The back spire wilted in half, splintering like a wet popsicle stick broken by a toddler finishing her snack on the playground. As it glided down to the sweltering floor below, the light of the fire burned brighter, as if the iconic piece of the Notre Dame Cathedral was an accepted sacrifice to its overbearing might. White pillowy smoke rose above the bright orange flames as this 11th-century monument became a deconstructed creamsicle. Its rose-tinted windows burned. Its wooden rafters burned. Its manuscripts and artworks, the last records of people who were born and lived and died, burned.
In Mexican tradition, it is believed that there are three eventual deaths: when the body perishes, when the corpses are put into the ground and when the memory of the deceased fades away. While there were no physical deaths Monday, many died their third death. Suppressed is the memory of those who survived the zeal of revolutionaries in the 1790s, intent on beheading statues of kings and looting its most sacred artifacts, of those who persisted, housed in a crumbling and desecrated building, until Victor Hugo’s seminal work “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” convinced the French public to invest in the cathedral’s restoration, of those who withstood the stray bullets during the liberation of the city from Nazi occupation. But it is only after what should have been an otherwise unexceptional Monday that we are in danger of forgetting these spiritual deaths caused by a fire sparked from a heavily funded effort to be good custodians of their memory.
We thought that we’d be outlived by what outlived our ancestors. That long after we were gone it would remain a testament to their lives, that if we invested enough energy into sustaining our progress, we could make our collective self immortal. But flames don’t care about the work you’ve done to get here, about the suffering that led to the accomplishment. Sometimes flames decide to burn it all away, to vaporize the tears in our eyes and leave us questioning where we go next. And all we can do is vow to delay the demise of what we have left, stop for a moment to internalize appreciation for the lives of those whose memory still survives and move forward in our endeavors, not because we believe that they will preserve our way of life indefinitely but because they will improve our conditions now.
I have one photo of myself in front of Notre Dame. My chubby face displays a strained, blank expression, trying so hard to look cool that my mouth almost creases into a frown. My shirt shouts “Yankees Baseball” in big white and blue letters, my shorts an obnoxious orange, the outfit of an unathletic 14-year-old boy trying to make his reputation slightly less nerdy. On my feet are the bright blue sneakers I had bought on the trip from a brand only found in Europe, a purchase meant to be a constant reminder of this trip — I don’t remember wearing them on American soil. Like so many tourist photos, the picture reeks of a lack of appreciation for the work that went into the landmark I stand in front of. I barely remember my visit to the church, so focused on capturing the perfect shot. It will never again look exactly how it did when I was once there. I will never again have the lucky opportunity to forge a connection with the memories that were lost in the fire. I was given the extremely privileged gift of getting to go there unlike so many, and I spent the whole time consumed by my own image.
Now, I’m at Yale, renowned for some of the most striking collegiate architecture in the country, and yet I rarely stop and stare at the faded brown stones of Sterling. I have yet to enter the British Art Gallery. And I have not explored any of the manuscripts housed in the Beinecke. I spend so much time planning how I can make a name for myself that I fail to appreciate what’s around me. I insist it will be there next week.
But Sterling won’t always be there. The British Art Gallery won’t always be there. The Beinecke won’t always be there. I won’t always be here. And one day I’ll look through my phone, stumble across an ugly photo and wonder what I failed to see while I was here.
The best way to honor the loss of history yesterday is to exalt the history around us today.
Jacob Hutt is a sophomore in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .