(Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris)
Notre Dame Cathedral, a 12th century Gothic Church was partially gutted down by a freaky fire on 15th April 2019. The world held its breath and watched the inferno licking away the famed church’s spiral tower and ancient roof. A renovation was underway and the fire fighters took almost a day to contain the flames. No human casualty was reported and the scale of the damage happened to the historical treasures in terms of paintings, sculptures, religious relics, golds and diamonds and so on also was not discussed in detail in the international media. While it was said that ‘a part of France soul was dead’, the French President, Emmanuel Macron said that the government would rebuild the church come whatever may.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. Nor do I have firsthand knowledge about the damages caused by the fire. However, the whole event which has been spectacularised by the television reports and the visuals shared in the social media make me think about a couple of possibilities regarding the fire and the future of Notre Dame as a center of attraction in the French Tourist Map. Tourism alone contributes to 77.7 billion Euros to France’s GDP per annum which translates in to 9.7% of the GDP of the country and 10.9% of employment. A report published in the Independent dated 15th April 2019 underlines the impact of the Notre Dame fire on the domestic tourism. An average of 36000 visitors spent two to three hours at the Cathedral on a normal day. As it is a free entry destination, the economy is surged in terms of local hospitality industry and other collaterals.
(Fire fighters at Notre Dame)
It would take at least a year to rebuild Notre Dame back to its former glory and definitely it wouldn’t be the same Cathedral as before. But can one be sure about the decimation of its glory despite the damage caused by the fire for the fire is not new to this structure? The famed spire which has been shown/seen crumbling like matchsticks was a ‘new structure’ as the old structure was gutted in another fire in late 19th century. With the technological revolution at its infancy the news and images of that fire must have been minimally circulated in those days and also their entry into the recorded history might have been controlled by the authorities. That means the Notre Dame that had been through the 20th century till date was a ‘restored’ cathedral harking back and imitating the history of the 12th century Gothic original. It also means what had been passed off as original art works, the stained glass portals and windows and most importantly the relic from crucifixion, the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ were ‘restored’ or ‘recreated’ ones.
When religious places catch fire there is always a good amount of hushing up regarding the damages in order to maintain the sanctity of the place primarily and then for rebuilding the damaged history into its pristine form. In the case of Notre Dame too this silence has been observed. Most probably the movable works of art and artefacts must have been taken to safe locations. The immobile items like murals and other altar related artefacts must have gathered soot and grimed which could be cleaned up by the restorers and conservationists. And the shifting of the art works and valuables must have taken place well before the fire is one of my ‘gut’ feeling mainly because of two reasons; one, little has been written about the damages happened to the art works. Had they been destroyed there would have been heated responses in the art world. No such debates erupted since the fire. Two, as the cathedral was under restoration and the access to the building restricted, the cathedral should have been free of people as well as the stuff that people generally came to see. Everything must have been already gone into the safe vaults including the fantastic crown of thorns.
(Rebuilding proposal submitted by Studio NAB in Paris)
It is time for me to speak about the unthinkable for the believers in the world culture in general and the staunch believers in the French sophistication in particular, also it could be blasphemous for many. The fire in the Notre Dame Church was accidental on the one hand and on the other it was an ‘expected’ fire. What has been gutted down is the wooden part of the cathedral; that means the famed roof and the legendary spiral tower. Within three days, reports had come out saying that France did not have much forest resources to rebuild the wooden structure. That may be an exaggeration for the government of France and the environmental activists may not be interested to shave off their green land to rebuild a cathedral however important it is in their collective history. It is a triumph of sustainable living over blind faith in tourism.
But income through tourism in Paris is not going to be affected because the Independent report already points out that the tourists will divert themselves to other Parisian destinations that include ‘big hitters’ like Louvre Museum and Eiffel Tower. I should add that while Notre Dame had been a free access destination the other two are paid points of attraction. So the fire has in a way or rather inadvertently facilitated the government to ‘renew’ the Notre Dame cathedral not only for maintenance but for added attraction. That means the fire could have been a deliberate disaster; a controlled disaster meant to be contained within a stipulated time once the target was achieved.
(Naomi Klein with her book Shock Doctrine)
Here I am reminded of the Canadian Writer Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, ‘Shock Doctrine; the Rise of Disaster Capitalism’. I remember this book particularly because Klein uses the analogy of shock therapy during the Nazi days to clean people’s memory and remake them. Memories are wiped out to create a new citizen. This theory she applies in the social sphere where natural calamities do the job of shock treatment. According to her the real estate and builder mafia in the world supported by the governments wait for natural calamities to happen so that a new and vast real estate possibility could be opened up and most importantly the squatters and ghettos could be cleaned up without socio-political resistance. She uses the typhoon Katrina as an example to show how it had cleaned up the areas in Florida and Louisiana and throw up a new real estate business.
(restoration of Notre Dame by Studio NAB will make such effects)
In Paris we are not looking at any real estate business. But something more than that; it could be called the updating of history. Updating of history becomes necessary on two counts; one, the existing structure becomes a mammoth of high maintenance. Two, the change of the structure could radicalize art, architecture and the domination of art and culture scene. What surprised me was the fact that within two weeks, upon on the calling of the French Government, a Paris based architecture firm, Studio NAB submitted a new roof structure for the historical building. Ever since the reports came out, it has been hailed as a futuristic structure which is contemporary and ecologically caring. This specially made greenhouse structure will slightly imitate the former wooden roof but will have plants and creepers in the place of wooden beams (something that reminds me of Shankar’s movie ‘Shivaji, the Boss’ with Rajnikant in the lead). The Independent report came out on 28th April says that the submissions that followed the Studio NAB’s proposal range from ‘practical to ambitious to bizarre.’
(Rajni Kant in Shivaji the Boss song scene)
That means Notre Dame fire is not a fire by accident. Behind every fire now there is a reason. I am not just putting forward a conspiracy theory. I am just hinting at a possibility. Till the Second World War (WWII) Paris was the world art and culture center. Post war world saw it moving towards New York with the movement of financial capital held by most of the European Jews. Persecution of the Jews in Europe and the exile that followed in fact built the US cultural capital as well as financial capital when it needed both most. Paris always wanted to capture its cultural leadership back. With a young and forward looking President in place against the right wing Trump in the US, France could now dream to be back on the top of the world. It needs a symbol and symbol of resurrection like a Phoenix. Can any other structure in Paris could be better for the purpose than Notre Dame Cathedral?