There was a terrible moment on Monday when it seemed likely Notre-Dame Cathedral – that muscular yet graceful icon of European civilization – would burn to the ground. The fire was so intense, its white smoke so dense, that it was easy to imagine that no part of the landmark would be spared and that a hole would be left in the heart of Paris.
Thankfully, by morning, it was clear the fire had been confined to the roof and its spire, and that the cathedral’s heavy stone walls, flying buttresses and two bell towers were largely undamaged. Saved, too, were many relics and works of art that firefighters rushed in and grabbed while the fire burned over their heads.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, those three stained-glass rose windows will continue to transform the sun’s light into that incomparable shade of blue.
A close call, in other words. The unthinkable had been avoided. But the unthinkable had also been contemplated and it woke up a lot of people.
For years, the Catholic archdiocese of Paris and various levels of French government had bickered about which one of them should pay for the cathedral’s upkeep.
As a result, the elegant structure that made for such a lovely photograph when viewed from across the Seine River was in fact something of a wreck. Poorly done concrete patches, faceless rotting gargoyles and fallen chunks of limestone revealed themselves on close inspection. The budget for repairs was minuscule compared to the need, and no one was particularly moved to do anything about it.
Until Monday, that is. Within 24 hours of the fire’s outbreak, French President Emmanuel Macron had vowed the roof would be rebuilt and the entire church restored. Three wealthy French families immediately offered a total of more than $750-million to help with the costs.
As Joni Mitchell said, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Parisians walked past the cathedral most days without giving it much thought, other than to perhaps quietly curse its ability to draw annoying numbers of tourists to the surrounding streets. There was no outcry about its decaying state. Everyone just assumed it would always be there.
The fire changed that. It made people realize how important Notre-Dame Cathedral is and how terrible it would be to lose what, as many have said this week, is civilization itself.
That may seem like a grandiose statement, but it’s true. Notre-Dame did not appear out of nowhere; it is a human creation that has grown, been altered and attacked, hated and loved, left to rot and brought back to life over nine centuries. It is an edifice that thousands of people have contributed to and protected. Today, it is the symbol of a city that embodies the very best of human achievement in any society – art, culture and architecture.
And yet, it is easy to believe, wrongly, that it will never disappear and requires little effort to preserve. Notre-Dame, in other words, is a useful metaphor for the values that shape a civilized world.
It is the normal human condition to assume that the critical institutions at the heart of a free and tolerant society will never fail. But that is a mistake. Like Notre-Dame, democratic governments and impartial legal systems were built by long centuries of struggle, with many halting steps along the way. Those edifices of human achievement haven’t always been there and they won’t always be there if they are taken for granted and people stop working to preserve them.
Sadly, we are currently living in an age in which politicians in many countries are not only failing to preserve those institutions, but are also flirting with ideologies that actively question their value.
Both right-wing populism and left-wing radicalism are defined by an antipathy for governments and courts, and by their distrust of any value that might be damned as “elitist." There are many politicians and their supporters today who, encountering the political equivalent of a smouldering roof, would blow on it with all their might.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire is a reminder to never take what is precious for granted. We are lucky when we can comfortably assume that the landmarks of our civilizations will always be there, but foolish to think the worst can’t happen. All it takes is a spark, and what we thought was permanent can disappear before we even have the time to react. We won’t know what we had till it’s gone.