Notre Dame is on fire, and its spire has fallen.
As of Monday afternoon, we don’t know for sure how the fire began or how extensive the damage is, but the world has responded to the news with an outcry of horror and grief. “Paris is beheaded,” one man told the New York Times as the spire fell.
If we lose Notre Dame, we’re not losing only a sacred space, and not only an art treasure. Notre Dame is a symbol of human accomplishment, and more than that, of social accomplishment. It’s not the work of any one person, but of generations upon generations of labor.
Work began on Notre Dame in 1180. It took 200 years to finish. And in the time since the cathedral was largely completed in 1260, it has survived war and weather and changing fashions. It survived the loss of its spire once before, in 1786, after the spire’s supporting structure was so weakened by centuries of weathering that restorers removed it and replaced it. It survived riots from the Huguenots. It survived the French Revolution. It survived Napoleon. It survived World War II.
Notre Dame represents the most beautiful things that we as human beings can make if we pour unimaginable amounts of labor and wealth and resources and time into the effort. It’s a pinnacle of a certain kind.
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And so if Notre Dame is irrevocably damaged, it might be a good time to turn to one of the greatest celebrations of what the cathedral represents, which appears in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This description appears at the opening of Book Three of the novel, just after we meet Quasimodo the hunchback and Esmeralda the dancing girl, and it’s an evocation of what makes Notre Dame great:
Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending, pendent opera interrupta; they proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it, incrusts itself there, assimilates it to itself, develops it according to its fancy, and finishes it if it can. The thing is accomplished without trouble, without effort, without reaction,— following a natural and tranquil law. It is a graft which shoots up, a sap which circulates, a vegetation which starts forth anew. Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder. […]
All these shades, all these differences, do not affect the surfaces of edifices only. It is art which has changed its skin. The very constitution of the Christian church is not attacked by it. There is always the same internal woodwork, the same logical arrangement of parts. […] The service of religion once assured and provided for, architecture does what she pleases. Statues, stained glass, rose windows, arabesques, denticulations, capitals, bas-reliefs,—she combines all these imaginings according to the arrangement which best suits her. Hence, the prodigious exterior variety of these edifices, at whose foundation dwells so much order and unity. The trunk of a tree is immovable; the foliage is capricious.
Hugo thinks of Notre Dame as a work of art authored by humanity itself, with no individual artist. It surpasses anything an individual can do and therefore becomes the best of what all of us can do.
But Hunchback isn’t just a celebration of what makes Notre Dame great. It’s a reminder that Notre Dame has been rebuilt before — and it can be again.
When Hugo was writing, Notre Dame was in a state of horrific disrepair. Its architecture was considered old-fashioned, it was largely neglected, and it was vandalized. Hugo ends the preface of Hunchback with the dark prediction that “the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.”
Instead, the church was saved. When The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in 1831 and became a smash hit, popular attention turned back to the church. In 1844, the king ordered a restoration.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was written to celebrate a landmark on the brink of death, and instead the novel succeeded in resurrecting it. Perhaps it is possible for a similar rebirth to happen again today.