Jadis, the bells. Paris is in flames. Notre de Dame de Paris, my dearest, most cherished Cathedral, our Lady of Paris, is burning.
Or certainly, it was when I began writing. Now it sits, an exhausted carcass, divested of that eldest of jewels from the Parisian skyline. Much of the stained glass is ruined. And the windows have been blinded.
This is particularly painful for all French people. I, like many of them, have a long, difficult and passionate relationship with Notre Dame, mostly because of how much I have sung about it. I remember the first time I saw the Cathedral itself depicted, in the Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The most gothic, the darkest piece in the mouse’s repertoire, it marked me as a child. The first time I heard those voices, coupled with those spires, stabbing into that sky, I was terrified, I was exhilarated, I was amazed at the power of the artistic and dark marvel. It stayed with me forever.
The passion people can have for something so immortal as a building can truly show how they can bring out the personhood within our creations, the moral in the static. Anthropology has much to say about such things, particularly in the works of Michel Foucault, especially on how architecture affects peoples’ feelings; how their surroundings affect their moods; how buildings can be so evocative, purely because of this integral intransitive nature of the human spirit, because of this very ghost within the shell. And what ghosts do haunt our cities now.
Victor Hugo knew this, in fact he published that famous hunchback’s tale in an effort to generate public interest in the Cathedral, which was at the time Paris’s local, dilapidated and forgotten ruin. His book, in time, helped garner enough interest to pay for the restorations we saw crumble and part into dust and smoke in the wind. And so that spirit passes. And so passes the old Europe, into oblivion.
The first time I ever sang a solo in our rural town’s music conservatoire young choir, at say 12 or 13, I knew what I would sing about. I still remember my name being called, as I stepped out from behind the curtain to expectant applause, and the bells shook, and the voices did swell, until my queue, on a little accordion…
“Morning in Paris, the city awakes to the Bells of Notre Dame. The fisherman fishes, the bakerman bakes, to the Bells of Notre Dame. From the big bells as LOUD as the Thunder, to the little bells as -soft- as a psalm, and SOME say the SOUL of the city’s the TOLL of the bells… The Bells of Notre Dame. Kyrie eleison…”.
And it was never the same for me again. I still remember sitting in the cellar of our old 15th century house, in France, intermittently watching the musical Notre Dame de Paris, waiting for my calls to help with the dinners we would host at the Manor. I sat in awe as Bruneau Pelletier sang away about “a time of Cathedrals”, becoming one of my vocal heroes, the song becoming one of my go-to standards. That famous song of the successful musical show touches on the advent of the Cathedral as a symbol of man’s growing ambition in Europe, heralded by the Gothic.
In the passage from Romanesque to Gothic architecture, in making the buildings bigger, European architecture had looked to nature to make the inside of churches resemble the outside world and was inspired by the natural landscape for decoration and adaptation of space. The very term ‘gothic’ itself was used derogatively by writers like Molière to criticise a barbarous, pagan style called monstrous by association with a less ‘civilised’ age.
By very virtue of worshipping a ‘pagus’, a local spirit of nature, the earlier pagans venerated nature, and medieval Christian churches began to take on aspects emulative of the ‘nemetons’, sacred groves of the heathens from Europe of yore. Greeks and Romans themselves had their ‘tenemos’, areas of vegetation or clearings separated from public use, for a religious purpose (associated with the female Oracle at Delphi; perhaps related to the Greek delphus, ‘womb’). The Norse Poetic Edda features the open-air ‘hörgr’ (harrow, etymologically related to ‘heathen’). D. Wilson notes that for the Anglo-Saxons, the hörgr is specifically a “special type of religious site, that occupied a prominent position on high land and was a communal place of worship for a specific group of people”.
Soon, almost as if inspired by a divine, pagan purpose sleeping within them, as if it had been dictated to them by an ancestral wisdom, the medieval European builders of gothic churches beheld the truly sacred, the natural world, and made of it a cold, stone creation. They took the magical outside, brought it inside, and made of it the prerogative of their one god and the possession of the mortal man. All of this, in simple architecture, in ancient stone.
Even the veneration of fertility in the form of resplendent, beautiful goddesses was retained somehow by the Europeans of old Paris, for though referring to the Virgin Mary, they made of this now presently wounded cathedral, ‘Our Lady’, of the city.
The first time I saw the place in person was in 2017 on a much belated visit to the capital, I was shy and nervous about the city, like an estranged friend, like a lost lover, but when I arrived with a companion acting as guide at the station of the Isle de la Cité, then I knew. Then I felt it. The soul of Paris. It was about time. It was about the enduring, deepest European aspect. And then we went upstairs, and to the street. And I heard it. I heard them. The bells of Notre Dame.
When I finally did go inside, it was a deeply spiritual experience, but not for Christian reasons. For only then did I feel and know Paris. The high ceilings and high halls, evoking Europe’s ancient sacred groves of tall trees, oak, pine and poplar. The Cathedral’s small park by the Seine, watching the people of the city go by, young people, young students, people from intelligent cities.
People love their cities, and they love the buildings which they and their kin have woken up to and walked past for centuries. Such a paysage of human construction acts to support a sort of consistency of a nation’s spirit. These buildings are a skeleton, they are the frameworks which contain and maintain the very culture of the people.
And so everywhere, on our social media platforms, on our video-streaming services, all that can be heard is that “Europe is dying!”. It is not the first time a great fire having devastated a great edifice of cultural import has prompted reactions of national significance. Most significantly, comparisons can be drawn to the 1933 Reichstag Fire, when the burning of the historic German Parliament building in Berlin allowed Adolf Hitler to put the country into a state of national alert. This was the first and most conclusive step towards seizing power on a national scale for Hitler, and it sealed Germany’s future forever.
Conspiracies have abounded for decades and ever will as to the cause of such fires. But the consequences of such fires are inarguable: grim, dejected locals, suddenly feeling a great need to protect what is theirs for pride and for sovereignty.
And so, poor Notre Dame. If her bells do not sound, Paris is made mute. If her glass does not shine, Paris is blinded. But we must not forget that as long as her children live, Our Lady of Paris survives. And so we must look to future truth, and future Europeans. If their spirit built her, their spirit can do and ought to do so much more than this.
Jadis, les cloches. Adieux Notre Dame. Adieux Paris. I owe you the letters after my name. And I hear you forever in my heart. Jadis, the bells.
And this comes now, when we see ourselves go mad, when a black hole is seen for the first time, and we stare into it; the abyss stares back, and smiles.
I saw fire, and as it presides over us now, the black hole sun dawns. A vile rictus upon us. How destiny does smile, sickeningly. How the fates, as the vates, do seem to have a sense of humour. Clown World begins. A Circle of fire forms.
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