The only time I ever visited Notre Dame, I have to admit it underwhelmed me. Not that I didn’t appreciate the gloomy presence of those pointed arches or admire the intricacies of the stained glass windows. But unlike most of the visitors who came to see the cathedral that day 20 years ago, I simply wasn’t dazzled. I certainly didn’t have the reaction of the Japanese woman who was standing beside me in the adjacent public square. She was happily chatting with her companions until she looked up at the monumental rooftop and abandoned her native language to exclaim, “Ah, the flying buttresses!”
Now I will be grateful if I ever get another chance to contemplate the building that has graced Paris for over eight hundred years. Flames may have destroyed the 150-year-old spire and much of the vaulted ceiling but the rest of the structure remains standing for now, a fragile reminder that nothing lasts, that even a monument that has stood for centuries can come down in a single night.
The question remains how to maintain what is still left, how to restore the ruined sections of the cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it was. To enhance that effort, over 500 million dollars have to been pledged to the restoration project, including a sizable sum from France’s wealthiest families.
This has led some to wonder whether it is morally appropriate to spend so much money on a building, a mere shell of brick and wood. After all, the thinking goes, we have so many more pressing problems in the world—homelessness, malnutrition, disease—that it seems vaguely sinful to invest such a fortune on a church, especially one in a wealthy country that has its own ugly history of imperial conquest and war.
While it is obvious that we should spend more money to help those in need, I cannot agree that the restoration of Notre Dame is a frivolous expenditure. Although I was not as moved by the cathedral as I would have liked, I recognize that Notre Dame is a rare and precious work of human creation. It was erected at a time that we now call the Dark Ages, a structure of remarkable complexity put together brick by brick in an era of fear and superstition.
By preserving Notre Dame, we preserve what is best in our species: our ability not just to dream but to give form to our dreams—to convert our imagination into the stuff of reality. The emotions it has inspired—and continues to inspire—are precisely what make us most human. Buildings like Notre Dame give us all an opportunity to look up from our daily tasks and consider the greater possibilities of life.
Which is not to say that our daily needs are not important. Civilizations such as the Egyptians placed so much emphasis on building monuments to glorify their dead that they neglected any meaningful attempts to improve the plight of the living. We certainly should not use the restoration of ancient monuments as an excuse to ignore the needs of the poor and the suffering. There is no doubt that both wealthy nations and wealthy individuals can do more to offer food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless. We are all capable of being more charitable.
But we also do not have to be philistines. Victor Hugo, who nearly two hundred years ago wrote his novel about a certain famous hunchback, understood that we do not have to choose between the useful and the beautiful. The esteemed author was an impassioned advocate for the poor, as demonstrated by his masterwork Les Miserables. But Hugo also understood the value of a great building. The Hunchback of Notre Dame spearheaded a movement to restore the cathedral after it had fallen into ruin after the French Revolution. As Marie Antoinette might have said, if she had a greater survival instinct, we can have our cake and share it.
Much like the space program of today, the construction of gothic architecture centuries ago was a human endeavor that tested the limits of what we could accomplish. The images of that charred edifice in Paris remind us how difficult it is to get our ambitions off the ground, hovering gracefully in the air. Although I did not grasp this when I visited Paris all those years ago, I now understand that great buildings like Notre Dame can show us that it is possible—at least for a moment—to resist gravity, to aspire to the glorious lift provided by flying buttresses and the ribbed vaults of an arched ceiling—to strain against that pull that will, inevitably, lead us back down to the dust below.
Image: Wikimedia Commons