Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

This Too Shall Pass

So, as most of us know, Notre-Dame de Paris had a fire which gutted the building pretty thoroughly. Actually, quite a lot of stuff was not burned up (apparently both organs are basically OK, and so on). Apparently you can drop a couple hundred tons of burning wood and lead onto that delicate vaulted ceiling and it doesn't collapse, mad props to the masons.

Predictably, there is global hand-wringing, and everyone suddenly remembers that the cathedral is the most important building in the world, and it is so sad. Humanity lionizes the recently departed, for some reason. I dare say a lot of the loudest moaners would have nodded sagely last week if you had shown them a photo of the cathedral captioned The Louvre.

We also, in these modern times, seem to be obsessed with preservation, especially of anything which smacks of Art. Buildings in the USA that are 100 years old are, to the amusement of everywhere else, added to Historic Registers and woe betide the owner, because now you can't change anything about the damned thing. You have to leave the single-glazed windows alone, and, yes, continue to heat it with increasingly difficult to obtain whale oil. Ansel Adams spawned a couple generations of photographers who obsessively wash their prints and negatives so as to ensure they will be in perfect condition when their heirs throw them into the inevitable dumpster.

The Wall Street Journal magazine recently had a fairly interesting article on the efforts the Vatican expends to maintain the Sistine Chapel in "like-new" condition. It is a constant, expensive, effort. They preserve where possible, and remake when necessary. Eventually, if this keeps up, the whole thing will have been remanufactured, brand-new as it were, but identical with the original.

Why did Ansel wash his prints so carefully? Why do we preserve these monuments in amber? Part of it is simply money. Adams wanted people to pay him large sums of money for those prints, and therefore built into his pitch that the damned thing was anyways long-lasting. Nobody wants to visit the New Sistine Chapel, they want to see the original. They want to visit the same Sistine Chapel that Doris-next-door was going on and on about.

Notre-Dame de Paris was, evidently, begun in 1160, which according to the popular press makes it 859 years old. This despite the fact that it was, maybe, a hole in the ground at the time. It was nominally completed in 1260, making it more like 759 years old (which is still very impressive). Since then it has undergone regular cycles of decrepitude due to neglect and war, followed by revitalization, all overlaid on a constant drumbeat of maintenance and modification. The most recent revitalization, spearheaded by Victor Hugo, seems to have launched the building squarely into the modern blob of amber, wherein it has resided more or less unchanged until April 15, 2019.

This place is not the Heart of France, it is not The Soul of the Earth, it is a building. It is a very well made pile of very carefully shaped rocks. Some day, it will be entirely gone. Some day, it will be forgotten. The three people injured in the fire? I begrudge Fate her bite at that apple, damn her eyes. The building? Not so much, this is simply the start of a new cycle of renewal, a new imagining of the building.

Art and indeed all the works of man are not eternal. They are made, they may have one or many lives, they pass on. If they did not, the earth would rapidly fill up with Art, so, in the end this is a good idea. Your photos do not have to last forever. Is a mayfly less wondrous and beautiful for lasting one day, rather like a photograph posted to instagram? I don't think so. If you made one picture which gave one person a single moment of sheer delight, would that not be more worthwhile than any pile of rocks in the middle of Paris? Notre-Dame's value, if any, was surely in the delight it gave to this person, or that person. Had it collapsed into rubble, well, there are other delights. We could say, perhaps, that the cathedral had done her work, yoeman's work in giving to the people joy, delight, a window into the sublime, and now she can, at last, rest.

It appears, though, that our lady of Paris will not go on to whatever peace it is that buildings find, she will be revived again, to serve another round of, well, of something. Probably it will involve many tourists and very few Parisians.

I hope they do something interesting with it. Would a glass spire be a bit too much? The gothic stonework already looks surprisingly like brutalist architecture, if you squint a bit. Maybe a bit of brushed aluminium and glass is just the thing. Of course, all Paris will hate it for a generation, but they never went to Notre Dame anyways.

We do not suffer by proxy as something wonderful is ruined. We are instead privileged to be present at the rebirth of something wonderful into something new. At any rate, we may hope for the Phoenix.


  1. I will remind you that I gave Dogman the last word, so your last line is misplaced. You may also have the last word here. Clearly you are stung by something or other, perhaps god knows what because I do not.

    I am stung as well, since I wrote what I feel to be a rather optimistic essay, and I felt that the ideas expressed were positive, perhaps even approaching lovely, while tempered with a light touch of realism for grounding.

    To have some clumsy jackass blunder in and accuse me of "misplaced cynicism" and then snark off implying that I cruelly cut off wise remarks mid-conversation -- which I demonstrably do not -- did not delight me.

    You may have the last word, but future comments on other remarks I make will not be moderated through. I do this very very rarely, but reviewing your past comments I do not see that your contributions in the past have had enough value to overcome the irritation I now feel toward you. You may feel free to continue to hate-read my remarks, but you are no longer invited to the conversation.

  2. There's a nostalgia for a time when buildings were designed by architects and formed by master craftsmen, not manufactured by bean-counters.

  3. This sums paragraph 2 pretty well:


    1. We carry on like idiots a lot, and the reasons we do, and do not, are somewhat mysterious. At least to me.

  4. I hope Quasimodo is ok.
    As to why we seem to care so much about these ancient monuments, it might be an evolutionary thing in that we are comforted by stability. Since danger may be lurking in unknown places, we want to keep the known ones intact.
    Maybe their presence ennobles us. Look, we pay for this to exist, we must be better than we first appear.
    Another factor may be that our everyday lives are not populated with sights that improve our lives. Freeways, glass buildings, elevated concrete highways are not places that are welcoming of people out for a walk. It's probably why we go on vacations to the places that we do. I am willing to bet that not many people book vacations to go see the light industrial mall belt around Omaha or Dubuque, and I am not trying to insult those cities.
    So losing one of the beautiful places on earth is felt as a loss, how can it not? Sure, there is some over-the-top media reaction, but that's the world we have created, where people cry over the size of some celebrity's butt. You have to ignore that veneer of crass stupidity.

    1. He got 894 words out of it. Would you deny him that?

    2. I agree, to an extent, I think.

      There is a radio tower in San Francisco, Sutro Tower (you can google it easily) which is not particularly lovely. It is, however, visible from damn near anywhere in SF and most of the surrounding region. People would be sad to see it go. It's always been there. It helps me find my way home when I am incomprehensibly drunk. It is an icon, although neither particularly beautiful nor a place to visit. It is simply a fixture on the horizon. If it goes away, it will be missed. People would weep if it fell, no question about it.

      I think the spire of Notre Dame might occupy a similar place for Parisians. Paris is a short town, and I presume the spire was visible from much of the city. And now it's gone. Ok. I get it.

      I have not been to Notre Dame of Paris, but I have been to a few cathedrals, and I get that too. That direct line-of-sight to God, as it were, whether you believe or not. The monument to human achievement, too.

      What I am arguing against is not that these emotional entanglements are not real (seriously: can you name anyone who argues *more* stridently for the emotional power of Art than me? I can't shut up about it), for surely they are all real.

      What I am arguing against is the idea that these entanglements somehow lead logically to the idea that we should cling desperately to every object that evokes them, or, evenly more oddly, to an apparently random subset of the objects that evoke them.

      We do not weep for the dying flower, or the dimming sunset, and through those we gain just as much a direct line-of-sight to God as through a visit to the cathedral. Be of good cheer, ye sorrowful masses. Nobody died (err, yet, and we hope it stays that way) and beauty still exists in the world.

      Weep if you must, but then let it go. These are just things, they had no hopes or dreams now cut short, they had no rich inner lives now snuffed out.

    3. David: More than that, bucky, because I just keep goin'

    4. was having drinks downtown at a noisy, sleazy, horrid place with good burgers (because why not) last night after attending (really one the weirder) Tenebrae at OUR cathedral and my friend told me she was at work on the Monday or whenever it was and someone stuck their head in and said to her "it's Paris" and her heart Just Fucking Sank because poor Paris, but then it turned out it was just a building that got nailed, and thank god. And last night we toasted "Employment! Maybe even of artisans! Plus fabulous French building scandals! Horrifying new blended architecture to detest for decades (we have some ourselves)! And ya know dammit, good for those French billionaires!" True story, every word. [Stone Seal]

    5. Liberté, égalité, verborrhea!

    6. Me and Victor, baby. Me and Victor. Shout out to my homeboy Marcel too.

  5. I love your point of view more every time I read something you've written. If you are a cynic it's a very healthy cynicism. I think you are a rationalist. I wish there were more.....

    1. God damn it, Paul.

      Your difference of opinion is not at issue. It was the fact that you made it as a deliberate attempt to antagonize me, as evidenced by your *stated* *expectation* that I would invite you to "piss off" and then censor you - something that, it should by now be exquisitely evident, I do not do.

      The fact that you now have the temerity to be, apparently, upset that I was duly antagonized does not endear you to me any further.

      My unwillingness to seize the last word compels me to invite you to reply as you see fit -- again. If we could wrap this up, though, it would be nice.

  6. The curious thing about France (better: one of the many curious things about France) is that all churches belong to the state, not the Catholic Church. The priests, etc., are just a sort of tenant. Which is weird, no? So it will fall to the state, not the church, to rebuild Notre Dame.

    As a lapsed Baptist, I never go in these places without crossing my fingers. The real Crown of Thorns, eh? But I agree, these catastrophes are also opportunities, and I see an international competition has already been launched for a new spire. Excellent! Now just waiting for some truly crazy stuff from Richard Rogers, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid et al...


    1. Not true. It's a bit more complicated. The State of France has the Cathedrals in charge and only the Cathedrals. To know more, this article (in French) : https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2013/03/15/la-charge-inegale-de-l-entretien-des-eglises-pour-les-dioceses_1848687_3224.html

    2. Anonymous (or should that be Anonyme?),

      I will read the article (because I can!) but I'm pretty sure even parish churches in France are owned and maintained by the local authority and not the church? Laïcité and all that? Happy to be wrong.


    3. Yes, I'd forgotten the 1905 bit, but I quote from that article:

      "In effect, the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State gave municipalities the responsibility for the maintenance and renovation of places of worship built before 1905 (except cathedrals, which are the responsibility of the state). All those built after this date are totally dependent on religious organizations. Public authorities are thus owners of about 40,000 churches, while 5000 others built during the 20th century, are owned by the Church itself."

      I make that 12.5% that, presumably, were built post-1905. That's 87.5 state or municipality owned (a.k.a. "most", I think).


  7. It is not about treasures, values or kitsch. It is about identity, the forming of people, a nation. It is OUR Lady - and she has in a way always been there. Long before the idea of a nation was born.
    What has happened is not just bitingly shamefull. It will fuel the rage people feel because their problems have been ignored for too long. It will influence the coming elections because of that. And to announce it will be rebuilt, even better, in 5 years is rubbish. Nobody was asking for this. But it shows how terrible the destruction actually is.
    I can only repeat: it is not only a (!) church and place of worship, it is not only a landmark and tourist hot spot. It is us.

  8. The first I heard about the fire at Notre Dame
    was through a Facebook link. While in some ways, it was a tragedy, to me, it felt ... insignificant to me, personally...

  9. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I suspect it's unhealthy to put too much of an emotional investment in buildings. They are still stuff.
    They don't help make a society resilient. A display of stone masons' skills from 700 years ago is no replacement for having those skills at work now.
    Having lived through an earthquake that flattened much of my city, the buildings were of no use in sustaining us, our arts and our culture. That went on because we, our arts and our culture were resilient. On the whole.
    The church I attend where I live now is a category one listed historic building. The local authorities came along because we were considering making some changes. We pointed out that the organ they admired has been shifted three times, the lovely choir stalls were modern (replacing some original pews which were pulled out and burned some 40 years ago), and the pulpit wasn't there 100 years ago, and has moved since first being put in. Oh, and the back wall was demolished in 1912 and the church extended. The head of the delegation went white and had to be helped to a chair, but got the point that it wasn't a museum, and had to work for us now.
    I think it a beautiful building, especially compared to the concrete blocks we see nowadays. But it is still stuff and no substitute for living in an environmentally, culturally, artistically healthy community.

  10. I find it interesting that, amidst all the furor over whether or not it's worth getting upset over the fire at Notre Dame, commenters seem have missed what I think is your larger point: that, like it or not, all things are impermanent in this world. The illusion that because some things have lasted longer a lot longer than others means that they are therefore more "Important" is just that, an illusion, albeit a comforting one. Speaking only for myself, I found great comfort in the idea that my photographs don't have to be archival to infer merit, or that I have any control over how long they will last. After all, do I enjoy a gourmet meal any less knowing that once I've eaten it, it's gone?