Victor Hugo and the Hieroglyphic Novel

For the early French romantics, the past had become an architectural panorama of monuments, whose messages added up to the history, the identity, of the modern nation. In Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo claims that the task of his generation is "to reread the past [inscribed] on these marble pages" (187). He proposes two methods of resuscitating these dead worlds: the one is the principle of universal analogy, as stated in The Emerald Table, the central text of alchemy. The other is the poetic method of double rewriting, in which images are emptied of their representational value in order to be redeployed in a new system of signification; it is that of the rebus, or hieroglyph, as Lacan describes it in "Agency of the Letter," which Hugo found in his historical sources. This hieroglyphic procedure best describes the operation of images, characters, theory, and intertexts in the novel. A transitional work, Notre-Dame de Paris marks the passage, in Hugo and in French Romanticism, from the reactionary alchemical attempt literally to bring the past back to life, to a relation with the past best characterized as mourning, in which the past is preserved in the monument, but preserved as dead. (GDC)

Chaitin, Gilbert D
Volume 1990 Fall; 19(1): 36-53