As Notre Dame burned yesterday, my Twitter feed filled up with friends and strangers describing what the cathedral meant to them, their memories of when they had visited, or, in some cases, their regret at never having done so. It seems to be part of how we react to a loss – the death of a loved celebrity, the destruction of an iconic building. It may be as simple as our instinctive need to insert ourselves into the story, to make sense of it by making it about us. Yet whatever the motivation, the cumulative effect is a kind of affirmation of its unique value – an acknowledgement of the importance of the mourned thing by showing how many lives it has touched.
I first encountered Notre Dame in the course of a ‘romantic’ visit to Paris at a fairly young age. Its significance to me then, I suppose, was as one of the stations along the Via Crucis of a very short-lived and probably fore-doomed affair. That probably isn't sufficient grounds to claim that it held any deep personal meaning for me.
Some years later, I ended up living in Paris. I had what might have been one of the best commutes in the world – walking between my apartment in the 3rd arrondissement, and my workplace at Sony CSL Paris in the 5th. My walk to and from work took me through the heart of Paris and, often as not, across the Pont de la Tournelle with its spectacular view of Notre Dame.
My work was interesting enough that I often didn’t leave the lab until late at night. Staring at a screen for twelve hours uninterrupted and forgetting to eat dinner don’t work wonders for your mental health, so I was often quite depressed when I started to make my way home. Yet during my walk, I would pass Notre Dame, lit by lights that gave it the color and texture of aged paper against the black sky, in all its grace and solidity, beautiful and other-worldly, with its tall spire and the rising arcs of its buttresses. And it never failed to raise my spirits, to remind me of my good fortune and of how privileged I was to be able to stand there, almost alone on a bridge at night in a darkened city, and look on this extraordinary and lovely sight.
I am not religious, but it seems to me that the cathedral was doing exactly what its legion of creators had conceived it to do – to lift the mind upward and remind me to think about things bigger than myself. It was a pure gift, and I was and am still grateful for it.
When I saw the first photographs of the fire yesterday, I knew at once that the roof and the spire were doomed. I knew that even if the building itself survived I would never see it again the way that it was in my memory. I thought about all the fragile things that would be lost in the collapse – the whimsical forest of monkeys clinging to the towers, the exquisite windows and the grave lines of saints decorating the façade. It hurt to watch, but I could not look away.
In the end, the professionalism of the French firefighters – some probably from the fire station on rue Cardinal Lemoine that I also used to pass on my walk home – prevented the worst from happening. Notre Dame is terribly damaged, but not destroyed. And like a phoenix, it may yet rise from its own ashes and go on to play its part in other people’s lives and memories, for generations yet to come.