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We Cannot Have Nice Things

Posted by Dirck on 15 April, 2019

All things end. We know this. Any notion of permanence which we attach to anything at all is an illusion induced by our brief window of perception. The stars themselves cannot last.

We should not be surprised, then, when something built by humans meets a terminal fate.

About an hour before I started writing this, news of a plume of smoke drifting across Paris from the roof of Notre Dame cathedral penetrated my part of the world. And despite all having these little cushioning ideas to hand, I’m at the very edge of tears. One who is not a follower of that faith, one who has never seen the edifice in person, choking on emotion.

Because it was the work of generations. Because it is possible, just barely, to imagine the communal effort over centuries that went into the construction, the combination of individual hopes and aspirations that shifted and shaped so much wood and stone. I mentioned in a previous entry here how a letter is like holding hands at one remove with the writer, however long ago the writing happened; these great old buildings have the same power to connect a modern visitor to people long gone. Not only the builders, either. Thresholds and staircases are reshaped by generations of passers-by, so that going there now allows one to quite literally stand in their footsteps, and microscopically leave new marks, so that those who will come after are brought into the chain of inclusion.

All of that, gone in hours.

Choking upon emotion, because it is a piece of art, a huge multimedia presentation of carved stone and stained glass, with an occasional auditory element when the bells are rung. Perhaps it isn’t to all tastes, but what art can be? When some item of art is lost, the balance between Beauty and Ugly is dragged into a worse place. When that item is a large, durable one, can the loss be felt as other than a blow?

Drifting pale smoke, grey ash, heat-shattered fragments of rock. Whither beauty then, except perhaps when an accident of light from a setting sun produces a brief gilding?

To avoid ending on that grim note, let me offer some possible solace. To start with, let’s look the problem in the face.

Image result for notre dame

This is pretty damn serious, and this is well before it got worse.

All things come to an end. We accept that this structure will never be the same. But… this is not the first cathedral to suffer a massive fire. A little over a century ago, Reims cathedral also had a huge conflagration, and (despite later propaganda) just as accidental:

Image result for reims cathedral

We may expect Notre Dame to look just like this, in a couple of weeks.

And yet, if one visits that city today, one finds…

Facade, looking northeast

Oh. There it stands.

That’s looking pretty good, although despite re-opening in 1938 (only 24 years after the fire, and 19 years after the start of rebuilding) the work has never actually been declared finished. That’s fine, though. That’s just fine. Cathedrals are not quick. They should be generational. Köln cathedral was started in 1248 and wasn’t considered built until 1880, after all, and they’re still putting it right after some knocks it took in the Second World War.

Let’s have some hope, then. Perhaps in a mere generation, when many of us are still here to see it, Notre Dame will be largely restored. Not the same as it was, of course, but with enough of the old fabric to maintain the connection across hundreds of years, and a whole new layer of craftsmen’s marks upon it to give far distant humanity a strong sense of connection to our time.

We cannot have nice things. Not forever. But we can keep striving for them, and revel in them while they last.

Today’s pen (may be in use a hundred years from now, unless I sit on it): Pelikan M600
Today’s ink (not so pretty, but depleting all the same): Lamy black

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