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What the Notre-Dame Fire Reveals About the Soul of France

Category: Europe,World

PARIS — France, a fundamentally Roman Catholic country whose citizens rarely attend Mass, understands the story and the meaning of Easter. It is a story of resurrection and rebirth, of the transformation of something profane into something sacred.

In a subdued Paris on Tuesday, as Parisians and tourists gathered to stare at the smoke-smudged stones of what is left of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, relieved that the entire structure had not collapsed, there was talk of resurrection and reconstruction, but also of anger and shock at the possibility of what many considered official malfeasance and negligence.

While investigations continue into the cause of the blaze, there were questions about whether the refurbishment budget was too small, whether more fire protection and even sprinklers should have been provided, and how thoroughly an initial fire alarm was investigated before it was dismissed. The fire was not discovered until another alarm sounded 23 minutes later.

“It’s unpardonable, what happened,” said Karine Berger, who works at the nearby Centre Pompidou museum. “Nothing excuses this fire, to lose the work of centuries in a day.”

But there was also a quiet sense of history, of watching something grander than themselves, and a commitment to see the cathedral rebuilt, because for many it is the heart of Paris.

“Notre-Dame de Paris is Paris,” Ms. Berger said. “It’s a reference, it’s kilometer zero. It’s how we measure distances all over France.”

More than that, “it’s our roots, our history, our civilization,” she said. “I think of the generations of artists who spent all their lives working on this monument to God, to belief.”

This cathedral has outlasted generations, and it will outlast us, said Claude Fosse, who works for an electrical company here. His partner had once been up in the ancient oak roof that burned Monday night, he said, his voice quiet with awe, and “on the great beams of that forest you could see the signatures of the craftsmen from 800 years ago.”

The cathedral will be rebuilt, he said, “but it’s not going to be the same, you’ll see the patches.” At 51, he said thoughtfully, “I doubt I will be alive to see it completed.”

Notre-Dame bears a special place because of its combination of the secular, the sacred and the profane. “On one level it’s a physical symbol of Western civilization, even more than St. Peter’s in Rome, given its age,” said François Heisbourg, a French analyst. “But on another level it is embedded into popular culture.” It features in Victor Hugo, of course, but also in films like “Amélie” and “Ratatouille.” And it has been Disneyfied in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” an animated musical.

“So even in distant sections of America and the rest of the world, everyone knows this cathedral,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “It’s universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object. It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

It is among the places in Western Europe most visited by tourists. And yet the outpouring of sympathy, support and emotion “was quite unexpected for many of us,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research. “Of course we say it’s the heart and soul of Paris, but because it’s always there we didn’t realize it, exactly, we took it for granted.”

When the spire came crashing down, many found themselves recalling a still grimmer event: the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, which remain by far the deadliest act of terrorism in history. No one died at Notre-Dame de Paris, and investigators so far reckon the fire to be an accident. But the rising pall of smoke, watched worldwide on television, evoked a familiar combination of horror and astonishment. It also brought on some corners of social media an undercurrent of Islamophobia and wild rumors of terrorism and conspiracy.

These are darker themes that are only partly hidden in the current reaction of relief that the damage wasn’t worse. They reflect a longer and wrenching debate about religion, about European identity, about secularism and the role of Islam in society.

The debate is particularly strong in France, Mr. Tertrais noted, with the emergence of a harder-right religious conservatism since 2013, when intensely contested legislation about same-sex marriage inspired thousands of people, including priests, rabbis and imams, to protest the change in the streets.

“I would like to think that this horrible fire will give us a chance to reconcile our views on the role of Christianity in our history,” Mr. Tertrais said.

But even President Emmanuel Macron referred to global Christianity in his speech Monday night, noted Andrew Hussey, a Paris-based scholar with the University of London. “Tonight, my thoughts obviously go out to the Catholics, in France and all over the world, especially in this Holy Week,” Mr. Macron said. “I know how they feel and we support them.”

While meant to console, his words touch on the continuing tension in France between Catholicism and post-revolutionary universalism, which was deeply antireligious. Laïcité, or secularism, would be brought in as late as 1905 “to police the power of the Catholic church, which is very politicized in France,” Professor Hussey said.

He noted that the idea of Catholicism under threat and in danger is a common theme of the French far right, which often cites Charles Martel, who defeated the Muslims at the battle of Tours (732-733) and began the military campaigns that reestablished the Franks as the rulers of Gaul.

“In this sense, Notre-Dame is not a relic but a living sacred place, the continuity of holy France,” Professor Hussey said. If revolutionary France was built on an idea of equality, pre-revolutionary France was built on a “vocation spirituelle,” a holy vocation, “that is still in many heads.”

For Claude Mbowou, the undercurrent of Islamophobia is a disgraceful part of the story. Speaking of Notre Dame with tears in his eyes, Mr. Mbowou, a Muslim political scientist at the Sorbonne, said that Notre Dame “is much more than a cathedral.”

“I’m a Muslim but I’m still very moved when I see this place,” he said. “It represents something deep, it transcends us. It’s a loss, not only for France but for the entire world. It’s as if the pyramids in Egypt were destroyed.”

“Parisians didn’t realize what they had,” he said. “They walked on by. It was foreigners who came.”

But Mr. Mbowou has felt the undercurrent, he said, and decried “the merchants of hatred,” adding: “What is sad is the kind of hateful interpretation of this event that is already beginning to circulate. These days it’s the morons who dictate what we should debate.”

Of course, there was celebration that the worst did not happen. This fire, however horrible, killed no one. It will not be remembered in the same way as the 1755 earthquake, fire and tsunami in Lisbon, for example, which happened on the Feast of All Saints, killed around 70,000 people and shook belief throughout Europe.

“Our city, our history, our faith, our civilization,” Anne-Elisabeth Moutet said in a Twitter message. “Tomorrow all church bells should ring for the death and resurrection of Notre Dame.” And so they did.

And the French, helped initially by the enormous wealth of two competitive businessmen from the world of fashion, Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, and no doubt from smaller contributions from all over the world, will rebuild.

Cathedrals seem to survive the vicissitudes and imperfections of mankind. It is always hard to get into the minds of those who lived 800 years ago and more, who believed in the reality of hell and the promise of heaven. They worked on an enormous project, which Mr. Heisbourg compared in its way to the American effort to land a man on the moon.

They did so with grandeur and belief, reaching up to heaven, however imperfectly. So this fire, too, and some of the ugliness that has emerged around it in the world of social media, is another reminder of our fallen state, imperfect, mistake-prone and, as Flaubert once wrote, “Language is a cracked kettle drum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”


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