On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

2 Responses to “On the fire at Notre Dame”

  1. johnsmellie6823 Says:

    Not to belittle the appalling damage done by the fire, we are actually not looking at destruction in the same sense as the buddhas of Bamiyan. The structure does indeed have some “vulnerabilities” and it remains to be seen how much of it was being kept in place by the decrepit roof that has now been destroyed in an accident. But it would be a mistake to indulge in the shadenfreude exhibited, for example, by The Times yesterday with its sensationalist, nay hurtful translation of the French past tense, viz:

    “Cela fait 850 ans que cette église est construite, elle a résisté aux guerres, elle a résisté aux bombardements, elle a résisté à tout.” Philippe Marsset, vicaire général de l’archidiocèse de Paris

    “This church was built 850 years ago. It withstood the wars, it withstood the bombings, it resisted everything.” Philippe Marsset, the vicar general of Notre-Dame.

    Notre Dame will be rebuilt. We may even improve on that tacky 19th century spire. And I really must cancel my subscription to the Times.

    Liked by 2 people

    • litgaz Says:

      Fair point, Notre Dame hasn’t been lost for ever, though I don’t imagine it will be restored fully in my lifetime, despite Macron’s determination: there isn’t the wood for the roof… And yes, what a dreadful translation. Not sure what grade it would have got from the French Department at the University of Liverpool…

      Like


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