Henri Matisse, Notre Dame une fin d’après-midi, 1902
In September 2016, police found a Peugeot with missing plates parked just steps away from Notre Dame; inside the car, they found seven cylinders of gas. The following week, four women—one of whom was carrying a letter declaring allegiance to ISIS and describing the planned attack as a deliberate act of terror and vengeance—were arrested and charged in connection with a plot to destroy the cathedral. As it happened, the eldest of these four women, Ornella Gilligmann, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of three, had been a close acquaintance of my wife’s from childhood, for which reason these events became especially vivid in our minds. If the women hadn’t removed the license plates, we agreed, no one would have noticed the car, and the plot might have come off without a hitch.
“Can you imagine if they got the Notre Dame,” my wife kept repeating. I understood this as a rhetorical question, posed in the same spirit we often invoked at the prospect of a Trump presidency: it was impossible precisely because it was too horrible to imagine.
The fire that nearly destroyed the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral on Monday (which French authorities are investigating as an accident) is not, of course, a catastrophe in the order of the 2016 election. But looking on from the banks of the Seine, it was hard not to experience the fire as a nontrivial data point on the timeline of a slow-motion apocalypse, which from a Western perspective stretches back (depending on whom you ask) to the 2016 elections, to the Brexit referendum, to 9/11, the paroxysms of the early twentieth century, to the intractable dependence on fossil fuels, to Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment—through all of which, the Notre Dame cathedral stood intact. What would it mean, at a time when civilization itself was starting to seem like a failed idea, for one of civilization’s signal achievements to burn to the ground.
When news of the fire reached me, at quarter past seven, I was at work in the seventh arrondissement, and it was not yet clear how extensive the damage would be. By the time I went outside, at eight o’clock, the spire had just collapsed, and on the Pont Royal a crowd had gathered in silence to watch the massive tongues of flame that rose in its place, high above the rooftops about a mile upstream. Along the right bank police had cordoned off the bridges onto the Île de la Cité; cars, buses, and trucks stood hopelessly gridlocked as a thickening stream of bikes, motorcycles, and electric scooters wove its way east, and foot-traffic overran the sidewalks and spilled into the street. The smell of smoke was distinct. Endless lines of police-personnel vans nudged their way along, and inside them fresh-faced young cops pressed their noses to the glass. More than a few times, I heard people around me, astonished by the magnitude and violence of the fire, ask each other in whispers whether this could be the work of terrorists, though officials had been quick to indicate that it appeared to be an accident. In front of Hôtel de Ville, closer to the cathedral, hundreds of people had crowded onto the various tiers of the large, rectangular fountain that flanks the square, so that it seemed almost as if bleachers had been set up for the express purpose of watching the cathedral burn. Some of these people’s eyes were locked on the flames across the river; many of them held phones and cameras overhead, and many others were following the news on their screens. Some had their phones pinned to their heads, urgently describing what they could see and what they knew. Only a very few of them were crying: a man in paint-stained sneakers with his arms folded across his chest, perched on the saddle of a mountain bike, rocking himself back and forth; a woman in her twenties who let her boyfriend drag her by the hand through the crowd like a child, while she twisted herself backward in order to keep her eyes riveted to the glowing plumes of smoke. But almost without exception, their faces were graven in dismay, their mouths hung open, and their voices observed a general hush, creating a soothing walla from which could occasionally be distinguished a catch-all French expression of dismay: c’est pas possible.
The force that compels people to stand and watch a fire needs little explanation: fire, like water, draws the eye. Among the tourists, I even detected a guilty sense of good fortune that they’d planned their visits to Paris for this week of all possible weeks. I wanted to ask the locals what the cathedral had meant to them. An old man with long sideburns agreed to speak with me, but his voice came out broken and garbled and he changed his mind, turning away with his head in his hands. The same would happen a few minutes later with a young man with his hood pulled down low: after a long pause, he said he couldn’t find the words, and strode off. “It will burn until there’s nothing left,” I heard a man on his phone saying somberly as he floated by on Rollerblades.
By now, dusk had reached its deepest phase of blue, and the thick chords of water that the fire department had trained on the roof glowed red against the sky, lit by the flames from below. The iron grid of the scaffolding that had encased the upper reaches of the cathedral for the past several years smoldered, creating a bright, spectral outline of the former roof. On the Pont Louis-Philippe, news teams had assembled. A woman in a long, bright red coat working by herself for Euronews, an English-language station, set up a light stand to which she affixed an iPhone, asking her producers in the studio if they wanted the smoke rising over her left shoulder or her right. Speaking to a reporter for Russia-1, a man in a black overcoat and a periwinkle cravat explained in slow, deliberate French the great sadness that was spreading across France. “This is a historic moment,” he said. “This is a historic tragedy.” The people gathered around to listen nodded in assent.
At length, darkness fell. In the middle of the bridge, a woman in her seventies who seemed to have just arrived stood for a moment gazing up the river at what remained. She took her phone out, and after a moment of fussing turned to another elderly woman beside her for instructions on operating the camera. When she’d taken her fill of photos, I asked her where she was from and how it was she had come to be here. She introduced herself as Nicole, and explained that she was from Fontainebleau, about an hour south of Paris, but that she’d come as soon as she’d seen the news, “not to watch but rather to feel” what was happening. When I asked what the loss of Notre Dame would mean for Parisians, she cut me off: “Not for Parisians,” she said. “For the French; for Christians.” I asked if she herself was Catholic, and she straightened: “Today,” she said, “I have become a Catholic.” She looked back at the smoke rising above the rooftops, shaking her head. “C’est pas ca qu’il faut bruler,” she remarked. I understood what she’d said, but asked her to repeat herself all the same. She did: It isn’t the Notre Dame that needs to be burned. By which she meant what, exactly, I asked, caught off guard by the implication. But she was already backing away from me. “It’s just bad luck,” she said, “that it happened in the first days of Holy Week.”
Catholicism has enjoyed a fraught relationship with the Republic since the French Revolution. Nuns and monks and clergy were guillotined by the dozens along with the ruling class, until the thought that the new world would be scrubbed clean of any trace of the old became more than anyone could bear. A century (and several governments) later, the concept of laicité—France’s particularly rigorous take on secularism in government—was signed into law. The result, paradoxically, was a precarious equilibrium between church and state, wherein the latter embraced the former as a cultural institution that belonged to all of France, rather than as a religious one that belonged to Catholics alone.
All of which would be essentially harmless were it not also true that, in the past twenty years, laîcité has become a kind of ideological cover for the systemic and cultural exclusion of France’s growing Muslim population. This history seemed to inform a conversation I had sometime later with a journalist named Gladys, a woman in her thirties who held a cigarette in her teeth and who in a certain sense echoed Nicole’s remarks, though in an altogether different spirit. We were standing by the edge of the water, and by now the fire had mostly died down and the crowd in the street had thinned. In the shadows along the quay, Gladys and I stopped for a minute to take in the voices of the teenagers and twenty-somethings who were spread out on the artificial turf, passing around joints and bottles of wine, and peeling back the foil on falafel and kebab sandwiches. From the bridge and from the Île Saint-Louis, as one by one the firetrucks began to retreat to their stations, cheers and applause occasionally went up, which caused the kids around us to sneer. “There’s no villain,” one of them said, “so there has to be a hero.” Gladys grimaced.
“In the middle of Holy Week,” she said, “and in such a turbulent time, to see this enormous symbol of Catholicism burning is a striking image, and it’s very destabilizing for France. It brings to mind the passage in the Bible in which Jesus says he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.”
“It’s going to take decades to restore,” Alain, a man in his fifties who has lived for twenty years in the tenth arrondissement, told me at the end of the night. Alain didn’t mention religion to me at all. Rather, in a speech that prefigured the statement President Macron would make an hour later, he described the Notre Dame as a locus of French glory: its history, its literature, its culture, its republican values. “Victor Hugo,” he said. “The Notre Dame is part of our family. It’s part of who we are.”
In the past few years, French society has often felt like it was coming apart at the seams. After a series of terrorist attacks, a permanent rollback of civil liberties has targeted France’s Muslim population in particular. It’s become politically unwise to challenge those laws. Meanwhile, months of gilets jaunes protests have brought Macron’s approval ratings to abysmal lows, and no political party seems quite so well poised as the Rassemblement National, the extreme-right party of Marine Le Pen. It’s a dangerous time, in other words, to be doubling down on a national identity that’s rooted too deeply in the past.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Facebook friend of mine in Bretagne would share a post by Laurent Bouvet, a professor of political theory at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, waxing righteous on the failure of the republic to properly educate its youth, a sentiment that referred to a collection of screenshots in which young Muslims framed the burning of Notre Dame as a karmic call against debts France had incurred in the Muslim world. Monday night, though, on the banks of the Seine, as the fire finally seemed to die, no one wanted to get too specific about French history—and who could blame them. It was enough to say that the Notre Dame was a potent symbol of a long, fraught history, full of contradictions and hypocrisies, as well as a great deal of Western civilization’s greatest art, culture, and thought. If every document of civilization is a document of barbarity, as Walter Benjamin put it, it’s also true that some documents of barbarity are documents of humankind’s ability to create and preserve beauty. The Notre Dame surely belongs to this category. My phone was dead, I’d been talking to strangers for four hours, and I was tired of trying to speak French. And I hadn’t eaten, so I resolved to leave it at that.
It was only then, as I tried to remember my last meal, that it occurred to me that earlier in the day I’d had coffee with a high school friend of mine and his wife, who were stopping through Paris on the way back from their honeymoon. They asked me what it was like to live in Paris, as friends from home almost always do. I explained that I’d often heard my wife and her brother, both born and raised in the twentieth arrondissement, go so far as to call Paris an ugly city, a city that was unpleasing to the eye. This was a provocation, I said, but I also believed it was how a lot of people here feel about ninety percent of the time: the buildings are gray, the sky is gray, the damp gets in your bones. On the metro, everyone is dressed in brown and black and navy blue, and they have a special genius for being in the way. Everywhere you go, a uniquely Parisian blend of cussedness and superiority confounds you in even the simplest tasks. Still, I said, on certain days when the sun is shining and the pollen count isn’t too high, I find that the course of my day brings me past Notre Dame, and when it unexpectedly comes into view, the romance of living in Paris affects me powerfully, and I see the whole world with new eyes.
This little speech, which I’d made not for the first or even the tenth time, came back to me as, around midnight, I left the scene of the fire, and reflected that it had been exactly that sort of day: clear and bright and cool. Instead of going home, I stopped into an anglophone bar I knew to charge my phone, to get off my feet and maybe get a plate of fries. While I waited, I played back the interviews I’d conducted at random, trying to trace the threads that ran through each of them back to some common idea. But it was no use, I couldn’t hear; The Misfits were on the stereo, and a bearded Englishman in a wool watch cap was standing over me, describing himself to a group of much younger people as “aggressively heterosexual.” Around me, the entire room appeared to be in an advanced stage of drunkenness, and it wasn’t clear that anyone was even aware that the world was ending just a few blocks away. I retreated to the far corner of the room, where I got into a conversation with a Frenchman named Iron, a butcher who was born in the eighteenth and raised in the suburbs, who was distinct among the bar crowd for being visibly distraught by the appearance Macron was making on the television above the door. Macron’s words appeared in closed captions translated into English, and even as they invoked the restoration of the Notre Dame as France’s destiny, they conformed to Macron’s general fixation on a sense of France’s global relevance that was centuries out of date. Finally Iron turned away. He’d been down at the fire all night as well, and, making a huge circle around the Île de la Cité, he said it had become clear to him how purposefully the entire city of Paris had been built out around the cathedral; likewise the very idea of Frenchness. And what had it come to? As if the cathedral were at the heart of a centuries-old belief that he inherited as a Parisian: that the city of his birth was the center of the world. The story of Ornella appeared in my mind, and I played for him my interview with Nicole. Iron agreed: she was looking for someone to blame.
Blame for what, someone near us asked. This was a young woman from Detroit named Dominique, an international relations major in her junior year at the American University of Paris. She lived behind the cathedral in the sixth, and she’d been watching the fire all night as well. How could it be, she wondered, that in 2019 a government with France’s resources couldn’t keep an eight-hundred-year-old cathedral from going up in flames?
“Exactly,” Iron said.
For a while we batted these thoughts around. On the other side of the room, the aggressively heterosexual man held forth. The TV screen had gone blank; it claimed the signal was lost. There were no fries to be had; rather, we took turns buying each other drinks. The burning of the Notre Dame was just one example in a long series, we decided, of institutions we’d been led to believe were competent, in order to equip us with a stable, continuous sense of reality, to transmit the past into the future, where it was supposed to be of use. In the course of our lifetimes, one impossibly horrible thing after another had come to pass before our eyes, and yet the architecture had remained unchanged. So where did that leave us, I wanted to know. What happens when you burn it down and start from scratch? A catastrophe like this could be an occasion for retrogression and retrenchment, or it could be the point of departure for something new. This is where the Democratic primary, and the new progressivism that has been building since Trump took office, has been headed. The world needs to be rebuilt. How much of the past will we discard and how much will we keep?
Chris Knapp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, the New England Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Paris.
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