Sunday, December 05, 2010

A room with a view

At Kyung Hee University near where I live is the 평화의전당 (Peace Hall?), a shining structure on top of a hill. I noticed it almost immediately when I first got to this neighbourhood. Now, don't let the title fool you, it's not that I can see this from my house. Far from it, I can't see anything from my basement apartment.

From my classroom on the top of another hill, the Hall of Peace is visible clearly. As is obvious to see, it's a replica of Notre Dame in Paris, albeit shinier, slicker and a frequent venue for concerts. Seeing it day after day after day, I finally decided, based on the subliminal prompting, to go out and read Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

After a month of waiting to give up on The Karmazov Brothers, I started reading the story, bit by bit. I remember seeing the Disney movie on TV one afternoon about 15 years ago, which forms my impression of the area and the building moreso than actually being there just last year.

Having had a long fascination with the people supposedly living in the subway tunnels of New York, and then old, abandoned urban spaces like Lower Bay station in Toronto, I really enjoy Hugo's belaboured description of the derelicts of medieval Paris, particularly a late-night scene at the curiously-named Court of Miracles, a square of vagabonds posing as disabled beggars. The lengthy, detailed treatment of the layout of medieval Paris as seen from the towers of the cathedral would otherwise have been tedious but here was amusing, as was the praise of Gothic architecture in favour of Renaissance architecture.

Hugo writes from the perspective of a narrator in 1831 describing the events of 1483. Seeing contemporary accounts of those in the distant past condemning the slightly-more-distant past is as enlightening as it is amusing for the (hopefully) brief moment of superiority the advantage of time gives us. Greek philosophers often made it a point to condemn poets, such as Homer, for representing the uncritical conventional point of view of the establishment.

They went on, of course, to concoct fantastic, elaborate tales of their own that were seemingly pulled out of nothing, with almost nothing in support. Consider Plato's Timaeus, simultaneously a work of immense genius and confusion, where he both considers the origins of the universe and argues that the world is made of triangles.

On the other hand, the judgments of the distant past against the slightly-more-distant past are often spot on. The Greek intellectual tradition serves us well to this day, as does Gothic architecture, which Hugo was certainly not baseless in defending from unwelcome intrusions by progressive-minded Renaissance architects. Consider this abomination where modernism is appended to antiquity like a pigeon sewn to a rat.

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