by Akim Reinhardt
First things first. Am I happy that Notre Dame Cathedral burned?
Don’t be silly. Of course not.
Do I wish it hadn’t burned?
If I could wave a wand and undo the fire, would I?
This isn’t about my intellectual understanding of the building’s historical or architectural significance, it’s beauty, or what it has meant and continues to mean to millions of people. Rather, It’s about my emotional response, or more specifically, lack thereof, and the surprising reactions I received.
I learned about the fire when I texted a friend about a completely unrelated issue. Coincidentally, she happens to be a Medieval European Art Historian. As you might expect, she was very upset. I was sympathetic to her pain. Yet my own emotional response to the fire was largely nonexistent. I felt nothing.
Then, much as the flames engulfed the church, the story of Notre Dame’s burning engulfed the media. This came about for reasons I understand and really have no problem with. I did not resent the press coverage at all, but it did bring my own emotionless response into even starker relief.
The day continued. I met an old friend who was in from out of town. We had dinner and a couple of drinks. We caught up and talked for about three hours. Neither of us mentioned the fire. I went home and got online. The story was still all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds. At about 11:00 PM, I posted the following self-deprecating joke:
More proof that I’m a horrible person: Don’t really give a shit about Notre Dame.
Despite the late hour, the posting got many responses. Most of it was what I expected. One friend quipped: This is why we need fewer opinions. Others were more aghast. They wanted to know how it is I could feel this way? Some of their comments reflected a sense of betrayal. I get it. I understand that people were deeply touched by the structure and hurt by its burning, and I was sorry for their pain. I just couldn’t find it within myself to care about the building despite understanding its beauty and history.
What I didn’t expect at all, however, was the support I got from some people. It wasn’t all just Edvard Munch Scream emojis. There were also Thumbs Up. Far more than I ever would have guessed, frankly. Some people seemed to appreciate my self-deprecating humor, my easy confession of being a horrible person. But others actually agreed with my sentiment; they too did not care about Notre Dame burning, and were glad to see they weren’t alone. Some made public comments to that effect. Some of them messaged me privately, saying the agreed but did not want to say so publicly. My next door neighbor, a joyful, kind, late middle aged woman, had seen my post and actually left a handwritten note in my mailbox thanking me.
Amid these disparate reactions, this first thing I did was try to explain myself to friends who were upset by the fire and wanted to know how on earth I could be so unphased. I did the best I could, making clear that I really did wish the building hadn’t burned, and I certainly wasn’t trying to rub it in.
I then tried to discern what I could from this grateful minority, whose opinion I’d inadvertently come to represent. What could I glean from this group who either liked my joke, or also did not care, or were even grateful for my post?
It turns out the vast majority of them were either persons of color, women, or both, whereas all of those who voiced displeasure with my post were white, and mostly men.
That in itself, I think, is interesting. It becomes more interesting when you consider the demographic breakdown of my Facebook friends (I didn’t get reactions from strangers; it didn’t go viral).
Apparently I have just over 400 Facebook friends. I don’t know who about 50 of them are; people who friended me at some point, and I accepted, but they are strangers. So let’s call it about 350. Of them, roughly 90% are white (as am I); nearly 40 of them are either people of color or Latina/os. The gender breakdown is roughly half-and-half.
Am I reading something into this that isn’t there? Perhaps. Is this demographic division among the responses nothing more than a coincidence? Quite possibly. And of course my friends list and the reactions to this post are both tiny sample sizes that reveal no larger statistical insights. However, I believe it does reflect a larger issue worth considering: the dominant values in our colonial (in some places) and post-colonial (in other places) world. And that in turn brings us back to the explanations I gave the friends whom I had upset.
Why was I nonplused by the burning of Notre Dame, despite having a decent understanding of the building’s history, and a genuine admiration for its beauty? I think a large part of it has to do with my job. I am a history professor, which, one might assume, would make me likelier to mourn the fire and subsequent damage, not less. But specifically, I’m a professor of Indigenous American history. Which means that I have spent quite a lot of time reading, writing, contemplating, and teaching others about how Europeans and their descendants committed genocide and ethnic cleansing against Native societies. This includes vast, centuries-long, systematic campaigns of cultural genocide that featured the destruction of countless objects of Native religious architecture and iconography, ranging from the small and beautiful to the truly monumental, and some of it even older than Notre Dame.
My own research specialty is the 20th century, so European destruction of ancient Indigenous religious structures is not at the forefront of my work. However, I spend a lot more time thinking about that than I do pondering how beautiful European religious architecture and iconography are. A lot more.
Let me be perfectly clear about something. In no way whatsoever am I advancing a line of argument that goes anything like: Europeans destroyed countless Indigenous (and African, Asian, etc.) cultural/religious objects/buildings, so I’m glad Notre Dame burned, or Europeans had it coming, or any other vindictive nonsense. I’ll say it again. The burning of Notre Dame is tragic, and if I could undo it, I would.
But then there is me, as a person.
Perhaps my professional pursuits have coarsened me, or jaded me, or numbed me (the latter, I think). If so, I am not proud of it. And if so, perhaps that does not justify my feelings, or more accurately, my lack thereof (I don’t think it does). But these are my experiences, and I do believe that to a large extent they explain my emotional emptiness vis a vis the fire.
Thus, when I see Associated Press headlines such as “Nations Express Solidarity with France After Notre Dame Fire,” or “Notre Dame Hailed as Monument to the ‘Best of Civilization’”, I can’t help but wonder if such headlines, so full of international brother- and sisterhood and cultural pride bordering on hubris, would be conjured up from the Western press when non-Western parts of the world suffer similar cultural calamities. The answer of course is, typically not.
This is because, that which our societies choose to value or dismiss has a lot to do with:
-the historical realities that have created our modern world;
-the cultural chauvinism embedded in those realities, exacerbated by modern economic and political disparities;
-and popular interpretations of that history (often simplistic, incomplete, and biased), which shape and warp our understanding of this modern world.
A case in point . . .
In 1517, the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez disobeyed orders from his superiors and led an unauthorized expedition against the Aztec Empire. Relying on Native translators and diplomats, he capitalized on and exacerbated longstanding tensions in the region, and helped incite a large scale rebellion against the imperious Aztecs. The Valley of Mexico, home to dozens of city-states and over 5,000,000 people (about 1% of the entire global population at the time) was soon engulfed in a massive Indigenous civil war.
The Aztec Empire was very large, strong, organized, and wealthy. The Spanish-aided war against it probably would have failed except for the work of microscopic pathogens. While the Aztec capital of greater Tenotchtitlan, then the 4th largest city in the world behind only Bejing, Vijayanagara, and Cairo, was under siege, a plague of small pox broke out. The population loss was staggering. The city, no longer able to defend itself, surrendered.
Afterwards, the Spanish essentially paved over the same city they had recently marveled at for being so much larger, orderly, beautiful, and sophisticated than anything in Europe. They tore down Native architecture to build their own structures, and began transforming Tenochtitlan into Mexico City, Mexica being what the main group of Aztecs called themselves.
As part of their rampant destruction, the Spanish focused on Aztec religious structures, which they considered the work of the Devil. In 1521, they began dismantling Huēyi Teōcalli (Templo Mayor in Spanish, the Great Aztec Temple in English), the massive Aztec religious structure in the center of Tenochtitlan. The Spanish turned it into a Catholic cathedral.
Religious statuary and monument building on a massive scale go back thousands of years in the Valley of Mexico. Pyramids are the most famous example; the Pyramid of the Sun, built approximately 2,200 years ago, remains the world’s third largest behind only the two Great Pyramids of Giza. But the Aztec Empire was a relatively recent power, and construction on Huēyi Teōcalli began comparatively late, some time after 1325, initially with earth and wood. Aztecs reconstructed and expanded it six times.
The second construction began in 1375 and added stone to the structure. The third version, built between 1427–1440, appended a staircase and eight stone statues of divine warriors. The fourth (1440–1481) likely had the richest architectural features, including braziers of monkeys and gods, and a stairway designed as a pair of undulating serpents. During the fifth temple reconstruction (1481–1486), the platform was covered in stucco and the ceremonial plaza was paved. The sixth version, dedicated December 19th, 1487, was walled off. Its additions include three shrines and the House of the Eagle Warriors. By this point, Huēyi Teōcalli’s massive base was 100 x 80 meters (328 x 262 feet), or roughly the size of a professional soccer field.
The final Aztec version, the seventh, was an addition to the sixth. It is known to us only by historical records, descriptions left behind by the same Spaniards who destroyed it. All that remain of it today are a platform and a section of paving.
After the Spanish devastation, most grand Aztec architecture and urban development remained buried for two and a half centuries. Only in the late 1700s, as an increasingly mestizo population grew unhappy with Spanish rule and sought to differentiate and define itself, did Mexicans finally begin to acknowledge, show interest in, and excavate Aztec treasures.
In 1790 they recovered the ancient city’s Zocalo (Main Square) and two immense monoliths: one of the Earth goddess Coatlicue (Serpent Skirt), and the enormous, circular Sun Stone calendar, which featured glyph writing, and of course Indigenous calendrical and astronomical knowledge that was a fair bit more sophisticated than their Medieval European counterparts. Spanish officials reacted by tucking them away within the bowels of a university building so the public could not see them.
It was not until 1978 that archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (his shared last name with the last Aztec emperor perhaps a fitting coincidence) began leading the excavation of Huēyi Teōcalli in what is now downtown Mexico City. Connected to the temple, we now know, are also 125 rich caches that Aztec priests buried in the floors as offerings to the gods Huitzilpochitli (War) and Tlaloc (Rain) among others.
I like old things. What historian doesn’t? And as the son and former employee of a general contractor who worked on lots of old houses, I can be quite sentimental for old architecture. My own home is well over a hundred years old (no one knows how old, exactly; the records were burned in 1904). Yet my nonplussed reaction to the Notre Dame fire contradicts all that.
Was my callousness driven by an innate sense of What about Huēyi Teōcalli, and the Cahokia mounds in Illinois, and a thousand other beautiful old structures around the world that Europeans angrily or casually destroyed? Not consciously, but that probably underpinned it. So too, perhaps, did another issue I’ve not broached here, and do not have the space (or emotional energy, quite frankly) to delve into: being the grandson of Jewish refugees who escaped Europe not long before the Holocaust that claimed much of their extended families.
But regardless of why it is, exactly, that I felt no anguish or emotion whatsoever about what I intellectually understand to be the very unfortunate burning of Notre Dame, I do not think it’s something I need apologize for or muzzle myself about, especially since the fire was an accident, no one died, it will be rebuilt, and as the same Medieval European Art Historian friend who broke the news to me later pointed out, there’s really nothing more medieval than a church burning and being rebuilt.
But perhaps more importantly, in the broader sense, concepts like beauty and even shared meaning, are highly subjective and to a large degree culturally constructed. And so any objective analysis (if there can be such a thing) must allow room for dissent. Not nasty, pointless, meanspirited insults and belittlements. But honest dissent about meaning and emotion.
This is why I believe, for the most part, we should be free to cherish beauty, and likewise free to ignore it. We should never be ashamed of finding it, or have to justify being unmoved by it. Beauty is, after all, a peculiarly human type of make believe. And it is all that we adults have left after putting away our childhood dreams and fantasies. It is each person’s little secret, hidden away deep within their soul, a tiny, mystical jewel they wish to share with anyone else beholden to its ephemeral sparkle.
I wish I could share it with you.
Akim Reinhardt’s wesbite is ThePublicProfessor.com