The Particularity of Notre-Dame
The world watched in horror last week as a fire nearly consumed Notre-Dame de Paris—a cathedral, perhaps the most famous in the world, which has survived nearly a thousand years and countless wars and revolutions.
The elegies that have poured out since have mourned the cathedral as a monument. As President Macron put it in an address to his citizens “Notre-Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery…the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations.” What French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote of the Eiffel Tower is perhaps more aptly applied to Notre-Dame: “It is present to the entire world … as a universal symbol of Paris … beyond its strictly Parisian statement, it touches the most general human image-repertoire.”
To treat Notre-Dame as a monument is to commemorate its past. “What is the advantage to the present individual, then, of the monumental view of the past?” Nietzsche asked. “It is the knowledge that the great which once existed was at least possible once and may well again be possible sometime.” Such a view can inspire greatness in the present. While the fire blazed, President Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral “more beautifully” and in five years:
“I’m telling you all tonight—we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny.”
Yet, the monumental view risks treating Notre-Dame as something already dead, which may be resurrected only through imitation of past heroic deeds. It risks blotting out the particularity of Notre-Dame: the irreducible fact that it is a particular church, built during a particular stretch of our history, by particular hands, and situated in a particular place, serving to this day as parish for particular Catholics and the seat of a particular archdiocese—Our Lady of Paris. Unlike the Eiffel Tower—that modern spire on the Left Bank’s west side—Notre-Dame is not merely a “major sign of a people and of a place.” It lives as a particular religious place, a site of memory for its parishioners and Parisians generally.
When construction began on the church in the mid-12th century on the Île de la Cité, the center of the old medieval city, Paris was little more than a large town by today’s standards. One might have described it, “at a distance,” as “no more than a church epitomizing the town,” as Marcel Proust said of the fictional Combray. Notre-Dame still acts as a reference point for the city’s geography, soaring above the banks of the Seine, although it no longer dominates the skylines as it must have in the time of Thomas Aquinas. What Proust wrote of Combray’s Saint-Hilaire was—until last Monday night—true of Notre-Dame de Paris, at least in certain quartiers: “The view seemed always to have been composed with reference to [its] steeple, which would loom up here and there among the houses, and was perhaps even more affecting when it appeared thus without the church.”
The bells of Notre-Dame are a familiar sound to residents and tourists alike, its gardens a common meeting place for picnics or lovers, the splendor of its organs the musical setting for the daily mass. Notre-Dame is not simply a monument, nor even a lieu de mémoire, but a treasured house of memory. Recalling his childhood, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time describes the church of Combray:
“The old porch by which we entered … was worn out of shape and deeply furrowed at the sides (as also was the font to which it led us) just as if the gentle friction of the cloaks of peasant-women coming into church, and of their fingers dipping into the holy water, had managed by age-long repetition to acquire a destructive force… Its memorial stones … were themselves no longer hard and lifeless matter, for time had softened them and made them flow like honey beyond their proper margins … All this made of the church … an edifice occupying, so to speak, a four-dimensional space—the name of the fourth being Time—extending through the centuries its ancient nave, which, bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and conquer not merely a few years of soil, but each successive epoch from which it emerged triumphant.”
There is something monumental in this depiction. Ultimately, though, the significance of Saint-Hilaire, like Notre-Dame, derives not from past heroic deeds so much as from its living connection to the past, etched into its edifice by the repeated movements of countless unremembered churchgoers over the course of time. For Proust, it is the particularity—even physicality—of the church which imbues it with such temporal power. Understood this way, the past is not a collection of facts, heroic or otherwise, but a collective memory—the “memory of a redeemed humanity,” as German literary critic Walter Benjamin put it.
To insist on the particularity of Notre-Dame is thus not to deprive it of grandeur. On the contrary, it is because of its particularity, not in spite of it, that the cathedral became and continues to be such a symbol—just as the sacred objects contained within its walls (the crown of thorns, the fragment of the true cross) are sacred because of, not in spite of, their particularity. These relics, like the church itself, are physical traces of a particular past that allow us, in part, to transcend the particularity of our present.
More than any monument, it is this collective memory that was nearly lost but may now be regained in the fire at Notre-Dame.
M. Anthony Mills is associate vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and was previously managing editor of RealClear Media. He holds a master's degree in French and lived for a time not far from Notre-Dame.