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The Burning of Paris

Witnessing the catastrophic fire of Notre-Dame

By Cardinal Lemoine metro station you could smell it. The sun was low in the sky. We were walking from the south, heading down rue Monge. The scent was of dry, old wood; parts of Notre-Dame’s roof dated from the 1200s. We quickened our pace as we descended toward the river. People were scurrying. The police sounded whistles. Law enforcement had cordoned off the quais as well as the roads to the bridges, creating bottlenecks of spectators. We found ourselves on quai de la Tournelle in a mass of people, all with phones either at their ears narrating the scene or directed at the conflagration to capture images. The roof of the cathedral was alight. We had not yet noticed that moments before our arrival the spire had collapsed; it takes a minute to see destruction for what it is.

When you see something every day, no matter how astonishing or beautiful it is, you take its form for granted, even its details, its structure. Only after finding an image of the cathedral on a phone did the destruction really take shape: a large part of the roof had already collapsed. People watching on television, in other parts of the world, were probably better informed of the fire’s progress than we were. News today is like fire. Instead of a broadcaster’s commentary, we had the faint crackle of the blaze and vocal outbursts from the crowd.

As the fire trucks rushed by, a man shouted allez les pompiers! (let’s go or come on, fire-fighters!) as if what we were watching was football. Young tourists, tall cans of beer in hand, seemed almost pleased at their luck to be visiting during such an event. A man on his phone was explaining in French the progress of the fire. Two other people started shouting at some tourists whose telephoto lenses battered them as they attempted to pass by. Americans loudly discussed the best vantage point to see the spectacle. And because of all those people with their cameras and phones capturing images attempting to upload or post them, bandwidth near the Île de la Cité was so clogged that even text messages wouldn’t deliver.

The fire that burned where the spire had been turned hot white and shot up into the sky. It was quickly subdued by firefighters who were limited to spraying it from the sides of the building. It was not an option to use helicopters or planes to airdrop water, like in a forest fire, because the force of the gravity would potentially damage the structural integrity of unaffected parts of the building: it would only make matters worse. We watched as more and more hoses managed to douse the sides of the building, while the centre of the roof remained most intense. And then inside the north tower burst into flames.

A man next to me muttered: le patrimoine en fumée, roughly ‘heritage up in smoke’. But that word, patrimoine, is notoriously difficult to translate. It implies ancestry, collective cultural heritage, even a sense of the better part of an individual, not to mention its contemporary echoes of nationalism and xenophobia. ‘Heritage’ doesn’t carry over the word’s nuances. At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of my father, who is particularly affected by these kinds of tragedies, but especially by the burning of Notre-Dame. The last time he was in Paris he partook in vespers at the cathedral, an experience he described as ‘mystical’. I had not been inside the structure since 1998, the first time I’d visited Paris, when I tried to find the tombstone of a distant ancestor, Christophe de Beaumont, on my father’s mother’s side, who is buried there. Somewhere in a banker box, back in Canada, I have a photographic print of a grave-marker located in the nave of Notre-Dame of a former archbishop with whose illegitimate son I share some genetic code. Now the marker is gone. Le patrimoine en fumée.

Notre-Dame Cathedral on 15 April 2019 in Paris, France. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Philippe Wang

Notre-Dame Cathedral on 15 April 2019 in Paris, France. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Philippe Wang

Almost immediately, water doused the fire inside the north tower and the flames diminished. For the rest of the evening, as the sun disappeared, the interior scaffolding of the bells glowed amber, a red structure against a darkening sky. Less and less of the fire was visible from the quai. We stayed there for another two hours, watching as parts of the roof were slowly devoured. We found a way down to the banks of the Seine. In the distance above us, firefighters doused sides of the building, as well as battling the blaze on foot from inside.

As we began to walk home along the banks of the river, we gazed backward on what felt like the rubble of history. We were unaware of how much of Notre-Dame would remain – if, for example, the rose windows would survive, or how much the Arnault and Pinault dynasties would spontaneously donate for its reconstruction the following morning. The towers remain. What parts of the building were destroyed will be rebuilt, though certain things, like the pipe organ will be lost, or at least partially. Those sounds my father heard during vespers are no more. Notre-Dame de Paris also holds a priceless collection of art and relics, including the Crown of Thorns, which the rectory claims has been saved. The relics were obtained from the Byzantine Empire in 1238 and brought to Paris by King Louis IX. Authorities report that interior paintings have survived the fire but may have suffered water damage. The extent of the damage is still unclear.

We continued to glance backward at different points to see the conflagration. Crowds were everywhere along the riverbanks, bridges and quais. The evening retained the unnerving feeling of a spectacle. As we walked home, television crews reported from the banks of the Seine. Groups of teenagers blasted le rap francaise, while police boats circled the Île de la Cité.

I want to say that Notre-Dame will be like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Book of Daniel: those three boys who are thrown into a fire by King Nebuchadnezzar, and who, protected by an angel, come out of the fire unscathed. I know this is impossible. I am scared to pass by Notre-Dame today and to see the destruction in daylight that I witnessed last evening, the ravaging by fire of a building that for over 800 years has survived revolutions and wars.

Main image: Smoke and flames rise from Notre-Dame Cathedral on 15 April 2019 in Paris, France. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Veronique de Viguerie

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of BooksArtforum and The White Review, among others.

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