I have to be honest here, I don’t know if I should be writing this piece.
I’m not French, I don’t know a lick of the language, and my reference point in regards to the cathedral is more informed by adaptations of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris than any personal experiences.
And yet I can’t help but empathize with the damage done to such a significant edifice. While prevalence of video content and written text has taken up most of our artistic curiosity, we sometimes forget the importance of architecture. Before the first camera and prior to the advent of mass literacy, it was buildings like Notre Dame, works that took lifetimes to build and stood for centuries after their constructions, that imparted shared ideals and meaning to multiple generations of a society. It was the original common language.
To put it in a more American context, think of the Statue of Liberty. It’s golden torch, the depiction of the goddess Libertas, the plaque containing Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus”, beckoning the world to:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It’s a radical promise of welcoming the other, one the United States hasn’t ever fulfilled, especially in light of recent events, but nevertheless inspires in those who gaze upon the statue the hope that we can one day live up to it.
That is the importance of edifices, the significance of architecture. Imparting meaning that transcends lifetimes, governments, victories, and tragedies. That what Notre Dame is to the French, representing the legacy of the nation’s catholicism, the triumphs and tribulations of the Revolution. Both France’s long line of kings and its current democracy. To have such a site burn is a collective trauma.
The cathedral still stands, the foundations still strong. But the damage is there; centuries-old glass panes broken, it’s tallest spire crumbled. And while these features can be rebuilt, they will act as scar-tissue. And yet the French should count themselves lucky, as the edifices of other cultures have suffered less fortunate fates. So to my largely American readers, take time to appreciate the edifices around you and how they built your identity. And as you shed a tear with the French, be prepared to do so again for similar losses from more foreign places.