Our cathedral in Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle as the French and English would have it) shares its major traits with other gothic cathedrals.

The exterior is all verticality, from the pointed arches of windows, doorways, and other architectural features, to the high thrust of the steeple rising from its smaller fellow points.


The exterior as a whole, especially from a distance, brings the eye across the social plain and points all the world’s grandeur upwards, from the hierarchies of the medieval social structure to the vanishing point atop the steeple, teasing the eye still further home into the heavens.


The interior houses, among other things, the richly-colored stained glass walls that fill the apse and frame the altar.

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Arguably, the stained glass in all gothic cathedrals serves at least two symbolic functions in addition to the narrative function of transmitting sacred history to an illiterate congregation: (1) they create an illusion of the world’s most massive structures being held up by pure light, just as the entire material world is held up by the Word of God and the light of Christ’s sacrifice; and (2) they signify the light passing through the walls of Mary’s womb in the Christian mythos’s moment of greatest mystery.octagon

But what keeps me coming back is the detail – the little unique spots and patches of aesthetic beauty in this massive canon of gothic symbolism — from the octagon that remains from Charlemagne’s 8th century original structure





to the exterior features of the facade that seem unique, at least to my amateur eye




to the quirky details of the interior

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I don’t even know what to call these spots and patches. They point back to the gothic canon, the symbolic template that the Dom here in Aachen shares with the larger gothic traditions, but they are also little aesthetic chips in their own right, separable from the mother building and marvelous for their random beauty. In this sense, you can see them through the lens of Jung’s synchronicity. As opposed to the causal aspect of apprehension (in this case, the gothic structure that determines the details), synchronicity focuses on the chance aspect of what is before the eye, the random beauty that emerges best when the object is stripped from the external causal nexus and viewed in its own right. It’s a little bit like moving from traditional art to abstract art, where the idiosyncratic arrangement forces you to find, or create, a new register of intelligibility.

It’s not always worth it – this sort of move from traditional to abstract – this move away from the causal frame of reference into something more like vertigo. But to me, it’s always worth it when it comes to gothic cathedrals. Unlike modern and contemporary artists, who cover the whole range from profound to puerile, gothic cathedrals never disappoint. It doesn’t take a shred of true religious belief to feel, as one approaches and enters these architectural wonders, that no artist or movement of artists of any period has created such powerful, holistic, and all-encompassing moods as those who built these magnificent structures 1000 years ago.

Pleasure and Happiness

Chided for too many hits on the snack cabinet, a work colleague shrugged it off as an epicurean temperament. It is true that Epicurus, father of hedonism, placed pleasure at the root of all happiness. But unfortunately for my gluttonous friend (who, to his credit, was offering a mock-justification and not a real one), step two in Epicurus is to realize that pleasure is best secured by tracking your lifestyle and your appetites always toward simple pleasures and never toward luxury. It may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but the pursuit of luxury is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to pleasure (and therefore to happiness). Thus Epicurus.

I always liked the twist on happiness and pleasure that dominates the novels of 18th-century England. I believe it was Ann Radcliffe (whose gothic novel, The Italian, 1797, is in my opinion still the greatest example of that genre to date) who put it most succinctly, although I can’t find the quote. Something like, “Pleasure is the excitement that comes from the gratification of an appetite; happiness is the deep contentment that comes from a life of virtue.” Pleasure is a state of sensory excitement bound to a momentary appetite; happiness is a state of being that transcends the momentary appetites. Thus the eighteenth century.

My personal elaboration for today is this. The contrast between pleasure and happiness commonly drawn in 18th-century novels doesn’t mean they’re constantly at odds. Fortunately or unfortunately for us (depending on whether you prefer that life be interesting or that life be easy), there is simply no direct correlation between happiness and pleasure. Some surface pleasures may be conducive to happiness, and some may be destructive of happiness. Some may resonate with pure joy at the depths, and some may stir up turbulence and dissonance at the depths. It all depends on whether those pleasures are consistent or inconsistent with virtue, affirming or debasing one’s core health or any human connections in play. When surface pleasure and deeper happiness go together, it makes things easy. When they are at odds, there has to be a trade-off, no way around it, a loss on one side will compensate for the gain on the other. That’s when it gets interesting.