Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French author, philosopher and activist.
Notre-Dame de Paris. Our Lady of Paris. Writing from Berlin, where I am prostrate before the flames, devastation, and ash. A treasure of civilization for all – for those who believe in heaven as well as those who do not. The Europe of beauty, of holy hopes, of greatness and gentility. Like you, like everyone, I am heartbroken.
Memories surface. Victor Hugo, of course. And Louis Aragon: “Nothing is as strong, not fire, not lightning, / As my Paris defying danger / Nothing is as beautiful as this Paris of mine.” And “beautiful, oh mortals, as a dream in stone!” – a phrase that, though not written about Notre-Dame, might well apply.
More memories. France’s Legend of the Ages. The mystic knighthood of our history, in its glory and in its gloom. The mass in celebration of liberty recaptured in 1944. A younger sister converted there, at Notre-Dame; I weep with her. I weep with all Christians, wounded to their innermost depths, watching their visible church go up in smoke, the plume perhaps pulling along a part of their invisible church.
Tuesday morning. Waking. Notre-Dame is the France of the Resistance; she is the Europe of literature. She is the Gothic holiness and the tranquility of the Seine. She is faith and beauty. She is still Hugo and Aragon, whose words will not stop dancing in my sleepless head. How to face today after the brutal burn; how to face tomorrow? Victor Hugo supplies the response: “Time is the architect, but the people are the mason.”
Tuesday noon. Is the fire completely out? It is torture, for a Parisian, to see the looped images of his city’s heart gripped by the violence of the flames. More than a cathedral has fallen; a piece of humanity has foundered; a piece of human intelligence, beauty and greatness. Notre-Dame is, in a way, the soul and the spirit of all of us.
And there is this. Just as we Parisians believed our venerable lady to be immortal, so did the world. Yet, here she is burned and helpless against her own fate, just as we stood helpless last night as we watched the conflagration. But, now, in the wake of these sorrowful sights, a wave of feeling rises worldwide. Italians, Swedes, Irish, Spaniards … All in communion with the people of Paris. As after an attack, after a national tragedy, all are saying, in unison: “We are Paris.”
And, finally, this. Notre-Dame, in burning, reminds us of the fragility of our history and heritage, of the precariousness of what we have built and of the finite nature of our millennial Europe, homeland of the arts, of which Notre-Dame is one of the loftiest symbols.
In the aftermath, what are we to think? Above all, what must we do? We must hope that the sacrifice of Notre-Dame serves to awaken slumbering consciences and that, through this disaster, people come to realize that Europe is Notre-Dame writ large, a great work of art, a legacy in danger, a brilliant ray of shared intelligence. All of this is too important, too vital. We cannot allow success to those who seek to divide and inflame the people of Europe, builders of temples and palaces, creators of beauty. The lesson of Notre-Dame. For Holy Week, a new lesson of the Tenebrae.
One very last word. I have heard the appeal of France’s President. As the editor-in-chief of La Règle du Jeu, I will be contributing to the national fund to salvage and rebuild the heart of France, and I urge our readers to do the same. I repeat: Time is the architect, but we the people are the masons.