The Trauma of Losing Notre Dame: Guestpost by Kamila Soh
NB: The following is a guest post by Kamila Soh, who is a tutor in architecture and a masters student in architectural history at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The blog aims to make sense of experience in light of theology and philosophy, and today we will focus on the experience of loss of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this week.
The burning down of Notre Dame cathedral is a tragedy, for many reasons. As someone who does research on the significance of monuments, the news was a sober reminder to me that we often forget how present monuments are in our lives - so much so, that their destruction is like something ripping apart inside of us.
Like any significant loss or trauma, there is an immediate grappling for words to make sense of this painful experience. Within twenty four hours, there has been an outpouring of articles and essays, diagnosing what this tragedy is a symptom of within our increasingly secularised society. Out of the calamity of social media posts, three main themes seem to appear: the loss of a fundamental bulwark of western civilisation; a sign of the persecution of Catholic faith; and the tragedy of art and architecture destroyed. People are strongly convinced about what this loss entails, and are quick to use this as a placard for sharing their fears of what they feel to be an attack on our faith and heritage.
While these definitely have their place in making sense of this experience, it also reveals a premature grasping for meaning in an age where we are encouraged to come to conclusions before the evidence fully presents itself. We verge on over-intellectualising to the point where we neglect our initial reactions and what they reveal. What needs to be asked, is not so much about what this all means, but why it is that we are suffering from this physical trauma – despite it not being of our own bodies – in the first place.
Those who have lost a loved one will know that in losing them, there is an overwhelming flood of thoughts that rushes into one’s mind: grappling with how to live without that person, realising what that person meant to them, lamenting what that person’s life could have been. But before one can comprehend all this, there need to be grieving process of firstly recognising the physical loss in itself: that someone who once was, is now gone. With this comes a rush of emotions. Anger. Sorrow. Confusion. The sense of being left behind, and betrayed. Not only has the other person died; a part you has died with them.
While it seems to be a stretch to compare the loss of a loved one to the loss of a building, the burning of Notre Dame is traumatic in a similar way, because it violates the fabric of the world that we so intimately inhabit. In the Phenomenology of Perception, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said that “The body is the vehicle of being in the world and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.” The destruction of a building such as Notre Dame is not simply a destruction of something which passively resides in the background; it is the destruction of the reality which our bodies are united to.
Faith is as moved and shaped by people as it is by our external environment. This is especially the case for those artefacts that we make from our bare hands. As suggested by the political theorist Hannah Arendt, these artefacts are the things we create ‘in common,’ as a way of relating to one another. Destroying one of these is thus akin to destroying a member of the body. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26: if one member suffers, all suffer together.
We are yet to comprehend the magnitude of the loss that this trauma entails for us. But what we can perceive in this moment is this: the awe at the sacredness of the world, and the realisation that it is also painfully fragile. Yet, we should not forget that this world, while temporary, provides the place where we live in the hope of eternal life.