I wake to news of Notre-Dame de Paris burning. The feelings come in a blur, hard to tell apart. I withdraw and recognise shock, sadness, a sense of loss. Then confusion at the dimensions of this response, followed by resentment at the ways people are quick to minimise it.
It is a building. No one has died. It is not the sum of culture. It might yet be restored. Perhaps it is a feature of our time to be so stoic. It is not long ago that the Bamiyan statues of Buddha were destroyed, and the ancient Semitic city of Palmyra was damaged. But I was gutted then, too.
The sense of loss—what is that? Could we ever feel it for something that means nothing to us, or might not be ours to lose? What inordinate meaning have I attached to this Parisian church, that the image of its spire falling in flames should draw something that feels like grief?
On the surface, there is age and beauty. First constructed in 1160, Notre Dame existed well before European contact with the Americas and Oceania. Empires have risen and fallen in the time it has stood on an island in the Seine. It is not wrong to stop short when something that has endured for so long comes to cinders.
Notre Dame is also one of the most celebrated medieval Catholic cathedrals in the French Gothic style. Like most religious structures, it is designed as a retreat from the mundane, a meeting place with the divine.
Thus: the vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows that draw eyes upward in an attitude of prayer; the concave spaces and arches that enhance Gregorian chants; the highly detailed stone facade that becomes a ‘poor people’s book’ of Bible stories, saints and grotesques. It is architecture for humans in search of something.
Not long after the French Revolution had driven Catholicism into private spaces, the novelist Victor Hugo restored it in public imagination and practice. Millions of visitors are drawn to it each year, regardless of creed. It has strained, with some grace, to receive them while still being a place of worship.
It is old, beautiful and open in a time that celebrates the new, monstrous and closed. I think this is what makes me feel like weeping when I see pictures of smoke and fire.
It feels like loss that could scarcely be accommodated in the middle of other, ongoing losses: our confidence in the future, our place in nature, our sense of trust. I thought, whether petulantly or plaintively, why couldn’t we just have one good thing remain intact?
Notre Dame reaches into the long past, along with other sites of cultural significance like the Djab Wurrung birthing trees (which are approximately as old). This sense of expanded time is necessary for meaning because it is the things that last which tend to be true, and potent in the truth it tells.
It matters to have things that are old because it reminds us that human achievement is not recent. It matters for things to be beautiful because it reminds us of other ways of perceiving, including wonder. It matters for things to be shared because valuing something together means we are less likely to lose it, not willingly.
Notre Dame is a building. No one has died. It is not the sum of culture. It might yet be restored. But it is something of ours—something human—that is old, beautiful and shared. We can hold it without letting go of other things just as important.
We live enough in a world where time is made fleeting, along with memory. The fire at Notre Dame is unsettling because we take permanence for granted. Somewhat ironically, it also reminds us that things have not always been short-lived, that we once crafted things to last, spaces of grace for all who enter. Maybe that is reason enough to grieve.