WHAT DO WE DO WHEN A CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE GOES UP IN FLAMES? We watch with fascination, and dread, and a sense of helplessness. And then, apparently, we begin to argue. After Monday’s catastrophic fire broke out in the heart of Paris, social media also lit up in flames. Why should we spend hundreds of millions of Euros rebuilding Notre-Dame Cathedral when people are starving/refugees are being locked up/the planet itself is burning up/other disasters or atrocities don’t get the same attention? Why doesn’t the Catholic Church use its own wealth to foot the bill? (The building is actually owned by the French Ministry of Culture; a charity group, the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, raises money for the cathedral’s upkeep.) Some who despise the history and failings of the Church over the centuries suggest we just tear the thing down, and good riddance to bad rubbish.
Yet the sense of loss – the heartbreak, even – in France and around the world is genuine. People who have spent time in the cathedral tumble out their stories, compelled to keep a connection with something they fear might be forever lost. People who haven’t been to the cathedral nevertheless mourn the idea of its loss, of yet another piece of history and remembrance disappearing, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, in the metaphorical sand. And out of this rises a determination: It will be rebuilt. What can be saved, will be saved. What is lost, will be replaced. It won’t be the same. It will be different. But it will endure.
You don’t need to be Catholic, or Christian, or even religious at all, to believe that this is an important thing. Notre-Dame is history, and history is elusive yet essential: It’s the seedbed of our shared culture, the map of how we came to be. This cathedral, which has been built and added on to and tumbled down and rebuilt and somehow shaped into a kind of ungainly grace from its cobbled-together mishmash of styles and centuries, is humbling evidence of the fits and starts and disasters and transformations and triumphs and extreme fragility of our civilization, which in its current state often seems dangling from a swiftly fraying string. As much as it is a religious symbol and a testament to the entwined power of church and state, Notre-Dame is a shrine to beauty. We need such places to remind us of where we’ve been, what we’ve become, what we might yet be – and to provide us with those moments of mystery and deepened awareness and connection and the stopping of time that intimate encounters with great works of art provide.
Sometimes we cling to the past by romanticizing its ruins and abandoned centers of civilization: the Roman Colosseum, the Parthenon in Athens, Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Great Wall of China. Often such places are repurposed for modern life. I’ve walked the ancient city walls of Talinn, in Estonia, which date from 1265 and have undergone many changes in the nearly eight centuries since; and of York, in England, which likewise have been altered many times, and which go back, as practical barriers for defense, to Roman days in the first century A.D.
Sometimes the past is purposely destroyed by zealots who seek a historical-cultural cleansing of people and ideas they deem their enemies. The archeological remains of the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Nimrud, Hatra, and Dur-Sharrukin – citadels of the “cradle of civilization” – turned to rubble by ISIS warriors. The Taliban blowing-up of giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan (which have lately returned, like futuristic technological ghosts, in the form of 3D light projections on the cliffside walls). The devastation of indigenous places, cultures, and peoples by Europeans as they conquered the Americas.
In the late 1990s I spent some time in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city whose center had been largely destroyed during the brutal, 900-day Siege of Leningrad in World War II. It was a sustained and ruthless attack that killed as many as 1.5 million people, many from starvation, and displaced another 1.4 million, an untold number of whom died in the process of escaping. (I also heard stories of curators and other museum workers secreting great works of art out of the Hermitage Museum in advance of and during the siege, and taking them to be stored in relative safety outside the city.) By comparison, the apparently accidental devastation of a Parisian cathedral by a fire sparked in its ancient timbers barely registers.
After the war the Soviet government decided it would rebuild the city, as much as possible, the way it had been before the war, reclaiming its history as the shining cultural and architectural center it had become since its founding in 1703 by Peter the Great. Soviet brutalist buildings went up on the outskirts, but not at the center. A great reclamation project, lasting for decades, was undertaken, and was still going on. To make it work, the city assembled thousands of craftspeople skilled in old techniques, or trained new ones. In the partly refurbished and partly still trashed Stroganoff Palace I saw young artisans and art copiers, cloaked in long white smocks, patiently reproducing ornate old paintings that would hang in the city’s grand Kazan Cathedral (which during the Soviet years had been repurposed as a museum of the history of religion and atheism). Plasterers, stonemasons, woodcarvers, all sorts of artisans were recreating, as much as possible, what had been. It was controversial: Why not, many demanded, build something fresh and new, as other European cities were doing? Yet there was a stubborn beauty to the thing: What St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) had had, it would have again. The city’s pride in its artistic traditions made the whole place seem like a living, breathing museum – tattered at its edges and intensely ailing in its infrastructure, yet miraculously whole in spite of it all.
The partial destruction of Notre-Dame is less like the Siege of Leningrad than like last year’s catastrophic fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, which destroyed 20 million irreplaceable objects, including the recordings of indigenous Brazilian languages that nobody speaks anymore. Without discounting the real damages inflicted in Paris, Notre-Dame appears to have got off more lightly. Already the conversation has moved from what’s been lost to how best to rebuild. The pragmatics of a grand project that is expected to keep the cathedral’s doors closed for six years have begun. Engineering enthusiasts are promoting a cutting-edge effort in which robot and drone technology do much of the work. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has called for an international design competition to replace the cathedral’s fallen spire, and suggested that the winning design should be contemporary, not a replication of the one that was destroyed. Such a decision would be hugely controversial, probably more so than the decision to build the I.M. Pei-designed contemporary Pyramid beside the traditional Louvre Museum. Some people still hate that decision, but the Pyramid, which sits a distance from the older building, enters into a fascinating and creative tension with its older companion. A starkly modern spire on Notre-Dame would be different because it would be an integral, and crowning, addition to the older building. And yet the cathedral itself is a whole created over many centuries in many styles that somehow, in the public’s imagination, came to cohere. It all seems old now. But it’s many layers of old – and something new and radically different might, in time, seem “just old” again. Only God and future history know.
In the meantime, people genuinely long for reclamation. One person I know, while stressing that he is not a religious person, recalled the first time he stepped inside of Notre-Dame: He looked around, and stopped, and felt, and wept. I understand the feeling. Places like this can take us beyond religion and belief and simply stop us in our tracks as we recalibrate our sum knowledge of what it means to be human. They are essential. Let the rebuilding begin.