What the Notre Dame Fire Tells Us About Our Emotional Relationship to Monuments3 min read

I’m sitting on my couch in Amsterdam, checking my phone just after sunset, when my sister sends a message to our family chat; “this day is now officially cursed, Notre Dame is on fire”. My brain registers the sentence in a split-second and my first instinct is to convince myself that it can only be a joke. Because buildings like Notre Dame don’t catch on fire. Yet, I know my sister is serious; who even thinks of a lie like that?

I see the first few images of the medieval monument spewing ashy clouds, trapped in a ring of deep-orange fire. There I am, sitting in silence, alone and half in the dark, watching Notre Dame burn down on my handheld smartphone screen. It’s a weird age we’re living in.

Cityscape view of Paris from the Notre Dame (before the fire)
Notre Dame Gargoyle (Photo: Pedro Lastra)

The World is Watching

Quickly, I ask my friends if they’ve seen the news and keep refreshing Twitter to see if the fire has stopped by now. But the tweets are only a few seconds old. My eyes are glued on this monstrous, iconoclastic image that my mind never even allowed itself to imagine. The city of lights is aflame and the world is watching.

The internet is exploding with viral videos of Parisian crowds singing Ave Maria, apocalyptic claims that the burning Dame is a symbol for the current political climate, and those that immediately point out the excessive interest in this European monument as compared to the tragically lost heritage sites in Syria. Everyone’s got an opinion, and at least one emotion. But why exactly does the burning of a monument like Notre Dame upset us so much?

Mythologizing Monuments

Certainly not all, but many of us have met Notre Dame. Or at least we have seen her, like we see celebrities in the media and can’t help knowing them by name. She is ‘our lady’ after all, the face of a city; the creature called Paris that lives in all of our minds.

In truth, we willingly forgot that the Notre-Dame isn’t quite an untouchable emblem of European art and history. No matter how much we romanticise the past and mythicize monuments, Notre Dame is still, essentially, a carefully manipulated pile of stones, wood and glass. In her own way, Notre Dame is as mortal and ‘fleshy’ as our own skin and bones. The fire served as a painful reminder that forced us back down to Earth.

People lighting candles inside Notre Dame (before fire)
Lighting candles inside Notre Dame (Photo: Daniele D’Andreti)

In her own way, Notre Dame is as mortal and ‘fleshy’ as our own skin and bones. The fire served as a painful reminder that forced us back down to Earth.

Man and monument, however, are not quite the same. One usually struggles their whole life to leave some kind of legacy behind, while the other transcends human life and becomes a centuries-old vessel of cultural and national legacies. Buildings, art, monuments, artefacts: they can outlive us all, outlive generations, outlive kings and queens, outlive revolutions. They sometimes outlive entire worldviews and religions, entire definitions of what it means to be human.

Staring Mortality Dead in the Eye

Most importantly, in our minds, monuments are the manifestations of our collective memory. They are fossils of unsalvageable zeitgeists that will never return. They are precious time capsules, like the lingering presence within a lock of hair of a long-gone relative. Indeed, they almost let us believe they, the monuments, can achieve real immortality.

And that’s something that offers us comfort when our inescapable mortality stares us dead in the eye. In all those years, millions of lifetimes and identities pass by in a flash, disappearing and decaying into oblivion. At least we can count on monuments like the Notre-Dame, collecting layers and layers of cumulative culture, to remain.

But a burning monument is a sign of change. Always haunting us in the back of our minds, change has gifted us the ever-present knowledge that all things must come to an end. Monuments do not only represent our curiosity for the world before we were born. Against our better judgement, we seek a sense of stability for the future. And we still look for it in ‘eternal’, power-ridden presences like Notre Dame.

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