Notre Dame reminds us of the fragility of our history
As I write this from Berlin, I am prostrate before the images of fire, devastation, and ash engulfing Notre-Dame de Paris – Our Lady of Paris. She is a treasure of civilisation, both for those who believe in heaven and for those who do not. She represents the Europe of beauty, of holy hopes, of greatness and gentility. Like you, like everyone, I am heartbroken.
The tragedy invokes a slew of memories. Victor Hugo’s immortalisation of the cathedral in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, of course, comes to mind. So, too, does the verse of Louis Aragon:
“Nothing is as strong, not fire, not lightning,
As my Paris defying danger
Nothing is as beautiful as this Paris of mine.”
One also recalls an opening line from Baudelaire: “I am beautiful, O mortals, like a dream in stone.” It was not written about Notre Dame, but it certainly could have been.
The memories extend well beyond the written word. The cathedral itself has borne witness to centuries of French history, including episodes that are now the stuff of legend. It has stood with France through its mystic knighthood, in its glory and in its gloom. I think of the mass in celebration of Paris’s liberation in 1944, and of a younger sister’s conversion there. I weep with her, as I weep with all Christians who have had to watch their visible church go up in smoke, the plume perhaps taking a part of their invisible church with it.
The next morning, I think of Notre Dame as the France of the Resistance. She embodies the Gothic holiness and tranquillity of the Seine. She is faith and beauty made manifest. And, of course, the words of Hugo and Aragon are still there, dancing in my insomniac head. I ask myself how I will face the day. How will we face tomorrow? Hugo supplies the answer: “Time is the architect, but the people are the mason.”
For a Parisian, it is torture to see the looped images of the city’s heart being gripped by the violence of the flames. More than a church has fallen. In a way, Notre Dame is the soul of humanity itself, and a piece of that humanity has now been scarred.
We Parisians believed our venerable lady to be immortal. Yet there she slumps, wounded and helpless against fate, as were we all while watching the inferno. Yet in the wake of those sorrowful images has come a wave of fellow feeling. Italians, Swedes, Irish, Spaniards, Chinese, Algerians – all have joined in communion with the people of France. As after an attack, all are saying, “Je suis Paris.”
Finally, in burning, Notre Dame reminds us of the fragility of our history and heritage, of the precariousness of what we have built, and of the finite nature of millennial Europe, homeland of the arts, to which Notre Dame is one of the loftiest testaments.
Looking ahead, what are we to think? What should we do? We must hope that Notre Dame’s sacrifice will awaken slumbering consciences; that, through this disaster, people will realise that Europe is Notre Dame writ large. More than a political union, it is a great work of art, a brilliant bastion of shared intelligence, but also home to an endangered legacy.
That legacy is too important to lose. We cannot allow pyromaniacs to divide the people of Europe. We must remember that we, together, are builders of temples and palaces, creators of beauty. That is the lesson of Notre Dame in this Holy Week.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who for two years has appealed for unity in rebuilding Europe, now is appealing for unity in rebuilding Notre Dame. Together, we must restore the heart of France. My literary review, La Règle du Jeu, will contribute to the national fund for that purpose. I urge all readers to do the same. We the people are the masons.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. He is the author, most recently, of The Empire and the Five Kings
The views expressed are personal