Before the smoke had cleared, the rich were offering millions, and the critics were writing about what else should be done with their grossly expendable wealth.
The first I read argued that if people weren’t more upset about racially motivated arson cases, then they were #problematic. Since then, I’ve browsed headlines falling in the category of shifting focus about mourning the effects of the blaze. They examine the “deafening silence” of those who weep for Notre Dame but say nothing of desecrated sacred spaces for indigenous people, the lamentable state of the Catholic Church and its inability to keep its clergy from sexually assaulting people, and all the ways Jesus would’ve spent money on people instead of monuments.
Medievalists, historians, and architects wrote the second type of article rebuking the mourners, warning people that these churches weren’t meant to last, and because Notre Dame is one of the most well-documented structures, we can rebuild it. Don’t cry. We can fix it.
This second response reminds me of what I have heard said to small children when they lick just a little too hard on their ice cream cones.
“Don’t cry. We can get a new one.”
Consoling people with the prospect of a restored Notre Dame is such a consumerist, privileged response. Multi-million pledges remind us that there are more than enough resources in the world to fix many things more important than landmark museum–churches. Their responses don’t ask if we should get a new scoop, or if we should just watch the proverbial ice cream melt on the sidewalk and move on.
Those exhorting us to spend that money elsewhere, to care about injustices far less glamorous than flaming Gothic spires crashing through 1000-year-old roofs in Paris, are right.
But I’m not sure if most people cry about something as petty as a building because they’re caught up in hype or shallow enough to place nostalgia or romance above human life. They cried, because a fire like the one that consumed Notre Dame has no reason. A fire like that negotiates with no one, and it burns without intention. There is no motive, but destruction happens anyway.
Quieting the crying masses with the promises that it can be rebuilt overlooks a deeply human insecurity that comes from the knowledge that we are, to some degree, without control in this life.
What we do after the blow ventures into issues of morality, but the wordless, almost indefensible sudden grief that overtakes a person at the sight of a burning Notre Dame admits something we dare not.
Despite efforts (though some argue not the best ones) to preserve one big, old Gothic cathedral that represents lots of fairy tales and carries much history, the thing has burned. And that moment of terror and shock at something so trivial is a perfectly human and valuable one, because it responds to a terrible revelation that some things happen, without any root of malice, punishment, judgment, or meaning at all that we will experience as completely devastating. There will be no way to put out those fires in our lives, because their causes lie hidden from us — perhaps, always.
Taking this moment to feel that smallness, without interruptions of promises of renewal, sets us in one of our places. Sure, we are strong and smart and full of boundless — even reckless — drive to surpass our human limits. But we are also insignificant, small, and ultimately helpless when we cannot stop or undo the world’s dictates that seemingly act upon our lives without any especial vengeance or grace.