The world, where horrible things happen every day, is in mourning — not for flesh and blood, but for centuries’ worth of stone, glass and wood.
Something about the burning of Notre Dame has engendered a flood of elegies. Those who are not sharing their own stories of Paris’s charred cathedral, it seems, are reading those of others. Why is this loss so affecting? What is it about a building, and about this building in particular, that generates the tide of tears, tweets, reflections and charitable contributions? All this for a French Catholic church, much of it from people who aren’t Catholic and who aren’t even French.
The answer might be buried in the bigger mystery of Monday’s tragedy: The flames that engulfed the cathedral’s roof Monday evening and then burned into the night were probably an accident.
Eight hundred and fifty-six years of history aren’t really enough to explain why we are mourning Notre Dame, en masse and especially publicly, even as we fail to mourn so much else. It is as if every politician, every celebrity, every classmate on our Facebook feeds has had the need to tell us they’re crying, too. It’s as if every columnist — including, yes, this one — has been moved to craft a meditation.
Some say we’re attached to old things, because they reassure us that the fact that everyone dies doesn’t mean that everything dies with them. Continuity is comforting. The idea that we are connected to those before and after us by the structures that survive us all acts as an anchor when life surges by too fast. Yes, landmarks similarly saturated with history as Notre Dame are dying, too, as we watch in relative silence: Aleppo’s ancient quarters were built over millennia, and destroying it meant destroying what the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and more had each built during their rule; Yemen’s architectural history is still under siege. But, to the Western world, whose television and computer screens are saturated with images of a crumbling spire today, those cities are the other and Paris is us. We’re too solipsistic to muster the same degree of grief.
Some say also that we’re able to speak so much more freely and with so much more artistic feeling about Notre Dame’s almost-demise than we usually do about human death because a building is simpler to transform into a symbol than people are. The children starving while Yemen’s history is blown apart, the victims of the mass shootings that have become routine here at home, even the Londoners who died in another fire almost two years ago in Grenfell Tower, can’t be abstracted into gauzy tales of tourism or ruminations on the passage of time. Trying to pretend we understand, not to mention turning that understanding into a thinkpiece, risks offending those who loved those who were lost. After all, they’re well aware that most of us don’t understand at all.
Neither of these explanations for the reaction to what happened in Paris this week is wrong. In fact, they’re probably both right. But there’s also more to the story.
The other ancient cities that have been razed, the people who have died in the course of their razing, the deaths that have resulted from other tragedies significant enough to catch the globe’s notice — most of them were not random. Notre Dame’s ignition, it seems, was.
Accidents push us to find meaning where none is at the ready. They also take the politics out of the problem and allow universality to creep in. We couldn’t all stand so comfortably together in support of Paris if some of us, or if someone believing in something we believed in, had stabbed it in the heart. Nor could we if someone were blaming us for a stabbing we didn’t commit.
Most of all, an accident removes the ugliness. So many of today’s tragedies are things we do to ourselves, or to each other. The universe’s ability blithely to ruin something people labored for years to protect might be harder to comprehend than humans’ ability to hurt other humans, but it is also easier to talk about. Notre Dame is famous for witnessing and withstanding upheavals from a revolution to world war. Today, upheaval and ugliness seem like the status quo. It’s painful to talk about everything we’re getting wrong, and preferable, if awfully bittersweet, to talk about something we got right.
Notre Dame was a palimpsest of civilization — layers upon layers of humanity, each built on top of what came before it to make something new and old all at once. It was, and it still is, beautiful. When we cry over it, we’re also congratulating ourselves that it exists at all.