Notre Dame inferno: The very heart of France has been set ablaze

Notre Dame cathedral ablaze in Paris on Monday. The 12-hour fire destroyed its spire and its roof, but not its twin medieval bell towers. The Crown of Thorns purportedly worn by Jesus was rescued. Picture: AP /Thierry Mallet

Notre-Dame’s fragility reminds us of the EU’s. We must rebuild both, says Bernard-Henri Lévy

AS I write this, from Berlin, in Germany, I am prostrate before the images of fire, devastation, and ash engulfing Notre Dame de Paris, ‘Our Lady of Paris’.

She is a treasure of civilisation, both for those who believe in heaven and for those who do not. She represents the Europe of beauty, of holy hopes, of greatness and gentility. Like you, like everyone, I am heartbroken.

Debris inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris after the blaze was quenched. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP
Debris inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris after the blaze was quenched. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

The tragedy invokes a slew of memories. Victor Hugo’s immortalisation of the cathedral in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, of course, comes to mind. So, too, does the verse of Louis Aragon: “Nothing is as strong, not fire, not lightning, As my Paris defying danger, Nothing is as beautiful as this Paris of mine.”

Firefighters atop the 12th century Notre Dame cathedral. Picture: AP /Francois Mori
Firefighters atop the 12th century Notre Dame cathedral. Picture: AP /Francois Mori

One also recalls an opening line from poet Charles Baudelaire: “I am beautiful, O mortals, like a dream in stone.” It was not written about Notre Dame, but it certainly could have been.

The memories extend well beyond the written word.

The cathedral itself has borne witness to centuries of French history, including episodes that are now the stuff of legend.

It has stood with France through its mystic knighthood, in its glory and in its gloom. I think of the mass in celebration of Paris’s liberation in 1944, and of a younger sister’s conversion there.

Nearly $1bn has poured in from the ordinary and from the rich to restore Notre Dame cathedral. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena
Nearly $1bn has poured in from the ordinary and from the rich to restore Notre Dame cathedral. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena

I weep with her, as I weep with all Christians who have had to watch their visible church go up in smoke, the plume perhaps taking a part of their invisible church with it.

The next morning, I think of Notre Dame as the France of the Resistance. She embodies the Gothic holiness and tranquility of the Seine. She is faith and beauty made manifest.

French firefighters battling the blaze, which broke out on Monday. Picture: Douhard/Paris Firefighters via AP
French firefighters battling the blaze, which broke out on Monday. Picture: Douhard/Paris Firefighters via AP

And, of course, the words of Hugo and Aragon are still there, dancing in my insomniac head. I ask myself how I will face the day. How will we face tomorrow? Hugo supplies the answer: “Time is the architect, but the people are the mason.”

The cathedral’s windows survived the fire. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP
The cathedral’s windows survived the fire. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

By noon, I can only hope that the fire is completely out. For a Parisian, it is torture to see the looped images of the city’s heart being gripped by the violence of the flames.

More than a church has fallen. In a way, Notre Dame is the soul of humanity itself, and a piece of that humanity has now been scarred.

We Parisians believed our venerable lady to be immortal. Yet, there she slumps, wounded and helpless against fate, as were we all while watching the inferno.

Yet, in the wake of those sorrowful images has come a wave of fellow feeling.

French president, Emmanuel Macron, addressing the nation. He wants the cathedral restored in five years. Picture: Yoan Valat, via AP
French president, Emmanuel Macron, addressing the nation. He wants the cathedral restored in five years. Picture: Yoan Valat, via AP

Italians, Swedes, Irish, Spaniards, Chinese, Algerians — all have joined in communion with the people of France. As after an attack, all are saying, “Je suis Paris.”

Finally, in burning, Notre Dame reminds us of the fragility of our history and heritage, of the precariousness of what we have built, and of the finite nature of millennial Europe, homeland of the arts, to which Notre-Dame is one of the loftiest testaments.

Looking ahead, what are we to think? What should we do? We must hope that Notre Dame’s sacrifice will awaken slumbering consciences; that, through this disaster, people will realise that Europe is Notre Dame writ large.

Paris city hall photo shows artefacts rescued from the Notre-Dame blaze. Picture: Henri Garat/Ville de Paris via AP
Paris city hall photo shows artefacts rescued from the Notre-Dame blaze. Picture: Henri Garat/Ville de Paris via AP

More than a political union, it is a great work of art, a brilliant bastion of shared intelligence, but also home to an endangered legacy.

That legacy is too important to lose. We cannot allow pyromaniacs to divide the people of Europe. We must remember that we, together, are builders of temples and palaces, creators of beauty. That is the lesson of Notre Dame in this Holy Week.

Firefighters survey damage atop a tower of Notre Dame cathedral. Picture: AP /Francois Mori
Firefighters survey damage atop a tower of Notre Dame cathedral. Picture: AP /Francois Mori

French president, Emmanuel Macron, who, for two years, has appealed for unity in rebuilding Europe, now is appealing for unity in rebuilding Notre Dame.

Together, we must restore the heart of France. My literary review, La Règle du Jeu, will contribute to the national fund for that purpose. I urge all readers to do the same. We, the people, are the masons.

A hole in the dome inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP
A hole in the dome inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the ‘Nouveaux Philosophes’ (New Philosophers) movement. He is the author, most recently, of The Empire and the Five Kings.Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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