Wednesday, April 17, 2019
With unaccustomed efficiency I was already well advanced with a blog essay for the week when news began to arrive about the fire at Notre Dame de Paris. This news was coming, as it was to the whole world, though all our major journalistic organizations, and from the very start it was accompanied by shocking photographs of the spreading blaze in the timbers of the vast roof. But we also had more in personal communications from friends at the American cathedral, of which we are members and, when lucky enough to be in residence in Paris, fairly active ones. Personal connections, even rather casual ones, can add immediacy to generality and abstraction.
Speaking as a medievalist, I do not regard Notre Dame de Paris as my favorite medieval French church. I’ll be provocative and say I’m not sure it even makes my Top Ten. You’ve got Chartres, Amiens, Mont-Saint-Michel, Sens, Saint-Hilaire in Poitiers. That’s before you even take into consideration monastic masterpieces like Vézelay or Conques. A short walk from Notre Dame itself you have the Sainte Chapelle, possibly the most remarkable building wrought by the Gothic hand in all of Europe. I could plausibly go on before arriving at the crucial but. In this instance the but is all important. But Notre Dame has a unique significance for Parisians, for all of France, and indeed for all of us for whom France has been a teacher.
The French ambassador, interviewed by the PBS “News Hour”, declared that the cathedral was intimately connected with “what it means to be French”. This same phrase, or one very similar, was used by several others, including “ordinary” Parisians interviewed on the streets. I try in vain to imagine a building that many people in this country would say is integral to “what it means to be American”. Certainly in this country—which is still in the western context a fairly religious country—it would not be a house of worship. But in France, which underwent a sanguinary revolution directed in large measure against the Church, where militant anti-clericalism has been a more or less permanent feature of the political scene, and where the doctrine of laïcité (separation of Church and State on steroids) is as the law of the Persians and the Medes, it is there, in France, that a musty old limestone fossil is the “essence of what it means to be French.”
The gewgaw collector in Paris can probably find a Notre Dame ashtray if he wanted to; but he would be overwhelmed with opportunities in the genre of the Eiffel Tower. Had the Frenchman in the street told me that the Eiffel Tower was all about “what it means to be French,” I might have been scornful, but I would not have been surprised. The Eiffel Tower is a very American kind of erection. It’s like the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis or the world’s largest polyurethane peach in Gaffney, S.C. or for that matter the imposing prestressed concrete pillars surrounding the Woodrow Wilson School on my own campus. It does absolutely nothing beyond exulting in the audacity of its own existence. And having no intrinsic meaning, it is available as a repository for meanings supplied by others.
Americans seem to like to define the national character by the technique of the via negativa—ruling out what it is not. I notice that several of our current presidential candidates, when confronting some instance of quintessentially American behavior of which they disapprove, are prone to say “This is not America” or “This is not who we are.” I actually resent being told who I am not by people I have never met, but let it pass. The French are very much into national navel-gazing. Mr. Macron has just completed God knows how many hours of a much-touted national conversation about the French national character; so when he associates the ancient church of Notre Dame de Paris with the essence of French identity, I take it very seriously and find it very moving. It is striking not merely that this great sacred building has been appropriated by the civil state, but that the civil state would appear to aspire to a monopoly on it. Among the talking heads who have been speaking with great emotion about it on American television are historians, political pundits, erudite art historians, sociologists and random tourists from many nations. I have not heard the single opinion of one of the cathedral clergy or of frequent worshippers at its altars. There are still a few of these, as I know from personal experience, having attended the odd service there myself over the years.
For a world in which there often seems to be a paucity of good news, the devastation of one of the great monuments of Christian civilization offers paradoxical relief. It became clear within hours that the cathedral can be, and will be, rebuilt. Mr. Macron promised that it would be done within five years. I suspect it will be achieved more quickly yet. The cathedrals of the Middle Ages—often poetically called the “Age of Faith”--took generations to build in large part because of challenges presented by capital markets that in retrospect seem primitive. The financing of Saint Peter’s in Rome was so dodgy that it played a part in inciting the Protestant Revolt. We live in an Age of Money. Even as I write this, even before the embers are cool, even before we have a reliable survey of the damage, a significant portion of the funding that will be needed for the church’s restoration has been promised. France has not forgotten where she came from, nor have the rest of us forgotten France. It’s all rather amazing actually. At least for a brief season we can do something more satisfying than argue about Brexit.