The fire that destroyed a large part of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris — a symbol of the French nation — was seen by all in the country, left, right and centre, as calling for national mourning and unity. President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the famous 12th-century Gothic church within five years. French and international donors immediately pledged large sums of money to help rebuild it.
Many people on social media, where images of the burning church were circulating, responded with shock, horror and sadness. The symbolic value of the building accounts for a large share of the intensity of these emotional responses. The loss of the religious relics inside the church was being particularly felt. Unlike the building, many of them have been irreparably lost.
It was striking that both religious and secular people in France and abroad were affected by the incident. Notre-Dame de Paris has historical as well as religious significance. Its destruction unexpectedly interrupted a people’s relation to its history and past. A part of its heritage and identity had become inaccessible in that moment. I suspect that that was partly the reason for its traumatising effect.
Watching the incident unfold on social media, I was reminded of what Walter Benjamin says about nature and history in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. He contends that nature was not recognised in the baroque age by its bud and bloom but in the over-ripeness and decay of its creations. The artists of the baroque saw in nature eternal transience, and that is how they grasped history in their melancholic outlook. History was integrated in the setting of their dramatic productions in the ruin. I doubt whether there is a better way of understanding history.
During the 15 hours it was burning, Notre-Dame de Paris gave us a glimpse of history in the sense of transience and decay, as ruins built on ruins to no purpose. We were reminded for a brief spell that history is not a museum that we can visit on holidays at a reduced price where the past is conserved; that our effort to preserve it against the tide of time sometimes looks like the feverish and mad attempt of a man trying to plug the hole of a sinking ship at sea with his thumb.
The incident also evoked the powerful and unsettling symbol of a blazing church. This symbol, more than any other, conveys the contradiction that characterises modernity. Modernity begins as a time of mourning and loss, of alienation and exile, at the same time as it loudly proclaims the march of progress, of liberation from oppression and of greater enlightenment for all.
Charles Baudelaire expressed this well in his poem Le Cygne. “Paris changes! But nothing in my melancholy has changed!”
At one level, the poet is talking about the transformation of the city of Paris undertaken by Baron Haussmann, prefect of the Seine, under the direction of the Second Empire in the 1860s, who changed the medieval city into a modern urban environment with its broad boulevards.
At another level, the poet is describing modernity as a desacralised age, an age that lives under a sky that is “ironic” and “cruelly blue”, limpid and empty. The modern world is a world from which the gods have fled and in which human life has in consequence been deprived of meaning and value. Everything looks sham and kitschy in the capitalist environment of the middle of the 19th century. Everything in the present symbolises the loss of meaning for life.
Modernity describes the experience of a displacement and of the expropriation of one’s native homeland. “I think of the black woman, wasted and consumptive, trudging through the muddy streets, and searching with a fixed eye for the absent coco-palms of splendid Africa.” All the characters in Le Cygne, including the black woman, are figures of exile. They are people who have been deprived of their world and who now live in utter grief and despair.
The image of a blazing church is unsettling because it signifies the death of God.
But it is not clear how this death should be interpreted and, accordingly, how modernity is to be interpreted. It can mean, on the one hand, mankind’s ultimate liberation from all that is oppressive, starting with clerical and royal power.
But on the other hand, the absence of the sacred, and of the native home and homeland (always considered sacred), can also mean that the exiled and the expropriated live in a time of crisis where the meaning of everything hangs in the balance at every moment and that a decision weighs on them permanently as a burden.
Baudelaire was suspicious of the idea of progress and of the call for political freedom, having witnessed how the Revolution of February 1848 led to the coup of 1851 by Napoleon III, which marked the end of the Second Republic and the beginning of the oppressive regime of the Second Empire. The bourgeoisie had won, capitalism was fast becoming the order of the day, and the imperialist and colonialist ventures were on the upswing.
However, Baudelaire knew, in his melancholic moods, what we were also reminded of, watching Notre-Dame de Paris burn. This is that this building is transient and that, in the course of history, this capitalist and urban civilisation will also be but a heap of ruins.
Rafael Winkler is a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg. These are his own views