A Valentine for Quasimodo

©2011 By Bob Litton

Dear Readers: I am in a rut again, what with ordinary daily chores and involvement in community affairs. That is my excuse for this blog post, which is not fresh but rather a rerun of a column I wrote back in February 1982 and published in The Monahans News. I am reprinting it here partly as a stop-gap measure, to give me time to finish work on a very complicated post, and partly because, despite its original date, it is still timely. It is about Love — or the various emotions we call “love” — as depicted and contrasted in Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since Valentine’s Day will soon be upon us, this essay is, I think, timely and always will be timely. I might publish yet another old Valentine’s Day column soon, for we still have nearly a month left before that fateful day. I have nothing fresh to say about “love”; I have already written all that I have known, thought or felt about the subject. I hope you will find the reading of the essay below beneficial in some way.
— BL

If there is anything people talk more about while they know less about it than Love, I don’t know what it would be.  A topic of such universal and timeless interest is certain to serve as matter for authors who want to fill up books.  And sure enough, Love has been the subject of many a volume as varying in seriousness and quality as the Bible and gothic romances.

One aspect of the subject that makes it never-ending is that most people cannot come to any definite agreement on what Love is.  The New Testament distinguishes between three types of Love: Agape (spiritual Love), Philia (brotherly Love), and Eros (erotic Love).*

Most romances, I believe, never really involve any of these, except maybe a few dashes of the last.  What they exploit is a vestigial adolescent Love—that period of our late childhood when we had few responsibilities, a lot of confused emotions, and a notion that anything involving ourselves is urgent.  Moreover, since during that time we are trying to establish an identity for ourselves, we sometimes grow so desperate in the search that we express a willingness to “be” whatever the object of our affection wants us to be if he or she will just love us.  Under the influence of fairy tales and romance novels, we get the idea that there is only one person on the planet for whom we are “meant”.  That’s the kind of Love we generally associate with St. Valentine’s Day.

Despite the absurdity of most romantic novels, however, one of the best analyses of Love, I believe, is to be found in Victor Hugo’s gothic tale of Love in all its forms—pure and perverted—The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  A new filming of Hugo’s classic especially for television was shown last week, and in at least two senses it was timely: Hunchback is an essay on Love in its most variable aspects, and one of its main characters is Quasimodo the hunchback, which is appropriate in this, the International Year of the Disabled.

Abandoned in infancy on the doorstep of  Notre Dame cathedral because of his deformity, Quasimodo is adopted by a young priest who, in his youth at least, idealistically follows Christ’s precept: “Even as you do unto the least of these, you have done unto me.”  The priest keeps Quasimodo fed and clothed and housed in the cathedral, and when the hunchback is old enough the priest gives him the task of ringing the cathedral bells.  Quasimodo grows to “love” the bells even though they eventually destroy his hearing.

The heroine of the tale is a gypsy girl, Esmeralda.  She becomes the “object of love” not only for Quasimodo and the priest but for a poet of the streets and a captain of the royal guard as well.  The priest is filled with uncontrollable lust for her, the captain rather off-handedly attempts to seduce her, and the hunchback—pet-like—adores her after she alone gives him a drink of water during an episode in which he is flogged before an unfeeling crowd.

The poet comes closest to treating her with moderation as simply a fellow human being.  Even he, however, when they first meet, assumes he is entitled to conjugal rights just because they are married.  (She married him in a pagan ceremony only to save him from being executed by the King of Thieves.)  She subdues her “husband’s” ardor by threatening him with a dagger, and from then on their relationship is of the brother-and-sister type.

Esmeralda, too, is afflicted with a false vision of Love, her idea in the beginning being something like the adolescent Love I mentioned earlier. She “falls in love” with the captain of the guard after he and his men save her from Quasimodo.  (The hunchback had been sent by the priest—by this time archdeacon of the cathedral—to abduct the girl.)  Esmeralda loves the captain because he is handsome, dashing, rides a white horse, and saves her.  (He is also an egocentric cad, but she doesn’t see that in him until it is too late.)

As for the priest, I think he probably would have been all right if he hadn’t become a churchman before he became a man.  In those days, though, the only choices for later sons of the gentry were to join the army or the church.  Anyway, he apparently took his studies quite seriously and became more a scholar than a human.  We might say his agape is misinformed, his philia is cut short in life, and his eros never had a chance.  By the time Esmeralda comes on the scene the archdeacon is so naïve about sexual Love that for him it can be nothing but lust.  He grows to hate the gypsy girl and to be jealous of her fancied lover, the captain.

It is Quasimodo who has the last say in Love, however.  Contrary to the film version, it is not Quasimodo who is thrown off the roof of the cathedral, but the archdeacon.  The hunchback pushes the priest while the latter is absorbed in watching the public hanging of Esmeralda.  As Quasimodo looks down on the mangled body of the archdeacon and the limp body of the hanged gypsy, he heaves a deep sigh and mutters, “There is all I ever loved!”

Nobody ever sees Quasimodo again, but a few centuries later two skeletons, one of a woman in the shreds of a white dress and the other of a deformed man, are found entwined together in a burial vault reserved for malefactors.  The man had evidently not been hanged but had come there to die.

If you haven’t read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, try it.  And if you do so, please note the ways in which violent acts done by any one character are caused by a confusion of the idea of Love.  Also, of course, you will see acts of kindness and courage as expressions of ideal Love.

                                                     – – The Monahans News, February 11, 1982

*AUTHOR’S NOTE:  In the second paragraph of this column I wrote that the New Testament, using the Greek terms, distinguishes between three kinds of Love: agape (spiritual love), philia (brotherly love) and eros (sexual love).  I don’t know where I obtained that information, but it’s wrong — at least to a large degree.  (That was in the days before the Internet and Wikipedia).  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous chapter on Love, the only term used is agape.  In John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Simon Peter if he loves him, Jesus twice uses the verb form of agape, and Simon uses the verb form of philia to affirmatively answer him.  The third time Jesus asks the question he uses the philia form.  This is a very interesting distinction that I doubt many ministers are even aware of, much less present to their congregations.
   The British novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, in 1960, published a book titled The Four Loves in where he expatiates in great detail on agape, which he defines as “charity”; phileo, “friendship”; eros “romance”; and storge, “affection”.
An anonymous Internet fancier with the “handle” of  “Lone Dissenter” with more time on his/her hands than I have, reported on Yahoo! Answers that agape is used in the Bible 250 times, philia appears 83 times, storge is used 3 times…and eros never appears!
— BL


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