On the Notre-Dame Disaster
The Nation asked me to write a few words on the fire at Notre-Dame. Here is my essay. Thanks to David Bell for the accompanying photo, which perfectly captures my memory.
Photo Credit: David Bell, generously supplied for use on this site.
I am not well versed at all in middle age histo ry. I have heard that churches were originally painted throughout inside, sometimes in vivid colours, rather than the austere stonework we know so well. And then the paint was scrapped off around janseniste times. Is this true of Notre Dame as well ( which I love as you do while not being Christian either)?
My own memories of Notre Dame are poignant, as are most of ours at this moment. It was 1985, and I had just taken the Bar. I was in Paris to celebrate for three weeks as part of my “Grand Tour” of Europe. I was staying at the Foyer Internationale des Etudiantes, 93 boulevard Saint MIchel, a few steps from Notre Dame. Set up by Gerturde Vanderbilt Whitney, and a residence for young scholars during the academic year , during the summer it was open “ad liberum” to anyone with an academic association. It was close by Notre Dame, so I went to Mass there one Sunday, wanting to experience everything Parisian, including Notre Dame. I was so moved by the sound of the organ and the choir that I followed the choirmaster (dressed in a white lace soutine over his black cassock), to try to express how much the music had meant to me. For years I kept the cassettes on offer, even after CDs replaced them.
Our contemporary world measures time in nanoseconds, which may be one reason why the stones of Notre Dame inspire awe at the human effort of centuries –and perhaps envy. In his book “Abbes”, French writer PIerre Michon evokes the life of Benedictines striving to build an abbey among the marshes of the Vendee in the year 1000 (one hundred and sixty years before the building of Notre Dame began). It was a time when paganism and Christianity were narrowly interwoven throughout the Christian world –Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky depicts the same phenomenon at the Eastern border of late 14th century Christianity in his eponymous film about the life of the medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev: pagan nymphs and their men swim naked amid the reeds to ends not strictly procreative –as they do in “Abbes”.
Paganism means disorder and violence; sexual ungovernability is merely a metaphor for the chaos of an anarchic world, which the flourishing of Christianity organized into something we call “civilization”, with all its warts.
So perhaps Art, your grief and despair –softened by the news accident, –not intention– led to the fire; and, the preliminary conclusion that the damage did not render Notre Dame structurally unsound– are a sort of reprieve of the overwhelming sadness that overwhelmed so many of us at first learning of the fire and seeing the images in real time.
Now we get to construct a “new” time, post-conflagration time, in our memories of Notre Dame. A friend from l’Aude, an elderly man, a retired “gendarme”, wrote to tell me he was standing on the “parvis” of Notre Dame with his extended family on Saturday, only two days before the fire broke out. Those who saw Notre Dame before Monday’s fire will carry the memory with them forever, although let us hope that alongside it will be the images of a new, rejuvenated Notre Dame.
And if there is one country where the collective efforts of the artisans could work miracles, it is France.
Vive la France! Vive Notre Dame!”
English and German cathedrals of the Middle Ages are no small thing.
Yet, to this frenchman naturalized a proud American eons ago, there lies the eternal juxtaposition of the heap of french contradictions. A masterpiece of inimitable architectural elegance designed to impose religious fervor and humility on the common mortal, then saved from the revolutionary obsession to widespread “sacage” throughout the country it survived and with the aid of a pseudo political miracle to bestow onto those who needed it to feel proud again the inevitable mesquinage of superiority harbored by 65 million citizens. Nowhere else is the contradiction more striking: the republican tricolor flying above the architypcal symbolism of the Church. The treaty of Nantes notwithstanding a religious iconic symbol expropriated by the secular State now stands as a museum deemed to celebrate France’s long passed glory. Ah, were it not for the Saxon mecena and their capitalistic patrons ashes would remain ashes. Oh Mon Dieu or perhaps Oh mon camarade! Quelle honte.
As for miracles to rebuild Notre Dame, it is more a matter of Wall Street’s generosity than the Arts et Metiers ou les pieces jaunes. Now, for the ugly truth, no regulation imposed by a gang of Polytechnique graduate technocrats could avoid a bad electric circuit breaker from setting a gas torch afire after the workers left the site early. Or was is a malevolent maghrebin, or a gilet jaune in search of an easy target of contagious social upheval ? My regret is that the delight of Les Crepes de Normandie found near the North entrance has closed for ever.
When I saw the images of the roof in flames, I felt sure the building would survive. I am grateful that I was not wrong.
I love the building, but I am not sentimental about it, as AG, to my surprise, is. Well, memories are memories.
Cathedrals in the Middle Ages were colossal markers of wealth and power of the Church. Dare we compare Notre Dame to Trump Tower?🥴 It is not completely inappropriate. The artistry and technical achievements are tremendous (but we only know the masterpieces that didn’t fall down), and romantic vaporing about the “soul of France,” etc. are just that, vapor.