Notre Dame was built to last until the end of the world
I am devastated.
I’m writing this because I have to. The first time I saw Notre Dame was in 1980. Summertime, early morning, before the bakeries were open. The slanted light made the reliefs on the doors stand out.
The second time I saw it, a year later, somebody (I have now been reminded it was Bill Ford) read out to me a complete analysis of the three doors of the façade. Deliberately assymetrical, each one contains a moral universe.
As I write it will be lucky if they survive. The spire is gone, the stained glass is gone, the wood of the roof timber is gone. By the time it is rebuilt, as a partial replica, most people alive today will already be dead.
Notre Dame was — and will be — a monument to civilisation. In an age when there were no information storage devices other than handwritten books, giant stone buildings were society’s hard drives.
This is like losing the hard drive of medieval Paris. Every inch had meaning — not just the meaning imbued by the carpenter and the stonemason, but the meaning imbued by the student, the monk, the penitent — and then by the emergent French bourgeois society.
I know almost nothing about architecture, but I do understand music. And the music composed in Notre Dame during the high period of feudalism is some of the most complex, beautiful and emotionally expressive you will ever hear. Understanding the music helped me understand the building. Andrieu’s requiem dirge for Guillaume de Machaut, O Fleur des Fleurs, seems to be on loop inside my head. The challenge was to make it as complicated as possible but as directly expressive.
The one time I did the full tour of the inside was in 1986, before mass global tourism took off. I didn’t understand its vastness even then. If you have ever seen it, you have to hold those memories close now, because you will probably never in your lifetime see the whole thing rebuilt.
Last year I went to Tito’s birthplace in Croatia. A small village of wood huts. A tank could have destroyed it in half an hour. It was a reminder that, until the mid 20thcentury, most of the world was built of wood, thatch and fragile bricks.
Notre Dame was built to last until the end of the world, out of stone, glass and vast forests of thick timber frames.
And it was built by rationalists. The thinkers of the high Gothic may have been trapped in pre-modern concepts of the world, but they were reaching towards modern concepts — through geometry, polyphony, humanism, logic and translation of ancient texts.
All I can think tonight is, if you want to know how you will feel if one thousand years’ worth of rationality goes up in flames, this is it.
I know lots of other beautiful places have been destroyed by wars, terrorism, neglect. I know people are more important than buildings.
But if language is “concretised consciousness” buildings like Notre Dame are concretised wisdom.
When my comrades read out to me the analysis of the portals back in the 1980s, and then we went off laughing into the flower market across the bridge, and to a meeting of the Parisian left, and to drink pastis, we never imagined that the flower market could still be there while the cathedral not.
The assumption that Western civilisation is permanent was always an illusion. Tonight is a good time to reflect on what it feels like if the illusion should be lost.