Notre Dame and the Limits of Critique

Walter Benjamin’s famous insight that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has continued to tug at the heartstrings since I saw images of the massive fire that engulfed the Notre Dame, that grand medieval cathedral in the heart of Paris.

Benjamin’s words, from his thesis on history, comes to mind because of encounters online with some postcolonial thinkers who forbid mourning the fall of the Notre Dame because of what they believe is its complicity in French colonial history.

One professor of African studies actually chided “Africans on social media for taking so much aspirin for someone’s headache.” In other words, why would postcolonial Africans and their leaders ignore, for instance, the flooding in Madagascar and be fixated on France? By this statement, he meant to take issues with citizens of former European colonies who, identifying with the destructive fire to the cathedral were, as he saw it, callous in their indifference to perennial social and economic problems in Africa. Although he is right that we need to be alert to the many protracted problems on the continent — some of which are informed by the legacies of European colonialism in Africa, this thinking is spineless and hastily undermines the symbolic history and imagery of the Notre Dame. Even more, it is a tasteless politicization of the devaluation of the aesthetic.

This perspective is also problematic not because the Notre Dame, together with its great arts and music, does not document aspects of French colonial modernity, but because to focus on that history alone is to ignorantly deny the civilization a centuries-old landmark affirms as an intertext to many similar historical spaces all over the world.

For those who still believe in our shared humanity, the destruction to the Notre-Dame Cathedral can be a lens to the destruction of other sacred monuments, including those whose theft was instrumentalized by Europe’s colonial project.

To be clear, in terms of cultural disruption and epistemic violence, what colonial France and indeed the English empire did to artifacts and monuments from Africa, and other oppressed societies of the world cannot be easily forgotten.

To visit any major museum in Europe that has holdings from these societies is to be put in a voyeuristic confrontation in which the postcolonial gaze is further subjected to assault. And is it not the case that French comprador neo-colonial presence in places like Africa continue to consolidate French hegemony and assimilationist practices with the aid of the French military apparatus?

While the history of French colonial violence should not be lost on anyone, this sort of postmodern thinking, which demands the radical and complete erasure of our humanity, and of the artistic sensibilities that connect us to earlier generations is an unethical misreading of the sacred history and aesthetics that the cathedral renders visible.

The Notre Dame, with its majestic artistry and sacred aura, is an architectural monument that bears witness to a history of human excellence. As Barack Obama reminds us in his tweet, the cathedral is one of the world’s great structures and its destruction invites us to grief and mourning.

This view is shared by Constance Grady who notes that losing the Notre Dame is not only to lose a sacred space and a major art treasure. Notre Dame, she writes, is a symbol of human accomplishment, and more than that, of social accomplishment. It’s not the work of any one person, but of generations upon generations of labour. That labour is what the postcolonial thinkers who seek to abjure the world’s collective mourning fail to visualize as a recognition of the creative labours of cultural producers all over the world.

The social space of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is where people like us live and participate in the rituals of worship. Hate for a violent history cannot be used as the basis for denying the subjectivities of our neighbours or of the religious monuments that mark their relationship to sacred spaces and practices.

The Notre Dame is but one of many iterations of sacred and historical spaces around the world, and to mourn its destruction is not coterminous with undermining indigenous lands, or the tragedies of other societies. To mourn it is to affirm our collective kinship as makers and consumers of beauty.

The same impulse to celebrate a report urging France to return stolen artworks to its former colonies can be at the heart of the grief we express in relation to the Notre Dame. Rather than gloat over the near-overthrow of the cathedral, postcolonial subjects can de-essentialize their reading of the media coverage of the Parisian edifice and embrace the universality the building represents. Gloating as a performance of so-called neo-colonial resistance is a misplaced response.

Victor Hugo’s 1830 gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Damepresents this literary explanation of the Notre Dame as a Christian architecture jointly authored by the collective hands of human intelligence:

Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.

The problem for postcolonial intellectuals arises when the history of a monument in Europe is imposed on the rest of us as the history of humanity. This is hardly what Hugo envisioned in his celebration of the enduring presence of a Catholic institution that took 200 years to build. His is a celebration of the triumph of human artistry. The Notre Dame may be his metaphor, but we in every monument of creativity anywhere else, are reminded of the human will to beauty and aesthetics, something that is as visible in the Notre Dame as it was in the ancient walls of Great Zimbabwe.

When Jean-Paul Sartre in his foreword to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth calls us to “burst into history, forcing it by our invasion into universality for the first time,” he was alerting both the postcolonial subject as well as his European allies still haunted by the morbid legacies of colonialism to disrupt a narrative of history that foregrounded only the agency of empire.

There is a sense in which postcolonial intellectuals who ignore the recent state of disrepair caused by the fire to the Notre Dame are involved in a myopic reversal of Satre’s exhortation: the refusal to reckon with a monument of history, a reversal that limits the universality of our thinking.

Those who believe it is Francophilia or neocolonial thinking to lament the fate of the Notre Dame miss the point altogether, for whether it is France or the once-famous Benin Kingdom invaded by British forces in 1887, the loss of the symbols of human accomplishments anywhere in the world merits a conversation.

It’s great to know that the two towers of the Notre-Dame Cathedral have been saved. That’s another reminder of the enduring history of a monument of humanity, culture, and spirituality.

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