Notre Dame is burning while the whole world watches.
I am not French. I am not a Catholic. But I feel deeply, mournfully saddened by the videos and pictures pouring out of Paris, showing such a beautiful, historic, holy site burning to the ground.
What is it that makes this feel like as big a tragedy as last month’s mass shooting? After all, it’s just a building. Other than one injured firefighter, no one has been hurt. And yet, it is clearly an abject tragedy. Videos show people weeping, singing and praying in the streets. I am tearing up in my living room, alone. Yes, it’s just a building, but of course, it is so much more than that.
Beautiful, ornate buildings that have stood for centuries, bearing witness to wars and plagues and revolutions, act as a constant reminder of humanity’s ability to create. It is a testament to the power of collaboration, to our deep drive to work together to create beautiful things. Not just beautiful things, but strong beautiful things, monuments that are greater than the sum of their parts and will outlast every last person who laid a brick in that cathedral as the walls first started to rise from the ground. Humans may not live forever but it’s nice to think some part of us will live on in the things we make – especially the things we make together. The promise of a legacy often lights a fire that lasts a whole lifetime.
People just like you or me stood in Paris almost a thousand years ago and toiled in order to build a paragon of serenity and beauty. Whether they realised it or not, they were building a structure that would be revered, sketched, photographed, painted and adored for centuries to come, as the world went on around it.
Old buildings are supposed to outlast you. They’re supposed to stand eternal. That is their power. We walk around the hallways of old cathedrals and palaces, letting the weight of history press down on us, understanding that we are by no means the first to take these steps and certainly won’t be the last. If buildings only lasted a generation, as we do, they would not have the same stories to tell. These structures become woven into the fabric of nations as not just a symbol of strength but also of comfort, an unexpectedly reassuring reminder that while empires and cities may rise and fall, humanity will endure. Until, of course, it doesn’t.
Watching the thing that watches over you burn down shatters any illusion that there is any legacy sacred enough to always persist. Watching a beautiful creation that took two hundred years to build burn down in hours ruins any notion of infallibility. We have no control. Despite Paris’ firefighters working tirelessly to stop the blaze, there was very little they could do. Control is an illusion and the comforting splinter of hope that suggests we can protect the things that matter when it really matters is gone. You just have to watch, helpless, which hurts so much more given how much helplessness currently abounds.
There is something painfully pertinent about watching a glorious piece of history disappear before your eyes, with even the most ardent fighters unable to stop the damage from spreading. As everyone feels like they are watching the world burn both metaphorically and literally, it seems unspeakably cruel to make us all watch it happen in microcosm. To take a symbol of art, peace, beauty and collaboration and then slowly watch it crumble probably hits too close to home for those of us who feel that joy is currently seeping away from the world at large, leaving darkness behind.
So much of what inspires the awe of enormous works of art like Notre Dame is their ability to survive. They transcend time. They become the backdrop to every political regime, every demonstration, every celebration. They are a constant in a world of uncertainty. They allow today’s problems to settle into perspective, taking their rightful place as a single point on a continuum rather than the centre of a circle. When they burn down it becomes clear that nothing can last forever and if that’s the case, if there is nothing that can truly endure, then what’s the point? What’s the point of pouring your heart into a legacy, only for it to become a footnote in a textbook few will ever read? Why fight tooth and nail to build something that can be destroyed in minutes? What’s the point of expending all that effort, trying to make something beautiful for people you will never meet but manage to care about anyway, if, ultimately, it’s all for nothing?
I know that the point is that there is no point, and the best we can do is love people and things and places deeply for all the time we have. I mean, I’m a hardcore atheist. I am not worried that the world is secretly imbued with deeper meaning. But at a time when many are turning in on themselves and letting fear, hate and selfishness reign, it would be good see beautiful things enduring, offering some hope that good can persist through pain, rather than succumbing to the downfall.
Obviously, this not the first time a beautiful site has been destroyed. You only have to look at pictures comparing 1995 Beirut to today, or post-WW2 Berlin to now, or Hiroshima after the bomb to Hiroshima’s present to know that it’s possible to rebuild. The main structure has been saved; this is not the end. But it is an end. It will never quite be the same. We just have to remember that that doesn’t mean it won’t be. Everywhere bears the scars of its history. I guess the most important thing is to keep that history going, one day, one minute, at a time. I guess that, when we get to the end, we can only hope the things that matter somehow get there with us.