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A ramble from Notre Dame to the neighborhood of Montaigne

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.


  1. Pat
    Pat April 17, 2019 11:15 am

    Off in a different direction, I thought first of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (and was glad he wasn’t there during this fire), and have decided to re-read a couple of Victor Hugo’s novels – notably “The Man Who Laughs” and “The Toilers of The Sea.”

  2. StevefromMA
    StevefromMA April 17, 2019 11:35 am

    Here’s a contrarian view. Maybe this is God’s punishment for two millennia of thousands of abusive priests in a morally bankrupt religion. Maybe it’s God’s punishment for only five hundred years ago torturing and burning to death thousands of my Jewish kinsmen during the Inquisition. Maybe its God’s punishment for France’s age old and now, even, grossly worsening, anti-Semitism.

    I’m not losing any sleep over the fire. .any artwork there was to glorify a hypocritical and destructive religion that, over the centuries, has not changed all that much and will hopefully just blow away someday when “ the scales fall from their eyes.”

  3. Myself
    Myself April 17, 2019 11:42 am

    To add to StevefrmMA’s point, interesting to note that the Catholic Church has cried poverty when required to pay settlements to the children they molested, yet when an edifice to their power is damaged they can produce half a billion euros.

  4. Claire
    Claire April 17, 2019 11:57 am

    Intellectually, I agree with your contrarian views, Steve and Myself (except I don’t believe God levies those sorts of punishments — and if he did, why not the Vatican instead of Notre Dame?). And let’s not forget all the innocent “witches,” heretics, infidels, etc. slaughtered in the name of church power for centuries.

    I still mourn the near-destruction of a great historic monument — even though everything it was created for and much of what it now stands for is corrupt and evil.

    And Pat, I’ll bet you’re not the only one whose thoughts turned to Victor Hugo. I notice that The Hunchback of Notre Dame suddenly has a lot of holds on it, both book and DVD, at the library.

  5. Noah Body
    Noah Body April 17, 2019 1:14 pm

    I was surprised to learn that Notre Dame is owned by the government of France, not by the Vatican.

  6. Comrade X
    Comrade X April 17, 2019 2:17 pm

    Montaigne was king of the one liner!

    “A man must be a little mad if he does not want to be even more stupid.”

    “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.”

    “There is no passion so contagious as that of fear.”

    “Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.”

    “Saying is one thing and doing is another.”

  7. larryarnold
    larryarnold April 17, 2019 2:50 pm

    Here’s an interesting twist on the subject.

    Apparently, one of the most accurate, 3-D, textured renderings of the cathedral, inside and out, is in Assassins’ Creed Unity. Yeah, the violent video game. The company’s making a donation to the restoration, and no doubt hoping to sell a boatload of copies. (Though they’re giving it away free this week.)

    The game even has a “tourist” mode, if you want to visit without being bothered by assassins.

    “Will This Violent, Mediocre Video Game Help Rebuild Notre Dame?”

  8. Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson April 18, 2019 3:47 am

    I wandered through Notre Dame when I was 16, too young to fully appreciate the ingenuity that went into it’s creation. From the massive Rose Window to the spindly flying buttresses to it’s cavernous insides, somehow people without modern engineering tools set stone upon stone and ended up with a finely balanced pile of rocks in the shape of a cathedral. There is a brute force aspect to the construction (heavy blocks, narrow passages) and a surprisingly whimsical side (the gargoyles and decorative flourishes, for example).
    I saw several old French cathedrals during my 5 day trip, so I sometimes mix up which things I saw where, but there were profane (in the modern understanding) carvings in the choir loft of people doing ‘it’. The explanation was that the Church expected parishioners to be sinners and yet invited them back into the fold despite their sins. Hmmmm.
    In our age of ruining people’s lives and expelling them from the human race over the use of the wrong pronoun, that seems like a comparatively liberal attitude.

    For the record, I am not religious, and I make no excuses for the people who have led the Catholic Church to it’s current condition, nor do I excuse any of the violence religions visited upon the multitudes over the last two millennia.

  9. david
    david April 18, 2019 5:19 am

    I, like others, was literally sick at heart to watch the cathedral burn. Yet curiously I have no connection to the place. I’m not even Catholic, not French, and in 10th grade French class, for my term paper I was assigned the cathedral at Riems – NOT Notre Dame.

    Yet I was sick. I think it’s because I ‘feel’ and even sort of envy the faithful and their commitment. (I have a complicated relationship with God, The Buddha, and the Universe. Probably my fault.) To build Notre Dame and others, poor people often donated what they had in the way of jewelry or other valuables that could be sold – even wedding rings – all to fund the construction. To this day I love to visit cathedrals, stupas, and other ‘holy places’. I even have a small collection of religious art – carved wooden dieties, ritual artifacts, icons, etc. (small because genuine stuff is pricey).

    With no connection whatsoever, this loss makes me sick. It also concerns me for the future of the world. Did anyone else see that map that’s being shared about with the locations of “churches destroyed in the last 4 years”? Or the video close-up of the fire with the man walking about an upper story wearing “Muslim garb”? The implications of both are unnerving.

  10. Pat
    Pat April 18, 2019 5:28 am

    “I saw several old French cathedrals during my 5 day trip, so I sometimes mix up which things I saw where, but there were profane (in the modern understanding) carvings in the choir loft of people doing ‘it’. The explanation was that the Church expected parishioners to be sinners and yet invited them back into the fold despite their sins.”

    Frances Mayes, author of “Under THe Tuscan Sun”, has studied and enjoyed the art displayed in a number of Italian churches also, and she has left this impression (with me, at least), that Catholics of the earlier times were generally more realistic in their understanding of human nature as related to the Christian faith.

    It is ironic – and hypocritical – that the modern Christian has seemed to become more puritanical and critical even as s/he has become less faithful to the religion itself.

  11. ellendra
    ellendra April 18, 2019 9:31 am

    I think anyone who has ever poured their heart and soul into creating something, is probably feeling a bit sick at seeing a monument to someone else’s efforts being destroyed.

    When you feel in your bones the amount of work needed to build a simple retaining wall or a painted portrait, you start to “feel” the work that went into something that huge. And then when it’s destroyed, it feels like a violation.

    I can’t even imagine the number of people whose blood, sweat, and tears went into that building.

  12. Myself
    Myself April 18, 2019 10:28 am

    Last year there were approximately 380,000 residential structure fires in the U.S. alone, killing over 2000 people. Even in those fires where no one was harmed people lost their homes,their belongings, in many cases items that can never be replaced.

    I’ll save my sympathy for those people

    The damages to this edifice to power and control will be repaired as will the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (which had a fire the same day Notre Dame) and while I see the historical value of each structure, I’m not going to shed any tears over either.

  13. Iwoots
    Iwoots April 19, 2019 11:19 am

    Claire asks – “Who could read the bible and imagine Jesus smiling his approval of costly monuments to pope and church?”

    {I was unaware that Notre Dame is owned by the French government – thank you to Noah Body for that rabbit hole – and so I am adjusting my initial thought.}

    I think that Jesus might say to the officials of the French Ministry of Culture “Remember what I said to that rich young man “““If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.””? That’s prime real estate – the proceeds will feed the poor for a long time.”

    And to finish: “When the {officials of the French Ministry of Culture} heard this {they} went away sorrowful, for {they} had great possessions.”

  14. TPOL Nathan
    TPOL Nathan April 21, 2019 9:36 pm

    Dear Claire:
    Thanks for an excellent article. And I really appreciate all the comments – including those I disagree with. Some wonderful points made.
    At the same time, we need to remember that Catholicism is not the Christian religion, but an offshoot from it. Those who built it and paid for its building did indeed sacrifice much, but though we may honor their intentions and motives, we must decry the delusion which they suffered.
    I am a christian, and very religious, but I agree with those who object to what the Roman Catholic Church did and does, and what the French government has done and is doing.
    It is easy to share the sense of loss you and many others feel about losing this magnificent creation of men, regardless of their misunderstanding of what honors the Lord. “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Not a word about soaring edifices (to say nothing of the wasted money and lives). Nor of burning heretics or witches or Jews. Or even anything about hating any of those.
    But our world is (however fleeting it is in God’s eyes) the poorer for loss of this building and the faith (however misguided) that first built and then repaired and restored it over and over again.

  15. firstdouglas
    firstdouglas April 22, 2019 10:11 am

    On reading the mention of Montaigne and Bakewell, idle curiosity had me checking our little no-inter-library-loan library, just to see, and surprise, there was How to Live. What a fascinating, if brief introduction the author has written, and now I shall see..

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