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Why Notre Dame matters

  • REX MURPHY

We in the West are obliging amnesiacs of our greatest achievements. 


notredamefiredFor a while there, one of the monuments of Western civilization was in full peril and we were, in the full etymological understanding of the word, astonished into contemplating what might be lost.  The fire at Notre Dame, to our benefit, arrested the attention of the world and provoked reflections on matters that, in an age of distraction, ceaseless amusements and the cascade of every-streaming "information," are not commonly entertained.

We spin through life in ever more swift revolvings—the brief, transient, immediate and ever-refreshing present moment—refreshing in the computer sense of endless "updating" of the screen for the newest new thing, song, list or image.

We marvel at our toys and apps but the marvel is not deep, more a glow from the novelty of the latest "upgrade," the latest facile convenience—life lived through apps and caught on Instagram.  Here now, gone the next minute, to some degree in our web- congested lives, is the pace of life.  This is how we moderns experience time, not as a continuous stream, but in successive bits, fragmented and discrete.  Our diminished sense of wonder, so essential for the imagination of human beings, is easily indicated by how the common use of "awesome" in our time is precisely the opposite of what the word really means.

Awesome now is a shallow tribute to mini-explosions of satisfaction for matters eminently trivial and momentary—the latest Captain Marvel movie, or some pathetic putdown on Twitter.  The cellphone camera freezes the life all around us into stored images of what is happening, mere mechanical glimpses of life, which we will "get back to" when the event of the moment is, in its own time, over.   It's a little like we're "taping life" so that we can watch it later.  Our eyes and minds are saturated with the small novelties of each passing moment, which decimates any possible sense of a vision of the order and pattern of things, the beauty which only emerges from a full, not fitful, apprehension of experience.

We catch our wonders, such as they are, with cellphone cameras to post them later—which counts as experience—on Facebook.  Reality is glib.  All is surface and transient display.

Notre Dame, by the fullest standards of human achievement, is remarkable.  Longevity was at play even in its building, a common endeavour over 300 years, and its existence—beyond time's decay or external ravaging—near 900.  Centuries cluster around that building, and thereby the motions of history, events great and small enacted so to speak within the great shadow of its long presence.  People coming to view the cathedral are by it put in mind of the great flow of history, the accumulation of events, achievements, sorrows and joys of art and life that played out around its magnificent towers, and within its vast ornamented spaces.

They are put in mind, too, of the "small" history of the place, given to wonder how many prayers from ever so many worshippers ascended its grand spaces, how many the Masses, weddings and funerals, celebrated under its enduring vaults, all in counterpoint with the unfolding history of Paris, France and the wider world?

A building of this splendour positions the mind to the exercise of real contemplation, not to "glimpse" at life but to take in it.  A famous aphorism has it that "architecture is frozen music," by which surely is meant only great architecture and great music.  The implied analogy is a good one.  I find it very natural to think of Notre Dame as one would think of Beethoven's mighty works, the Fifth or the Ninth or the Missa solemnis, works of such awe and beauty that summon the full mind to ( however unfashionable this phrase may now be) higher thoughts; and to a sense of gratitude for the artists and builders that have given us the great monuments of human creativity.  Losing Notre Dame would be like somehow erasing the Ninth Symphony or casting Michelangelo's Pietà into a gravel pit.

They are put in mind, too, of the "small" history of the place, given to wonder how many prayers from ever so many worshippers ascended its grand spaces, how many the Masses, weddings and funerals, celebrated under its enduring vaults, all in counterpoint with the unfolding history of Paris, France and the wider world?

Some remarkably small minds questioned the "fuss" that was being made over the possible destruction of Notre Dame.  Is there so much that is great and wonderful and beautiful in this world that we should not lament the loss of any of its unquestionable marvels?  Is there such a surplus of the very best that human minds and human hands have created, art or artifact, which have nourished the better, wiser, noble side of our nature, that we should view with indifference or scorn any subtraction from our greatest creations?

Rolling Stone, that so reliably fallible magazine, trawled the shallows to pluck one observer of the Paris fire who gave as his view of Notre Dame that perhaps it was a good thing that it should be lost, that "The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation."  It is to wonder what cage such a writer is in, that the burning down of Notre Dame will "liberate" him from.  We are not in a time when people (or buildings) are "overburdened with meaning," though if there were such a condition certainly Rolling Stone is at hand to relieve us of what little meaning or understanding we may toil under.

In that precarious moment when it seemed the cathedral was doomed, the world was shocked into the contemplation of what it really might be losing, woken very clearly to the realization that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Entertainment Tonight.

We in the West are obliging amnesiacs of our greatest achievements.  And it takes something like the jeopardy to Notre Dame to remind us of our common cultural and artistic heritage.  That through literature, painting, sculpture, music and all the attendant arts the West has brightened and deepened the experience of life, and put in possession for generations past and to come creations that widen our souls.  It is good, too, and of the essence of the near tragedy in Paris, to be reminded that from the power of religion in the so-called dim light of the Middle Ages, by the labour of hands and minds of a whole people, something as transcendent as the great vaults and towers of Notre Dame was given over to the world.

Far from being "overburdened with meaning," we thirst for it; we are in a famine of meaning.  We have but to look up more, and look back, and it is there to find.  Hence why Notre Dame matters.

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Acknowledgement

NationalPostRex Murphy, "Why Notre Dame matters." National Post, (Canada) April 19, 2019.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

The Author

Murphysmmurphy Rex Murphy was host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup, a nation wide call-in show, for 21 years before stepping down in September 2015. Murphy is a frequent presence on the various branches of the CBC. He has regular commentary segments entitled "Point of View" on The National, the CBC's flagship nightly news program.  See Rex's TV commentaries. In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post. He is the author of Canada and Other Matters of Opinion and Points of View.

Copyright © 2019 National Post
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