No doubt there will be many articles and personal testimonies about the massive fire that has gutted Notre Dame. Even if the bones of the building survive, essential elements, some and perhaps many of its stained glass windows are almost certainly gone or terribly damaged. The reports are uncertain, with an awful heavy use of words like “may”. For instance, the Telegraph says the organ survived but is damaged. Other accounts say that at least one of the great rose windows is intact.
Even if Notre Dame can be restored, the project is likely to take more than a generation, meaning even in best-case scenario, many people will never be able to see it properly again in their lives.
Others who know Notre Dame more intimately, particularly Parisians, architects and historians, will be better able to provide elegies. I nevertheless feel compelled to write about this loss because it lays bare contradictions we manage to navigate in our daily lives and that have become more acute as humans are destroying the biosphere.
The great medieval cathedrals, through their enormous scale and soaring vaults, with their narrow stained glass windows that help pull the eye upward, tell worshipers and later visitors of how small they are compared to God and his works. Yet their seeming solidity and scale also suggests the faithful can find refuge. All of our technological prowess hasn’t found a way to create spaces that inspire the same sort of awe of these centuries-old houses of worship. Modern visitors were further humbled by the audaciousness of its accomplishment: a project executed across generations, reaching heights that seem daunting even now, marshaling the skills and hard work of many artisans and laborers.
In other words, Notre Dame provided comfort and hope against that gnawing knowledge in the back of our heads of the certainty of death and the impermanence of human action. Even though all those who built Notre Dame were long dead, something of them lived on through the cathedral….or did at least till yesterday.
Human existence is an exercise in cognitive dissonance, that we stare down inevitable defeat every day of our existence.
I sometimes refer to a story in the Mahabharata, in which Yudhisthira and his brothers have been tasked to find a deer with mystical powers. They camp but are thirsty. Yudhisthira sends one of his siblings to find some water. When he does not return, another brother is dispatched, and again does not return. This process repeats until Yudhisthira himself goes looking for his missing brothers.
He finds them all dead next to a pond.
In despair, but still parched, he is about to drink, but a crane tells him he must answer
some questions first. They are all metaphysical in nature. The last and most difficult: “What is the greatest wonder of the world?”
Yudhisthira answers, “Day after day, hour after hour, countless people die, yet the
living believe they will live forever.”
The crane reveals himself to be the Lord of Death. After some further discussion, he revives the brothers.
Most of us won’t get off so well from an encounter with the Lord of Death. But on a daily basis, we derive comfort from our routines: our schedules, our interactions with familiar people, like family, co-workers, and other we see in our rounds, and the stability of our physical surroundings. I for one feel a sense of loss when buildings are torn down, even small groupings of modest old walks-ups that sat next to each other as gracefully as snaggle teeth. They were still part of an older Manhattan that being replaced with soulless glass towers.
Some cultures seem to have reached a better accommodation with decay and loss. The Japanese, for instance, acknowledge the sadness of impermanence. The Grand Shrine at Ise, with its first building that is part of the modern shrine constructed before 700 AD, reflects a different idea of how to last across centuries. From Wikipedia:
The old shrines are dismantled and new ones built on an adjacent site to exacting specifications every 20 years at exorbitant expense, so that the buildings will be forever new and forever ancient and original. The present buildings, dating from 2013, are the 62nd iteration to date and are scheduled for rebuilding in 2033.
Some commentators have been quick to depict neoliberalism as the cause of Notre Dame’s demise, that the fire probably resulted from using restoration contractors working on a tight budget who skimped on safety. While that may prove to be true, we don’t know what set off the blaze, and you can be sure there will be an investigation to find out how it started and why steps weren’t taken to protect the cathedral from the risks of its tinder-dry roof catching fire. But neoliberalism will be an obstacle to restoring the great church and creating other important public works. Neoliberalism is allergic to investing in the commons and initiatives that span across generations.