I'VE NEVER CRIED FOR A BUILDING, UNTIL NOW - Morgan Meis
“I’ve never cried for a building, until now,” I wrote to my aunt Lou Ann. Then I had a moment’s hesitation. Did I not cry for the World Trade Center back in 2001? I was living in New York, after all. We watched the Towers fall from a roof in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I know that I shed some tears that day. Tears of shock and grief and loss. But I was not, in truth, crying for the Towers themselves. I don’t think anyone cried for the Towers themselves. Because they were not loved. I remember a Greek friend of mine once commenting that he found the Towers ridiculous in their doubleness. He put it like this: “It is absurd that there are two of them.” One giant monstrous imposing monolith would have been enough. But to make two of them? It is like, my friend said, a couple of guys who are bragging and competing about who has the largest schlong. And then a third guy walks up and says, “I’ve got you both beat. I’ve got two of them.” But has he really won? Did he even understand the game? The Twin Towers were like that. They won the giant building game. But at what cost?
Notre Dame was, like the Twin Towers, a braggadocious type of building. It was constructed during the high medieval days of cathedral battles. What city will have the grandest cathedral of them all? It was also built for the glory of God, yes, I suppose. But it was an arrogant building, a building that flaunted its beauty, its embodied wealth and power, a worldly triumph over the forces of gravity and weight, and the sheer heaviness of stone. This was a building that flirted with the hubris of Babel’s Tower with every flying buttress and rose window. In a sense, Notre Dame was a reminder that every building has a seed of Babel in it - the audacity to think any kind of permanence can be achieved on this earth, any stability at all.
And yet, Notre Dame was a beautiful building. It was beautiful in every way that the Twin Towers were not. That’s to say, it had grandeur and also humanity. To walk inside that building, that church, was to walk into an edifice that addressed one as a person. To behold the Twin Towers, to enter them, was to be confronted with a pair of structures that were largely indifferent to the human beings passing through. But Notre Dame was not that way. It was a building that managed, somehow, to make a person feel embraced at the scale of one’s own being and then transported beyond one’s own being. It was anchored in earth, in stone, in wood. It was of the world. And it was a vehicle of transcendence. I mean that in an experiential sense. To walk into Notre Dame, or even approach it from the square, or gaze at it from across the river, was to feel stretched out, extended. I don’t know how else to describe it.
I remember the first time I saw Notre Dame, the experience of walking into her. I was eleven years old. I was spending the summer in France with my aforementioned aunt, an experience much different from Los Angeles, the city in which I lived. My aunt had been living in Paris for many years, an expat raised in Chicago. We walked into Notre Dame together and my throat tightened, and the pace of my heart’s beating was altered, now quicker, now slower, anything but the usual pattern of beats. A range of thoughts and feelings flickered through me, from fear to shock to joy and back again. I felt, I think, a sense of vindication. I’d known that places like this exist, must exist. I had simply known it. And now, it was true.
It is interesting to note that when the Twin Towers fell, people said, yes, we will rebuild. But no one said, we will rebuild these exact towers, just as they had been. The thought quickly turned to building something else. And the new thing that was built is not loved. And will never be loved. And, should it someday fall, the “Freedom Tower” will never stir the hearts of people to want it back, to demand that it, that building, that place, must be. That it must be in the world. But the call around Notre Dame, as soon as its steeple fell, was that we must have it back. We must have that very building. We must have that place. That Notre Dame must be in the world, because we cannot bear to think it should leave the world forever.
There is something intangible but utterly irrefutable about this claim. There is some connection to a way of being that we held onto through Notre Dame, its claiming and molding of space, the melding of earth and sky, weight and airiness, the way it balanced the feeling both of being held and of being transported, the human feeling it inspired that wound back into the past and anchored us to a stillness and repose and a trembling of our souls simply by means of stones and mortar and glass. It is unbearable to feel that cord being snapped, as it has been.
Perhaps Notre Dame will, indeed, be rebuilt in such a way that still retains that specific gift of experience that made it precious. We don’t know what will happen. All we can do, right now, is mark the would and acknowledge that something in the world has broken, and that this loss is larger than words.