THE SOUL of a city resides in its structures as well as in its history and people, so it is no overstatement to say that what Paris was losing Monday was not just an architectural icon but a piece of its soul. As much as the Eiffel Tower, and for well more than half a millennium longer, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has stood stolid and graceful at the very heart of the City of Light, a beacon for people of every country, drawn for centuries to its magnificent Gothic portico.
The fire consuming Notre Dame leaves an untreatable wound — for Parisians, first and foremost; for the French; and for the countless millions of visitors who have stood gaping from every angle at the old cathedral’s flying buttresses, its elegant spire, the sublime festival of light admitted by its 13th century stained glass rose windows. Its transcendent, timeless beauty acted as a magnet: It was difficult to look away. Now it will be painful to take in the ruins without averting one’s gaze.
The cathedral’s magnetic effect was a concentrated version of Paris’s own. A quarter of a century ago, Russians, allowed for the first time to travel abroad following the Soviet Union’s collapse, flocked to apply for passports and visas, usually with just one destination in mind. When they reached the French capital, many made a beeline to Notre Dame, there to have their breath taken away. Walking in its exterior and interior shadows, some said, was like inhabiting a dream come true.
We can hope for a miracle of reconstruction, but for now that living dream, shared by so many for so long, lives mainly in memory. Notre Dame, suffused with history, gave the impression of man-made permanence. Kings and queens were crowned and married there. Napoleon and his wife Josephine were among those crowned at the altar, in their case with Pope Pius VII officiating. It was neither as old as the pyramids, nor as mysterious as Stonehenge, but every bit as enduring and indelible. Or so we thought.
The world weeps for Notre Dame, and for Paris.