When NPR reported Notre Dame was on fire, unreality descended.
I wouldn’t have been more shocked had they said the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the Golden Gate bridge all simultaneously crumbled to ruin. I felt like one of those people in the French crowds, gazing at the blaze in disbelief and mourning.
But why? I’ve never been to France and have no connection with the country. I’ve never viewed the Cathedral of Notre Dame except in pictures (and movies and songs and literature). In fact, when we studied medieval cathedrals in Art History class, I concluded they were ugly heaps (assembled in random-ish manner over hundreds of years as architectural styles changed). And that they were … just plain wrong.
Who could read the bible and imagine Jesus smiling his approval of costly monuments to pope and church?
And me? I dislike all big, institutional buildings that are blatantly designed to intimidate the rubes. That includes every gigantic ersatz-Grecian pile in Washington, DC, and certainly Notre Dame with its facade conveying the beastly Last Judgment to the then-illiterate, pope-ridden, and terrified peasants of medieval France.
So why did I join millions of others in giving such a damn when Notre Dame burned?
Partly it was the sheer age and solidity of the thing. All that stone. Even the wooden roof was ancient oak, strong as iron. If Notre Dame can be destroyed in an afternoon, my heart told me, then anything can be destroyed — just that fast.
And one day, perhaps soon, some great cultural symbol will fall, and its country won’t have the resources to rebuild it. (This is already happening in the Middle East, but that region was already a hopeless case; I’m talking about the fabled and vital West.)
As the cathedral burned I feared for the foundations of our civilization.
Notre Dame will be rebuilt. It won’t be restored in five years, as Macron ridiculously hopes. The claim that the main building was “saved” may be technically true, but the photos say that’s an overstatement.
Still, the wealthy of France and the rest of the world have already pledged well over half a billion Euros to get the job done.
We’ll see how those pledges hold up in the messy reality of bickering, bureaucracy, and lawsuits bound to follow the burning. But today isn’t the day that a monument — or the civilization it represents — will fall and lie forever in ruins.
I couldn’t get my mind off the cultural tragedy, the inconceivable thought that this “forever” building that had stood 900 years was half gone in a few hours.
So I stopped at the library and after watching videos of the conflagration and looking at images of the “800 year old” spire leaning toward its collapse, I hit Wikipedia — and immediately found perspective.
It turns out the “800 year old” spire was actually … Victorian. It was built to replace an original one that was long gone by the nineteenth century.
And Notre Dame’s been severely damaged and repaired before. Both time and the French Revolution did terrible things to it, but it came back to stand once again as the historical center and literal focal point of France.
The fire is only the latest assault on its permanency.
My trip to Wikipedia led down an Internet rabbit hole. I wandered from Notre Dame to the Cathar heresy, to the Discalced Carmelites, St. Colette of Corbie, the Colettine Poor Clares, Clare Offreduccio, the Beguines (not the dance music but the short-lived European communities of non-nuns), the Huguenots, Calvinism, and the mad religious wars of the Reformation.
Other than the Beguines, these were all topics I knew something about in my past but had let slip away. As with giving up home Internet, I think my sanity is improved by not knowing much about them now.
I despised history as it was taught in school — a snoozefest of memorization, and not even memorization of interesting facts. Nothing but kings and generals and dates and always those weird statist notions like “some royal person you never heard of got shot, therefore it naturally follows we had to have a war to kill millions of people who didn’t do it.”
History ala government school left me crosseyed with boredom and knowing not much of nothing.
Shortly after school, I discovered (initially by reading historical novels, then moving on to the vivid non-fiction of Barbara Tuchman) that history was fascinating and vital to know.
But when I now read the history of religion, I’m reminded that history is much more complicated than any book could ever convey — and utterly irrational. Merely keeping track of the factions and schisms and heresies and splinter groups is impossible. Keeping track of which wars, crusades, and massacres they were all involved in is as futile as trying to individually analyze every grain of sand on an ever-shifting beach.
But it’s good for hours of Internet rabbit-hole travel. Yet another reason not to let the ‘Net into my house.
Still, that travel brought me back to Michel de Montaigne, who’s very welcome in my house.
I mentioned earlier, in my surfeit-of-books post, that I would eventually get to my library copy of his Essays, but I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of such heavy, old-fashioned reading.
Two Commentariat members rushed to reassure me that Montaigne — a sixteenth-century gentleman-philosopher whose name crops up often in libertarian history — wasn’t intimidating or heavy at all. On the contrary, they used words like “charming” to describe him. One, David M. Gross, also recommended Sarah Bakewell’s unconventional biography, How to Live: or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Love that title.
I confess I did shortly give up on the library copy of Montaigne’s Essays. Not because of the writer, but because it was an old Great Books edition that just reeked of “You MUST read this if you have pretensions to being an intellectual.”
Unlettered peasant that I am, I don’t get along well with Self-Important Tomes. Besides, pretentious presentation turns out to be very un-Montaigne-ish.
I know that much because I did get Bakewell’s unconventional bio, and both her book and her subject really are charming. And the very opposite of pretentious or stuffy.
Wow. I like this Montaigne guy, and I’m definitely going back to his writings once I find a friendlier edition.
Usually, reading about great figures of the Renaissance or Reformation (and Montaigne was both), I feel as if I’m studying individuals whose values and lives were absolutely foreign. I can’t even remotely imagine having a convivial conversation with, say, William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony. Or Petrarch. Or Martin Luther or Rene Descartes or Heironymous Bosch (the painter, not the fictional homicide detective). Even if we all spoke the same language, we wouldn’t be speaking the same language. Not. At. All.
But Montaigne? I’d invite him for dinner if he were available. As quoted and described by Bakewell, he’s a brilliant observer, full of intelligent doubt, a humble stoic/skeptic, an old soul, a sly wit, a respecter of animals, a forerunner of modern individualist anarchism, and a man completely out of his time and more at home in ours.
In fact, in that game you play where you choose 10 historical figures to invite for dinner, my first choice was always Thomas Jefferson. Now I think I’d extend the first invite to Montaigne.
In fact, I say forget 10. I’ll just invite Montaigne, then Jefferson, and maybe Montaigne’s friend (and author of the individualist-anarchist classic Discourse on Voluntary Servitude), Etienne de La Boetie. Okay, Karl Hess, too. Then I’d sit back and take in the most brilliantly entertaining conversation about humanity, freedom, and Life In General in history.
I hope the two French guys speak English when they get resurrected for this marvelous dinner. But for them, I’d learn to speak French.