wholepeace

Notre Dame is Burning — Long Live Notre Dame

In No Particular Path on April 15, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Notre Dame de Paris is burning.

The date is April 15, 2019. The great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is burning. As I write this, the roof is destroyed, the great spire has collapsed. I do not yet know if the rose window remains, or the fate of the great works of art that lived inside the cathedral walls. Most are likely gone forever. The building itself may be rebuilt, the parts that survive the fire, the great stone works, may be restored. Yet what remains or what comes next will never be what was.
This is the way of the works of men.
An irony in the tragedy is that it seems likely that the fire struck as restoration on the cathedral was beginning. Notre Dame was dying, crumbling under the weight of more than seven centuries. And a decision had been made to restore it, to give it new life, to keep it a while longer.
I think we may suppose that, like so much else that humans have put upon the Earth, it was inevitable that humans would destroy it, or the Earth would bring it down and cover it over. But this was not supposed to be the time. This was not supposed to be the way. Surely, those who wanted to restore it must have believed they could give it at least some greater measure of immortality, of permanence, however illusionary they might prove in some distant end.
I have often wondered at this idea of the immortality of the works of humans. What is it that drives us to preserve certain select pieces of the past, with the expectation that the future will value them as we do?
There have, at times, been movements in the arts which have celebrated impermanence. The “Happenings” of the 20th century, the works of the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are high profile examples. But how many of us have built sand castles, drawn on sidewalks with chalk, marveled at ice sculptures, or gasped at fireworks displays. Some arts are by their very nature impermanent. Any live performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Every time an actor or a dancer or a musician goes before an audience, the event is new, fleeting, impermanent. Even as long as there are humans to remember it, the memories themselves are shadows of the original.
We can, of course, record these things, just as we will continue to have photographs and paintings and literary descriptions of Notre Dame to helps us remember its grandeur. But our records and our recordings are not the thing itself, and neither will be what goes up where the fire has brought it down.
The truth is, I think, that our attempts at permanence, our striving for immortality for the things we create is a measure of the value we place on things precisely because they are not immortal.
We do not really value immortality for its own sake. Those things we make of plastic, which are virtually indestructible, are mostly utile, cheap, meant for ordinary consumption, meant to be discarded – how ironic to create indestructible objects for impermanent uses. And ironic, too, I suppose. To create impermanent objects for the ages.
It is our mortality, our vulnerability that makes our lives so precious, and that is also true of the things we create.
In Shelley’s “Ozymndias” we are asked to look at the arrogance and futility of our attempts at immortality. In Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” the titular character forestalls his decline and demise through artistic sorcery, but in the end is, as are we all, reduced to dust. The Egyptians mummified the dead, but what remained was no more than a preserved shell of its human occupant, and if exposed to the air for too long, it too would go the way of Dorian Gray. We surround ourselves in art and literature and architecture and all the other arts with reminders of the impossibility of immortality. But we try, anyway.
Cathedrals are especially reflective of the struggle between death and eternal life. This is the central theme of all major religions, that it is possible for us both to die and to live forever.
There will be mourning for Notre Dame, as there is with any great loss. There will be also be discussions of how it might be raised from the dead, what measure of eternal life might still be possible for it. The faithful will not lose their faith, for if Notre Dame can find a way to live forever, then there is hope for us all.
For these are the ways of humans, as it is of all our works.

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