April 16, 2019
My doorbell rang insistently. It was my father. “Notre Dame is on fire,” he said through the intercom. I rushed downstairs. “It’s burning to the ground,” he said. I was speechless.
He had been evacuated. He had not brought his phone or his glasses. “You’ll stay with me,” I said. He wanted to go home. He lives by the cathedral. It has been part of his daily life for 20 years. My grandfather gave a recital there once, when I was a child, playing the organ in the stone platform above the West portal. Inevitably, I think of him whenever I hear that organ. (Thankfully, the organ has been saved.)
We walked toward his home together. It was horrible to see. The spire was no longer there. How could that be? It’s always there, rising against a stormy horizon or a clear morning, juxtaposed against the sky. It will always be there, even when we’re long gone, a permanent thing in an impermanent world. But it isn’t. My grandfather is in that cathedral, somehow, and my father will be, too, and somehow, like this, civilization endures. But it doesn’t.
The police wouldn’t allow us back. They were worried that the fire would spread to the neighboring buildings, or that parts of the cathedral would collapse on top of them. So we stood across the Seine and watched it burn, the forest of symbols that had gazed on us with familiar glances.
A pitiful parabola of water from the fire trucks disappeared into the flames. Like everyone, we were stupefied. “Do you want a drink?” My father asked.“No. Do you?”
Someone tried to rally our spirits by singing the Marseillaise. No one joined the chorus. I felt terrible. I joined him. Together we sang the first words:
There are no words for it. I said to my father that the cathedral is always the metaphor; we compare things to cathedrals; what do you say when the cathedral itself burns before your eyes?
“It’s a bad omen.”
I've walked past that cathedral so many times and thought, “That will be here even when we’ve all turned to dust.”
Later in the evening, the firefighters’ spokesman warned that they might not be able to save any of it. It might all burn to the ground. I thought of everything in the cathedral.
Medieval cathedrals are designed for the illiterate; everything in them, however seemingly trivial, is meant to aid the memory. The cruciform shape, the statues, the altars and reliquaries, the chapels and windows, the asps and the gargoyles, the Stations of the Cross—cathedrals are memory-palaces, every detail meant to allow everyone who sees them, everyone, to understand and remember the story they tell. The medievals’ assumptions about the human mind and memory are the opposite of the principles that rule the Internet. Yet they work extremely well. I can’t stop remembering everything in the cathedral.
In 1904, Marcel Proust published La mort des cathédrales. If the French Republic were to be secularized, he asked, what would become of the cathedrals, the highest achievement of French art and civilization? Proust himself was agnostic, but he well understood how inextricable the cathedrals and their rites were from French civilization. “Never has a sight comparable to such a giant mirror of knowledge, of the soul, and of history as this been presented to man’s eyes and understanding,” he wrote of the medieval cathedral.
Had he seen what I saw, I’m sure he would have conceded that becoming a museum piece was not the worst fate that could befall a cathedral.
I brought my father back to my place to sleep. My cats curled in his arms to comfort him. The horrible sight reminded him, he said, of the lines at the end of Brideshead Revisited, from Lamentations. He couldn’t remember them exactly, and neither could I. “Civitas, civitas,” he fretted, until he fell asleep.
We both slept badly. This morning, the police allowed him to return to his apartment. It was undamaged. The wind had been blowing in the other direction. He sent me the words for which he had been groping: Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium; princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo (How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!).
Claire Berlinski, a City Journal contributing editor, is a freelance writer who lives in Paris.