Summer Brennan | Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,685 words)

As flames erupted from the roof of Notre Dame cathedral, snapping their bright orange tongues against the blue of a darkening springtime sky, people the world over felt the scorch of its destruction lick the walls of our internal picture galleries. We patted down our memories, as one does when fearing the loss of a wallet, making sure they were still there: the year we lived on the Left Bank, the semester abroad, the summer vacation or backpacking trip when, after what felt like an eternity standing in line, we climbed up to the bell towers for a view of Paris among the gargoyles. Jutting stone of an ancient river island, lapped by eight centuries of the city’s shifting tides of politics and light.

If we had never set foot in Notre Dame, or even in France, our vault of association was no less full. Novels, paintings, photographs, postcards, and films both old and new rushed in to provide romantic context: Audrey Hepburn spilling ice cream on Cary Grant on the quai opposite the famous cathedral in Charade; Jesse telling Celine in Linklater’s Before Sunset about the Nazi who defied orders by refusing to blow it up; Quasimodo swinging down on a rope to save Esmeralda from the mob, and shouting from the symbolic protection of the church his stirring claim of “Sanctuary!” If we do not have our own Paris to recall, there is the fabled city of Victor Hugo, Colette, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin. As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.


I’ve been visiting Paris for work for the past three years. When last I was there, in September, I enacted what has become an informal ritual. After dinner on my final night, I walk down to the Seine from the apartment where I am staying — most recently, on a little street in the 9th that houses artists and young families in limestone buildings, a good café, and a few discreet brothels. I make my way along the water to Shakespeare & Co bookstore by way of the medieval bridges of the Île de la Cité, over which Notre Dame cathedral presides. Even at night there is often a crowd gathered in its great square. Street performers juggle or make music. Senegalese men sell miniature Eiffel towers to American tourists. Young people gather in couples and small groups along the water, drinking openly from bottles of wine. The bright flood lights on the nighttime façade spill over the quais and the people and the souvenir stalls, and fall molten into the black river as shards of liquid gold.

As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.

In front of the cathedral is a round plaque set into the cobblestones indicating that this is both the center of the capital and of the country as a whole. Books bought at Shakespeare & Co too can, if you choose, be stamped to commemorate their purchase at this same locality; the navel of a great city; France’s kilometer zero. I liked the idea of ending my trip in the place where Paris began.

As the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in an essay in 1935, since prehistoric times the work of art has been, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. “We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual,” he writes, “first the magical, then the religious kind.” A work of art has always been reproducible — at least in principle. But even the best and most accurate reproductions, whether they are created for study, profit, or preservation, lack one fundamental element: the unique existence of the object in time and space. The beingness of a work of art, he argued, is not just the impact to the eye, but the damage it has suffered and the stories it has accrued. They are individual and irreplaceable, like a person, not in spite of hardships weathered, but because of them.

The news footage of Notre Dame in flames reminded me of 19th century illustrations depicting the burning of the Tuileries Palace in May of 1871. That fire, set during the Paris Commune, must have heaved a similar tempest of smoke and ember into the spring sky, while communard artists like Gustave Courbet are said to have scrambled to save the paintings in the connected wings of the Louvre. I thought also of the stately homes and warren-like Medieval slums alike that were torn down at the bidding of urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann during France’s Second Empire, to make way for the city’s now-famous Grand Boulevards and to disadvantage the use of barricades. Even the imposing glass-domed Grand Palais, visible from much of the city, was built on the site of a recently demolished, quite similar pavilion, which in turn had replaced another grand structure, all within the span of a century; France flexing its colonial wealth; reinvention for reinventions’ sake.

The cathedral of Notre Dame itself, as it stood before this latest interference by fire, had already been altered by time, revolution, repair, and artistic reinterpretation. The same month that Marie Antoinette was guillotined at Place de la Concorde, anti-royalist mobs stormed the cathedral, dragged the statues that they took for kings into the great square, and beheaded them, too. The spire that came crashing down so dramatically on Monday, April 15th had been installed, not in the 12th or 13th century, but in the 19th, when the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was running around France renovating castles and gothic buildings to better match his era’s idea of them, Notre Dame included. The past was itself rebuilt to replace the past.

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It reminds me, for some strange reason, too, of a time in my mid 20s when a man I was in love with and I shared a wonderful spring day together in Vermont, but took no pictures. Regretting that we had missed the opportunity to have a photographic record of those experiences, the next day we reenacted what we’d done and took photographs as if we were doing it all for the first time. We laughed as we tried, together, to remember and re-stage each moment: here was where he climbed up onto an old brick wall to pick some lilacs — click; here was where we embraced under falling apple blossoms — click, again. We wore the same clothes and performed, like a ritual, what we had first done spontaneously and without the worry of posterity. Over time, I often forgot that these photos were of a reenacted day and not the day itself. The homage stood in for the original. And what is an original?

Our concepts of originality and authenticity in a work of art depend on this specificity, this ritual — which is a kind of magic. A Manet is distinct from and worth infinitely more than a reproduction, no matter how skilled, because we want the breath in the brushstrokes, the present absence of the mood of the man himself; the blessing of a specific moment. But, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the act of reproduction also enables the original to meet the viewer halfway. He writes that via representation, “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art.” With Notre Dame, here is a cathedral that has, at least in spirit, left its island and traveled all over the world.


As spectators the world over mourned the damages being inflicted before our very eyes, some were already thinking ahead to what repairs or revisions might be carried out this time. Their imaginations jumped ahead to the reimagining. If, as Victor Hugo wrote in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral was “a vast symphony in stone,” now would be the start of a new orchestral movement. But what form will that take? Hugo’s symphony also included, by necessity, the bass notes produced by its rubble and disrepair, the beingness of its individual history. Some elements of this music — enduring as the names carved centuries ago into wooden oak beams, or fleeting as the birds’ nests built this spring among the rooftop statuary — are lost no matter what.

The greatest enemies to historic buildings are weather, accident, politics, and time. If left without interference, Hugo’s symphony in stone would already be nothing but the ruin of a melody, not unlike the way the ambient album of William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops, captures the death of musical phrases in real time. He does this by replaying a short loop of audio cassette over and over until the physical tape begins to degrade, the ends of notes falling off like bits of masonry from a crumbling church. The melody retreats until all that is left are the standing stones of its tonal rhythms. Finally, the dust that makes the sound has fallen completely away and the music is lost. People have repurposed these dying melodies to serve as requiems for everything from romantic relationships to buildings, like the Twin Towers.

Without intervention, so many of the treasures we’ve carried into the digital age from an antique world would be more like these loops — but we’ve gone and replaced the dust of music to their tape. In reality, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is missing parts of her earring and her face. The old paint has chipped away notably, but casual viewers don’t know this. A layer of temporary water-based paint has been applied by the restorers of the Mauritshuis Museum where the painting is housed, in an attempt to present what Vermeer intended. This is fantasy, and maybe also time travel. A little bit of make believe. Photos of an event taken the day after the event.

The century-old statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen’s harbor, perhaps the most frequently victimized artwork in the world, has been vandalized, beheaded, dismembered, painted, blown up, and otherwise damaged and then repaired so many times that almost nothing remains of the statue’s original materials. Is it still the same statue? Like the cells of a human body replacing themselves over the years, and the changing seasons of our ideas of self and world, across the span of a lifetime we are the same, and also not. It is the story that makes the individual, and the work of art. The Mona Lisa was not a famous painting until it was stolen and recovered.


Where else do we store our complex feelings of hope and belonging but in a place, or our image of a place? Of course, whole cities have been razed by war, fire and earthquake, and then rebuilt throughout history: Chicago, San Francisco, Warsaw, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Beirut, among others, have all been knocked down and built back up again just in the past 150 years. Sometimes we rebuild lost monuments in as close an approximation as we can manage. The Frauenkirche church in Dresden was firebombed so totally by the Allies in 1945 that only a few wall fragments were left standing, pillars glowing red amidst the ash. It stood in this state of total ruin for 45 years until, like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, it was entirely rebuilt, using the original architectural plans; an 18th century church, recreated and completed in 2005.

France, though once cavalier about knocking down grand or ancient buildings it no longer had a use for, is now quite dedicated to giving life back to endangered monuments. The cathedral at Reims, another French Gothic church, was almost totally destroyed by bombing in the First World War, after it was converted into a temporary hospital and filled with straw — a seven-hundred-year-old tinderbox. It was very similar to Notre Dame in look and age, and after several decades was rebuilt and restored completely. Just last month, some of the statues that decorate Notre Dame were beheaded once again — this time by restoration workers, not revolutionaries — in order to safely remove them for long-needed repairs, just days before the fire. But what is lost in such a fire, be it by war or by accident, are the individual touches — the chiseling styles of particular masons visible in the stone, the names of workers over centuries etched into wooden beams that went up like kindling. A replica loses these things.

Churches, belonging as they do to the folks in the eternity business, have a particular way of promoting expectations of immortality — and of evoking its opposite when they prove as mortal and susceptible to injury as the rest of us. And some of those following the conflagration on the news and social media could not help but conflate this particular building with the sins or sanctity of the religion it was consecrated to, seeing the fire as either an act of justice or injustice, depending on one’s view of Catholicism. They found metaphor in the gleaming cross rising above the charred and fallen beams, or in the fire as avenger, or in the fact that amidst the destruction, sunlight was streaming into the old church for the first time in close to a thousand years. The cathedral had been wounded, but not mortally. The vast majority of its recognizable structure still stands.

But Notre Dame de Paris is the property of the secular state of France, not the Church — both culturally and legally. Like the work of art that it’s been hailed as, it has come to mean different things to many of its viewers and visitors than may have ever been explicitly intended by its makers. For the religious it is a place of worship, consecrated to the Virgin Mary, but its name means Our Lady of Paris, invoking for some a veneration of the divine feminine. It has been beloved by pilgrims, but also by artists like Henri Matisse, who lived in view of it for most of his adult life and painted it repeatedly, in the straw-colored tones of morning, and the blue of evening, and the chiaroscuro of night.

Notre Dame has stood watch as the city and its inhabitants have suffered plagues, burnings, hangings, revolutions, and terrorism.

Most of all, Notre Dame — itself built on the site of several previous churches — has been a witness. It was begun even before the original fortress castle of the Louvre that now only remains in the form of turret ruins in an in-situ archeological exhibit beneath the storied museum. Notre Dame had been standing completed for 100 years before Joan of Arc tried unsuccessfully to liberate Paris in 1429, and it was in its stone interior that Joan’s mother, Isabelle Romée, pleaded successfully to reverse her daughter’s excommunication.

Unlike some other European cities, modern Paris has never been totally destroyed by violence. Even the Nazi occupation did relatively little damage to the city’s face. But plenty of blood has run through its streets regardless. Notre Dame has stood watch as the city and its inhabitants have suffered plagues, burnings, hangings, revolutions, and terrorism. The leader of the Knights Templar was burned at the stake on Île de la Cité in sight of Notre Dame, not far from what is now a well known market where shoppers come on Saturdays to buy flowers, and on Sundays to buy birds. Behind the church is a memorial honoring the 200,000 Parisians who were sent away to die in concentration camps, and in front of it, on a building across the great square is a plaque commemorating the spot where a member of the French resistance was killed. It reads:

Here fell


the Liberation


Guardian of the Peace

21 August 1944

One wonders, was Monsieur Ternard facing the cathedral in his last moments, or was he forced to face the wall? Either way, Our Lady of Paris faced towards him.

Since distant times, Notre Dame has borne witness to the rituals of Paris; its markets, its protest and revolutions, its lovers. The cyclops gaze of its rose windows — miraculously spared through this latest disaster — have observed as the days and decades and centuries pass through the hands of the city like prayer beads. Be it magic or art that most animates such a place for you, each share the power to conjure. We are all, sometimes, in need of sanctuary.

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Summer Brennan is the author most recently of High Heel, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series in partnership with The Atlantic. Her next book, The Parisian Sphinx, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Editor: Sari Botton
Fact-checker: Matt Giles