In light of the fire that consumed the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, we try to understand the reason for the sorrow we feel: what happens when an eternal symbol of human greatness is suddenly erased?
On the evening of 14th April, a fire flared up in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the majestic symbol of Paris, France.
As captured by the media, the flames started in the attic, spread to the wooden roof (which dated back to the 12thcentury), and then consumed the 19th-century spire that finally collapsed in on itself.
The cathedral was being restructured and the first reports argue that the fire might have arisen from the reconstruction site surrounding the roof of the cathedral.
Regarding the event itself, there is really nothing more to say.
We will now instead reflect on the public reaction following the tragic event.
Unsurprisingly, the news of the disaster has quickly spread. On Twitter, the hashtag #NotreDame has reached a huge number of re-tweets within a few hours after the accident.
Scrolling through the Facebook feed, the platform was overloaded with pictures and videos of the flaming spire, miserable comments about the accident and prophetic quotes by Victor Hugo, who predicted the catastrophe in his novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” back in the 19th century (1).
In response to the multitude of reports, the very first reaction I experienced was rejection. Do all these people really care about Notre-Dame? To me, it sounded pathetic.
The following question kept popping up in my mind: is it hypocritical to show compassion and regret for the devastation of a monument that I hardly ever think about?
When we share and re-tweet reports of such dramatic events, are we actually caring about them or just pretending to care?
After I watched a video capturing the fall of the spire again, a part of me sincerely felt devastated.
In this scenario, someone could argue that the feeling of sorrow is caused by the loss of the inestimable artistic value: we feel bad because a great product of human creativity has been lost. However, in order to perceive such a condition and to deeply suffer for the lost art, we should either be artists ourselves, or at least we should sincerely be passionate and dedicated to the discipline.
And among all the people that posted and tweeted about the event, I am rather sure only a small proportion of them actually falls into this category.
I finally made my personal thoughts on the matter concrete: I do not think about Notre-Dame every day, because Notre-Dame is a given. There is no way it could just disappear without notice, as the very idea of its absence is unimaginable. Similar to the Statue of Liberty or the Colosseum, Notre-Dame is irremovable from our imaginations. It is an anchor for western civilization.
When a symbol of human eternity burns, we tremble. When we realize that even Notre-Dame can be touched by contingent events, we start – again – to feel our embedded fragility and mortality.
Despite their apparent solidity, symbols of human grandeur will eventually fall. And we, humans, will fall as well.
- Hugo, V., “Notre-Dame de Paris”, 1831.