Why should anyone care about a fire in Paris when we all have more immediate problems closer to home?
I’d just finished grading papers, sitting in a rare moment of silence in my office at work, when one of my students came in and said “Notre Dame is burning.”
It was one of those phrases that you don’t understand. I probably blinked at her in silence for a full five seconds. What she said sounded metaphoric, and her words conveyed nothing that I could, in context, have imagined as part of an ordinary Monday afternoon.
Nothing about her statement was unclear. But I couldn’t grasp it.
Recognizing my bafflement, she held up her phone.
There it was, captured in a picture the size of her hand, the photograph already emblazoned in our collective memory: flames illuminating Notre Dame’s spire from within. A narrow, red triangle of fire — bare bones and incendiary light — cracked in half and toppling down.
The antenna to heaven, designed by medieval architects to draw the eyes of even the poorest, lowest and most miserable soul upward, consumed most of itself before its fall.
The roof, too, was designed to consume itself and fall inward because, made of wood, “roofs were known to catch fire semi-regularly, and nobody wanted the houses surrounding the cathedrals to be crushed by falling debris or to catch fire,” according to my friend Dorothy Watson Heinrichs, a nurse who studied art history and knows such things.
But why does it matter if an old building in another country goes down in flames?
Notre Dame was more than 800 years old. So fragile, the cathedral was already undergoing a massive renovation just to keep the structure intact. Surely, it shouldn’t surprise us that the building was subject to destruction. It’s a fate that could eventually befall any place on earth.
But this most recent event in Paris did not take one human life. Compare that to the tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, floods and fires that have destroyed not only other venerable sites elsewhere but also destroyed entire communities and ended the lives of irreplaceable, actual living people, not carved out of wood and stone but made of flesh and blood.
Why does the catastrophe at Notre Dame capture our imagination, making us grieve and take stock of our own mortality, when authentically tragic losses leave us less moved?
Novelist Elizabeth Bowen, writing in London between and during the chaos and terror of two World Wars, offers one explanation: “After inside upheavals, it is important to fix on imperturbable things. Their imperturbableness, their air that nothing has happened renews our guarantee,” Bowen argues in “The Death of the Heart.”
Bowen continues, “These things are what we mean when we speak of civilization: they remind us of how exceedingly seldom the unseemly or unforeseeable rears its head. In this sense, the destruction of buildings … is more palpably dreadful to the spirit then the destruction of human life. Only outside disaster is irreparable.”
Beyond nation, beyond religion, beyond history, great and enduing buildings that can be entered by everyone — and not only by the titled, the rich, the beautiful, the educated, the pious, the clean or the sane — permit us to feel humble and protected, awed and at home. They provide sanctuary for exiles and inspiration for the weary. They offer consolation for the unconsecrated and combine utility with fantasy.
At Notre Dame, I remember seeing saints practically rubbing elbows with the gargoyles — both inside and outside the church itself.
I entered Notre Dame for the first time for a Christmas midnight mass in 1977. I lit a candle for my mother, who had dreamed of seeing it before she died. She never would, but I could kneel in those pews for her. I dared not say prayers, having lost my faith when I lost my mother, yet imagining what her joy would have been at knowing I was in the ancient arms of Notre Dame remains a talisman, a charm, a relic, and perhaps even a blessing I carry with me.
The latest photographs show that small candles, maybe even ones lit by unbelievers, unexpectedly kept their small flames burning even as the large fire swept over them. I take comfort from their courage and reassurance from what remains.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books.