It is a tragedy when an iconic site or building is destroyed. The recent case of the fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is no exception. It is not the first-time, throughout its long history of over 850 years, that part of the edifice was destroyed by fire. If only the stones can speak and cry out it may point to neglect, disrepair, and a history of high and low moments. No wonder Victor Hugo made the site his main character in his classic Notre Dame de Paris. To a lesser extent – others like Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud also pontificated on Notre Dame.
The fire that claimed a good chunk of this totemic symbol of French-ness with all its ambiguities has seen all sorts of emotions and sentiments come to the fore. Pundits and commentators of every colour and ideological stripe reeled views on the value of this icon and the need to rebuild. Some even struggle to find words to describe the religious and miraculous, having become so secularised in their outlook. Few lone voices here and there dare to offer a view against the general grain of intense attention and fuss around the disaster, while there are more pressing things to address at home in France and around the world. Will this be an escape opportunity for Macron, from the rebellion at home?
As the smoke cleared and media interest moved to the next burning issue, one is struck by the fact that this iconic – building was in dire need of repairs (before the fire) and struggling to find funds for its refurbishment. If as Macron declared: “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events”, why more care was not given to it? Or is this the way neo-liberal capitalist religion (with Macron one of its many high priests) treats its own history and psyche?
Ironically, during and after the fire, money and pledges towards the vast sums now needed, poured in like baskets filled with fresh croissants in a local bakery. Money talks, rarely gives itself away – except when something close to us, our nation and souls are affected and need it. Or is it a business and political opportunity? This may sound cynical. But the ease with which large pledged sums rolled out in the immediacy of the fire from the 1%, may cause some to consider a miracle. Are these born-again philanthropists, now springing up like daffodils, moved by a sense of the common good? Maybe.
Perhaps Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud may have insights to help the French make good out of this. Hugo, for instance, observed that “there is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul”. That should be a warning, lest we re-create something soul-less. Maybe we wish to heed Proust who urged that “we must never be afraid to go too far, for truth lies beyond”. What truth will a refurbished Cathedral help us step out into the unknown to seek? And as Proust also intimated all “voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”. So, what new eyes, hearts, minds will the French (and all of us) deploy to see beyond? Freud also reminds us “the first requisite of civilization is that of justice”. How will a rebuilt Notre Dame help in a nation’s soul-searching around living out its mantra of liberté, égalité, fraternité? How will it help in a collective exorcising of past and current demons and to what ends? In this iconic structure, how the past is produced, consumed, internalized, and acted upon will no doubt remain a rich and exciting challenge for France.
It would be a lost opportunity should this recent tragedy not make us more conscious of the many other historic structures around the world that have been destroyed and are at risk to be destroyed because of ignorance, malice, greed, fundamentalism of all sorts, and deliberate erasure. There is not better way to wrap chains around a people than through erasure or programmed selective remembering. As the late Elie Wiesel wrote: “without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future”. The rebuilding must be about the future: not le future (Derrida) which is about programmed, prescribed and predictable extending the way things currently are into the future. It must be about the ‘to come future’ – l’avenir (Derrida) – that which is unpredictable and cannot be anticipated.
April 19, 2019