Historic Loss — and Gain

notre-dame-grotesques-7There is probably nothing I can tell you about Notre Dame Cathedral that you don’t already know or can’t read for yourself. But somehow, it feels as though I would be remiss if I did not rue its partial destruction here today.

I am not a traveler, so I have never been one of the 13 million who look upon it annually (twice as many who pilgrimage to the Eiffel Tower, I learned yesterday). I am not Catholic, so it has not resonated with me on a religious basis, like so many who make it part of their Holy Week. I am not a good reader of French literature, even though it turns out that Victor Hugo was largely responsible for a revival of the crumbling cathedral in the 1800s. And, although a former student of film, I somehow have managed to miss every single one — including the Disney version — of the iterations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame out there on offer.

But I am a student of history, and I am going to hope that one of the lessons we all draw from this tragedy is that history is hardly the static, staid field so many people believe it to be.

Notre Dame is living history. We can throw dates at it, that construction began in 1163 and was not completed until 1345, but that’s where history sometimes starts to lose people. And “completed” is a misnomer: reconstruction and deconstruction has been off- and on-going for the entire 850 years of the cathedral’s existence. The spire itself, which toppled yesterday to a worldwide gasp of dismay, may have been conceived earlier, but didn’t go into place until a young architect audaciously took it upon himself to further construction in the 1840s, about a decade after Hugo shamed his fellow Parisians about the condition of their immense chapel.

The iconic gargoyles, too, were a creation of post-revolutionary France. Original decorations had crumbled to mere nubs. Bells had to be replaced, because originals had been melted down for use as cannonballs during the revolution. [I learned all this last night and this morning.] So it’s not like this amazing edifice sprung up overnight and remained untouched by humanity through the centuries: the cathedral has changed as France, and the world, have.

Obviously, since the decay was quite prominent almost 200 years ago, not everyone has been as reverent as the world’s current population. One hundred years before that, one of the 3,000 Louises to reign over France thought so little of the original stained glass that he had it removed and replaced with regular ol’ clear glass. And a pillar was in the way of carriages, so it was summarily removed.

As recently as the mid-1900s the evil that was Adolf Hitler had it on his list of targets for complete demolition.

[Which, while I’m lamenting destruction, ISIS has — without as much publicity as one would want — been hellbent on destroying every historic icon it can find in what we consider to be the Cradle of Civilization. The losses, particularly in Iraq, are incalculable and should be mourned with the same passion being loosed upon Notre Dame.]

Fortunately, I suppose — if anything about yesterday’s fire could be called fortunate — the outbreak started high and stayed mostly there. Gone are the medieval oak beams in the ceiling, but it appears that at least some of the pews have survived. Some artifacts had been removed just last week during the current — and apparently much-needed — reconstruction; others got hustled out yesterday, with human chains passing priceless relics along.

Damage assessment will be conducted with great care, and at least 50 people are investigating the cause. Can you imagine what it would be like to have had a hand, no matter how inadvertent, in starting this fire?

Immediately came the call to rebuild, already backed by pledges of $450 million in private donations. I imagine this will be a project that will not want for money, as the French (and the world) realize anew what they knew all along: Notre Dame is a priceless treasure.

And that is history in the making: the realization that what you have today is built upon what came before, and that while it may not be the same in the future, in the here and now, the stewardship rests in our hands. History is not only where we have come from, but where we are and where we are going.

It is not a compilation of dates. (High school essay: “Notre Dame was built in 1163. It is a cathedral on an island in the middle of Paris. It is very big.”) It is a tapestry, woven by time and humanity.

So, as we wonder what we can do to show the citizen of France we share their grief with this loss (very fortunately not a complete loss), besides donating to the rebuilding fund, perhaps it is as simple as looking around to see what history in your immediate vicinity might be speaking to you.

We in the New World don’t have much that’s as old as Notre Dame, although here in Gunnison we live at the base of a mountain that has turned out to be an archaeological trove of pre-history: people who made folsom points in a place no one expected.

And at one point Notre Dame wasn’t old: it was a vision in someone’s head, an homage to his (probably) god that would be so magnificent it would take around 180 years (I’m better at history than math) to build. The originator probably had no idea it would take that long, and no matter how much he intended it to be a showplace for the glory of god, he probably had no idea it would be held in such reverence so many centuries in the future.

Even as he would perhaps, as so many were in the streets of Paris and elsewhere, be crying and lamenting the fire, how could he not be stirred by the rising voices, spontaneously in the streets, singing in tribute to the same religion that inspired the construction?

Put that in your high school essay.

And so, while the world is a sadder place today for the partial loss of a planetary icon, hopefully we use this to realize that we are all citizens of the world, and its stewards, and that it’s up to us to serve history as best as we can.

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