Paris is Burning — but so is the Planet
Paris is Burning: Notre Dame is in flames. Even as I write these words, tears sting my eyes. And I’m not alone. One of earth’s most beloved buildings— a universal symbol of Paris —stands engulfed in flames.
Even for a lifelong atheist, watching the cathedral’s fiery collapse feels like an Omen. What rough beast, I wonder, slouches toward Paris to be born?
Yet with the entire world’s attention temporarily riveted on a single heart-rending catastrophe — a collective loss for all human kind — I can’t help but think of the words of the 16-year-old Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg at this year’s Davos Conference, challenging the Wealthy 1% and the politicians they control to face up to the fact, once and for all, that “our house is on fire” (and so too our one collective home, our Planet). “I don’t want your hope,” she told them. “I want you to panic.”
A similar sense of misplaced panic overwhelmed Paris in 2015, when a series of horrific terror attacks overshadowed the 2015 Paris Climate negotiations.
Meanwhile the raw fact that the Notre Dame fire was sparked by a so-called “restoration” project gone awry adds a dash of irony to the ashes. After all, at least until recently, Paris was almost universally considered one of the earth’s great cities. Yet one which increasingly survives today only as a kind of vast live-in museum — not unlike the Disneyland Paris built by us Americans on the outskirts of the city (or that equally ludicrous 1/3-sized Eiffel Tower replica that stands amid the neon nonsense of Las Vegas).
In fact, the self-destructive self-immolation of Paris began decades earlier— and the fire was started by the French themselves.
Who but the French could possibly have ripped out the bloody flaming heart of Paris virtually unnoticed, and largely unopposed?
For centuries, Paris withstood invasions, rebellions, revolutions, regicides, and even two World Wars.
Yet the City of Light’s gift for sheer survival was no mere accident: after all, we humans will only save that which we truly love. Like some film noir femme fatale, Paris had successfully seduced the entire human race.
Hence even when a desperate Hitler angrily ordered his Luftwaffe to firebomb Paris in the dying days of the Second World War, it was his own German generals that quietly disobeyed him. That act of deliberate treason was also an act of love. Even the Nazis generals, it now seems, did more to protect Paris from deliberate destruction than the post-war government of France.
Bizarrely, brazenly, relentlessly, in the triumphant aftermath of the Second World War, France began systematically ripping out the very guts of Paris: starting with the legendary food market called Les Halles at the center of the city — turning it into an underground concrete American-style shopping mall topped with an equally empty, heartless concrete plaza. Gone forever the stink and blood and sinew of the Les Halles butchers, the scowling fishmongers, the flower-girls and urchins and orphans and beggars and buyers and sellers and saints and sinners who had all gathered here daily to feed an entire city for centuries (thereby giving bloody birth to one of earth’s greatest cuisines in the process). There in its place they built a hideously-sterile concrete underground American-style shopping mall — a place the French themselves nicknamed “Le Trou.” The Hole.
In 1974 Marcelo Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve even co-starred in a comic satire Spaghetti-Western sendup entitled Don’t Touch the White Woman filmed — where else? — on location in Le Trou: complete with Michel Picolli as General George Custer and Alan Cuny as Sitting Bull.
Not much has changed since then. Don’t take my word for it: As historian Luc Sante recently concluded in his scathing urban exposé, The Other Paris,
“The game may not be over, but its rules have irrevocably changed. The small has been consumed by the big, the poor have been evicted by the rich, the drifters are behind glass in museums. Everything that was once directly lived has moved away into representation.”
Following the deliberate destruction of Les Halles, an endless parade of equally-hideous architectural atrocities soon followed suit: from the featureless glass tower eye-sore that is the Montparnasse skyscraper, to the deliberately deconstructed exterior of the Pompidou Center — perched like a modernist tombstone over the buried body of yet another blasted and bulldozed working class Parisian neighborhood.
As if to underline the irony of this so-called “urban renewal,” the empty financial office park built at the city’s outskirts was duly named for the battlements which had once protected Paris from outside invasion: La Défense.
And lest you think I’m laying the full blame on France, consider this: consciously or not, French bureaucrats were simply mimicking the equally audacious and destructive so-called urban renewal projects that hollowed out American cities from coast-to-coast — as described in the 1961 classic The Life and Death of American Cities by Greenwich Village dweller Jane Jacobs.
That said, in Paris the real Trojan Horse of these redevelopment schemes remained the French bureaucrats and reformers themselves. Just as that earlier, equally notorious Parisian urban reformer the Baron Haussmann once taught us: dead cities, like dead men, tell no tales.
We Americans often forget that the now much beloved (by tourists) white dome of the Sacré Couer was deliberately built over the gypsum mine tunnels in which thousands of the last of the communards were brutally buried alive in 1871 — just as we tend to forget that the French repeatedly planned to tear down the Eiffel Tower as an eyesore. But that was a fact not lost on George Clémenceau, the Prime Minister of France (and former mayor of Montmartre) who later heroically led his nation to victory — or at least to survival — during World War One. Prior to the war, Clémenceau had led a nearly-successful effort to tear down the white marble dome of the Sacré Coeur, which he considered an affront to the ideals of the French Revolution, proposing to raise in its place a full-sized Statue of Liberty facing westward toward her Americanized sister in the New York harbor.
As David Harvey writes in Paris, Capital of Modernity,
“On August 3, 1880, the matter came before the city council in the form of a proposal — a ‘colossal statue of Liberty will be placed on the summit of Montmartre, in front of the church of Sacré-Coeur, on land belonging to the city of Paris.’ The French republicans at that time had adopted the United States as a model society, which functioned perfectly well without monarchism and other feudal trappings. As part of a campaign to drive home the point of this example, as well as to symbolize their own deep attachment to the principles of liberty, republicanism, and democracy, they were then raising funds to donate the Statue of Liberty that now stands in New York Harbor. Why not, said the authors of this proposition, efface the sight of the hated Sacré-Coeur by a monument of similar order?”
So who knows? Perhaps the few smoke-charred gargoyles that may remain long after this latest conflagration has been quenched may do more to remind us of the true gothic spirit of old Paris than we Americans dare to imagine — or than the Parisians themselves may dare to hope. As Jaques Yonnet once muttered darkly in his 1954 memoir Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City,
“You’re no true Parisian, you do not know your city, if you haven’t experienced its ghosts. To become imbued with shades of grey, to blend into the drab obscurity of blind spots, to join the clammy crowd that emerges, or seeps, at certain times of day from the metros, railway stations, cinemas or churches, to feel a silent and distant brotherhood with the lonely wanderer , the dreamer in his shy solitude, the crank, the beggar, even the drunk — all this entails a long and difficult apprenticeship, a knowledge of people and places that only years of patient observation can confer.”
A trial by fire.
As for the future, what the French don’t destroy deliberately may be laid waste by Climate Change catastrophes no gargoyle could have grasped:
With the 2015 Paris Climate Accords already in flames — one wag calls it Climate Kabuki — there’s virtually no hope for a future Paris not burned, drowned, and seared simultaneously by the metaphoric flames of global warming. Welcome to the Anthropocene, Notre Dame. To name just one searing example: the heat death that already murdered thousands in the deadly 2003 heat wave that swept across Europe will soon come to seem routine (much as the 2018 heat wave that sent much of forests of the French Mediterranean up in flames reminds us). Similarly, the winter 1999 windstorm that flattened tens of thousands of trees in the Bois de Bologne may soon come to seem like a tempest in a teapot. Meanwhile the floods that have already swamped parts of the Louvre will overwhelm much of the city, even as the once-plentiful fisheries within the Seine itself continue to hurtle toward extinction. To say nothing of the vast civil and political unrest that such catastrophes will inevitably unleash.
As David Wallace-Wells writes in his ominous new book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming
“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale.”
So despite my tears over the fires which engulfed Notre Dame today, what truly frightens me to the core is the slow burn that has already destroyed the Paris-of-the-Past — plus what that legendary African-American-in-Paris, James Baldwin, once named The Fire Next Time. To paraphrase Greta Thurnberg’s words once more, it’s not just our house that’s on fire this time. Or even Europe’s most beautiful cathedral. It’s the true Notre Dame, our Mother Earth.