Can we douse the fires of our times?

May 12, 2019

In the summer of 1964, at the age of 19, I lived in a tiny apartment on the left bank of Paris, near the Pont Neuf. At night, I would meet up with friends from a grab bag of nations at a cafe directly across from Notre Dame, where we would talk, tell stories, invent tales and laugh together. A single beer sat at the center of the table, a sufficient investment by this ragtag collective to hold the table for several hours until we wandered off to a cheap restaurant or back to our beds. I often took a seat on the far side of the table, from where I could watch the changing mood of the cathedral, France’s greatest icon, flow from golden sunset into night, looming high above us just 200 yards away. For me, even at a young age, that stunning building was Paris, the beating heart of this romantic city that wrapped me in its grasp and turned me into a lifelong Francophile.

Through its nearly 800-year history, Notre Dame de Paris survived the rioting of Protestant Huguenots in the 16th century, the radical sans-culotte of the French Revolution (who beheaded the cathedral’s stone statues of biblical kings, mistaking them for former sovereigns of France), and two World Wars. It withstood its post-Enlightenment reincarnation as a temple to the Cult of Reason, until Napoleon Bonaparte returned it to the Church in 1801. Victor Hugo gave it renewed vigor when he set his post-revolutionary novel on the folly of mobs, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, within the precincts of the famous cathedral.

Last month, Notre Dame succumbed to a raging fire that took its wooden spire, most of its 13th-century roof and its original timber beams. Fortunately, it appears all three of its original circular rose windows as well as the narrower stained-glass windows that line the vault have been saved, along with the organ, sacred relics and many works of art. Nevertheless, it will take years to rebuild what has been lost. President Emmanuel Macron, speaking late in the Paris evening, promised that “We, all together,” will rebuild the cathedral. “It is our common history,” he said. “It is at the heart of our lives.”

One thought kept coming to mind as I watched the flames consume the roof of the cathedral and the spire: This shocking fire is a metaphor of the times we are living in; it is an alert and a warning. The vicious calls to separation and division, to our lower natures, to rage that risks flaming up within us — within both our individual selves and our collective self, our body politic — are coming from the mouth of our highest political officer. There is not much space between those misguided lies and threats and yesterday’s terrible fire.

In this holistic Earth we inhabit, causes and effects occur even at subliminal levels, no matter how difficult they are to measure or how facile they are to mock. We are connected, just as our actions and results are connected. When we understand this spiritual interrelationship of cause and effect, we may well rein in our worst gut responses and instead seek out the higher road to the galloping challenges of today and the future.

Rather than fanning the flames of hatred and disaffection, we would do better to extinguish them, as the Paris pompiers succeeded in fighting the Notre Dame fire. Can’t we find a better way — through moderation, through dialogue and discussion, rather than running to our most flammable extremes — to put out the fires that are ready to ignite all around us?

A young Parisian watching the fire through her tears on a nearby street told a New York Times reporter, “Everything is up in flames. It is apocalyptic.”

It is time that what we do and say contribute to save the world, and not to summon a future apocalypse.

Roger Toll, a writer and photographer, has returned to live in Paris on occasion.

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