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Notre Dame: We Have Always Belonged to Her

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Some have expressed dismay that there is so much grief over the loss of a building and not over the loss of nature, or the biosphere, or of human beings. But why does there need be an “either or” response? Why do some human beings feel the need to limit the scope of their grief?

The razing of a primeval forest, the violent removal of an ancient mountaintop, the despoiling of a holy river, the unnatural death of a species. All of them wound the human psyche as well, and in far greater ways. These places are not venerated or preserved by the forces of capital except as exploitable property. Like Notre Dame, they represent our collective history and future. More than Notre Dame or any other human made structure, these places are the real world that we and countless species depend on for existence. But the fact that buildings and structures are reflections of the collective human psyche itself should not be downplayed.

Some have said that Notre Dame represented colonial oppression and feudalism. But indeed, the same could be said about the Imperial Palaces of China, the monasteries of Tibet, St. Basil’s in Moscow, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Akshardham in Delhi, even the ancient ruins of the Acropolis or Teotihuacan. All of them represent some kind of oppression, caste or injustice. And of course each of them should be understood beyond mere romanticism and in this historical context. Many of the colonial structures we see today were erected on the razed temples or cities of conquered peoples and were placed there erase that peoples history. A message of ruthless and brutal imperial supremacy. But there is often a tendency to reduce the power of place, that enduring spirit of loci, to fit places and their nuanced and complex meaning into neat and tidy narratives. What is lost is ambiguity, movement, and the very weight of human history itself.

To be sure, there are no shortage of hideous human made structures, ones that stand atop nature scraped of its life, convey alienation, brutality and raw power. Shopping and strip malls are one example. They reflect the cold and ravenous narcissism and insatiable cupidity of our age. Desolate places of alienation, where mind-numbing Muzak is piped through sterile, air-conditioned, cavernous tombs. Big Box stores are another. They squat shamelessly on seas of pavement. Former wetlands, meadows and woodlands raked and drained clean of their original inhabitants. Monuments to banality and a fitting sarcophagus for capitalist consumerism.

There are more examples, from suburban sprawl to tract housing to freeway exchanges to municipal buildings devoid of character. Places that are everywhere and no where at the same time. Over time, the meaning of structures often change. Events change them. People change them. Nature changes them. But some places and structures are imbued with grace from the start. They convey both a sense of place and connection with nature and an inexplicable transcendence from the repressive systems of their times. So their destruction or desecration can understandably leave a deep psychic wound especially in a world where the wounds appear to be piling up.

Any conscious visitor to Notre Dame would have understood it to be one of those places. They would have noticed its graceful curved lines which boldly celebrated the feminine as divine. Indeed, it was built on an ancient and sacred pagan site and I cannot help but wonder if the artisans and architects reflected this either consciously or not in their work. Any visitor would have taken time to sit in its gardens which carved out a sanctuary of nature in a city bustling with noise, chaos and pollution. They would have taken refuge under the watchful gaze of more gargoyles and chimeras perched on virtually every ledge than in any Harry Potter movie. They would have marveled at the number of depictions of the Virgin Mary, a striking avatar for the pagan goddesses, and an amazing thing considering the repression of religious patriarchy elsewhere. They would have noticed its symmetry and geometry as reflections of nature and the universe or multiverse that we humans inhabit, often unconscious of it all.

So the loss of this structure is perhaps a portent of our times. A time where grace, beauty and nature itself are under perpetual siege. The flames we witnessed devouring her tender spire and arched roof are akin to the fires that are devouring our fragile biosphere. She was a refuge, now scorched. How many others await a similar fate?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to draw from the symbolism of Notre Dame’s desecration. Notre Dame, “Our Lady,” was considered the mother of God. How often is our living earth referred to as our mother? So we need not have to pare down our grief over the loss of this sacred temple. On the contrary, we should expand it to encompass the entire imperiled biosphere. The soul devoid capitalist class may have claimed her smoldering ashes as their own, as they have done with the entire planet. But they are merely pale and pitiful shadows against her walls. Notre Dame is perhaps the best human made symbol for the living earth, and she belongs to no one. On the contrary. We have always belonged to her.

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Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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