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The Cathedral As Cube

Modernizing the design of Notre Dame de Paris would be a desecration

I am very, very eager to donate money to rebuild the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. But I am not giving a dime for this:

At issue is whether the French government should seek to re-create the famed cathedral as it was before the blaze, sticking as close as possible to the 850-year-old structure’s pre-fire style and substance. Many preservationists had assumed that it would.

But Prime Minister Édouard Philippe upended expectations with an announcement Wednesday afternoon that France would launch an international competition for proposals to replace the spire that collapsed into Monday’s inferno. He also raised the prospect of a 21st-century twist atop a 12th-century creation.

“This is obviously a huge challenge, a historic responsibility,” Philippe said, noting that the new design would have to be “adapted to technologies and challenges of our times.”

He questioned “whether we should re-create” the spire as it was or “as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, we should endow Notre Dame with a new spire.”



This is a very grave moment, a moment of decision. Is modern France and its leaders — political and cultural — really so vain as to think they can improve on the High Middle Ages? There are virtually no churches built in the past 100 years that will survive, or that deserve to. Any “improvements” to Notre Dame de Paris to make it reflect “our modern diverse nation” would be a desecration.

I think of this interview from over a decade ago, with George Weigel, regarding his book The Cube and the Cathedral:

Paul Belien: The title of your book – The Cube and the Cathedral – is a metaphor. Can you explain what these images stand for?

George Weigel: The book began in my mind when I was in Paris in 1997. I visited the Great Arch of la Défense, this angular, rationalistic, stunning piece of contemporary design which imagines itself to be a human rights monument. Moreover I noticed that all the guidebooks boast that all of Notre Dame – tower, spire and all – would fit inside this cube. That popped a question into my mind: what culture is better able to provide the foundations for the human rights that this monument celebrates: the culture of the cube, rationalist, sceptical, relativist, secular, or the culture that produced the “holy unsaneness” of Notre Dame?

I do not think the answer is necessarily an either/or proposition. It can be a both/and proposition as it is in the United States, as it was in Europe up until the past 40 years, until 1968 and the concerted attempt to create a Europe that is a genuinely secularized and, indeed, secularist public space.

Macron and his godless modernists may well try to turn the cathedral into a neo-Gothic cube. Rolling Stone, once the journalistic bible of Baby Boomers, ran a piece in which modern architects look forward to remaking the Gothic masterpiece in their own image:

Although Macron and donors like Pinault have emphasized that the cathedral should be rebuilt as close to the original as possible, some architectural historians like Brigniani believe that would be complicated, given the many stages of the cathedral’s evolution. “The question becomes, which Notre Dame are you actually rebuilding?,” he says. Harwood, too, believes that it would be a mistake to try to recreate the edifice as it once stood, as LeDuc did more than 150 years ago. Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making. “The idea that you can recreate the building is naive. It is to repeat past errors, category errors of thought, and one has to imagine that if anything is done to the building it has to be an expression of what we want — the Catholics of France, the French people — want. What is an expression of who we are now? What does it represent, who is it for?,” he says.

It will be the greatest temptation for contemporary people to re-conceive of Notre Dame de Paris as a monument to themselves. If they modernize Notre Dame de Paris, they will destroy it — and will destroy it in a particularly modern way. Here’s a quote from Paul Elie’s great book The Life You Save May Be Your Own, that gets to what I’m trying to say here:

In [Walker] Percy’s view, the modern self is essentially empty — a “nought.” The self goes forth in the world in order to fill itself, but swamps the world with its search for selfhood instead. As a result, the self assigns the highest value to the things it cannot swamp with selfhood, things that fill the self and remain undiminished — that have themselves left over. We prize an antique, for example, not because it is sturdy or well-made but “because it is an antique and as such is saturated with another time and another place and is therefore resistant to absorption by the self.” Any old thing can make us feel full; but the things of the world that can be swamped by our selves and remain standing, alone, integral, lasting — these are the things worth marveling at, and the self seeks to lose itself in them.

The modern self cannot encompass and empty out Gothic cathedrals. It is why we stand in awe of them. We can ignore their message — most do — but we cannot consume these universes of stone. That is why so many Frenchmen have been standing outside, singing hymns, proclaiming their devotion to the building.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGf8r2JSeuw]

In New York City, when the Twin Towers burned to the ground, we mourned intensely, but we mourned for the dead, and for the heroic firefighters who died trying to save people. No one mourned for the buildings. Not really. Nobody mourns the destruction of cubes. No one died in the Notre Dame fire, but people mourned the damage to the building. Why is that?

Here’s a relevant passage from Walker Percy’s Lost In The Cosmos:

Imagine you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look — it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions — good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide — be a bore?

Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped up on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.

Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?


Were the Frenchmen and the Parisian tourists who stood by watching Notre Dame burn, were they bored? They would have been most any other day, walking past the cathedral. Not Monday. Maybe they saw Notre Dame for the very first time, though they had laid eyes on it every day for years. You know what I mean?

What did they see in the burning building? Why did they weep and sing hymns for the burning cathedral, when they would not have done had the Montparnasse Tower burned down?

What does the cathedral mean?

The rebuilders had better take great care here. They are fooling with very, very powerful things. Remember the renovators of the Catholic mass in the 1960s. How well did that work out for them? Think of all the modern changes in church architecture, in liturgy, in hymnody, since mid-century. Is any of that better than what it replaced? Can anyone argue with a straight face that it was?

Yes, I’m a cranky reactionary, but please try to see beyond that. It’s important. The restorers should not simply talk to architects. Talk to people who understand myth, and the power of myth, and of art. Do not let Emmanuel Macron and the technocrats get their hands on this immortal treasure of France, and of humanity. Modern know-it-alls sh*t on everything old and venerable, and proclaim the ruin they’ve made the summit of all human experience. Again: what was it about Notre Dame de Paris that made people weep, that has brought out such an outpouring of love and affection and generosity? Protecting this is the grave responsibility that Macron and the French elite bear. If they cannot honor that, and steward that, then it would have been better for the poor cathedral to have burned to the ground.

The cathedral was perfect as it was. Any “improvement” in its architectural style will diminish it — and for that, history will never forgive the desecrators. This quote from Russell Kirk ought to memorized by everyone involved in restoring Notre Dame de Paris:

“I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.”

That is the difference between the Cube and the Cathedral. The modern world needs to hear the message of the Gothic one. Desperately. 

UPDATE: Macron quote is apparently fake. So that’s a relief.