The Loss of a Symbol of Civilization

16 April 2019


What can possibly be said about the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris? Notre-Dame de Paris was a symbol of civilization, and now that symbol has been partially destroyed by fire. For anyone who cares about our heritage, it is heartbreaking, and words cannot express the horror of seeing an icon in flames. Of course, it will be rebuilt, and since the building was in restoration at the time of the fire, the building is extensively documented and some of its fixtures were stored away from the site. Still, the damage cannot be understated, and, when it is rebuilt, we will visit a rebuilt Notre-Dame de Paris, rather than the Gothic building that was mostly intact from the Middle Ages.

As with any ancient building, Notre-Dame de Paris had been extensively damaged in the past, although its basic structure was virtually intact since it was built. Statues were damaged during the Protestant Reformation and again during the French Revolution, and most of its interior furnishings were looted or destroyed during the revolution. It is the rare structure that passes through hundreds of years of history without extensive damage, and rarer still the building that survives with its furnishings and fixtures intact. The only intact building of classical antiquity (of which I am aware) that has survived into modern times is the Pantheon. The interior of the Pantheon seems to be intact, but its furnishings from antiquity are long gone. The only way that we know about the furnishing and fixtures of ancient buildings is what we know from written records, pictorial records (paintings, drawings, mosaics, etc.), and what has been discovered by archaeology, as when the structures of Pompeii were rapidly abandoned and then filled with volcanic ash.

Classical antiquity is removed from us by a couple of thousand years of history; Notre-Dame de Paris is removed from us by less than a thousand years. We are fortunate that we have many intact buildings from the Middle Ages, and even some with the furnishings intact and preserved in situ in their original context. This is remarkable, and it a treasure to be safeguarded, and that is precisely why the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris is such a disaster. We have only a few authentic survivals from the period, so each one of them is unique. Once destroyed, the knowledge that they represent is lost forever.

Hegel famously called history of slaughter-bench. One could also call history a conflagration. Joseph Campbell called life an ever-burning flame of sacrifice. It seems to be pretty plain what Hegel or Campbell meant, but I see now there are a couple ways to construe this. And part of the reason I have arrived at this reflection is my previous post, David Hume’s Book Burning Bonfire. Whether we take history to be a slaughter-bench or a conflagration, slaughter or fire bring our efforts to naught, so that history is this process of effacement, but the more that history does its “work,” the less of history that there is remaining.

This paradoxical formulation is the result of using “history” in two distinct senses. “History,” as we all know and have heard, can mean either the actual events of the past, or the record and scholarship of the events of the past. The more events fill history, the more of the record of the past is effaced, and the more the record of the past is effaced, the less than we know about all the aforementioned events that populate history. The Notre-Dame de Paris Fire (about which there is already a Wikipedia entry) is a new historical event that occurred at the cost of the actual physical materials consumed in the blaze. This is clear illustration of the processes of effacement: the processes of history consume prior history.

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One Response to “The Loss of a Symbol of Civilization”

  1. […] The loss of a symbol of civilization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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