I was enjoying the new “Game of Thrones” episode last night when Varys hit me with a memorable quote. His solemn, soothing voice juxtaposed with a deeply unsettling message:
Relatable? Grim? Sad? Perhaps all of the above but surely overly pessimistic and simply untrue. We’ve all heard the phrase “nothing lasts forever” before. That one I might agree with. But to remove the word ‘forever’ suggests something more, something worse: That endurance doesn’t really exist, that every legacy inevitably collapses, just as every dynasty falls. That everything is fragile, or vulnerable even. Some things do last. The universe, and history — don’t they last? Our civilization? Its countless artifacts, works of literature, music, paintings, buildings, churches and famous Cathedr… wait a minute. What?! What’s that post I’m seeing on social media? A devastating fire at Notre Dame. The spire and roof completely destroyed. Maybe Varys had a point. Nothing lasts.
For eight centuries, The French Revolution, two World Wars and much, much more, Notre Dame has stood the test of time. Whereas Paris’s other famous monument, The Eiffel Tower, has overlooked the city for over 130 years, Notre Dame has been an inseparable part of Paris since the 1200s. The landmark building — so much more than just a cathedral — has witnessed numerous events of tremendous significance, becoming a symbol of French history and identity: The French revolution — which overthrew the monarchy, established France as a republic and laid the groundwork for long standing principles of civil and human rights — culminated in the rise of Napoleon who himself was crowned in Notre Dame in 1804. Memorial services to commemorate great French leaders like Mitterrand and De Gaulle have been held in Notre Dame ever since. The Cathedral’s bells rang to celebrate the end of World War One and the liberation of Paris from the Nazis following World War Two. Hit by bullets during the latter of the two conflicts, Notre Dame remained largely unscathed, withstanding a devastating conflict in much the same way it has withstood time, standing tall and proud as the guardian of one of Europe’s most iconic cities.
But it’s not just the history that marks Notre Dame’s significance to Parisians, the French and Western culture/civilization in general. Macron himself put it quite nicely:
“It’s our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our greatest moments…”
The landmark — a Gothic architectural masterpiece — embodies French and European values which transcend both religion and national identity: liberté, egalité, fraternité. It also symbolizes an unlikely if not contradictory marriage between tradition and progressivism, one that appears to be in decline across The Old Continent. Macron spoke of France’s greatest moments, but perhaps he forgot to mention the times of suffering and adversity. When tragedy hit Paris during the 2015 terrorist attacks, Notre Dame was the obvious place where thousands arrived to remember and pay homage to the victims. Notre Dame is a national sanctuary. It is also a place where millions arrive every year from across the globe to admire an indisputable gem of our civilization.
13 million tourists visited the site last year alone. Notre Dame is a famous place. Much of this fame and adulation can be attributed to French novelist Victor Hugo who penned the literary classic: The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831. Hugo’s book, and the subsequent modern Disney film adaptation have cemented the cathedral’s place in both literature and popular culture, but also in the imaginations of young children all around the world. Who hasn’t heard of Quasimodo and Esmeralda? But Hugo’s work in particular did something more. It characterized the incredibly poor, neglected state of the cathedral and the need for renovation. Hugo has thus been credited for a campaign which began in 1844 to restore and renovate Notre Dame. To make sure it is preserved. Incredibly, however, Hugo also seems to have foreshadowed or predicted the future, as shown by this passage from his book:
“In the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered and furious flame…”
Somewhat disturbing. Alas, is it also not painfully ironic that the fire which erupted on April 15th has been linked with renovation works on the site of the cathedral? Preserve to destroy. It’s almost a reminder of how absurd life can be. Make no mistake, the devastation of Notre Dame is a great tragedy for Parisians and France. It’s like arriving home and entering your room to find that your most cherished possession, photograph or anything else which defines you has gone missing. To the point where it’s difficult to recognize your room and find your place in it. But perhaps even more important to us all: It’s an unnerving reminder of the fragility of life itself. Think about it. A building becomes a symbol of perseverance, survives over 800 years, countless wars, natural disasters, and then suddenly burns by accident. Yes, it will be rebuilt and might stand for centuries again. But will it last? And will We even last to continue admiring it?