Will the Notre Dame fire be Macron's deus ex machina?

For French president Macron and the Holy Roman Church, that fire at Notre Dame was, you should pardon the expression, a godsend. (What -- too soon? Not fast enough?)

For Macron, those pesky yellow vests still haven't gone away, they've protested inequality every weekend for five months, nipping at his neoliberal heels, despite police beatings, repressive new laws, arrests, blindings and Macron's pathetic (and costly) one-man national "debate."

As for the church, it has long been beset with abuse scandal, then last week Steve Bannon called on Catholics to attack the Pope for supporting refugees. They needed a diversion and by God they got it with the fire. Macron showed an urgency unknown in meeting needs of the poor: he said he'd fix it in five years and hire the world's "greatest talents" for the rebuild. France's top billionaires competed to donate euros (requesting a 90 per cent vs. their normal 60 per cent writeoff).

Notre Dame was an ideal displacement since the gilets jaunes had drawn attention to the luxe shops on the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, by trashing or taunting them.

Macron and his prosperous allies managed the amazing feat of fetishizing the Catholic Church -- itself a true fount of fetish -- even if they overreached and Parisians started asking: Where are their concerns for Les Misérables eux-memes?

Les Miz author, Victor Hugo, put Notre Dame at the centre of French self-awareness in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But what Quasimodo cries as he flies (literally) to Esmeralda's salvation, is "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" Not, "I'll get you the best your money can buy."

A racist/civilizationist interpretation quickly launched. The usual white supremacist suspects weighed in, innuendo-wise. So did "centrists." The New York Times lamented "the burning heart of Paris." Rich Lowry, in the Guardian, wrote: "What prior generations so … faithfully built, we are losing." Europeans are "condemned to live among wonders … ignorant of the fact that they may disappear. 

Putin called Notre Dame "a priceless treasure of Christian and world culture."

The most pertinent response I saw was a text I got saying, "Brennt Paris" -- Paris is burning -- with no question mark. "Is Paris burning?" was a query Hitler sent to his commander there in 1944, who had been ordered to waste the city as defeat for Germany loomed. The Führer's general disobeyed. Hence the all-time champ of would-be Paris landmark destroyers was no anti-European Muslim.

I'd like to lodge another way of viewing Notre Dame's impressive presence. Cathedrals were vessels that creative people poured their creativity into for many centuries, especially in the Middle Ages and Renaissance -- the way such people now throw themselves into making brilliant TV ads or miniseries. The human impulse to create will find ways to express itself, as it always has.

That's pertinent since the originator of Christianity wasn't European at all but Semitic, or what today would be called Arab. Hugo himself felt Notre Dame embodied "the universal history of humanity … human intelligence is there summed up and totalized."

This is the opposite of Macron's notion of taking charge of "beauty" from the top. Far from incarnating Western/Christian civ, it displays something else: the human ability to create in the face of any absurd belief system or onerous apparatus of oppression, like feudalism or capitalism.

This is like the difference between Never Again! as a slogan applying only to future Jewish immolations, rather than to every group of humans targeted for being who they are. Or the question sometimes posed about why humans would ever innovate and produce without capitalism and its profit motive. As if the epochal achievements of ancient agriculture and irrigation never happened.

Anyway, what is the heart of Paris? It's not Notre Dame, an impressive façade that most people go past with sometimes an appreciative glance. Its heart is its streetscape, the public face open to anyone, not just believers or paying tourists.

It includes the quays along the Seine, the bookshops, the bridges, markets and cafés. If you had to choose between losing Notre Dame and the cafés, IMO it'd be no contest. It's the city itself in the largest, crassest sense, the aspect of it that everyone effortlessly shares, not some artistic-architectural oddity that looms over and above it, burning or not.

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. This column was originally published in the Toronto Star

Photo: Henry_Marion/Flickr

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