The tragedy of the commons played out in Paris as we watched fire destroy a work of art and spirit so profound and important to everyone that it was not important enough to anyone. We focused on Notre-Dame for 854 years, only to take our eyes off of her in the critical hours.
Notre-Dame was already in trouble, and not for the first time. Political factions and revolutionaries in past ages damaged the Cathedral, seriously, but we ran to rebuild it, to save it, to honor it, and damn the cost in time and treasure. Imagine the era of its construction in the 12th century, when men with stone chisels and rude wooden cranes spent 200 years creating a paean to God and Heaven. More than 10 generations worked to erect something so significant to human beings that no one ever after could let her fail altogether; not the building, and not the faith that raised it.
In the last few years, the government, church, and friends of the cathedral from all over the world undertook to "restore" the building … initially with $7 million dollars, just a fraction of the $180 million needed. The price is now $2 billion, maybe much more.
It was held together by epoxy and concrete patches. Pieces of the building and its decorations regularly rained down to the ground below. Gargoyles, symbols of human weakness, fell from their perches, their power to frighten no longer potent, their meaning lost to modern sensibilities. The “graveyard” at the rear of the cathedral was filled with gargoyles and other stone work that fell off over the years.
In many ways, Notre-Dame was like the pigsty called the “Bower of Astolat” by the French Goliard poets in the 13th century. Do not look too closely at the cathedral or the bower or “pry too deeply, lest you should discover the Bower of Astolat a smokey hut of mud and wattle -- find the knightliest lover a braggart, and his lilymaid a slut.”
Like the famed bower, the cathedral could not withstand close inspection. It was falling apart. It had no fire protection, inside or out.
Over 12 million people visited each year. I was there 50 years ago. The views from the towers were quite beyond description. Haunting. Unforgettable. I often dream of those days for some reason. The Paris of my dreams is dominated by Notre-Dame.
But all the visitors and tourists could not marshal the money that the government and church should have marshaled for its protection and restoration. The church, beset by other worldly cares, could not and did not rise to the occasion. The government, battling with strikers and people who suffer in France’s shaky economy, could not, or would not, help. Private parties tried.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is burned brightly in my imagination, in the world’s view of France, in the French sense of self. It will not go lightly into dark history, into the forgetfulness of the ages. And I hope it does not.
In a time when criminal gangsters called ISIS bombed and burned archaeological treasures into oblivion, we owe it to our children and to ourselves to rebuild Notre-Dame, right down to the last jot and tittle, as a statement of our humanity and redemption for those who create and do not destroy.
Now, the people of the world must rise to the occasion and rebuild, as it was of old, just like we did from the fires of World War II. Humanity and history demand it. Let it be so.