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Summer Brennan is an award-winning investigative journalist and author. She received the 2016 Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award and was a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. She is the author of High Heel: An Object Lesson (Bloomsbury, 2019) and The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America (Counterpoint, 2015), which was a finalist for the 2016 Orion Book Award. A longtime consultant for the United Nations, her writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Granta, New York Magazine, Scientific American, McSweeney's, Longreads and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and New Mexico.

Rewriting A Symphony In Stone

Engraving of the cathedral of Notre Dame circa 1850 by Deroy. Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

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.

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