It was sometime on Monday morning that I saw the first reference: “Notre Dame Cathedral on Fire” or “Notre Dame Engulfed in Flames” (I don’t recall the exact phrasing), accompanied by images of thick smoke in the darkness of early evening in Paris, with a threatening glow of yellow-orange light.
The smoke cleared suddenly to reveal the spire, tall and thin, pointed and helpless, surrounded by flames, reaching up behind the two towers.
The sight was startling and horrible. Notre Dame was on fire, blazing and glowing on a Monday night, April 15, in Paris. The spire and the roof were surrounded by fire and there was nothing in the images that indicated they would or could be saved.
The fire continued its work, and then — this could be imagination or just an inference or the work of the wind — the spire seemed to shake a little amid the crackling noises of things breaking and tearing apart. It seemed on television to shudder and bend.
Moments later, the spire leaned left and down and downward, pushed by the flames. It bowed and bent and collapsed in a gesture much like that of royalty leaving the stage. Flames and noise and the roofs followed and it was gone.
That particular segment was not long in length or duration, but it was a visceral shock, a punch to the heart, and I nearly wept. To anyone who had ever been to Paris and found the time spent to be like an unforgettable travel wish fulfilled, an implausible gift, this was a profound moment of … not exactly loss, but robbery, not quite an erasure, but some force defacing a cherished place.
To Parisians, who tend to have longer memories than just their own lifetimes, it was a tremendous tragedy, a blow to the history of the fabled City of Light, which has seen days of glory and horrible atrocities and days of darkness and occupation, as well as bursts of lasting creativity.
Napoleon was crowned in the cathedral, Joan of Arc was made a saint and gargoyles and stone monsters, attached permanently in a state of fixed prowling, stood by arches and rooftops and windows there.
Even as firefighters fought to save relics and art and keep the fire at bay from old, old treasures, Parisians started to gather at the cathedral, silent at first, eyes fixed with worry and sadness. And then, they sang — not the defiant “Marseillaise” from the barricades or in post-terrorist response, but, in soft but unified voices, “Ave Maria” or other, sadder, prayerful songs, as befits watching Europe’s and perhaps the world’s most famous house of worship in dire jeopardy.
For many Americans, myself and my wife included, the fire — an accident of life, neither act of God nor a crime that we know of — opened up floodgates of memory. Eleven years ago, my wife and I were in Paris during Easter week, and attended Easter Mass at Notre Dame. We heard the Mass recited in French, sitting at one of the many side altars that Sunday, and listened to the words and felt the spiritual perfume of the old cathedral, and its ageless age.
To the world, to us, to the millions of visitors that come to the city yearly, the Eiffel Tower may have a determinedly populist and irresistible attraction, but to many it is Notre Dame Cathedral which is the heart and soul, the spiritual, historical, cultural and artistic beacon of the city. Every known cliché about Paris and every building, flag, tune, picture, movie streams out from Notre Dame and back again, even beyond the city itself to Normandy and Mont Saint-Michel and everything connected not only with Paris but with France.
Notre Dame is more than a church, of kings and bishops and Christians and martyrs, it is a kind of lifeform of humanity built with stone and wood, that aspires to flight even now. We returned from France fulfilled in seeing the spirit of Paris in the flesh, manifest in the gargoyles, the altars, the stained-glass, firmly rooted in our experience of life.
We came back with all the extra luggage, bags of memories: the resonance of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and its restaurants, especially Les Deux Magots, across the street from the Hotel Madison, our hotel, where you faced a church that was built, not in 1146, like Notre Dame, but in the ninth century. At Les Deux, Hemingway and Picasso and the Lost Generation ate frequently.
In the Paris we had imagined, it turned out we could walk everywhere, take in La Chapelle, the royal chapel near Notre Dame where you climbed circular and dimly lit winding stairs to hear a string quartet play “The Four Seasons” or Brahms.
It snowed on a statue in the garden of Versailles when we were there, and we saw a topless mermaid swim with a snake at the Moulin Rouge, and on our way back from Notre Dame stumbled upon Shakespeare and Company, the legendary bookshop where a homeless man had fallen asleep on a couch near a stack of new paperback versions of “The Sun Also Rises.”
A waiter in a café across the street and the Seine and its barges chewed me out for trying to put mustard on cheese — “Fromage with moutard? Non, non, non!” he yelled and would not bring the combo.
We first saw Notre Dame from a distance, like a lighthouse of the soul, and there were gypsies, about whom we were warned at the museums, the Louvre, the Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay. We watched rain hit the rooftops outside our windows and, at Notre Dame, felt as if Quasimodo, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame bell-ringer, seemed real when you heard the bells.
We came home fulfilled and more.
Now and today, Notre Dame today seems diminished and different. The landscape there now seems not like church, or grave, but an open wound.
But that too will change. The cinematic cliché that remains will still be true: We will always have Paris.
We will always have Notre Dame, if not the same, if not tomorrow, but the next day and always.