A friend texted me: Notre Dame is on fire. At first, it didn’t seem important. You imagined a small blaze, easily contained, and brigades of firefighters extinguishing it efficiently.
The images on television told another story.
The footage was mystical and beautiful in a terrible way. It was if Bosch had decided to go into video — the flying buttresses, the lace work sculptures, the towers themselves lit up by tongues of fire, and swathed in cinders and smoke that flared yellow and gray. A vision of hell as Dante-esque as anything he wrote, images so beyond our time that it staggered the imagination. You couldn’t believe it was happening at all, let alone now, in real life and not in a nightmare of, say, François Villon.
At yet, it was live, in the very moment that I saw it on television.
It’s liveness, it’s thundering out in real time made it even more excruciating. Initially, you wondered where the firefighters were. Why doesn’t someone do something?
Then grief scorched, grief rained down, grief made its home. Because if Notre Dame could burn and fall, then what in the world is safe?
Not flesh. We learn that. But not stone, either, not books or relics. You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continued existence of a cathedral that survived revolutions, wars, neglect and even the Nazis. Even the tourists. Because part of the sheer power of Notre Dame is that even when swarmed by murmuring tourists shooting away with their cameras, it still holds magic and sends you someplace transcendent.
I spent many hours there over what has become decades. Nearly all the film photos I took on my first trip to Paris were images of Notre Dame. It seemed to call for at least that sort of homage. I visited its towers, the narrow spiral staircase like a birth canal shooting up and then out above the city. I went to mass, huddled on its pews when I was emulating Rimbaud, took my children there. (My son, then three, was so overwhelmed that when the organist made a crashing chord, he made me take him out of there. Terror and beauty, as Rilke said, are close.)
The sense that this inferno held some message washed over nearly everyone who saw it — maybe a remnant of the time when it was made and locked in the lead and wood released a deep superstitious dread. God’s judgment is upon us. Or, even worse, Mother Mary finally lost patience. Our Lady is infuriated, and is smiting her own altar with smoke and fire. It’s because of those raping pedophile priests.
Some people saw visions in the flames. They said martyrs and saints appeared. Others saw Mary. Others saw Satan.
Some sang hymns. You watched them, probably, on cable news which suddenly turned into a branch of L’Osservatore Romano. The Crown of Thorns has been saved!
Then sorrow. As when a loved one goes, we think of all the times we could have visited, but didn’t. How we took her presence, not for granted, exactly, but just part of life. Part of the skyline, ready for another picture, another tour group.
Threatened with its disappearance, she becomes suddenly all the more precious.
I was already in a tenderized state. Worked over. The anniversary of my mother’s death loomed, and the simmering sense of her loss, and of other, lesser griefs, had been lurking in the background. I was about as low as I’d ever been.
The next days, I joined the throngs on the banks of the Seine, looking over at the now roofless cathedral. You’d see the same set of emotions on many faces: worry and concern and then relief. Sort of like visiting a dear one who’s had a major surgery in the hospital.
Like some peasant looking at a Roman ruin, we goggle and stare and wonder, how did men make this? Could we?
And we know that we can’t. We have the technology, maybe, but not the vision. Something that old and beautiful can’t be replaced, even if we could make another beautiful building — which is doubtful.
Restoration and rebuilding were announced almost immediately, and the donations are rolling in.
But maybe we should leave it as it, roofless, ready to fall into ruins. Grass and weeds might take over, graffiti surely will. A sci-fi goth, post punk embodiment of our century.