In a typically wide-ranging interview published in the last few days, French philosopher Rémi Brague offers his thoughts on the fire that devastated parts of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Paris. He speaks of his “banal reaction” of “surprise, astonishment, worry, sorrow”, followed by admiration for those who fought the fire — but cautions against giving too much of a “providential character to what is probably pure coincidence”. Nevertheless, he says, the tragedy does offer us “an opportunity to reflect on the meaning that we might draw from it”.
Notre-Dame has played a role at many stages in the history of France. For example, during the Terror, it was converted into a temple of Reason, which was personified by an actress. In May 1940, the entire government, although hardly pious and even rather anticlerical, came there in order to place the destiny of France under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Five years later, at the Liberation, De Gaulle had a Te Deum sung there.
That said, Notre-Dame is not merely a witness to the history of France; it is also a result of that history, since its current state — before the fire — was due to the restoration completed in 1864 by Viollet-le-Duc. Which itself was due, at least in part, to the Romantics’ realization of its value, beginning with Victor Hugo in his novel of 1831. Romanticism was itself a movement on a European scale: Starting in Germany at the very end of the eighteenth century, it was to sweep through all of Europe, from England to Russia and Italy. Among its positive contributions, there was a reevaluation of the Middle Ages which, incidentally, in reacting to the black image given it by French Classicism, and then the radical Enlightenment, had a tendency to over-idealize it.
The interview was originally conducted in French by Jérôme Cordelier for the weekly magazine, Le Point. It can be read here (behind paywall). The English-language version was prepared (with some creative license) by Stephen E. Lewis for First Things. Read it in its entirety here.