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Opinion The burning of a great stone book

To many Parisians, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has embodied the heart of the French capital for more than 800 years. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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A great book is burning, one of the greatest ever written.

That an edifice like Notre Dame Cathedral could survive so much and then, in an instant, by accident, be engulfed in flames and devastated in a matter of hours causes, in 2019, a sensation that is at once harrowing and dully familiar. We assume that things are durable because they have lasted. But in the words of G. K. Chesterton (words that always occur to me at such moments) “to be breakable is not the same thing as to be perishable. Strike a glass and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”

“A vast symphony in stone,” wrote Victor Hugo of Notre Dame in his novel of the same name. “The colossal work of a man and of a nation," he continued, "combining unity with complexity, like the Iliads and the Romanceros to which it is a sister production; the prodigious result of a draught upon the whole resources of an era -- in which upon every stone is seen displayed, in a hundred varieties, the fancy of the workman disciplined by the genius of the artist -- a sort of human Creation, in short, mighty and prolific as the Divine Creation, of which it seems to have caught the double character, variety and eternity.”

Yet, strangely, Hugo’s contention was that the book had killed the cathedral. The cathedral had been the form for the preservation of human thought for centuries. “In those ages, whoever was born a poet,” Hugo wrote, “became an architect.”

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices.

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Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it – from Hugo, with his mammoth of a novel, to Disney’s animated gargoyles. It was a living document, where stories were still legible – some troubling, some amusing, many extraordinarily beautiful.

Time is a distance that can be traversed by places that remain powerfully still. Like the moon visible from two distant points at once, Notre Dame is a rare edifice that is fixed, on which our eyes can meet across the expanse of time, that we can discuss with the long-dead. Mark Twain marveled at the carvings on its facade, writing in 1869′s The Innocents Abroad that “These battered and broken-nosed old fellows saw many and many a cavalcade of mail-clad knights come marching home from Holy Land; they heard the bells above them toll the signal for the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, and they saw the slaughter that followed; later they saw the Reign of Terror, the carnage of the Revolution, the overthrow of a king, the coronation of two Napoleons, the christening of the young prince that lords it over a regiment of servants in the Tuileries today – and they may possibly continue to stand there until they see the Napoleon dynasty swept away and the banners of a great republic floating above its ruins.”

There is something numinous about any human document that survives a sufficient length of time. A cave painting, a tablet. Simply by virtue of enduring they acquire new and unlooked-for meanings. Mona Lisa appears on T-shirts, in music, in movies. Shakespeare mutates and transforms and multiplies with the modifications of generations of minds. Things last because they acquire new meaning and they continue to acquire new meaning because they last.

This is a source of optimism. We can only travel so far across time, these artifacts inform us, but it is possible to send words into the void, written in ink or in pixels or in stone. To build is always an act of hope, of faith that the unexpected good will continue to happen. Yet so much does endure. We begin to forget what a miracle it is that anything is here -- a church, a forest, a system of government.

Perhaps the fragility of the durable should be more readily apparent. Nothing is so instantly and painfully scarce as that which used to seem ubiquitous and permanent – the song that one day seems on the radio everywhere, then soon is confined forever to that summer; the toddler spilling beans all over your Facebook feed; Blockbuster Video; Borders Bookstore; your face. You see these things every day; there is no need to capture them. The cathedral looms permanently over the city; it is almost too obvious. You need not capture something so present. Then in an instant the permanent vanishes, and the ephemera is what endures.

This is why Hugo thought the book would destroy the cathedral. “Now, what immortality is more precarious than that of a manuscript? But a building is quite another book, a substantial and durable one.” Yet the book has not destroyed the cathedral. It has helped save it, has helped make it worth preserving. “In printed form thought is more imperishable than ever: it is volatile, intangible, indestructible; it is in the air we breathe. In the days of architecture, thought became a mountain, and boldly possessed itself of an age or a place. Now it becomes a flock of birds that scatter themselves unto the four winds of heaven, and occupy at once every point of air and space.” And in it, once more, we find the cathedral, preserved in ink, ready to be rebuilt.

Read more:

Stephen Stromberg: Notre Dame Cathedral will rise again. But it will never be the same.

Erika Mailman: I watched Notre Dame burn. But I know Paris will always endure.

The Post’s View: The world weeps for Notre Dame

Matthew Gabriele: Fire was the scourge of medieval cathedrals. But they rebuilt from the ashes.