Not every society has symbols that tell a story far beyond their original intent; buildings or monuments so polished by time that they have transcended the political or religious objectives behind their inception.
America still has none. It may have many statements of intent — the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Monument, or even Washington’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall — but these seem national IOUs, more like works name-checking promises as yet undelivered and remote.
That country, or at least today’s superpower version of it, is too young to have such a layered backstory.
In an Irish context, Dublin’s GPO might be offered as an example but its relevance relies on events far too recent, far too unsettled be so elevated. Gallarus Oratory, Newgrange, or the magnificent Clonmacnoise — other ancient sites too — might qualify in terms of age but their context is so narrow, so reliant on a specific achievement as to confine them to a particular strand, a limited telling of our past.
They do not, as Paris’ Notre Dame did before it was razed, speak of many things to many peoples. The cathedral was a symbol of France, a symbol of Europe and, ultimately, a symbol of our world and our enduring, struggling place in it.
The backdrop in millions of tourists’ photographs, almost since photography began, it has stood on its island site since the 12th century. It withstood revolution, plagues, sieges, two world wars, and that adds to its lustre, a lustre that shines far, far brighter than the sum of its parts.
This has been reflected in the reactions to its destruction, reactions that in a strange way may enhance the power of the for-now destroyed symbol. Its destruction may strengthen it.
In powerful expressions of solidarity MEPs and European Commission and European Council leaders yesterday pledged to make the rebuilding of Notre Dame a European project.
Donations flooded in. Billionaire François Pinault pledged €100m. Not to be outdone, a rival Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man, said he would give €200m. Vanity can have positive consequences.
These are the positive reactions, the ones that will prevail but inevitably others tried to exploit the catastrophe by making connections that do not exist.
Germany’s far-right AfD tried to link the fire to “rising intolerance” against Christians in Europe, even though investigators believe the inferno was an accident. AfD leader Alice Weidel implied a connection between the blaze and anti-Christian “attacks” in France.
Even if her shameful remarks are barely a footnote in the making, they should energise the common purpose Europe can bring to the restoration project — one that has the capacity to tell a story far beyond its original intent and, as a secondary consequence highlight the abject pettiness of thought, the betrayal of collegiality and ambition, dishonesty too, driving Brexit.
This tragedy comes as the solidarity of Europe is strained in a way not seen for generations. As any leader of a struggling cause will confirm, a rallying point can become a turning point.
It may be fanciful to imagine the restoration of Notre Dame offers such an opportunity — but that would grossly underestimate the uplifting power of symbolism.
In this case, symbolism almost a millennium in the making.