On April 15, 2019 — Holy Monday — a fire broke out in Notre-Dame de Paris.
After raging pitilessly for five hours, two-thirds of the most famous cathedral in the world was gone forever including Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s spire; a 13th century roof — “the forest,” so called for the amount of timber it took to build it; and reliquaries, statuary, and sacred art by the score.
Parisian firefighters, honored with a task at once noble and impossible, managed to save a sizable portion of the primary structure, the Rose windows, the great organ (known as “the voice”), and two iconic bell towers — those dual “symphonies in stone” where Claude Frollo ogled Esmeralda into earthly damnation but not before driving her blindly into the fusty chambers of Quasimodo’s decaying heart.
Twenty-one months later, an international team of scientists, architects, artists, and historians, having lost valuable time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are accelerating efforts to build a historically accurate reproduction of the cathedral — a task that could cost anywhere from “$1.13 billion to $2.3 billion” when it is completed.
Her name and address will be the same, but a hard and painful fact also remains: Our version of Notre-Dame was destroyed at the beginning of Holy Week two years ago — a week that concluded six days later with a celebration of resurrection, but not hers.
Death by Restoration
Her fiery demise could have happened at any point in her 860-year history.
There have been plenty of close calls since 1163 when Notre-Dame de Paris on the Île de la Cité began to rise from the remains of a sixth century church — holy ground since the Romans worshipped Jupiter from his eponymous temple on the very same site.
Our Lady withstood an occupation by the English, “les goddams,” during the 100 Years War; endured decades of internecine conflicts; battering sieges and famine induced riots. She held during The Fronde; stood firm throughout the major revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848; escaped the wrath of the Prussians in 1815 when they marched into the city with an ungodly vengeance after vanquishing Napoleon I at Waterloo — and whose bloody hands were stayed only by the cooler heads of their British allies.
She avoided destruction by the Prussians again in 1870. And (again) in 1914.
Though his last order of business in Paris was to put torch to everything in the City of Light, Hitler, nor any of his timorous generals, could do Our Lady the slightest harm.
This seeming invincibility is unsurprising.
The original cathedral was conceived, developed, and built at a time when men conceived, developed, and built things to last; before men learned to build only that which can — and must — be destroyed; before men realized that the process of building could be far more profitable, hence more valuable, than a thing built.
Her legendary stone came from far away quarries, delivered to the Île de la Cité in carts or on the backs of man and beast, as man and beast had been serving up stone to master builders at least since the time of the Egyptians.
She underwent several restorations and endured not a few facelifts in successive centuries. The cathedral even survived a minor fire or two. But as a the line of kings, emperors, presidents, premiers, and occupiers conga’d by her, some version of Our Lady of Paris held fast.
In the end, she was laid low not by riotous peasants or Henri IV’s protestants; not by anti-clerical Jacobins, Bonapartists, Republicans, or three different generations of war-horny Prussians; not by Communard or Nazi. She was destroyed in large part on our watch, in our lifetime, accidentally by an electrical short in the midst of what was supposed to be a fairly routine restoration of the spire — Viollet-le-Duc’s 1859 replica that replaced the original, which was constructed in the 13th century.
This was not death by desecration or dilapidation. This was death by rehabilitation.
The ashes beneath the rubble on the Île de la Cité are no longer hot to the touch; gone is the miasma of fumes, soot, and smoke.
The work of a determined, international cabal of experts — and more than a little help from AI —is resuming at a furious pace to fulfill President Macron’s decree that a new Notre-Dame will be completed by 2024 just in time for the Paris Summer Olympics.
One has no doubt that a cathedral will reopen in a few years but it won’t be Notre-Dame de Paris.
She has died many deaths over many years, well before a stray, electrical spark set fire to her latest facsimile, burning out the gothic structure until it, literally, teetered on the brink of “possible collapse.”
Alistair Horne reminds us in his excellent Seven Ages of Paris that much of what visitors have seen over the last 200 hundred years was “the legacy of the nineteenth-century gothic medieval restorer — or vandal, depending on the point of view — Viollet le Duc…even the 28 Kings of Judah on the great western facade, destroyed by revolutionary zealots, are reproductions of [Maurice de] Sully’s originals.”
When the cathedral is unveiled, we shall behold a new, commercially consecrated edifice thanks to the tens of millions of euros donated by companies such as LVMH, Kering, and JCDecaux. The doors of a reproduction of a reproduction will be reopened, and the world will sing Te Deums to something that isn’t really there.
For many of us that will be OK. As Jack Gilbert teaches us in his poem The Lost Hotels of Paris:
“We look up at the stars and they are not there. We see the memory of when they were, once upon a time. And that too is more than enough.”
Still, each successive iteration of Notre-Dame carries us farther and farther away from Sully’s original vision — and away from the point of why it was built in the first place: as a place for the faithful to worship God, not the architectural wizardry of Man, or the magnanimity of magnates.
Soon, all that will be left is a copy of a copy (of a copy); hailed as an original, which is tantamount to claiming a photograph of a wedding cake is the cake itself.
The last copy, our copy of Our Lady of Paris, is gone.
And for that, we can blame Victor Hugo who tempted Fate by merely invoking its name.
Billion Dollar Shadow
After Maurice de Sully, the man who conceived and built the Notre-Dame of the 13th century, Hugo is perhaps the one person who is most synonymous with the cathedral. It was Hugo who gave us the masterpiece, Notre-Dame de Paris (retitled The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), in which he rebuilt Sully’s cathedral, word by word, in the 4th arrondissement our minds, and populated it with some of literature’s most venerable characters.
But as Hugo makes it clear — quite clear — in the Author’s Preface, his book was named for the cathedral but written upon the idea behind a single word: Fate which, he claims, he found etched in Greek (ἀνάγκη) in a dark corner of one of the cathedral’s bell towers while “rummaging” around.
Although 463 pages of the book are dedicated to means, Hugo was only concerned with ends, and the powerlessness of mortals — and, in this case cathedrals —to alter them.
As movingly and vividly as many of the scenes are crafted, as only a man of Hugo’s superlative genius could craft them, there is nothing in the book that is as stirring as the final lines of Hugo’s preface:
“There exists no other trace than this mysterious word [“fate”] inscribed in a dark tower of Notre-Dame. Nothing else remains of the unknowable fate that this word summarized so tragically. The man who wrote this word on the wall disappeared many centuries ago, the word in its turn has disappeared from the wall of the church, the church itself will perhaps soon disappear from the face of the earth.”
This wasn’t a dedication. This was a death sentence.
Hugo’s antagonist in Notre-Dame de Paris, Claude Frollo, declares at one point that “the book will kill the building.”
He was not referring to any one book. He was speaking, generally, of the invention of the printing press, something that was capable of wrenching our imaginations and averting our eyes away from actual, physical edifices — man-made wonders like Notre-Dame.
And in the process betraying us to the publishers of mass produced, commercially sold books about those wonders. Like the very book in which Frollo lives and breathes. (One hears the same lamentations about those pervasive hand-held devices in this century, which prevent us from enjoying to the fullest a rich, non-mediated reality beyond the persistent glow of our smartphones.)
Hugo predicted that books outlive buildings simply because they are not as susceptible to the fates as the latter, specifically the ravages of Time and mankind: “Wrinkles and warts on the skin — these are the work of Time; wounds, contusions, fractures — these are the work of revolutions from Luther to Mirabeau,” he writes.
He knew that neither Time nor humans would cease to “vandalize” the great cathedral; he knew that, in the end, all wonders of the world are destroyed — accidentally or as victims in the great, unending tragedy of progress in which humans are both heroes and villains — thus paving the way to a glorious epoch of myth and legend when all that is remembered is only that which can be imagined.
When all that is built is not fit to be ruins.
Whether it was hubris or simple, sober reasoning, Hugo knew his literary wonder of the world, Notre-Dame de Paris, would outlive and outshine the grand and glorious mutation of Sully’s making — if one does not include Disney’s effort to diminish it through vapid, yet undeniably popular, interpretations.
Even if Hugo’s classic falls from favor with one generation, it can always be rediscovered whole and intact in book form by others.
He must have known, also, that for his work to become a touchstone of western literature; and to acquire even more power as an equally venerable, yet secure and indestructible sanctuary within our imaginations — where it is, to this day, free from all earthly harm — the physical structure would one day have to go.
Hugo wasn’t exactly rooting for Notre-Dame’s total destruction, but he was counting on it.
This is the true and hardly surprising inevitability that explains Hugo’s obsession with the word “fate,” the rock upon which his church was built.
As his lady is just as much Our Lady as Sully’s lady ever was, we are permitted to carry Hugo’s immutable Notre-Dame with us wherever we go: in a backpack, on a Kindle or Nook, in our minds, and forever in our hearts, while the other Notre-Dame stands as a billion dollar shadow of a shadow of something that was and, beyond the sceptered realm of human imagination, will never be again.