Notre Dame on Fire: An Absurdist Tragicomedy

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Bees may have burned with Notre Dame.

So I was informed by The Guardian reporting on last Monday’s fire, in an article containing an odd juxtaposition I’ve been chewing on since: “Several precious religious relics, revered by Catholics, were inside the building. On the roof there were a number of beehives.”

There is something to be said for mourning possibly 18,000 torched bees as populations rapidly decline worldwide. But even as a “lapsed” Catholic (heavy on the quotes here; it’s never really over), I couldn’t help but think I’d rather preserve the Crown of Thorns than a couple of hives. Supposedly worn by Jesus of Nazareth during the crucifixion, the relic was among the items retrieved by Parisians who formed a human chain to save what they could in the blaze. Fragments of the bodies of Paris’ patron saints—St. Denis, who allegedly gave a sermon on a hill in Montmartre holding his own severed head after being martyred, and St. Geneviève, whom Catholics believe protected Paris from the army of Attila the Hun through the power of prayer—were destroyed in the collapse of Notre Dame’s spire, where they were placed in 1935 to protect the cathedral. One minute historic artifacts of mystical magnitude, the next minute, tinder. While perhaps their reputed safeguarding properties were not enough to save the building entirely, a believer might credit the relics for the towers, the flying buttresses, and the rose windows remaining, incredibly, intact.

Notre Dame in 2015 (Photo by Maura Callahan)

I visited Notre Dame almost four years ago. Each of the few trips I’ve made overseas has followed a personal crisis—nothing like distress to justify dropping almost a month’s pay on transatlantic flights—and this was no exception. Imagining I may never again have the time or disposable income to see Paris, I tried to pack in as much into that short week as possible. My Notre Dame stop was sandwiched between several museums, a couple bottles of cheap wine, brooding, and remote work that I couldn’t really leave behind. That is to say, my perfunctory visit was more or less the typical tourist experience.

But even when experienced in a limited capacity, Notre Dame swallows you whole. All architectural design makes us feel a certain way, even if it’s below our radar. I find that Gothic architecture, on Notre Dame’s scale, makes me confront that feeling: the sensation of being completely absorbed to the point of forgetting myself. As I passed the saints framing the portal entrance and stepped into the nave, I shrank beneath the cathedral’s towering ceiling (now mostly destroyed). But more arresting than the immensity was the porousness—the way the space seemed to breathe between the pointed arches and skeletal columns, how the the rose windows splashed flickering spectres of color across the floor. The building felt like a living body, but one not quite bound to Earth.

More arresting than the immensity was the porousness—the way the space seemed to breathe between the pointed arches and skeletal columns, how the the rose windows splashed flickering spectres of color across the floor.

Only behind flames is Notre Dame made more surreal. The church survived a Huguenot revolt in the 16th century, the guillotining of its statues during the French Revolution, and bullets during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Then, on the second day of Holy Week, as it underwent restoration, of all things, it burned—and still we are without a definitive explanation. As if to challenge our assumption of history’s stability and remind us of its inherent absurdity: Notre Dame comes down; Hudson Yards’ $200 million doner-kebab-shaped “Vessel” goes up.

And then, a sicker joke, albeit one of little surprise: The speed and ease of the fundraising to support the cathedral’s reconstruction. Since Monday, wealthy donors have promised over $1 billion to aid repairs; meanwhile France’s yellow vest protesters have been demanding since November that the administration of President Emmanuel Macron address the country’s economic inequality. Two days before Notre Dame burned, police tear gassed demonstrators in Toulouse. Macron seized the opportunity presented by the fire to call for unity in France, despite his own inaction to meet the people’s needs.

Trump immediately pledged support for the cathedral’s reconstruction—“the rehabilitation of this irreplaceable symbol of Western civilization,” as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it, making clear the administration’s chauvinist priorities. Meanwhile the United States government continues to neglect black, brown, and poor communities facing disaster, including Puerto Ricans who lost their homes and family members to Hurricane Maria, or the three black churches in Louisiana that were torched just weeks before Notre Dame by a man subsequently charged with hate crimes. (You can donate to the St. Landry Parish community’s rebuilding efforts here). The president hasn’t so much as acknowledged the arson attacks.

“Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Miserables,” French writer Ollivier Pourriol tweeted, referring to the Romantic author’s two best-known works about the famed cathedral and Paris’ poor, respectively.

Even yellow vest protestors are committing their own funds to the building’s restoration as they continue their weekly demonstrations. The protestors recognize their capacity to simultaneously mourn and direct support to multiple fronts. The punchline: Those with the greatest ability—and obligation—do not.

Featured photo via Facebook

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