This interview with Rémi Brague, conducted by Jérôme Cordelier, was originally published in the French weekly Le Point.
Le Point: To see Notre-Dame de Paris burning—what did you feel when you saw those apocalyptic images?
Rémi Brague: The same thing as everyone else, I imagine, a very banal reaction: surprise, astonishment, worry, sorrow. And then admiration for the courage of the firefighters. In some ways, it’s our 9/11.
LP: Fire, the spiritual, art, history…these are very strong symbols at work. How do you interpret this event? Do you find it significant that this event occurred at the beginning of Holy Week, at the approach of Easter?
RB: Let’s not be too quick to give a providential character to what is probably pure coincidence. But there is nothing to prevent us from seizing on the event as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning that we might draw from it, as a sort of challenge. That is where the symbolic dimension plays out fully: the fire that destroys, but also purifies; the church of stone, an image of the Church made of living stones; history, this past that snowballs to bring about our own present.
LP: It is also an image of the history of France, and even of Europe, that is burning.
RB: Yes, 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 overidealize it.
LP: Can you tell us of your personal relationship with the cathedral?
RB: Not everyone has the luck of being a poet of the caliber of Paul Claudel, who in 1886 was converted behind a pillar in the nave. As for me, my memory of Notre-Dame is rather unpleasant: the stage-fright I had when I had to give a Lenten lecture there, and then, even more, when I was asked to organize a whole series of those lectures.
LP: As a Christian intellectual, how do you feel in front of this national mourning, this communion, we might say, that surrounds this eminent building of Christianity? Does this movement soothe your Catholic heart?
RB: What has soothed me above all is knowing that there was neither a human responsible for the fire, nor a human victim of it. The assassination of Fr. Jacques Hamel saddened me more. The spirit of solidarity surprises me. I have received a large number of emails: from an Indian and a Pole living in the United States, from a Filipina living in Poland, from an Italian woman, from Americans whom I know from more or less of a distance, and so on. In short, a complex network of friendships and sensibilities. It all touches me very deeply.
LP: From your point of view, in what ways does the influence of Notre-Dame shine beyond the walls of this monument?
RB: Notre-Dame is one of the first rays going forth from the center represented by the Basilica of Saint-Denis, with the ribbed vault and what it allows: a diaphanous structure, the stained glass and rose windows. What has been called “gothic” is in fact completely French, specifically from the Île-de-France. The wave rolled through all of Europe, as far as Košice in eastern Slovakia. Notre-Dame, like all the other cathedrals of Europe, denies, or at least gives serious nuance to, the dark image of a Middle Ages often summed up by “lékroizadélinkizission” [online lingo for “les croisades et l’inquisition,” the crusades and the inquisition]. The technical virtuosity that its construction required shows that these people were not as deeply sunk in darkness as we have been led to believe.
LP: A cathedral is also a great symbol of humanity.
RB: Yes. All the more so because, as a great historian of medieval technologies, the American Lynn White Jr., noted, the cathedrals are the very first grand-scale monuments to be built not by slaves, but by workers who were free and even organized into guilds—today we would say, anachronistically: unionized.
LP: Should we read this tragedy as a witness to man’s lowliness in front of the sacred?
RB: I don’t like “the sacred” very much. One can sacralize just about anything. Cows, of course, but also things far more dangerous: the nation, race, the proletariat, property, history, etc. And these new idols demand human sacrifices: “The gods will have blood!” Instead, what pushes us to lowliness is holiness. But holiness is itself humble. Notre-Dame, as its name shows, is dedicated to God alone, of course, “under the invocation” of the Virgin, of the holy Virgin. And it is she who, in the Magnificat, says that God took into consideration “His servant in her lowliness.”
LP: That this national emotion comes just when Catholics are braving one of the most serious crises of their history couldn’t possibly leave you indifferent. Why does the fire at Notre-Dame elicit such a great emotional outpouring, while recently many churches have been attacked amid an atmosphere of general indifference? Does that shock you?
RB: This fire is involuntary. It has causes, which the investigation will establish. One cause is likely to be the state of disrepair in which the authorities in charge of maintenance have left the parts of the building that tourists cannot see. In any case, however deplorable this catastrophe may be, it shocks me less than the profanations of so many churches that are less beautiful, much less spectacular, but which witness a hatred and above all a stupidity that are very worrisome. Indeed, I am surprised by how little noise these acts of vandalism elicit. It is as if we were dealing with the most natural thing in the world.
LP: Is Notre-Dame de Paris, as well as everything playing out in front of us after this fire, also the incarnation of the particular relationship between France and Catholicism?
RB: Yes, just like so many more modest churches and wayside calvaries. And like so many traces or vestiges, more or less conscious: our holidays (which the CGT defended in 1905 against the anticlericals, who wanted to suppress them), those first names of ours that do not come from American television series, and above all many of our behaviors that have become spontaneous.
For example, the respect that we show (or ought to show, let’s be realistic) toward women is not foreign to the devotion to the Virgin Mother, for whom Notre-Dame was built. The question that this fire poses to us, and which all these traces pose to us more discreetly, is that of knowing what we want to do about them: Destroy them, like the Islamic State had begun to do to all that preceded Islam? Embalm them with museographical aestheticism in “the purple shroud in which the dead gods slumber”? Find once again the spiritual impetus that used to carry them, and which could give birth to new masterpieces, artistic but also social? There’s a choice.
Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
Translated from the French by Stephen E. Lewis.