Our Lady of the Extinction
A few have already started to murmur it.
Quietly, because it feels sacrilegious, or too soon. And of course there was beauty, identity, and deep attachment. There was a gilded crown of thorns.
Yet everything moves so quickly. Both fire, and the vow to rebuild the past.
The vow is not to rebuild the deep past of primeval forests or oral culture. Nor to rebuild the Museo Nacional in Rio, nor sacred indigenous sites the world over. But to rebuild what it has meant to be European, French, and Christian. Or the dream of such things, circa the industrial age.
Because there is no other time to speak the truth about having no time, some voices are saying:
We all live in a burning cathedral, together. It’s much older than 800 years. Can we see the flare in Paris as a microcosm?
Watch the spire collapse. You can feel its internal strength turning to cinders. For a moment, the fire itself seems to offer support. There’s a pause. Perhaps prayers are also keeping it aloft. Then it leans, and you know it is falling into ash.
It’s just like watching the Ilulissat Glacier calve. The same quivering pause, before mass movement that starts with imperceptible splintering. But the scale is vast. They said it was like watching Manhattan fall into the sea, all at once.
When the ice falls, the water rises. The charred spire flattens into the pavement at a new ground zero. Waves of sorrow and hubris rise in displacement.
Notre Dame’s roof was a tinderbox of 13,000 trees, extracted from ancient forests. Hewn and raised with extracted labour into an alternative canopy, something better than the sky. To house relics, to validate relics, to hoard wealth, to symbolize material and spiritual empire, to tighten the tension between mystery and certainty, to inspire awe and fervor, to enshrine the names of powerful men, to worship the family unit from which all hymns flow and which all of this industry exploits, to freeze female bodies into statues of objectified melancholy.
It’s what male desire and power do. It’s what those of us who can do, do: accumulate value into magnificent burn piles, which for a few centuries can represent and rationalize the noble effort. So few of us see who or what we are stealing the raw materials from. I cannot recall paintings of medieval deforestation, nor of gold mines in French colonies, nor of whatever Vichy meeting preserved Notre Dame from the Luftwaffe.
It’s not just an accumulation of wealth and aspiration, but of an attention that makes so many other things invisible. Some are pointing out, respectfully, that black churches are burning every week. Or that the dazzle of rose windows can distract us from who has been violated beneath them.
Of course there is a vow to rebuild. Because the scale is conceivable. In a great tradition, neo-feudalists can step forward to perform magnanimity. Don’t ask what they were doing with their 300M Euros yesterday.
The government will be invigorated by a reunification project. It will find common cause once again with captains of industry. Perhaps the yellow vests will be pacified, or even pitch in.
The cathedral will be rebuilt, with gusto and relief, because we cannot rebuild the Larsen Ice Shelf, nor replant the Amazon. Rebuilding will return us to the productivity we know, displacing an anxiety we cannot confess to any priest.
How will this not bolster white supremacy? From Moscow, Putin has offered to send elite carpenters. The subtext, tweeted a thousand times, is that Europe must band together to preserve itself from the refugees of the global fire it set alight.
They will pour more concrete, forge more steel, and harvest more trees. They will create and consecrate a simulation of the past. The completion date will be set for after the Paris Agreement deadlines. The finished project may feature holograms.
I grew up Catholic, in the age before climate chaos. I was taught to believe in God before I learned to listen to the world. I spent many hours in spaces that sought, with colonial affect, to mimic the grandeur of Notre Dame. I lit candles, gazed at the pierced heart, meditated on the vaults. I blinked at the statue of a nordic St. Michael skewering an African Lucifer with his golden lance. I played the pipe organ and sang soprano, and then tenor.
It was a troubled home. When I first visited Notre Dame in my 20s, I could feel its damp foundation. This was where I was from, but I didn’t feel at rest. I went through periods of fantasizing myself as a prodigal son, accepted once again. It never lasted. I loved my elders with a subtle disorganized attachment.
I’m certain I remember sitting in front of a Madonna and Child in Notre Dame, wondering What would she think of all this?
I wonder if I’ll see images of her again, with molten lead and charred latticework at her marble feet.
Despite itself, sometimes the old patriarchal literature captured a treasure. The scribes of Luke hinted at Mary’s foreboding. That she felt the fate of her strangely aware baby. That he would be murdered at a young age by priests and bureaucrats for suggesting that humans could take a different path. For some quip he would make about lilies in the field putting Solomon to shame.
The sculptors carve her holding him close, not against the elements, but against a civilization that builds its gorgeous prisons around them.
We can feel her warmth, and that nothing else matters. The roof needs no repair for this love to persist. She’s used to living in sheds. She’s used to not knowing when the end will come.
She would ask us not to rebuild, but to redirect. But she knows no one listens to her. She is Our Lady of the Extinction. She holds the baby, and every fear, and every moment of tenderness we muster. She treasures up all these things, and ponders them in her heart.
Inspired by this essay by Catherine Ingram.