As someone who admires tradition I was naturally saddened by the Notre Dame fire. What really saddened me most though was that it was like seeing a museum burn. A museum full of beautiful things, but beautiful dead things. Notre Dame is a symbol of a dead civilisation.
Had Notre Dame been destroyed during the Middle Ages it would not have been a disaster. A new cathedral would have been built to replace it. The faith that inspired men to build something that would take almost two centuries to complete still existed. Not just the religious faith, but the faith in the future, the faith in their own civilisation. Had it been destroyed in the 14th century it might well have been replaced by something even more impressive. The faith was there, and the skills and the aesthetic sensibility were there, to create masterpieces of religious art and architecture. All of that is gone now. We can create replicas of masterpieces. We can no longer create anything original of value.
It’s like looking at the Venus de Milo. It’s beautiful but it’s a product of a dead civilisation. We could, and we do, make copies of such statues. But no-one today could create such a statue. We just don’t look at the world the way the classical Greeks did. We cannot truly get inside their heads. Just as we cannot truly get inside the heads of those medieval Frenchmen who built Notre Dame. The Venus de Milo is a museum piece.
It’s not just a symbol of what the French have lost, it’s a symbol of the West. Western civilisation has been living on its reputation for a very long time. The West created some marvellous things, things of surpassing beauty and sublime intelligence and subtlety. But that was long ago.
The great achievements of European civilisation lie in the past. Perhaps it’s just not possible for a materialistic society to create anything of real value. Europe is a gigantic museum. Modern Europeans are ambivalent about their cultural treasures. They’re an uncomfortable reminder of the extent of our modern decadence. Treasures of religious art make modern Europeans particularly uncomfortable. Is it possible that there was a time when people cared about more than shopping and sex?
Of course one would like to see Notre Dame restored, but it can only be restored as a museum exhibit. In some ways that would be even sadder than leaving it as a ruin.