that newness is the only lasting aesthetic. Few today could imagine the retelling of a recent event like the Vietnam War in Homeric epic verse, and even fewer could appreciate such an artifact, but this was once the trajectory of our cultural heritage. If Chesterton was right in saying that the purpose of an open mind was like that of an open mouth (to close it upon something solid), then a similar observation can be made regarding the purpose of a supposedly progressive school of art: that its ultimate purpose must not be to destroy but to incorporate new experiences into an existing organic whole. Progress must have a real destination, even if it is only dimly viewed at the outset. Change is not an end unto itself, and annihilating the past only ensures that contemporary trends will last less than a generation.
Imagine a Medieval Revivalist movement in literature, if you can. Imagine the use of chansons and moralist retellings of myths by modern poets who have lived through the War on Terror and multiple sex abuse scandals in the Church. Imagine supplementing the traditional three “Matters” (of France, England, and Rome) with the Matter of Japan or the Matter of America. Imagine the revival of allegory with the experience of Communist propaganda and the rise of nuclear power. Imagine reconsidering the mores of courtly courtesy in light of the recent history of online trolling and televised political debates. Imagine the cosmological-spiritual symbolism pregnant in discoveries like solar winds, black holes, and galactic superstructures.
The reclamation of our ancient cultural heritage requires neither a rejection of modern discoveries nor a hatred of technological inventions, and it can offer a framework for contextualizing alien elements. The world has been overwhelmed by an excess of data which our scientists try to convert into comprehensible information, and which our poets and philosophers usually fail to convert into wisdom. The restoration of metanarrative might be the only way to make the world comprehensible again without regressing into a dark age.
We could not only rebuild Notre Dame, but we could build another grand church based on similar modes of thought—and with the benefit of modern structural know-how—if only we bother to learn the principles. We lack some of the knowledge, but that can be attained. More importantly, we lack the will. We have been content to allow the world to dictate all artistic trends and storytelling. Are we surprised to find aesthetics in a state of disarray, becoming either the slave of avarice and sentimentality or a blasphemous cry of despair? What other spirit could even consider designing a parking lot to crown the Notre Dame?