As I write this, I am receiving frequent news updates about the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. Although I am not Catholic myself, I have many online friends and acquaintances who are, and the burning of this venerable building, long one of the most notable cathedrals in Europe, is enough to give pause even to someone whose feelings about Catholicism are not far off from the average northern Irish Orangeman. As the cause of the fire is not yet known, it is unclear what will be the result of such a fire, although given the way that this particular fire is a direct assault at one of the proudest buildings of Christendom, if it is found to be arson with a hostile religious motive, the results of this particular fire are likely to be serious. I will leave such speculations to others. My concern, and the sort of hot take that I wish to make of this particular disaster is to reflect upon the lesson that this fire provides us as to the fragility of our creations, even the best and sturdiest of them.
There is no question that the late and lamented Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was a creative masterpiece. Like many buildings constructed in the Middle Ages, it was built by a devoutly religious populace using the cutting edge construction techniques of its time to build a soaring testament to the Marian devotion of generations of Parisians. Other cities, of course, like Chartres or Salsibury, have their own similar cathedrals built during the same age with similar religious devotion. During construction, some of these particular creations showed cracking and were modified with various buttresses and other methods of seeking to make the structures more stable. Many cathedrals have had to undergo serious restoration efforts because of the fragility of their structures over time. Now one of the greatest cathedrals of them all has gone up in flames, leaving smoldering ruins and a great deal of mourning and lamentation among the Catholic loyal whose veneration for old buildings and old institutions is immense. What had survived for centuries since being built in 1163 has fallen, and later generations will grow up not having known the building or having taken it for granted as one of the most notable architectural treasures of Paris, a city with no shortage of stunning architectural beauty.
What is it that makes our creations vulnerable? We can spend a great deal of time and effort and resources building something that is meant to last. This was certainly the case with the cathedral of Notre Dame and its contemporary Gothic cathedrals with their grand spires and gargoyles and flying buttresses, their stained glass portrayals of biblical stories meant to tell a visual gospel for a largely illiterate populace. But our efforts require not only a context that supports creation in our current generation but also requires maintenance and respect later in time. A printed book or painted fresco will eventually fade away unless it is reprinted or restored. A building will collapse into ruinous state unless it is maintained. Without security, a bridge or building will be vulnerable to arson or to petty acts of vandalism. To preserve the creative and artistic heritage of the past requires that we value the approach and achievements of the past and that we spend present resources to ensure as best as possible that what we have received from generations past will be conveyed safely and securely on to future generations so that they may benefit from the store of civilization as we have, that they may be inspired and humbled by past achievements as well as prodded to create something worthy of the deeds of our illustrious fathers and mothers.
In many ways, our duty to pass on civilization to future generations has been hindered by a variety of lamentable circumstances. During the 20th century a great deal of our artistic and architectural heritage in Europe and around the world was imperiled or destroyed by the ravages of two world wars and numerous other conflicts. Our will to defend the achievements of the past has been sapped by chronological snobbery that disregards or does not even care to remember the achievements of the past and has no particular desire to celebrate past achievements that have been forgotten or cast aside. Even the mere existence of past cities and sculptural and architectural splendors that have managed to survive war and earthquake and the other ravages of time have been imperiled by political and religious movements that are motivated in large part by a desire to obliterate a past that is viewed as abhorrent. So statues of long-dead plantation owners and rebels are toppled in violation of historical social contracts that sought to restore brotherly feeling after brutal civil war. So statues of ancient Buddhas, the architecture of early Muslims in Mecca, and cities of heathen antiquity are leveled and destroyed so that no architectural trace of the past endures for future generations to compare with the achievements (or lack thereof) of the present. Books are burned, and artists whose attitudes vary from the wicked spirit of wicked times, or who come from the wrong background are brutally killed or buried away in dark holes and distant gulags or exiled to foreign lands. In such a world as our own present world, creation is vulnerable to acts of terror, entropy in a careless world, and the violent suppression of the state. All who create should reflect on the vulnerability of our creations in a harsh and hostile world.