Mourning (and Not Mourning) Notre Dame

Last Monday, millions around the world mourned

By Jenny Tan|April 25, 2019


Last Monday, millions around the world mourned as, in real time on the news and over social media, we witnessed the fire that consumed the roof of Notre Dame and threatened the cathedral’s total destruction.

And yet, some did not share in this collective grief, declaring their indifference to the cathedral’s fate while it burned, or pointing a finger at Western hypocrisy and cultural myopia. This defiance of popular sentiment garnered a range of responses, from criticism and scorn, to support from those who argued that we could mourn for Notre Dame and ask critical questions about the form that grief has taken at the same time.

The visceral expressions of mourning—and reactions to those who have refused to mourn, or have qualified their mourning—capture how Notre Dame exists in the world’s imagination as more than a church or a burning building. This symbolic importance was captured eloquently by Matthew Gabriele in The Washington PostGabriele writes about the persistent tendencies of cathedrals to catch fire and of peoples to rebuild them, concluding with poetic optimism:  

The towering cathedrals that dot Europe’s landscape are mostly monuments to resilience, testaments to what you could build after fire claimed what had been built before. … In the end, [those] who witnessed this destruction looked into the catastrophe and saw a challenge, one they met time and time again with stone and mortar, illuminated by colored glass, that vaulted toward the sky.

Later, though, Gabriele tweeted a sobering addendum, noting Notre Dame’s legacy as a “site of violence, both rhetorical & real.” For those of us for whom the fire has touched an emotional chord, it is worth dwelling a bit longer on this violence. After all, it was not just resilience that built and rebuilt cathedrals, but laborcapital, and the authority of church and state.

Prior to its nineteenth-century restoration, Notre Dame was still in use as a place of worship, but in a state of partial ruin after its ransacking during the French Revolution. It was the success of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris in 1831, less than a year after France’s plunder and massacre of Algiers, that revived public interest in the cathedral, enabling it to be rescued from disrepair. In 1844, with the conquest of Algeria nearly complete, Louis Philippe ordered the restoration of the cathedral. The restoration took twenty-five years, financed with help from the gains of French imperialism and colonialism, of which Algeria was only the most recent casualty.

The Romantic medievalism that inspired Hugo’s writing and the cathedral’s restoration was imbricated in European imperialism and developed concomitantly with European nationalism. Hugo, an ardent Catholic Royalist when he wrote Notre Dame de Paris in advocacy of the preservation of Paris’s medieval architecture, was violently racist and imperialist in his endorsement of French conquest abroad. The Catholic church, too, was complicit in France’s colonialism, not just as an economic beneficiary, but also in the deployment of Christianity as both pretext and vehicle for colonial rule.

We rejoice to see our best qualities reflected in our art, our cultural monuments and institutions, and our objects of study. But as we fortify ourselves in the wake of Notre Dame, we must bear in mind that these understandings are subjective, and these narratives and interpretations often more symbolic than factual—and not, by any means, universal.

The peril of universalizing our affective investments emerges in sharp relief in the endorsement by members and sympathizers of the alt-right of this specific statement in Gabriele’s article: “Yet the European Middle Ages sometimes confound us because that mourning rarely gave way to despair. When a cathedral crumbled, it rose again.” Amidst the “culture wars” being waged over the cathedral’s burning and reconstruction, what the alt-right reads in these words is perhaps exactly what many non-mourners see in the symbolism of Notre Dame itself: a teleological justification of Christian European hegemony and violence. After all, if we characterize the perseverance of cathedrals as the fortitude of European peoples, rather than as the result of the unequal and unjust redistribution of wealth and power, does it follow, then, that the apparently less remarkable peoples whose crumbled churches, temples, and mosques did not rise again simply suffered from a lack of resilience?

That is certainly not a sentiment Gabriele or many others would endorse. But it is the underlying logic that undergirds much public discourse on Notre Dame, which insists on Notre Dame’s symbolic and cultural importance—sometimes knowingly but often not—and points to history as justification. This is the context for people’s discomfort with the world’s relative indifference towards the destruction of their cultures and communities, as billionaires pledge small fortunes to reconstruct one French church to its former glory.

It is not enough just to condemn far right “appropriations” of this history—in quotations, because the word suggests a distance that is not as wide as we may think. Refuting white supremacists with historical facts about medieval Europe and the multicultural influence on a cathedral’s architecture doesn’t address the imbalance of geopolitical power that is the shared foundation for both white supremacist and many non-white, non-European, non-Christian perspectives on Notre Dame. This imbalance, which has concretely shaped the history of Notre Dame, continues to shape its future right before our eyes.

All this underscores the need to reflect on how our personal attachments enter into public discourse and scholarship on Notre Dame, among other objects of our study. It is not useful to defend or attack the emotional or scholarly interests we have as individuals. But we can ask ourselves whether and when we risk confusing our affective investments with historical analyses, or even worse, with universal truths. We don’t need to rid ourselves of those investments in order to try to contextualize them and think critically about the collective form they take in an inequitable world.

We can’t expect to express appropriate grief for every global atrocity before being allowed to mourn something we care about, but we can talk about Notre Dame in a way that makes room for other perspectives, and that does not demand empathy from those to whom we have historically not returned it in kind. If Notre Dame is important to us because it is more than a church, more than a building, then we have to allow that Notre Dame may bear different, less pleasant kinds of symbolic meaning for those who don’t share our experiences and have never been truly welcomed to share in our cultural heritage. If we demand the right to mourn, we must also concede the right not to mourn in return. 

Image: Crowds look on as Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burns on April 15, 2019. (Photo Credit: Nicolas Liponne)  

Author, Jenny Tan, is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and Medieval Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. .