KINGSTON, R.I. – April 19, 2019 – Following is a short Q & A with Karen de Bruin, Chair of URI’s department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures and associate professor of French, who talks about the recent fire at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the impact of the blaze and her thoughts on moving ahead.
What was your initial reaction as you watched the reports on Notre Dame Cathedral burning?
My sense of place is grounded in Paris, a city that was built around the île de la Cité on which Notre Dame is located. When I saw the spire of Notre Dame collapse into the point zero of Paris, I felt like my tears were raining helplessly into the fire.
I grew up moving around a lot, from country to country, city to city. The only constant in my life was my love of France. As an adult, that love of France morphed into a love of Paris, a city in which I lived for four years, and a city to which I still go back at least once or twice a year for extended periods of time. My life in Paris has always had the silhouette of Notre Dame as a backdrop and this silhouette has watched my life evolve from a young single graduate student to an established academic, married, with a beautiful Franco-American family. Now this benevolent and watchful presence that marked my life has been gravely hurt and I can do only little to help.
This loss is reverberating even beyond the Catholic Church. Why is this particular cathedral so important?
Paris is anchored by Notre Dame. Geographically, Notre Dame sits at the center of the city, and distance measurements are literally taken from a star in the courtyard. Historically, Notre Dame has been the site of major events, like the opening of the first Estates General, the coronation of Napoleon, and the celebration of the end of World War II. It has also been the site of major conflicts including violent clashes between monarchy and republicanism, Christianity and secularism, and on this Saturday, perhaps even between the yellow vest movement and the Macron administration. It is a place that embodies the religious spirituality of France and also aesthetic transcendence. Furthermore, it represents the magic of humanity when we allow over 850 years of time to be the architect.
What do you think the impact of this loss will be on the faith and beyond?
We tend to forget that architectural masterpieces such as Notre Dame are, in fact, living monuments. Before the fire, we would look at its flying buttresses, rose windows, two majestic towers and reaching spire and see awe-inspiring fixity. We would encourage our friends, family, students and colleagues to visit it, confident that they would experience the same magic we had felt when we admired its abiding structures. Now, our children will never see what we saw, what we thought was permanent. Yet the magnificent Notre Dame that we knew was not the same Notre Dame in total disrepair that Victor Hugo lamented in his novel, Notre Dame de Paris. And the Notre Dame that Hugo knew was not the same as the one before the French Revolution, which displayed a unity of style and taste for which he yearned. Living monuments change. As a generation, we all feel greatly impacted by our collective loss; however, two hundred years from now, the rebuilt spire and restored cathedral of 2019 will become part of its history.
What are your thoughts for moving forward?
I drew the most hope for the future of Notre Dame from my French 412 class that I taught the next day. I frequently complain that our society values the arts and the humanities diminishingly; however, my students showed me the exact opposite. All of them were moved by the aesthetic tragedy and they unequivocally expressed the belief that we must continue to value art, architecture and aesthetic objects in our society today. If I were to encapsulate the spirit of their comments, I would draw from William Carlos Williams’ famous words: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Do you think they can rebuild? What do you think the prospects are?
It will indeed be interesting to follow the reconstruction debates. Right now, almost a billion dollars has been pledged to restore Notre Dame. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has also announced an international competition to redesign the iconic spire. The Notre Dame of the future may very well look like an incarnation of the Louvre, where a glass pyramid beckons tourists to enjoy timeless masterpieces in a structure built by over 800 years of humanity.