Alexandra Petri: At Notre Dame, the burning of a great stone book

Video: To many Parisians, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has embodied the heart of the French capital for more than 800 years. Here’s a look back at the cathedral’s history. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

A great book is burning, one of the greatest ever written.

That an edifice like Notre Dame Cathedral could survive so much and then, in an instant, by accident, be engulfed in flames and devastated in a matter of hours causes, in 2019, a sensation that is at once harrowing and dully familiar. We assume that things are durable because they have lasted. But in the words of G. K. Chesterton "to be breakable is not the same thing as to be perishable. Strike a glass and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years."

"A vast symphony in stone," wrote Victor Hugo of Notre Dame in his novel of the same name. "The colossal work of a man and of a nation," he continued, "combining unity with complexity ... a sort of human Creation, in short, mighty and prolific as the Divine Creation, of which it seems to have caught the double character, variety and eternity."

Yet, strangely, Hugo's contention was that the book had killed the cathedral. The cathedral had been the form for the preservation of human thought for centuries. "In those ages, whoever was born a poet," Hugo wrote, "became an architect."

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices.

Time is a distance that can be traversed by places that remain powerfully still. Like the moon visible from two distant points at once, Notre Dame is a rare edifice that is fixed, on which our eyes can meet across the expanse of time, that we can discuss with the long-dead.

Mark Twain marveled at the carvings on its facade, writing in 1869′s The Innocents Abroad that “These battered and broken-nosed old fellows saw many and many a cavalcade of mail-clad knights come marching home from Holy Land; they heard the bells above them toll the signal for the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, and they saw the slaughter that followed; later they saw the Reign of Terror, the carnage of the Revolution, the overthrow of a king, the coronation of two Napoleons ... and they may possibly continue to stand there until they see the Napoleon dynasty swept away and the banners of a great republic floating above its ruins.”

Things last because they acquire new meaning and they continue to acquire new meaning because they last. This is a source of optimism. We can only travel so far across time, these artifacts inform us, but it is possible to send words into the void, written in ink or in pixels or in stone. To build is always an act of hope, of faith that the unexpected good will continue to happen. Yet so much does endure. We begin to forget what a miracle it is that anything is here -- a church, a forest, a system of government.

Perhaps the fragility of the durable should be more readily apparent. Nothing is so instantly and painfully scarce as that which used to seem ubiquitous and permanent. The cathedral looms permanently over the city; it is almost too obvious. You need not capture something so present. Then in an instant the permanent vanishes, and the ephemera is what endures.

This is why Hugo thought the book would destroy the cathedral. "Now, what immortality is more precarious than that of a manuscript? But a building is quite another book, a substantial and durable one." Yet the book has not destroyed the cathedral. It has helped save it, has helped make it worth preserving. "In printed form thought is more imperishable than ever: it is volatile, intangible, indestructible; it is in the air we breathe. In the days of architecture, thought became a mountain, and boldly possessed itself of an age or a place. Now it becomes a flock of birds that scatter themselves unto the four winds of heaven, and occupy at once every point of air and space." And in it, once more, we find the cathedral, preserved in ink, ready to be rebuilt.

Alexandra Petri | The Washington Post

Alexandra Petri is a Washington Post columnist offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of “A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.”