In Notre Dame fire, a reminder of history’s complexity

Why We Wrote This

The debate over restoration is instructive at a moment when many politicians offer a selective view of their country’s history to fuel nationalism.

Gigarama.ru/AP
An image made available by Gigarama.ru on April 17, 2019 shows an aerial shot of the fire damage to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

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The fire that struck Notre Dame in Paris has resurfaced an important lesson: that any nation’s history – any great building’s history – is far too complex to fit on a bumper sticker.

My first instinct upon hearing the news was to Google it. Instead, I reached for a 1950s book called “Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral.” Its author brought home a truth that seems timely, as politicians draw on their countries’ past to fuel populism and nationalism.

The “history” invoked in movements like Brexit, “illiberal democracy” in Poland, Vladimir Putin’s rise in Russia, or Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” tends to airbrush out misjudgments and injustices. As debate swirls over how to restore Notre Dame, the book draws a great arc that shows that the cathedral is the product of multiple fixes and changes over the centuries.

We risk forgetting that when human stories are presented as simple matters of triumph versus threat, they are almost certainly a lot more complicated. The allure of populists’ pseudo-history grows as we lose the habit of taking the time to delve deeper.

When fire struck Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral last week, my first instinct, shared no doubt with millions across the globe, was to Google it. Yet then I reached for a yellowed edition of a 1950s book called “Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral.”

The catalyst was less intellectual than personal: its author was Allan Temko, my late uncle. But his 300-page tour of how the cathedral, and Paris and France around it, came to be, brought home a truth that seems timely nowadays, as politicians worldwide draw on their countries’ past to fuel a mix of populism and nationalism. It is that any nation’s history – any great building’s history – is far too complex, too nuanced and too rich to fit on a bumper sticker.

The same might be said of my uncle. He was best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. But “Notre Dame of Paris” was a product of his years as a would-be novelist. I always think of him as the on-again, off-again friend of fellow Columbia student Jack Kerouac, to whom he loaned his typewriter when Kerouac was working on “On The Road,” and in whose books he appears under a bizarre carousel of pseudonyms: Roland Major and, much less imaginatively, Irving Minko and Allen Minko.

The “history” invoked in movements like Brexit in Britain, “illiberal democracy” in Poland or Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s rise in Russia, or Donald Trump’s clarion call to “Make America Great Again” has little place for nuance. In drawing a picture of past glories and triumphs, it tends to airbrush out setbacks or misjudgments, not to mention the suffering, injustices, or other human frailties invariably part of history as it’s actually lived. Even the history of a cathedral. 

Centuries in the making

In exploring Notre Dame’s place in the hearts of the French, and the millions of others who visit it each year, my uncle’s book draws a great arc stretching from the earliest settlement of the Île de La Cité in the middle of the River Seine, long before there was a Paris, to the years after the Second World War. He traces the vision and design, the role of the limestone-quarriers and tree-fellers, stonemasons, and other artisans, that made possible the greatest Gothic cathedral on earth. And he revels in its beauty, describing how it strikes the eye from the Left Bank of the Seine, the Right Bank, or the river itself.

But that’s just part of the story. There is Maurice de Sully, the son of peasants from the Loire who became Bishop of Paris and conceived the idea of the cathedral. The interlocking role of the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy during the stretch of nearly a century in which the cathedral was built and France emerged as a nation. The tumults of war and crusade and inquisition. The aftermath of the French Revolution, when the crowds toppled and decapitated 28 stone statues of the ancient kings of Judah – wrongly believing them to be figures of French kings. And the fact that Notre Dame, in its current form, is the product of multiple fixes and changes over the centuries, and of long periods of deterioration and willful neglect.

In fact, its oaken roof has twice before caught fire, though the flames were spotted and put out. The emblematic image of last week’s blaze was of the enormous spire, or flèche, toppling as the roof gave way. But it, too, was a replacement, after the revolution. And my uncle’s eye for architectural detail leaves little doubt that once the fire roared out of control, its fate was sealed: It weighed one million pounds.

None of this is to suggest that only by immersing ourselves in volumes of history can we escape the allure of populists’ pseudo-history. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Notre Dame is wonderfully detailed. Yet I do think many of us have lost the habit of taking the time to delve deeper: even to go beyond a few Googled news paragraphs to the Wikipedia site.

In the process, we risk losing the understanding that when human stories are presented as simple matters of black-and-white, triumph versus threat, they are almost certainly a lot more complicated than that.

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