The Left, the Right, and the Center (of Paris)

It is strange, the things that make us weep.

Monday started off as a banner day for me; I officially submitted my PhD dissertation on composer Benjamin Britten and postwar Britain to ProQuest and had my examination card signed by my advisor and delivered to the Graduate School. While having lunch, I received a text message from my friend: “holy fuck Notre Dame is on fire.” Lunch stopped as I checked Twitter for news, only to see what we all saw that day: Notre-Dame de Paris, the cathedral in the center of Paris, was engulfed in flames. Watching the roof burn and the spire collapse consumed the rest of my day. In various spaces online, friends and colleagues speculated about the survival of L’orgue — the Great organ, the largest in France, the place where Louis Vierne played that final, resonating note before dying of a heart attack — and its future. Even knowing that cathedrals are sites of ruin and rebuilding (my work on Coventry Cathedral and Britten’s War Requiem taught me that), I grieved with musicians and musicologists over a place that was always more than a church for so many of us. Some of my brilliant colleagues have written and spoken about what Notre Dame and its history means to music historians, namely Margot Fassler’s interview with the BBC and Michael Cuthbert’s piece for the Los Angeles Times (over on my blog Humanist in the Machine, I speak more about this piece, as well as sound studies, geospatial mapping, & how the digital humanities can help reframe acoustics) But as I reflected on my own time at Notre Dame, every music history survey class I’ve taught explaining Notre Dame polyphony, and on the work of my friends, medievalists and Gallicists alike, for whom Notre Dame was central, I noticed something else occuring.

If you, like me, participate in a generalized political discourse on Twitter, then your feed is most likely home to retweets (and perhaps even tweets) representing the ends of the political spectrum. And what I realized was that Notre Dame was happening there, too. My surprise came, not at its appearance, but at the speed that it appeared. I knew at that moment that the Notre Dame fire would become something far greater than the destruction of a historical building. It became a flashpoint for both the Right and the Left, a battle between the so-called collapse of Western Civilization and the reminders of the destructive history of imperialism and colonialism. We in Musicology-land had our fights about this but more on that later.

“When people say more about a church in France than three black churches burned in Louisiana…” “A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing…” This may sound familiar to you. You may have seen worse, or perhaps let’s say, more hyperbolic than this. It was all present on social media as the flames rose. I mention both not because I think they are arguments with equal weight (I do not) but because they speak to something I have been experiencing over the last few years. History and its objects have never been off limits as far as becoming tools of propaganda but the last few years have put history in the center of debates about the now. And it can be a fairly destructive and problematic tool. Let’s start with the Western Civ portion. Remember how above I mentioned some squabbles among musicologists? Well, I’ll admit, I was a part of those squabbles. Lots of tweets and very early think-pieces about the importance of Notre Dame from the standpoint of music called Notre Dame the home to the “first composers of record” (a statement later clarified that tweet but got nowhere near the same engagement), or “the birthplace of music as we know it,” and I won’t lie, those descriptions made me uncomfortable. Not because the Notre Dame school and its polyphony were not hugely important in the history of Western art music but because, perhaps due to our grief, we painted with terrifyingly broad strokes. [For a more nuanced & thoughtful discussion around this history, please read Jeannete DiBernado Jones’s letter to her students about Notre Dame.] I worried because I have a long history with those to the right of me who would use classical music as a tool to reassert the idea of a dominant, superior West, creators of unmatched culture. For presenting the “radical” ideas that white European men where not the only people who composed art music or that the present-day performance of clapping (and shaming around certain types of clapping) is a form of gatekeeping rooted in class and race, I have been threatened with violence against my person. And I knew that even one word in a statement that hints at this supposed cultural superiority would become ammunition in the larger fight, a tool used to convince others that Western civilization (whatever that is supposed to mean), is decaying before our eyes, is “never permanent.” But this is a fight that more seasoned historians than myself have been readily engaging in as medievalists, those who specialize in Scandinavian and Germanic studies, classicists, and others see their work being taken up by the alt-right. Notre Dame is another example of how we musicologists are not safe from this, how things we love and value can be twisted beyond recognition. The social media landscape forces us, more than ever, to think about how we present these topics and how they live beyond us. I must acknowledge the medieval musicologists who recognized what was happening on Monday and how they combatted against it but I can’t help but wonder: when will there be another time when major news outlets are consulting us and asking for our expertise? It is already quite rare. Are we prepared, in that moment, to think beyond the music history sequence talking points? (Hopefully, it will not be in a moment of sorrow because I don’t know if I would have been as eloquent as Fassler in her interview.)

As a musicologist, I wept as this unfolded before my eyes. But as an African-American woman, I once again bristled at the immediacy of sadness poured out for Notre Dame and not for the three churches burned down in Louisiana. And as more and more stories appeared about Louis Vuitton and Apple pledging large sums of money toward the rebuilding of the cathedral, I writhed, thinking about the rush for an accrual of cultural capital, capitalism looking to make itself feel good while ignoring its own sins. And when it was finally announced that the White House would also contribute money to Notre Dame, I fumed as I remembered Flint, Houston, my home of Eastern North Carolina, and Puerto Rico. The critiques made around these issues are valid ones that must continually be made. But I also wondered in that moment whether or not Notre Dame had become a tool for the left just as it had for the right? The response to the fire definitely highlighted the glaring inconsistencies of how Americans prioritize certain events but another story that emerged was Notre Dame as a symbol of the imperial West, one that cared nothing for the destruction of indigenous histories and sacred spaces. As a result, how dare anyone weep for the destruction of a building, one that represents centuries of oppression. But is that a fair claim to place at the feet of Notre Dame? It would be wrong to say that France was not and has not been involved in an expansive imperialist enterprise that has ravaged various parts of the world. However, the mapping of that imperialist history onto a medieval site is not only inaccurate but short-sighted. This abstract formation of “the West” undermines the real damage from centuries of colonialism. Just as Notre Dame is not some great monument to the triumph of the West, it is also not a monument to the destruction perpetrated by the West. If history were ever as neat as that, I would be out of a job. I also bristled over the statement that my grief over Notre Dame meant that I could only value histories of oppression and religious terror over the suffering of now. That my grief could only be over the materiality of the structure rather than what it really was: a lost sound, a story now with a new path, a memory. Buildings, like other objects, can and do carry and convey meaning but that meaning is and always will be in flux, seldom tangible, often contradictory, but never static. The question that then arises from all of this is: is there a center?

I use the term center more as an allusion to Notre Dame’s geographical and poetic history as the center of Paris rather than an evocation of some kind of centrist reasoning. (Think Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, here) But the word also used to describe Notre Dame is le cœur, the heart. Many of the arguments, critiques, and conversations that have arisen from the Notre Dame fire are a strange combination of heart and head, logic and feeling; something that tells you that there is something inherently problematic with a government — that has time and again proved itself to be against the interests and rights of marginalized people — giving money to a Western European nation rather than use its money to provide for all of its own citizens. It’s something that tells you that we should be wary of conversations that center Notre Dame while other sacred spaces, the Al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem and the three churches in Louisiana, burn. It’s something that tells you that buildings should not matter more than people but that buildings and their histories can matter, in weird ways that are hard to convey. And those somethings, that nexus of heart and mind, can make for an awful mess. But just as Notre Dame is sorting through its rubble, so should we.

Speaking to the historians and musicologists, we should ever be on the front lines, providing both empathy and reason, dismissing the inaccuracy of nationalists and contextualizing the narratives of the marginalized and oppressed. To everyone else, as participants in these formative and shared social moments, we should emote —whether that’s rage or grief— but also find a moment to think about where those emotions come from and what they do. Do they feed insular points of view, rigid with no flexibility and room? Or will those emotions reflect something far more complex? Notre Dame will not be the last experience like this that we will face. Venice and Mexico City sink into the earth and the sea. Everest is covered with human waste. The Great Barrier Reef will die. And in those moments, we will be faced with these same questions and problems. People will grieve. And those moments will always highlight the glaring inequalities present on a global scale, what tragedies we ignore, what people we leave to suffer in silence. And instead of falling into the trap of picking a side or furthering a narrative, perhaps we move to the center; a messy place that forces us to confront the problematic nature of doing history, reading and reacting to the past, contextualizing it, loving it, loathing it, and seeing it used by any and all who would dare. Notre Dame is central because just like that messy center of discourse, it lives in a similar place, that of doing history now. It lives between ideas of Western greatness and Western destruction. It concretizes the interconnectedness of the medieval, decentering it from an abstract West, as well as locating it in a present that asks us how we think about contemporary issues.