Tuesday 21 May 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Flocking to the church in search of meaning'

The flames that engulfed Notre Dame in Paris last week shone a lot of light on the times in which we live

DEVASTATING: Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris last Monday. Photo: AP Photo/Thierry Mallet
DEVASTATING: Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris last Monday. Photo: AP Photo/Thierry Mallet
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The burning of Notre Dame was almost the perfect story for our age, a drama that revealed much about the social media era and the world we live in.

It is, of course, understandable why the initial images made such an impact. Notre Dame is an iconic building, of course, almost an archetype that is seared on our subconscious.

Paris, too, is an archetype, even for people who've never been there. It says love, brasseries, bohemianism, existentialism, coquettish females, baguettes, bicycles, Les Mis, the Eiffel Tower, and of course Notre Dame. The facade of Notre Dame was an internet meme before there were internet memes, a simple image that most people in the developed world could conjure up that carried so much weight.

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And there was something about seeing this old reliable edifice, something that had been there forever as far as most of us were concerned, burning down. It could have been a symbol for this restless age. As Stephane Bern, the French TV presenter whom Macron had appointed to raise funds for French heritage said, it was "symptomatic of what we are going through - a society where everything is going up in flames".

If people mourned their youth with the deaths of the likes of Bowie, this felt in some way, as if we were mourning the old world, a world of solidity and permanence.

It was mind-blowing for young people that Notre Dame had taken over 100 years to build. Mankind doesn't have that kind of attention span any more. We just found from a study last week that our attention span as a people is shortening all the time. For example, a 2013 Twitter global trend would last for an average of 17.5 hours, contrasted with a 2016 Twitter trend, which would last for only 11.9 hours.

Notre Dame got a little bit more traction than the average Twitter storm, but in many ways, it played out as so many stories do these days. There was an outpouring of grief initially, much of it from people with no real connection to the loss. There was a discussion on whether the grief being expressed by some was a bit excessive. There were high-profile offers to help from canny business people and big brands, and this was followed by the obligatory outrage that rich people were trying to essentially purchase a new bauble indirectly, to connect the narrative of their luxury brands to this, the ultimate in heritage real estate.

(And remember that the value of luxury brands, the premium they can charge, is built on storytelling, and increasingly on heritage - the leather shops that Gucci and Prada grew out of, for example. So Notre Dame was the ultimate signifier for the likes of LVMH, L'Oreal and Francois Pinault, who owns Gucci and Christie's, among others.)

But no good deed goes unpunished and the billionaires were criticised for not giving their money to more worthy causes - like the so-called "human cathedral" that is France's underprivileged.

They and Macron were also pilloried for the fact that they would get two thirds of their donations in tax rebates (although to be fair, Pinault is not claiming his), which would mean that the French government would effectively end up paying for most of the Notre Dame renovations - something which the French government hadn't been willing to do for the far more minor renovations that were happening already.

So grief, heartbreak, outrage and argument over how to fix the problem comprised the predictable arc in the first days after the fire.

But, perhaps, most interesting was when another big brand swooped in before the flames were even out. Emmanuel Macron hasn't been having an easy time of it recently and Notre Dame clearly presented a great opportunity for him to burnish his own narrative. So he stood there with the still burning church behind him and started talking about destiny.

Macron recognised that this was something that had caught the imagination of France and the world, and Macron believes that capturing the imagination is key to politics. Indeed, this is what he puts the success of the far right down to - its ability to capture the imagination more than reasonable centrist politics do.

"If we leave emotion only to cynics or nationalists," he has said, "we will be making a colossal error."

Macron is a man who sees symbolism as central to politics and to his own career. Macron believes that the French still crave a king after all these years - and that he could be just the man for the job.

In Revolution Francaise, her book on Macron's rise, Sophie Pedder paints a picture of a man who sees himself as a philosopher king in the classic French mode. Macron told Pedder in an interview about his ambition, about how, "during the Renaissance, under Francois I, under Louis XIV, under Napoleon, under de Gaulle... each time there have been moments of a new collective imagination, new mythologies."

This, he said, was his ambition - to create a new mythology, a new story for France to tell itself.

Macron sees his destiny as being to turn the malaise that had gripped France in recent years into optimism. It was always going to be a challenge and recently, it began to seem as if Macron's own initial optimism was failing badly.

But in the shadow of Notre Dame, the philosopher king clearly saw a second chance to create a new collective imagination, to bring the French nation together in one "destiny", to rebuild the past, but maybe in a new way, and in that way to tell itself a new story, or maybe reprise an old one.

The marketing guys in LVMH weren't half as ambitious as Macron. They were just trying to add to their story, Macron was using this to tell a whole new story.

What other politician would dare talk about destiny these days? I suppose you have to admire the guy's grandiosity.

Notre Dame became a signifier in another way last week too, emblematic of the attitude towards religion shared by Macron, by much of France, and by most of the millennials on the internet.

Macron obviously stands for strict secularism. La Laicite is what they call this position - and it is what you might call a strict article of faith with the French. While there has always been a suspicion that Macron has been a bit too soft on the church, he observes his secularist duties.

We live in the world, however, where progressives in general might not like religion - but they do like a church, especially for life's big moments.

Macron was similar last week. Never mind the strange situation that the French state owns Notre Dame and all the other churches in France since the separation of Church and State occurred at the start of the last century. And never mind the fact that the French state had been shy about doing up its property at Notre Dame recently.

Macron managed to bring all those contradictions together as he stood in the shadow of the burning church. This wasn't about religion per se, but in some way, it was about offering meaning to the nation. It was about stirring meaning and a sense of esprit de corps from which Macron, not quite a sun king, but certainly lit by the flames, would benefit.

And who were the rest of us to criticise him, as we watched that burning church with the awe that cathedrals were built to inspire, and as we all looked for meaning from it too?

In a world where God is not quite dead, but is verging on illegal, isn't it funny how we still flock to a church for a bit of meaning on the big occasions?

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