Insights from Quadrant

Notre Dame burns

Admirers of Western Civilisation and its art would likely agree with Kenneth Clark’s appraisal of Notre Dame as “not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals”. Like many, he preferred Chartres and Canterbury, but it was with Notre Dame in the background that he introduced his landmark series Civilisation:

What is civilisation? I do not know. I can’t define it in abstract terms –yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it: and I am looking at it now. Ruskin said: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

On the whole I think this is true. Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments, but they are what is known as declarations of intent. If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.

Today, the news from Paris is almost beyond belief: almost nine hundred years after construction began, Notre Dame is, if not in ruins, close to it. The photo atop this post is what remains of the altar. Below, as it was only yesterday:

It was one purpose of those who dotted Europe with soaring, vaulted spaces to inspire awe and banish with gospel and creed the lingering animism of the peasantry, the belief in the omens and portents of earlier pagan creeds. Today those monuments to vanished faith draw little but the tour-bus reverence of tourists and their Nikons, plus advocates of a new barbarism. Six years ago, historian and Marine Le Pen supporter Dominique Venner splattered the altar with his brains in a bizarre protest against France’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. In 2017 it was an angry Muslim crying ‘Alahu Akbar’ and ‘this is for Syria’ who bludgeoned the cathedral’s security guards with a hammer before being felled by a bullet. Now comes fire and the certain knowledge that while the immediately promised rebuilding might faithfully replicate all that was and has now been lost, the end result will be but a facsimile of what is today ash and rubble — a building to be revived for the tourist magnet it became, not for what once inspired it.

As Sir Kenneth put it 

At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river … to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seem less agreeable — as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.

It was not too long before those Norsemen embraced Christianity and became Normans,  their descendants erecting Notre Dame as a manifestation of faith and societal confidence. Come the weekend, as they have done for the past six months, tens of thousands of ‘yellow vest’ protesters will clash once again with the police and troops defending the government of Emmanuel Macron from demands for less taxes, less immigration and, to the extent one can ever intuit the aspirations and intentions of a French mob, less official intrusion in the lives of citoyens.

Macron will commence the rebuilding of Notre Dame, as he pledged even before the flames were extinguished, but what for modern, restive France will that effort represent? Perhaps, as a true symbol of our incoherent age and the fashionably disdained achievements of Western Civilisation, it should simply be left as is, a gutted reminder of that which was and now is fading.

— roger franklin




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