In Memory of the Fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, April 15th, 2019.
“If we want to recall a memory, the memory holding cells have to be reactivated by the correct cue.”-Susumu Tonegawa (Tonegawa Lab at MIT)
“The traces left in my memory are not just discrete footprints but the continuous trace of my full body moving through three-dimensional space…I will argue that episodic memory contains segments of the spatiotemporal trajectories from our prior experience.” -Michael E. Hasselmo (The MIT Press)
(There has been no monument of ancient Paris, so interesting by its architecture and its historical associations as the cathedral of Notre Dame, which standing on the site to a temple to Jupiter carries us back to the time of the Roman domination and of Julius Caesar. There have been strange and curious events in the cathedral over the course of time and its interior has been turned to the most diverse purposes-from church festivals to staging mundane plays or religious mysteries or even in the form of an asylum for the mentally unsound.)
Remembering: the space in front of Notre Dame was at one time the scene of many executions and it was here that Victor Hugo’s heroine Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame suffered death as the monk Claude Frollo gazed upon her with cruel delight till the bell ringer Quasimodo who loved Esmeralda seized him and flung him down at the foot of the Cathedral. In his novel, Hugo goes on to say, “Notre Dame is not moreover, what can be called a complete, definite, classified monument……It is an edifice of the transition period.”
Forgetting: If my mathematics teacher had reprimanded me for reading the book in class and my mind had been absorbed in visions of dragons and strange birds flying away, feathers scattering in the wind, my garrisoned heart hanging on to the joys of exploring literature time and again in mathematics classes. Forgetting also why my father would keep talking about Emile Zola, father of the experimental novel when I would talk to him about Victor Hugo’s novel. Was it something about human progress? The cathedral being symbolic of the future? Romanticism? Was it about Gustave Flaubert-or that Zola wrote his fragments of dialogues, scenes, episodes, occurrences as an unconnected collage-in a similar manner of how I am hovering between forgetting and remembering right now? What are these scattered impressions as I hear the fragrance of jasmines but can’t sing to it as the silence holds me up?
Remembering: Notre Dame was founded in 1163 by King Louis IX and Bishop Maurice De Sully who wanted to build a church that rivalled the Basilique Saint Denis. Hugo aptly describes it in his novel-“Great edifices like great mountains are the work of centuries. Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending-pendent opera interrupta; They proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it…”
Victor Hugo had a great desire to portray imageries of light-as much as Mathew Arnold or Goethe or many other writers and poets. However, his passion to project images of fire, heat or Fire-water-in a backdrop of phosphoric sea of fancies cannot be matched by anyone. Fire is a natural choice as a transformational symbol in many of his works including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Misérables and Toilers of the Sea. The natural perils of fire and water complete each other in a cosmic confluence in many different ways- as Hugo seems to have a predilection for these two agile and fleeting elements. His powerful representation of fire and water has a strong impact on the reader’s visual aesthetic sphere as the author emphatically highlights the role the elements play in spiritual cleansing and healing of the human soul. His apocalyptic narratives serve to remind us of his growing desire for universal peace, justice and freedom. His poetry and narratives are prophetic-as we see in his collection of poems “Les Orientales” which was inspired by the Greek war of Independence. In Les Orientales, the recurring motif of apocalyptic destruction is central and thus his repetitive imageries that juxtapose water and fire keep building internal interlocking patterns that immerse us in visions of his prophetic judgment and an overwhelming presence of the indefinable and infinite.
Remembering that in 1618 and again 1776 Palais de justice in Paris, was badly damaged by fire. The Palais went through extensive alterations between 1839 and 1870. Victor Hugo was deeply affected by this and in the very first scene “The novel Hunchback of Notre Dame”, he wonders why the palais was burned down-and discusses rhetorically if there was a historical reasoning or an astronomical approach (‘the great flaming star, a foot broad, and a cubit high, which fell from heaven, as every one knows..’) or the verse maker’s theory (‘sure ‘twas a sorry game, when at Paris, Dame Justice, through having eaten too much spice, set the palace, all aflame.’)
Again, very conspicuous symbols of light and darkness, fire and water is used by Hugo in Les Misérables—-from the heavens… to the brain, fire and blood, fire and water, fireplace, firebrand, oil on the fire, bread and fire, fireworks, devil’s fire, fire pots, firing pistols, fire darting from eyes- Hugo uses brilliant fire water symbols to focus on timeless themes about God, the cosmic forces, redemption and social justice through transformation. In his novel, Toilers of the Sea, Hugo’s Promethean character Gilliatt who wars against the elements wonders—–Where could this fire come from? It was from the water. The aspect of the sea was extraordinary. The water seemed a fire. As far as the eye could reach, among the reefs and beyond them, the sea ran with flame….it was the spectre of the great fire rather than the fire itself….a burning darkness” Gilliatt struggles against darkness, fever, tides, the fury of the storms and winds and finally a horrendous octopus. Throughout the novel and through the exploits of the protagonist, Hugo projects prophetic visions of cosmic labor. In anticipation of the great clash of elements, the sea itself is “in heat” and “Forms of things in the sea roll beneath the waves as in liquid fire. The foam twinkles. The fish are tongues of fire, or fragments of the forked lightning, moving in the depths.”
The dynamics of the ocean is not limited to artistic sea constructs but it also wreaks havoc in the most explosive manner possible as the sea remains endlessly active—“In certain tempests, which characterize the equinoxes and the return to equilibrium of the prolific power of nature, vessels breasting the foam seem to give out a kind of fire, phosphoric lights chase each other along the rigging, so close sometimes to the sailors at their work that the latter stretch forth their hands and try to catch as they fly, these birds of flame.” The violence and treachery of the elements and the disquieting awareness of the conflict of waters, waves, fire, tides and currents help the reader follow the visionary narrative of the author whose master design is the relation between violence and creation as it is to stress upon the “exquisiteness of the terrible.“—A fire in open air yields little comfort. It burns on one end and freezes on the other.”
Forgetting: when I reflect upon the Notre Dame Cathedral, I also think of Paul Gaughin’s Black Venus-of regeneration and artistic creation and the dominance of the white explorer, of my own fascination with oriental gypsies , of the poetry of Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven-“deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before…’tis the wind, and nothing more.” Of tunnels, and shallow indentations with people crowding in bunches, of smoky dark chambers that seem to have no end, of lame and blind men, of shifting times and spaces-visited, unvisited and revisited. The dark aisles, the shadowy passages, the religious awe, the divinity-the disfigured Quasimodo-of longing and acceptance-the confusion in forgetting is tangible. When I visited Paris, a few years ago, I did not find the pretty rose window that is described in the novel-described as a star of lacework. Why do these deceiving winds blur windows? I walk backwards and reach the Quai Du Branly Museum and all I see are the jointed masks of the Haida people-the mouth and eyes are jointed and the movement of the eyes painted in white suggests the alteration of day and night. If this is a mask of transformation, then I am not forgetting. Transformation is the act of lighting another candle when the first one has been blown away by a storm. So now I am remembering! Am I?
On April 15th, 2019, a major fire broke out beneath the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying the monument’s spire and most of its roof. The cathedral’s two main rectangular towers had been “saved and preserved” and many of the precious relics and artworks were saved from the raging flames that burned incessantly as the fire fighters relentlessly fought against the blaze that engulfed the cathedral. People from all around the world have been affected in very different ways while Notre Dame Rector Patrick Chauvet said that he had plenty of hope and that “I believe that from this suffering there will be a renaissance.”
When I read the news, I sensed the terrible silence that Hugo’s Gilliatt had experienced as he warmed himself before a fire: “the fire ate into his flesh. The water froze him”-from my eye to my skin, different voices from my consciousness awakened and—“Doors of fire were opened. Clouds seemed burned by clouds” and the nostalgia of the almost primitive fires that burned in my childhood home returned as I heard the crackles of the stove in the silence of my twilight home. “Fire bakes clay-creates alterations and converts mineral into material”-my father would say, and then his prophetic voice uttered broken phrases from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”:
Circle of Flames
The memoirs of my color plate,
Have some words-
Provoked by some stolen space from my childhood days-
Now grafted in despair.
The passage of time,
Has helped me survive
The uninspired limitations of my mind,
After my father died-
———-And now in exile,
I slowly dissolve the tracings and retracings of all he said, all he taught me-
Which now I use as one would-a mnemonic device.
Now my eye becomes my voice-
The yellows and reds mingle with streaks of whites and blues-
The lines are smudged and blurry as I speak now-
tinted with the fuzzy focus of memory.
White panes high in color*
Says my father, his face red with animated emotion,
Enticing me to the world of apparent reality-
His voice, wistful, melancholy-
as he reads aloud lines from The Hunchback-
the monsters, the gargoyles of stone-which keep watch night and day,
the lofty spires, gables, Quasimodo and the gloomy arcades of the cathedral*…………
Like visible brushstrokes of a Renoir painting,
With its gently caressing lines,
The Notre Dame came alive years later-
And I visualized feeling,
For the first time ever…
The feeling of the waning and crashing of light into dark waters,
Of listening to the trees breathing with the birds,
Of counting endless wisps of flames on my childhood lantern…
Feelings I had never seen,
Came alive across the Seine,
As the giant shadows of the towers leaped from roof to roof*,
And the bells sounded-
Little Esmeralda played the tambourine at the end of the bridge-
tears rolled down my cheeks,
and I dared to embrace the unsounding spirit of my father,
Wrapped in folds of shade and light.
Today Notre Dame burns through my silence,
Berries and flutes wash me through this whipping rain of fire-
Permanence and ephemera share the same space-
Slender noir shadows can deceive,
but flames cannot.
My memory is spray painted now with luminescence-
The giant tongues of fire have colored my shadows-
And I hear my father’s voice………………………….
Over the infinite breathings of the wind*-
“This world is bathed in light,
But when you slant your eyes,
You will see fleeting shadows-
Hold them on tight,
For in the mythic space of your imagination,
Light is but colored shape.
One is a reflection of the other,
Have faith in the judgment of your eye-
Great shadows sometimes obstruct light-
Think of the sculpture of the Virgin and Child-
Etchings of sacrifice,
Be fearless and rise always from sleep and dust,
Disintegrate, evolve and transfer your form through the never-ending skeins of consciousness,
And then return before the blue sky closes down-
And add meaning to a new landscape.
Life is a circle of flames-
But remember, there is always a new paradise to be found.”
*Lines in italics are from The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.