I am late in posting a notice for this wonderful short piece by Marcel Proust (yes, that one), The Death of Cathedrals, first published in Le Figaro in 1904 and translated for the first time into English (John Pepino). As the introduction explains, the context of Proust’s essay was the strict separationism afoot in France in the early 20th century (culminating in the 1905 “Law of Separation”), and in specific what would happen to France’s cathedrals under the new secular dispensation. Proust was an Agnostic and in some ways that makes his reflections on the subject all the more interesting. But what is truly fascinating is how completely different his views are from the typical American separationist position. Like from another planet (albeit a perfectly inhabitable one). A bit from the beginning:
Suppose for a moment that Catholicism had been dead for centuries, that the traditions of its worship had been lost. Only the unspeaking and forlorn cathedrals remain; they have become unintelligible yet remain admirable.
Then suppose that one day scholars manage, on the basis of documentary evidence, to reconstitute the ceremonies that used to be celebrated in them, for which men had built them, which were their proper meaning and life, and without which they were now no more than a dead letter; and suppose that for one hour artists, beguiled by the dream of briefly giving back life to those great and now silent vessels, wished to restore the mysterious drama that once took place there amid chants and scents—in a word, that they were undertaking to do what the Félibres have done for ancient tragedies in the theatre of Orange.
Is there any government with the slightest concern for France’s artistic past that would not liberally subsidize so magnificent an undertaking? Do you not think that it would do what it did in the case of Roman ruins for these cathedrals, which are probably the highest, and unquestionably the most original expression of French genius? After all, one may well prefer the literature of other peoples to ours, prefer their music to ours, their painting and sculpture to ours, but it is in France that Gothic architecture created its first and most perfect masterpieces. All other countries have done is to imitate our religious architecture without ever matching it.
And so, to return to my hypothesis, here come scholars who have been able to rediscover the cathedrals’ lost meaning. Sculptures and stained-glass windows recover their significance, a mysterious odor once again wafts in the temple, a sacred drama is performed, and the cathedral starts to sing once more. When the government underwrites this resurrection, it is more in the right than when it underwrites the performances in the theaters of Orange, of the Opéra-Comique, and of the Opéra, for Catholic ceremonies have an historical, social, artistic, and musical interest whose beauty alone surpasses all that any artist has ever dreamed, and which Wagner alone was ever able to come close to, in Parsifal—and that by imitation.
Caravans of swells make their way to the holy city (whether it is Amiens, Chartres, Bourges, Laon, Rheims, Rouen, Paris, or whatever town you please, we have so many sublime cathedrals!), and once a year they experience the feeling they once sought in Bayreuth and in Orange: enjoying a work of art in the very setting that had been built for it. Alas, here as in Orange, they can only ever be curious dilettantes; try as they might, the soul of times past does not dwell within them. The artists who have come to perform the chants, the actors who play the role of priests may be learned, they may have imbued themselves with the spirit of the texts, and the Secretary of Education will lavish medals and compliments upon them. Yet, in spite of it all, one cannot help but think “Alas! How much more beautiful these feasts must have been when priests celebrated the liturgy not in order to give some idea of these ceremonies to an educated audience, but because they set the same faith in their efficacy as did the artists who sculpted the Last Judgment in the west porch tympanum or who painted the stained-glass lives of the saints in the apse. How much more deeply and truly expressive the entire work must have been when a whole people responded to the priest’s voice and fell to its knees as the bell rang at the elevation, not as cold and stylized extras in historical reconstructions, but because they too, like the priest, like the sculptor, believed. But alas, such things are as far from us as the pious enthusiasm of the Greeks at their theater performances, and our ‘reconstitutions’ cannot give a faithful idea of them.”
That is what one would say if the Catholic religion no longer existed and if scholars had been able to rediscover its rites, if artists had tried to bring them back for us. But the point is that it still does exist and has not changed, as it were, since the great century when the cathedrals were built. For us to imagine what a living and sublimely functioning thirteenth-century cathedral was like, we need not do with it as we do with the theater of Orange and turn it into a venue for exact yet frozen reconstitutions and retrospectives. All we need to do is to go into it at any hour of the day when a liturgical office is being celebrated. Here mimicry, psalmody, and chant are not entrusted to artists without “conviction.” It is the ministers of worship themselves who celebrate, not with an aesthetic outlook, but by faith—and thus all the more aesthetically. One could not hope for livelier and more sincere extras, since it is the faithful that take the trouble of unwittingly playing their role for us. One may say that thanks to the persistence of the same rites in the Catholic Church and also of Catholic belief in French hearts, cathedrals are not only the most beautiful monuments of our art, but also the only ones that still live their life fully and have remained true to the purpose for which they were built.
Today there is not one socialist endowed with taste who doesn’t deplore the mutilations the Revolution visited upon our cathedrals: so many shattered statues and stained-glass windows! Well: better to ransack a church than to decommission it. As mutilated as a church may be, so long as the Mass is celebrated there, it retains at least some life. Once a church is decommissioned it dies, and though as an historical monument it may be protected from scandalous uses, it is no more than a museum. One may say to churches what Jesus said to His disciples: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (Jn 6:54). These somewhat mysterious yet profound words become, with this new usage, an aesthetic and architectural axiom. When the sacrifice of Christ’s flesh and blood, the sacrifice of the Mass, is no longer celebrated in our churches, they will have no life left in them. Catholic liturgy and the architecture and sculpture of our cathedrals form a whole, for they stem from the same symbolism. It is a matter of common knowledge that in the cathedrals there is no sculpture, however secondary it may seem, that does not have its own symbolic value. If the statue of Christ at the Western entrance of the cathedral of Amiens rests on a pedestal of roses, lilies, and vines, it is because Christ said: “I am the rose of Saron”; “I am the lily of the valley”; “I am the true vine.”