We all stood watching Notre Dame ablaze with contrite hearts; we instantly saw, in the plumes of dark smoke rising from the eight-hundred-year roof of the cathedral, arrows which pierced our hearts.
Rabat – The Dame of Paris was about to be reduced to ashes as fire fighters pumped hopes, prayers, and sighs with every pulse of water that combated the ravishing fires’ attack on the roof of the much-adored cathedral.
Some might have thought that Notre Dame was, after all, “just another building”–an old building the French could rebuild if, in the worst-case scenario, it was consumed down to ash and rubble. Well, we all know that this ancient building is not just another old building. Anyone familiar with the urban heart of Paris will recognise Notre Dame as both a powerful symbol and an iconic landmark.
Visited by at least thirteen million tourists each year, it stands as the incarnation or the pinnacle of medieval architectural ingenuity; beyond the Eiffel Tower, it defines the City of Lights and offers a sense of direction on both the symbolic as well as topographical plane. It is a building draped in layers of history, or rather a building that overwhelms French history from the thirteenth century to April 15th, 2019, the day of its inferno.
We need to appreciate that while this cathedral bears meaning for Catholics all over Europe, it also speaks much of France’s secular identity. It brings both Victor Hugo and Napoleon Bonaparte under the same roof. It stands at what may be the most secular location of Paris: between the Louvre and the Sorbonne, not far from the very spots that France’s most unflinching existentialists used to frequent and fill with their unruly passion, along the streets of Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It overlooks the Seine and the Left Bank, the very cradle of twentieth-century French Intellectualism and avant-gardism.
Notre-Dame is an edifice marked by the history of the contradictions it hosted and survived, as it served as a backdrop to both the radicals and the conservatives as a testimony to times of peace and against times of horror. It withstood and challenged serious threats from Robespierre to Hitler, yet finally survived the blaze of the most recent inferno which threatened to bring all of its vaults and arches down.
While the causes of the conflagration are still under investigation, there is a political and social context within which the tragic event of the burning of the Cathedral can be located and reflected upon. The great fire of the Dame took place following a series of events that points to the déchirures and ailments of the body politic in today’s France. The strong, pervasive protests triggered by the movement of the gilets jaunes, across the Hexagon, have represented the first major challenge to Emmanuel Macron’s non-traditionalist political stance and have awakened the French to their new social and political reality, one in which the social fabric seems to be under unprecedented pressure, strained to the degree of almost irrevocable damage.
No rational person wants France to deteriorate into a country of social unrest and political instability. The world insists upon seeing France as the center of European culture and as a country of fine art, fashion, cinema, literature, elegance, and enduring monuments. France has for the last hundred years attracted intellectuals and artists from all around the globe and has offered dissenting intellectuals the comfort they require and the protection they have sought the most.
As young students, we in North Africa were first introduced to the idea of an idealised and romanticised France through the works of a long list of Arab authors like Taha Hussein, Suhail Idriss, and Amine Maalouf, not to mention the many Arab Francophone writers based in France. Perhaps because of them, we share an imagined inheritance.
The burning of the Notre-Dame cathedral reinforces the idea of France as a cultural concept foremost, which, in my opinion, the gilets jaunes movement has reshaped into an overcharged political category under the strain of France’s current social malaise. It happens, however, that culture is a generous and flexible concept at its ethical base. Thus the inferno seems to have awakened the cultural unity of France out of disaster at a crucial moment and urged business paragons and political potentates to come together and pledge fortunes to rebuild the Dame of Paris.
The fire of Notre Dame must inspire the French to the necessity of providing a better vision for France in the twenty-first century: France, as a harmonious cultural model and a generous secular space, within which frictions and tensions of all kinds exist, could turn into the model of solidarity, tolerance, and hospitality. The incandescence of the icon of Paris is alas another reminder of the fragility of the idea of the state when its apparatuses of power and capital continue to race without regard for cultural values and ideals.
We often forget that it is culture that can save us in times of trouble. However, the crumbling of the Dame’s spire is also symbolic of the event when culture itself might falter under the excesses of materialism and utilitarianism. This time, the columns of Notre-Dame withstood their ground, and with that, possibilities for change and hope become–once again–miraculously real. Culture is indeed a phoenix, but will it always rise?