“It is like losing a member of one’s own,” said one disconsolate onlooker at the burning of Notre Dame cathedral. It did feel like that — an intimate shock and wound — but it was also worse, in a way, because it was the death of something larger than a human life, something meant to outlast us, compared to which one person is paltry and transient.
Notre Dame is one of those wonders you learn about in childhood encyclopedias, that you comfortably regard as a permanent fixture of the world, like the Colosseum or the Empire State Building, the Great Coral Reef or Mount Everest. But at sufficiently high temperatures, anything can burn. And the temperature is rising. The ruins of Rome are testament to the fact that great empires and high civilizations can die, and we’ve seen skyscrapers fall. The coral reefs are already dying, and the snows are retreating even from the roof of the world.
The understanding of our own smallness and insignificance, which at first comes as an unwelcome disillusionment, eventually becomes a kind of comfort. We all learn, one way or another, to live with the inevitability of our individual deaths, to believe, through faith or art or our children, that the extinguishment of our personal universe is not the end of the world. In Lewis Thomas’s essay, “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,” he describes the last movement as an exquisite farewell, a cathartic consolation when contemplating his own death, but it becomes “a hideous noise close to killing me” at the thought of nuclear holocaust, of universal extinction. I got some of that same shiver of more-than-mortal horror watching flames roil out of the stained glass windows.
The cathedral is the artifact of a people who had faith in continuity, in a future, of a civilization that still believed in itself.
Cathedrals were built as houses of God, for eternity; even for us atheists they remain monuments to human aspiration, testaments to multigenerational cooperation toward a common goal. Notre Dame was built over the course of a century and has stood for 30 generations since, the generations tending to it, repairing it, and adding to it — transepts, gabled portals, rose windows, flying buttresses, a spire — even as our culture has magnified and enhanced itself with theories and inventions, movements and manifestoes. The cathedral, like the symphony, is synecdoche for Western civilization’s highest cultural achievements. It is the artifact of a people who had faith in continuity, in a future, of a civilization that still believed in itself.
No one knows yet what led to the fire. But it’s emerged that Notre Dame had been crumbling for a long time, and funding for repairs was snarled by the sort of bureaucratic dysfunction that seems increasingly typical of governments around the world. (My own elected government is unable even to address, let alone solve, problems like health care, gun control, or campaign finance reform.) They are altogether unequal to the vast planetary project, the massive civilizational shift, required to slow global warming. It isn’t a matter of economic feasibility or technological potential, but of will. We aren’t acting because no one in power has incentive to. This world seems ruled, more and more, by men who feel no identification with humanity or investment in any future — who are still living in the solipsism of infancy. Billionaires are building bunkers, not cathedrals.
We need a modern equivalent to cathedral-building. To the world’s relief, it seems that Notre Dame is structurally sound; the government has announced its determination to rebuild, and hundreds of millions have already been pledged to the effort. But it isn’t particularly encouraging to see this confirmation that governments act only after inevitable disasters have happened, not to prevent them. We need, as a civilization and a species, to set our eyes higher, on eternity. Ensuring the survival of the planet would be a bigger and more ambitious undertaking than the cathedrals, harder and more hubristic than the moon landing, as transformative as the domestication of animals or the industrial revolution. And the reward would be everything: the world, our progeny’s lives, the illimitable future.
I wondered, seeing the black pall over Paris, whether future generations will look back on that burning cathedral as a portent, as the sinking of the Titanic marked the end of the Gilded Age and aristocratic prewar Europe. The fire at Notre Dame was a shock that reverberated beyond the existential, to the civilizational: it was a reminder that great and enduring things can pass away, through carelessness, apathy, or chance; that we could lose it all, at any time.