Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Imperfection as Great as G-d (Heine's Germany part II)

The completion of the Cologne Dom was pregnant with meaning in the early nineteenth century. For romantics and nationalists the completion reflected national unity; for Berlin it offered a means of bridging the religious and political differences between themselves and Catholic Rhinelanders. The Dom was not unusual for not having been finished: many medieval architects planned massive structures that could not be achieved because of the lengthy process of construction (centuries) and because of interruptions due to political events and fiscal shortcomings. Notre Dame of Paris did not gain its spire until the mid-nineteenth century, and addition made by Voillet-le-duc (why he put it in the middle bewilders me–it should be at the front so that the building looks less box-like, rather than in the middle like a spear in a whale).

The Dom drew little attention until the late eighteenth century. It was an incomplete structure at the edge of the city, and there were any number of churches crowding the inner city. It was not a cathedral in practice: the archbishop had been kicked out of the city centuries before in a dispute over freedom of the citizens. The resuscitation of the Dom as great architecture paralleled the reinterpretation of Gothic style and the rise of romanticism and nationalism. The French occupation in the 1790s and 1800s brought the condition of the Dom to the minds of Cologners: the French army used the Dom as a stable (perhaps the best use it had in centuries). The French had treated other German patrimony with similar nonchalance, something which disturbed Germans. But it took broader imagination to make the Dom a national symbol. It became a
centerpiece for remembering the German past, as Goethe noted:
It is not difficult to cite reasons why these buildings stood there for centuries as relics from the past, without making a particular impression on the public at large. But how powerful was the impact in recent times ... Here [all] found satisfaction in evoking the feeling of being back in the time of their ancestors.


The first modern intellectual to take note of the Dom was Georg Forster in 1790. He was enraptured by the Dom: he felt "the shudders of the sublime". Forster refused to dismiss the cathedral because it was unfinished. Incompleteness was both a danger and a quality of Gothic architecture:
This [gothic architecture] appears as if to have come from another world, in order to give testimony to the creative strengths of man, who follows a single thoughts to the extreme and who knows to follow eccentric paths to reach the sublime.
The incompleteness was a result of men reaching beyond their abilities to imagine and comprehend, to represent what they could not experience. The building was a mystical act, one that could not drive toward harmony and stability, but that strove to represent spirituality of both G-d and man. From Forster's perspective, the Dom was a beautiful accident, one that could not
be avoided.

Goethe, who helped to inspire reverence for Gothic architecture with his writings on the Strasbourg Münster, first became aware of the Dom second hand. He made the acquaintance of the Boisserée brothers, who were reconstituting plans for the construction of the Cathedral in their studies. When he finally visited the Dom, Goethe could not help but feel that it was a structure that was unique from all other medieval buildings:
I must admit that seeing the exterior of the Cologne Cathedral aroused a certain apprehension in me which I could not explain. A significant ruin has a venerable quality, and we sense and actually see in it the conflict between a noble work of man, and time that with silent force spares nothing. Here, on the other hand, we are confronted with an edifice which is unfinished and prodigious, and precisely its incompleteness reminds us of man's insufficiency when he attempts the colossal.

Like Forster, Goethe was effusive in describing his awe over the cathedral. He recognized the danger of what the original builders intended, both beautiful and disastrous. But twenty-three years had passed since Forster had view the cathedral. People were already imagining how they could continue with the construction. Even though "what was missing still seemed so colossal that it was impossible to soar mentally to such heights," Goethe recognized that the work of completion was under way. The completed cathedral would not provoke debate over the building that might have been, or appreciation for the dream that fell short, or even the mystical reflections on what was achieved. There would be a cathedral that could be seen en toto.

James Fenimore Cooper barely dealt with the Dom. To him it was another European cathedral to be envied and admired, but also another disappointment in a filthy city. He only comments that the cathedral is a work in progress.

Victor Hugo was critical of the Dom. He visited it several times during his lifetime. His first sight of it came in the early evening before the sunlight faded (it appears that most people saw the Dom first in this light. It is probably because they arrived in Cologne in the late afternoon, especially if they came from Aachen.) He first experiences the cathedral as an immense silhouette that dwarfed everything that surrounded it. Hugo was impressed by the immensity of the structure, but found the condition of the cathedral tragic rather than inspirational. A crane stood above the towers as if something were going to happen, as if
this incomplete Iliad still hopes to find its Homer.

However, there are other reasons why he does not see this as an incomplete building, but a dream that can never be reached:
Nothing looks more like a ruin like a skeleton.

It is not just that the Dom is unfinished, but time has taken its toll on the existing structure: Hugo notes the plants that have penetrated the stone, breaking it up in the process.

The next day, Hugo's impression of the Dom diminished. If new building was being performed on the outside, the original work on the inside was in a terrible state. The interior was being neglected and endangered, and the original vision of the Dom could not be achieved if the completion of the exterior ruined the interior. Ironically, he found the crypt of the original architect in disrepair:
The man of bronze who is lying beneath the tombstone, who is named Konrad von Hochstetten, and who conceived the construction of this cathedral, could not today remove the spiders that have become attached to the floor ...

Furthermore, the space of the cathedral has been taken by some many different uses that it is hard to image it as a place for worship: monks and canons compete with the noise of carpenters and masons. The cathedral as spiritual space was disturbed and broken. Finally, Hugo notices that the beautiful contours of the structure were ruined as they are being repaired:
The silhouette is always beautiful, but it presents a profile of some coldness. Perhaps this reflects the determination with which the current architect patches up and chew away at the venerable apse. One should not remake too much of this old church. In these operations, which diminish the lines in wanting to fix them, the mysterious rippling of the contours vanishes.

For Hugo, the work of completing the Dom destroys its beauty and sublimeness. Completion is a futile task, one bound to destroy what should be appreciated. Hugo would want the cathedral to remain in its current state:
At this moment, as it is, I would prefer the skeletal tower over the perfect apse.

Visits in later years did not inspire Hugo to look upon reconstruction positively. Every new viewing produced the same impression: what beauty it possessed was being depleted.

Heinrich Heine brought the greatest symbolism to the Dom. It is the centerpiece of German history–its accomplishment and its fragmentation. As an exile in Paris, Heine actively raised funds among Frenchmen and German emigres in support of the cathedral society. In his poetry, the Dom was the symbol of Germany, the centerpiece for nationalist struggle:
It should have the spirit of the Bastille.

But the symbolic power of the Dom does not rest solely in its ability to unite Germans. It also represents their historic division that were borne of the Protestant Reformation. The reason why Germany was not complete, the reason why the Dom was not completed, was because Germans became confessionally split. The incompleteness of the Dom reflected the incompleteness of Germany.
Then Luther came
and spoke his great "Halt"
and since then the construction of
the Dom was suspended

But if he supported completion in his work, in his poetry he doubts whether the
Cathedral should be finished:
It will never be complete–and that is good
Even in incompleteness
it is made a monument to German strength
and the Protestant mission

Heine's bitterness reflected new rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Prussia: the Church decided to become a partner with the conservative Berlin. In this context, the completion of the Dom would not necessarily bring Germany together. It would be the achievement of the Catholic Church betraying itself to the Protestant powers responsible for the continuing division of Germany. The only way for the Dom truly to be finished is for it to become a useful building, one that brings Germans together.

Contemplating the completion of the Dom was fraught with problems. Many who admired it could not appreciate it without thinking about the building that could have been. On the other hand, they could not think about completing the Dom without thinking about how difficult it would be to complete. The incompleteness became a quality of the Dom: a charm that added to the awesomeness of the existing structure. It added to the majesty as it inspired the imagination. Ironically, the modern age would be able to create buildings that would tower over cathedrals like the Dom, but it would be an age that would seldom choose so unless it fulfilled economic or political goals.

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