The blaze this week darkened every computer, every phone, every tablet, and every TV screen. The great gothic ediface on the Seine was in flames for all to see from around 6pm (Paris time) through the evening. Social media is miraculous, isn’t it? It allows all of us to experience such tragedies as if we were there.
An interesting development, though, has come from this past week’s architectural tragedy. It’s actually become a reminder that, no so long ago, people didn’t care about places like Notre Dame at all, and there was a time when enlightened people everywhere preferred to tear it down to make way for new things. In fact, Notre Dame itself was singled out as a historically defunct impediment. That is, until Victor Hugo penned his sprawling romance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The novel, of course, focuses on the unlikely love between Quasimodo and Esmeralda. But throughout, the backdrop for the story is the cathedral. And there has been all kinds of scholarship, reporting and blogging on the fact that this was actually a main reason why Hugo wrote the novel. It wasn’t solely to tell the story of a folkish romance. It was to remind people that the history that filled the cities of Europe should be treasured and preserved.
It’s remarkable how this week demonstrates the massive shift from a world in which archaic buildings were seen as impediments and problems. The tears, angst, and personal histories of travel and self-discovery that have been shared across social media has shown that Hugo’s goal was met. Notre Dame is not only treasured. It is the backdrop to so many peoples’ experience in France. As we all mourn and hope for a successful restoration program, let’s not forget to treasure that we have something to restore at all.