Notre Dame tragedy speaks to the necessity of historical preservation

Daniel Walker

dawalker@ursinus.edu

On April 17th, 2019, the Notre Dame cathedral in
Paris suddenly and unexpectedly caught fire. Though the inner spire of the venerated church collapsed shortly after the fire began, its outer structure and its two historic bell towers still stand defiantly intact. I first heard the news of the Notre Dame fire in the secluded Mac lab in Ritter Hall; preoccupied as I was with carefully editing and arranging my opinions on why The 1975 are a bad band, I initially only half-digested what I was hearing. The notion of a building like Notre Dame just suddenly deciding to burn to the ground one day seemed almost absurd – wait, I thought, are they talking about the school or the church? Is that church even as big as I remember it being? It was only when I returned home and scoured social media for pictures and videos of the then-still-roaring blaze did I fully grasp the enormity of what had happened. And, judging by the outpouring of grief and sympathy – mixed with promises to rebuild and preserve – that accompanied the aftermath of the blaze, I was not the only one.

The global response to the tragedy at Notre Dame speaks to our collective fascination with the artifacts of our shared history and the past achievements – be they architectural, artistic, etc. – of our species. It’s not a desire we vocalize often: before this past week, how many people would stop you on the street and talk unprompted about how much they love the Notre Dame cathedral? For most of us, the so-called seven wonders of the world or the buildings and monuments that our culture deems truly significant exist only as abstractions, seen secondhand through a splash page in a textbook or the four-walled frame of a television set. Today, when the great museums of our civilization can be toured from the comfort and safety of one’s own home and all the wonders of the world, man-made or otherwise, are but a Google Image search away, the crypto-Luddites and pop pundits of the world might see fit to pontificate about how those damn iPhones and that damn Internet are ruining people’s appreciation for experiencing these aforementioned wonders in a face-to-face capacity. But, in the wake of Notre Dame, it is apparent that not only have we maintained our attachment to these towering relics of wonder, but the newfound sense of community and comradeship that social media discourse has wrought has intensified our shared sense of awe and enabled us to express it to a degree that we never have before.

My initial reaction upon seeing the pictures from Notre Dame was something along the lines of My God, it’s like some- thing out of a disaster movie. You know the type of scene – a rogue tidal wave swallows the New York skyline, a wayward UFO smushes St. Peter’s Basilica. For many people, including me, this sudden intrusion of the chaos of the present onto the idyll of the past came as an unpleasant shock. Per official word, the Notre Dame fire was the result of a freak accident, nothing more. But in the uncertain future, who knows what will happen next? What historic landmarks will be swallowed by rising seas or crumble in scorch- ing heat? How many historic mosques have been – and will continue to be – wiped off the map by million-dollar American drones bearing Hellfire missiles? If humanity really is as doomed as even the smartest among us seem to think we are, what’s even the hope in maintaining the relics of a past that we we’re too selfish to learn from?

I don’t know if I have an answer to this last question, but I know someone who does: a figure who, like Notre Dame itself, occupies a larger-than-life presence in the cultural canon in more way than one. In 1973, Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in the film “F For Fake,” a metafictional docudrama about truth, deception, forgery, art, life, and death among other things. In a scene that briefly circulated across social media in the days following the tragedy at Notre Dame, Welles stands before the cathedral at Chartres and ponders aloud on its significance. Sometimes it’s best to let the past, imperfect though it may be, speak for itself, so I’ll let Orson wrap things up: “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash . . . ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’”