I work with recovering alcoholics. In the beginning of their recovery, it’s good for them to simply focus on sobriety. It’s good but not great.
After a while, sobriety as a goal won’t keep them sober. I remind them of the Victor Hugo quotation, “sobriety is a good quality only when one possesses other virtues.” Without a reason for their sobriety, they may as well be drunk.
They need something to work toward over and above sobriety to keep them sober. So they rebuild relations with their family, they help out other alcoholics in recovery, they commit to being more honest each and every day. Ultimately, their sobriety is about being valuable to society—to get a job and apartment and say hi to people sometimes. It’s about being valuable to themselves, too. Sobriety is the nail holding up their painting, and when you make that painting magnificent, you truly want to keep it up so you can see it. An addict who only focuses on sobriety is like an Olympian whose only goal is to make it to practice. Without an intention beyond what’s required of you to get by, the addict relapses and the athlete is forgotten.
This pursuit beyond the basic requirement is the sacred value.
A sacred value is what unifies Notre Dame of Paris, a seemingly disjointed novel. When I first read it I couldn’t figure out why Hugo would make both Quasimodo and Claude Frollo die mere pages apart. No one gets what they deserve, and it’s only the humdrum characters who make it out alive. It felt like Hugo doubled down on his lessons on characterization while he lost his notes on how to construct a coherent plot.
I fell into the common trap of thinking Quasimodo is the good guy and Claude Frollo is the bad guy because they’re in conflict. But the opposite is true—they are brothers because they both have a sacred value in Notre Dame of Paris (as represented by Esmeralda). It’s what they do, what they endure, to attain their value that makes the novel worth writing.
Hugo put down his pen when they died because nobody cares about characters who don’t care about anything—characters like Pierre Gringoirre, the milquetoast poet, and Phoebus, the unremarkable captain of the guards. They are not the bad guys; they are worse than the bad guys—they are mundane. Without anything sacred to them, they bounce around doing whatever it is they need to do to get by. It’s the life equivalent of taking over your father’s business.
A sacred value is more than turbochargers on a Camaro. It is a Countach. It is distinct. It is separate. It is unique. There is no substitute. It is to be achieved and guarded at all cost. It’s the “at all cost” that makes for harrowing feats.
The telltale sign of a sacred value is it’s surrounded by struggle and pursuit, never satisfaction. The onlookers see it as a tragedy, but the tragedy is that they see it as a tragedy. Look around you—the lack of need destroys more men than the lack of fulfillment.
Notre Dame reminds us that the blind man is more comfortable than the one-eyed man. To only have one eye is to know what you lack. To be blind is to be content in the same way we’re all content to be unaware of x-ray or ultraviolet light. Yet the blind man lacks the knowledge of what he lacks, he lacks the sense of urgency that comes from lack. He doesn’t know, and he will never know he doesn’t know.
The blind man thinks everything is fine, and when everything is fine, there is never a need for bravery. It’s desperation that makes the man.
Pierre Gringoire is a blind man of Notre Dame. Everything is the same to him and nothing matters too much. He writes a crappy play, but it was good enough for him to write a play. As long as he made it to practice, nobody can criticize him. And given the choice, he would just as readily save a goat as he would save a beautiful girl. He’s clocking out at five.
After a scene in which dumb luck barely saves him from being hanged, he remarks in a golly-gee-shucks kind of way to Claude Frollo, “I always seem to escape; I always seem to miss the tragedy.”
Claude Frollo replies, channeling the gravity of the Cathedral: “You miss everything.”
To lack even a glimpse of a sacred value is to miss everything.
Find your sacred value. Whether it’s crude honesty, 16-hour workdays, a notion of asceticism that would make a monk blush, or whatever it is you see in your mind when your eyes see Notre Dame. Articulate it like a work of Gothic architecture. Feed it constantly with your attention, let it grow big and strong, then grab a hold and go for a ride.
You may not make it to the end of the novel. But when you die, the novel may as well end.