The cornerstone of Notre-Dame de Paris was laid in 1163, almost nine hundred years ago. It was completed almost a century later in 1250. Since then, it has stood through revolutions, empires and wars. Sometimes looted, sometimes battered by the winds of history, Our Lady of Paris endured. Today it caught fire at around 6 p.m. local time. The roof burned for hours, collapsing in sections. At around 7, the spire collapsed, to gasps from the Parisian onlookers. Notre-Dame is burning.
In his film F for Fake Orson Welles, talking about the similar Chartres Cathedral said
“You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.”
Welles was an old man when he made that film in 1973. To anyone young in this 21st century there is an abiding feeling that this will be the presiding sensation of our lives. To watch things that took centuries, even millenia to be built and to grow die out in a matter of moments. From cathedrals to glaciers and forests. This is a video of the spire falling
In history we will find ourselves in that moment in the video where we know the spire will fall but are unable to do anything but gasp in disbelief at its collapse. It is unlikely that the fire at Notre-Dame was anything but accidental, yet its destruction is no less painful for it.
There are a few people, and fewer places, that are more than just their components. When someone like Stephen Hawking dies, it is not just a death. Occasionally, through great works, men and women transform themselves to something greater. They become points of reference, in conjunction they form constellation by whose light we navigate history. When Stephen Hawking died and the spire of Notre-Dame fell, we did not simply lose a man or masonry. We lost a character in the human alphabet.
I only saw Notre-Dame once. I was just a boy, ten or eleven years old, and we had gone to Paris in the winter, because it was cheaper. In the cold and the snow we had spent the day wandering from museum to monument, warmth to warmth until we came to Notre-Dame de Paris. We rushed in through the great doors, barely noticing the carved facade at the front. It was Massof some sort, though to this day I’m not sure exactly what we interrupted. But we hushed and began a circuit of the cathedral, while the organs plays and the choir sang. It was a miserable day outside, and the windows were dark and gloomy with little light shining through them. But as we ended our quiet, awed rotation and returned to the gates, we saw through the great circular window at the front of the cathedral that the snow had stopped, and the sun pushed the clouds aside and beams of light were cast through the air, glistening in the dust.
I do not believe in any god but if I did it would be the one that cast that light into Notre-Dame. It is the sort of place that makes such belief a possibility, even if just for a moment.
I am learning now, as I write this, that the fire is under control. The bell towers, at the front of the cathedral have most likely been saved. I am reminded of the rest of Welles’ speech.
“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. ”