PARIS: Notre-Dame was burning on Monday night when an unfamiliar person an older man stopped me on the street. A shouting ambulance had just sped past us. He pointed to a plume of smoke in the distance, and said: “It’s going to Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame is on fire.”

The French people do not spend much time in churches. However, most of the population is nominally Catholic, France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened. A Parisian writer once assured me that God died in the late 1960s.

And so far, the fire at Notre-Dame feels as if it has struck everyone here. Drone footage of the fire showed the cross—shaped building entirely in flames. When President Emmanuel Macron came on national TV around 11:30 p.m., with the still-burning structure behind him, he called it “the cathedral of all the French, even those who were never here.”

It is partly that, at 856 years old, Notre-Dame has witnessed much of French history. It is where Henry VI was crowned, and Napoleon became emperor. A few hours into the fire, French TV news was running everything from clips of François Mitterrand’s funeral to scenes from a movie version of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”

However, the most Parisians don’t visit often and some never do Notre-Dame is more than just a tourist attraction or a historic monument. It sits in the middle of the city, walking distance from practically everywhere, on the bank of the river that divides the city. Citizens might not have fully realized it until Monday, but I think it reassured them to know that at the heart of their highly planned city was someplace entirely non rational and non Cartesian. Notre-Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence has long suggested that there is something secretive and unknowable at the center of it all.

The fire comes not long after other great shocks to Paris, with the flooding of the Seine last year and the 2015 terrorist attacks.

In his speech to the nation, Mr. Macron defined what Parisians are feeling as a “tremblement intérieur” an internal trembling. That’s an accurate description of our sense of emptiness and loss. There’s also a shared sadness and disappointment that, with the widespread damage, we’ve failed, as a civilization, to be the custodians of something priceless. A hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the fire of 2019.

Mr. Macron sworn that France will rebuild Notre-Dame. First, we will have to put out the fire and see what remains.



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